How productions ride — or avoid — the Fringe’s coattails.

'Elizabeth Rex'

'Elizabeth Rex'

This August, the New York International Fringe Festival has again taken over the city’s downtown theatre scene, offering over 1,300 performances of 200-plus shows in more than 20 venues. Who’d even try to compete with that?

Well, there are over a dozen Off- and Off-Off-Broadway productions running concurrently with the Fringe yet not part of that massive festival. Shows on the fringe of the Fringe, however, must compete for the same audiences at the same time but without the benefit of the same buzz.

Reasons for producing at this time vary. For one thing, it’s significantly cheaper to rent rehearsal and performance spaces in the summer than at other times of the year, August being the cheapest month of all. For new and developing theatre companies, that can be enough incentive in itself, and any conflict with the Fringe is little more than an afterthought. Sometimes the Fringe is even seen as a benefit, drawing theatregoers to the city at a time when many spaces would otherwise be dark.

Stephanie Barton-Farcas, artistic director of the theatre company Nicu’s Spoon, doesn’t view the Fringe as a competitive environment. The company is currently presenting the Off-Broadway premiere of Timothy Findley’s Elizabeth Rex, which began as an Equity showcase production last spring. “I don’t think we’re consciously competing with the Fringe,” she says. “But I think people arrive in town for the Fringe and they don’t necessarily differentiate between what’s Fringe and what’s not. They just go to shows. It’s August, so it’s showtime.”

“That’s a nice optimistic view, isn’t it?” asks Richmond Shepard, who is directing and starring in a revival of Ronald Ribman’s Cold Storage at his eponymous theatre. “Maybe if we get some more people here, they’ll slip into one of our shows? No, I think that it’s going to cut into our audience.” He says he chose to open Cold Storage during the Fringe simply because his theatre would have been unused otherwise.

It’s unfortunate, Shepard adds, that the festival is still a downtown experience. “The Fringe won’t go north of 14th Street, and my theatre’s on 26th. We were going to be empty for the month of August, and they’re complaining they don’t have enough venues, yet they won’t go 12 blocks north. I would have been very happy to have been part of the Fringe and have my theatre rented out, instead of me spending money to put on my show.”

What Barton-Farcas, Shepard, and others mounting non-Fringe shows seem to agree on is that the “quantity over quality” mentality of the Fringe can make it a hit-or-miss proposition and that many Off- and Off-Off-Broadway shows are a safer bet for theatregoers. “It’s a Broadway-level play, done by experienced professionals,” Shepard says of Cold Storage. “It’s not some little experiment.”

Nevertheless, theatre companies are finding it hard to lure audiences away from the Fringe and even more difficult to persuade critics to review their work. Some, like Shepard, chose to open their productions a day or two before the festival to gain a foothold with reviewers, while others are extending their runs past the Fringe to make up for any lost audience.

“Everyone covers the Fringe before they’d cover anything else,” says Scott Robinson, who is directing Out of the Box Theatre Company’s Ten Nights in a Bar-Room, a five-act musical melodrama by William Pratt, set in the 1890s and with vaudeville-style olio acts between scenes. “There’s just so much to cover during what is usually downtime in New York. And the Fringe is going on, so they think, ‘Well, I can’t cover everything…. But what’s this Out of the Box? Never heard of them.”

Then again, Robinson knows that since Out of the Box is a new company, in its second season, his show would face resistance from critics no matter when it opened. Last year, the company staged Molière’s The Miser during the Fringe to half-full (half-empty?) houses; Robinson hopes to match that statistic this year. Ten Nights, like The Miser, is running at the Bank Street Theatre, literally across the street from some Fringe shows. “The Fringe is on the sidewalk and we’re at the end of the courtyard,” he notes. “I’m going to be outside barking, ‘Come to Ten Nights in a Bar-Room! Free beer!’ Hey wait, that’s an idea.”

Barton-Farcas says Nicu’s Spoon views all of New York theatre as a community, whether part of the Fringe or not. The only competition should be between really good theatre and “really sucky theatre,” she says. “We create together, and it’s a family. It’s not really Fringe versus Off-Broadway.”

The Strain Theatre Company and At Hand Theatre Company are embracing this sense of community. Their shows, 7 Stories by Morris Panych and Cake and Plays…But Without the Cake by Jono Hustis, respectively, are running in repertory at the Gene Frankel Theatre. They’re featured together on posters, postcards, and other marketing materials, and both companies hope to benefit from the cross-promotion.

“It’s not unlike the way the Fringe festival can often lead to ties between companies, actors, directors, playwrights, designers, and technicians,” says Greg Parente, co-founder and artistic director of the Strain and the director of 7 Stories. “Finding allies and developing partnerships within the New York theatre community is a hugely important and rich part of being an artist in this city.”

At Hand co-artistic director Martin Strenczewilk says the Frankel’s East Village location is more desirable than many other Off-Off-Broadway locations, because audiences embracing the festival feeling will be more likely to “walk up and down the streets and wander around, and you stand that chance of someone seeing your poster or wandering in and getting a ticket because something else was sold out. Very few people just go to one show and then go home.”

Strenczewilk and others say producing a show outside the Fringe also allows for more creative and technical flexibility. Rather than having to share a venue with four or five other shows, their productions enjoy a space of their own and more freedom to explore set, lighting, and costume design and other elements. “When you’re exploring a brand new play,” he says, “you find that you need to be a little less restricted than what the Fringe gives you.”

“We feel privileged to have the opportunity to do the work we do at all,” Parente adds. “Even – and maybe especially – with all the theatre going up alongside it. We know what we are: We are a small, young, adventurous fish in a great sea, and we couldn’t imagine it any other way.”

Non-Fringe shows running during this year’s New York International Fringe Festival include ‘Life in a Marital Institution,’ July 9-Aug. 31 at the SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam St.; ‘All the Rage,’ July 30-Aug. 23 at Manhattan Theatre Source, 177 MacDougal St.; ‘Summer Shorts 2,’ July 31-Aug. 28 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St.; ‘Central Park: A Splashing New Musical,’ Aug. 1-17 at the Arthur Seelen Theatre at the Drama Book Shop, 250 W. 40th St.; ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid! or The Turning Point,’ Aug. 2-Sept. 14, a Theater for the New City tour at various street locations in the five boroughs; ‘Cake and Plays…But Without the Cake,’ Aug. 6-24 at the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond St.; ‘Cold Storage,’ Aug. 6-30 at the Richmond Shepard Theatre, 309 E. 26th St.; ‘The King Is Dead,’ Aug. 7-17 at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex, 312 W. 36th St.; ‘Twelfth Night,’ Aug. 7-24 at Riverbank State Park, West 145th Street and Riverside Drive; ‘7 Stories,’ Aug. 7-24 at the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond St.; ‘Hamlet,’ Aug. 7-31 at the Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park; ‘Ontological-Hysteric Incubator Summer Series,’ Aug. 13-23 at the Ontological Theater at St. Mark’s Church, 131 E. 10th St.; ‘A Day in Dig Nation,’ Aug. 13-23 at Performance Space 122, 150 First Ave.; ‘Alphabet City Five,’ Aug. 13-24 at the Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 E. Fourth St.; ‘Ten Nights in a Bar-Room,’ Aug. 14-24 at the Bank Street Theatre, 155 Bank St.; ‘Noon Day Sun,’ Aug. 14-30 at the Beckett Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.; ‘The Seduction of Edgar Degas,’ Aug. 14-Sept. 9 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St.; ‘Elizabeth Rex,’ Aug. 16-Sept. 6 at Center Stage NY, 48 W. 21st St.; ‘Summer and Smoke,’ Aug. 20-31 at the Clurman Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.; ‘Turtle Tales: A Teen Short Play Festival,’ Aug. 20-31 at the Turtle’s Shell Theater, 300 W. 43rd St.; and ‘Camp Summer Camp,’ Aug. 21-30 at Performance Space 122, 150 First Ave.

This “web exclusive” was published online at BackStage.com.

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