downtownexpress.com

Volume 19 • Issue 14 | August 18-24, 2006

Bright lights, big theater fest
For many artists, the Fringe is their first shot at success

By Steven Snyder

For the average New York theater fan, the Fringe Festival has come to occupy a special place in the vernacular. Mention the word “Fringe” to someone who’s never been, and you’re likely to stir up notions of “far-out,” “far-fetched,” “fantastic” or perhaps even “flaky.”

But for artists, Fringe means an entirely different thing: Freedom.

Freedom to try new things; to exist beyond the conventional pressures of budgets, box office and reviews.

Every year, the Fringe Festival — which presents 200 official entries for some 75,000 theatergoers, out of nearly 1,000 submissions — evokes memories of theater’s glory days, when someone could stroll Downtown, fork over a few bucks and take a gamble on an unknown quantity.

Today, even off-Broadway theater has been forced to up the prices and scale back on the programming, all while catering to the expectations of a subscription base. In this risk-averse structure, not only is the business environment more competitive, but the creative environment is more restricted.

That is, until the days of August, when the professional seasons come to a close, the houses go dark and the stages are again returned to the hands of a burgeoning parade of younger artists, all clamoring to make their mark. And behind each of those artists is a story of how the Fringe is helping a wave of creators try new things, test their mettle and lay the foundation of a career in the theater.

One such person is 23-year-old Emily Meisler, director of the Fringe show “Anima,” which was one of the festival’s more substantial dramas (few Fringe shows are touted as an “emotionally devastating play”). A native of New York City and a current resident of Williamsburg, Meisler’s theater aspirations began in high school, when she both acted in several productions and directed her very first play, and continued when she left the East Coast to attend Carleton College in Minneapolis. A directing major, her thesis of sorts involved directing Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses.”

But not long after Meisler tackled the challenges of “Metamorphoses’” choreography, she suddenly found herself moving back east, and accepting a position in May of 2005 with Manhattan’s Churchill School as a teacher for children with learning disabilities. For the moment, it appeared her theater endeavors were on hold, and Meisler says there was no way of predicting that only a year later, she’d be preparing for her first New York International Fringe Festival.

Teachers at Churchill work in pairs, and Meisler’s partner was Christiaan Greer — who, Meisler knew through googling her Greer, was an aspiring playwright who had written works for smaller production companies. In the first few weeks at the school, Meisler convinced Greer to entrust her with one of his newest scripts, and so one Friday, Greer handed her the script for “Anima,” a story that Meisler started reading on the subway and couldn’t stop until she had reached the last page.

When Monday came, Meisler told Greer they had to do something with this work — a three-person drama involving drugs, sex, a love triangle and an Iraq War veteran - and together they hatched a plan to take a long shot and submit “Anima” for the 2006 Fringe Festival.

“Most people think of the Fringe Festival, and you think of things like dancing penises and shows about Jenna Bush’s vagina,” Meisler says. “I initially thought: We can’t do a serious drama at the Fringe. But I came to the realization that I don’t care if this is in the Fringe — this just has to get on a stage in one way or another.”

It was in early May when the surprise came: A letter from Fringe organizers who said the show was in, and that Meisler had three months to get a show ready for a New York City debut.

Meisler says being part of the festival helped immensely. For starters, the organizers took charge of locating and arranging a theater space, and she says that the weight of the festival’s name helped her approach actors and attract audiences.

Even with that help, Meisler readily admits it’s been a struggle to cobble together a show on a shoestring budget of $3,000, without the backing of an established company, and on one’s own time. But she says for emerging artists, there’s nothing else like it.

“There’s no other way you can do something like this in New York,” she marvels. “You can try standing on a street corner, and tell people, ‘I’m putting on a show, I think it’s really good,’ but how many people are going to show up? It’s intense. But the Fringe has a loyal following, and they take chances, and with this, there’s a real chance of reaching people.”

Though she’s quick to acknowledge that yes, it’s a slim chance, and an opportunity that brings with it a mountain of challenges. In recalling the road leading up to “Anima’s Aug. 11 debut, Meisler says the summer has been one of hurdles and headaches - not the least of which involved a medical emergency in the audience during opening night and a late-in-the-game replacement of an actor who left the production for a movie role.

She also said that, as one media outlet after another has come out with their list of best bets for the festival (“they all seemed to be the same shows,” she notes), she was surprised by how hard it was, as a drama, to stand out among comedies, farces, satires and musicals.

At every step of the way, though, Meisler says unexpected surprises kept things rolling forward. First it was a stunning audition by the man they had hired initially to be a graphic designer. Then it was the size of the crowds which have reliably turned out for performances at the Gene Frankel theater (“they tell you that there’s a strong Fringe crowd, but we really had no idea,” she says). And even when a medical emergency during opening night threatened to shut down the show, Meisler says she was shocked to find that almost no one left. “They wanted the show to keep going!” she marvels.

Meisler’s story is not unique. The Fringe Festival is peppered with Meislers, all discovering — or rediscovering — their passion, all making a splash somewhere they never though they’d be: the New York theater scene.

For this wave of aspiring artists, “Fringe” means something else entirely: Faith.

“We don’t know where this will end up,” Meisler admits. “But without the Fringe, there would be a much, much smaller chance of someone actually noticing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still microscopically small because it’s so hard to reach people, but here there’s actually some glimmer of a chance that a producer will come and take notice. Who knows.” 

The New York International Fringe Festival, www.fringenyc.org, continues through Aug. 27.



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