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 whos never been, and youre 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 theaters 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 festivals 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, Meislers 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 Zimmermans 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 Manhattans 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, shed be preparing for her first New York International Fringe Festival.
Teachers at Churchill work in pairs, and Meislers 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 couldnt 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 Bushs vagina, Meisler says. I initially thought: We cant do a serious drama at the Fringe. But I came to the realization that I dont 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 festivals name helped her approach actors and attract audiences.
Even with that help, Meisler readily admits its been a struggle to cobble together a show on a shoestring budget of $3,000, without the backing of an established company, and on ones own time. But she says for emerging artists, theres nothing else like it.
Theres 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, Im putting on a show, I think its really good, but how many people are going to show up? Its intense. But the Fringe has a loyal following, and they take chances, and with this, theres a real chance of reaching people.
Though shes quick to acknowledge that yes, its a slim chance, and an opportunity that brings with it a mountain of challenges. In recalling the road leading up to Animas 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 theres 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.
Meislers 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 theyd be: the New York theater scene.
For this wave of aspiring artists, Fringe means something else entirely: Faith.
We dont know where this will end up, Meisler admits. But without the Fringe, there would be a much, much smaller chance of someone actually noticing. Dont get me wrong, its still microscopically small because its so hard to reach people, but here theres 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.