When my husband and I lived in New York City we braved summers where heat settled between those sky-scraping buildings like it was caught in a net. Most people who could afford it escaped the oppressive sauna of the city by running off to nearby beaches.
We didn’t. We stayed in our tiny apartment, standing in front of our window unit air-conditioners and fanning ourselves.
You’d think I’d wished I was one of those beach people. But I didn’t. I liked the city in the summer. Although always bustling, NYC felt quieter somehow in the summer, more easy-going. Instead of running from place to place, we meandered, as if the baking heat cooked those of us left down to our more relaxed inner selves.
I also liked the summer because it meant the return of the NYC Fringe Festival. Back then New York was only one of a handful of US cities that had a Fringe Fest, a concept originally conceived in Scotland with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe way back in 1947.
Fringe for the Rest of Us
Fringe Fest, at its core, is a month-long whirlwind of experimental theater spanning comedy, drama, dance, music and art. For a nominal fee, you can see a show. Back when my husband and I lived in NYC I think it was just $8.
There were hundreds to choose from spanning across several small theaters and other venues. And the term “venue” was broad. Many were small theaters with rough fabric seats and sticky floors. Sometimes it wasn’t even a theater at all. Any available space, which can be hard to come by in NYC, could become a fringe theater. I recall a show once that I’m pretty sure took place in some type of a garage and had about 20 folding chairs that didn’t quite fit and crept out onto the sidewalk.
And all of the shows were far away from the remodeled, perfected pre-war buildings and fancy shops of the upper east and west sides. The fringe venues were way down in the parts of town where things looked more hobbled together and eclectic. The fun part, the part outside the norm. The fringe part.
The content at fringe then was truly experimental, which was sometimes mind-blowing or mind-numbing. I still remember plays from over a decade ago that made me laugh, like Two Girls from Vermont, a modern take on Two Gentleman from Verona. I even went and found an old Fringe Fest catalog from the year I saw this play. (Yes, I have problems.) However, if you’re new to Fringe, almost nothing can explain it better than the descriptions of the plays.
Conversely, I also remember a play about Medea where the show actually had us leave the theater and stand outside at a basketball court while the actors tried to shoot baskets while spewing poetic lines. It didn’t work, so we left early.
That’s the great thing about Fringe, people can experiment with wacky concepts and ideas. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. When they work, the audience members get to experience something new, unusual and sometimes great. When they don’t work. Well, you can just leave.
You take a chance on Fringe. And usually you’re not disappointed.
Ever since we moved out of the city, started a family and got caught up in domesticated life, my husband and I stopped going to Fringe. It can be hard when you have a kid. You have to find babysitters and make plans. You can’t just run off to a show.
But my daughter is older now. And through the powers of targeted social media marketing, there on my screen a few weeks ago was information about DC’s Fringe Fest, called aptly, Capital Fringe Fest. My husband and I decided it was time to get back to our love of experimental art. So we bought tickets and headed downtown.
Like FringeNYC when we lived in New York, DC has many venues across the city. But unlike FringeNYC, it also has a central theater where a large portion of the shows play. The theater is adjacent to an alleyway and set just outside the gentrified area of DC where perfectly manicured townhouses give way to stairs with missing bricks and cracks in the windows. It’s an area where everything hasn’t been painted over to look exactly the same.
As my husband and I pulled up to park, the location felt perfectly fringe.
Outside the theater in the alley a long, covered bar stretched toward the street where a food truck snuggled up to the side of the building, swirling smells of fried foods in the air. People nestled into colorful tables and chairs, while a musician set up a outdoor small stage. I got a drink and settled at a table, reading the mass of fliers that covered it like a patchwork tablecloth.
This wasn’t just a hodgepodge of shows strung together by a thin concept – Fringe art – like the bulbs on the string lights hanging above the alleyway. This was a focused, organized space to celebrate Fringe. This was a giant chandelier of glowing lights. Not bad. Just different from what I experienced before and not what I expected.
Inside the theater, we were greeted with a large, slick poster for the show, featuring a summary and pictures of the cast members. People sipped pink cocktails at a second bar and clicked across concrete floors. Artwork lined the stark cement walls as though we’d stepped into a gallery. The place felt more trendy bar than fringe theater.
“Fringe Fest got swanky,” I quipped to my husband.
I braced myself for disappointment. I wasn’t worried the play would be bad. But this wasn’t a garage or an old theater with ripped seats. I worried the play would be too perfect, too good, too polished, faking fringe instead of being it.
The best part about Fringe is that it’s like reading an unpublished novel before some editor comes and cuts out pieces of its heart. Maybe those pieces need to be cut out to please the masses. But fringe isn’t about the masses. It’s about the rest of us who don’t want something perfect, who don’t want to just see the same old ideas and concepts rehashed over and over. It’s for those of us who don’t want to stay in our comfort zones. Fringe-goers like a little change, a little weirdness and to be challenged.
Then the doors opened and we stepped into a room that looked just like a big black box, no color, no props that I could see. There was a small sound box in the corner where two people in shorts fiddled with nobs and switches.
As we walked in, a group of people danced, salsa I think, on the sunken stage, created by erecting small risers on all 3 sides. They dancers were just feet from us. I caught the whiff of a woman’s perfume and she spun within inches of me as I walked by.
My husband and I settled into those stacking chairs, the kind that have the padding and the fake leather that’s actually plastic, not too different from the ones at the garage theaters of the past. We watched, mesmerized by the dancers. The room fill with other audience members. The lights went down, the music came up.
The actors entered the stage, no props, no crutches, just them and the words of the play. They started to speak. We laughed. There was no pomp, no flash, no polish.
I smiled. Now it felt fringe…And I can’t wait to go again.