[LA Times] Hollywood swings into Fringe spirit

A dance program performed at the CHOPCHOP beauty salon and gallery. A comic play drawn from bad screenplays. A dialogue-free dramatic performance set to music by the indie pop band the Postal Service. And an evening of drinking songs by the Poxy Boggards.

Hollywood hosts an eclectic new entertainment event over the next 10 days as the Hollywood Fringe Festival brings dance, theater, music and comedy groups as well as the visual arts to a cluster of small venues in the neighborhood. Touring companies, local professional and amateur groups, international artists and even troupes that travel a “fringe festival circuit” will be on view, with tickets to each event set at $10.

The concept of a “fringe festival” originated in 1947 at Scotland’s Edinburgh International Festival, a prestigious invitation-only performing arts showcase that has become world-renowned. That year, several troupes that had not been selected for the official program performed on the outskirts, or fringe, of the festival. Since then, cities such as Washington, D.C., New York, San Francisco and Chicago have hosted fringe festivals, either accompanying a larger event or standing alone, all with the aim of providing an alternative platform for experimental works.

Like most such festivals, the Hollywood Fringe neither handpicked nor turned away performers — participation was open to any group that could pull together a production, secure a venue and pay the $150 to $200 participant fee.

Festival director Ben Hill said he knows that the performances will “broadly vary” in terms of quality — he emphasized the “adventure” of the festival.

“You can see five shows a day for 50 bucks, and two of those will be just awful, and two of those will be really entertaining, and one of those might change your life,” he said. “It becomes an adventurous thing, time to leave your safety zone and try something more experimental, more interesting, something that catches your eye. You never know what you’re going to get, and that’s art.”

Not every Fringe-goer will want to attend five shows in one day. But for the motivated and energetic, the daily schedule begins at midday and runs past midnight. Hill encourages attendees to forgo their cars and walk between the venues, which are all within a mile radius. The 30 locations consist mostly of 99-seat theaters but also include art galleries, community centers, acting schools, nightclubs, churches, a dance studio and a hair salon.

One of Hill’s goals is to counter the perception that theater is for the elite, saying, “You can go to the Pantages and drop $80 for ‘Wicked’ or ‘Rent,’ but there are all these opportunities throughout L.A. that allow for cheap access to great art.”

In 2006, Hill witnessed the effect of Washington, D.C.’s fringe festival on the city’s “ecosystem of the arts.” Accessible works and low ticket prices attracted a “significant new audience,” and for the rest of the year audiences grew and new companies emerged.

Meanwhile, Hill, who has a background in both theater and technology, had accumulated experience with his production company Hatchery Arts, established in 2005.

Developing the fringe festival was a three-year process. His first step was to create a savvy business plan. Hill wasn’t able to obtain funds from the city, county, state or federal government but did receive financial support from local arts groups.

Another important step was determining the locale. In Hollywood, Hill could count on numerous small venues within a compact zone. Plus, the area’s quirky streets would reflect the festival’s alternative spirit. Hill also noted that just the idea of “Hollywood” would attract performers and audiences.

Hill hopes the festival will become an annual event and involve more areas of the city. But as festival performer David Wiseheart said, “It’s a little bit of an experiment; we’ll see what happens.” In his view, “Ben is an eternal optimist.”

Despite the uncertainties ahead, participants are excited to be part of the Hollywood Fringe’s inaugural year.

Cara Yeates, who regularly performs at fringe festivals in her native Canada, will act in “Bye Bye Bombay,” a solo theater piece about her experiences working in Bollywood. “I don’t know if I’ll do the fringe for the rest of my life, but it’s a great way for me to get my footing as a developing artist,” Yeates said.

One participant, Marie Clerkin, isn’t sure how audiences moving from venue to venue will play out. The London native will perform her personal history through Irish dance and dark comedy. “In Edinburgh you can schedule yourself to see half a dozen shows a day,” she said. “But this is L.A., and I am yet to be convinced that large numbers of people will be doing the public transportation and walking thing.”

Abie Brown, a comedian from Ireland, has a similar perspective. “Hollywood is full of undiscovered actors who want to make a name for themselves and create their own opportunities,” he said.

But the festival is not necessarily the path to success. Actor and comedian Jon Monastero described the chances of getting “discovered” at the Hollywood Fringe as a “crapshoot.” He’s not even sure that every show will draw an audience. Monastero mostly looks forward to “just having fun” with his silent play about janitors trapped in an enchanted theater.

Jeremy Lelliot, artistic director of Coeurage Theatre Company, is similarly excited to take in a variety of works. “I can’t wait to see everyone’s shows, to be inundated with art, and to share our work,” he said. “I hope it’s completely crazy.”

“As a fringe participant, I feel like I’ve rediscovered Los Angeles,” said Eric Czuleger, author of the plays “Head Over Heels” and “LA Lights Fire.” “It’s as if there was a community of artists here all along that never knew what a home they had in one another.”

Fringe festival: In an article in Wednesday’s Calendar section about the Hollywood Fringe Festival, an Irish comedian was identified as Abie Brown. His name is Abie Bowman. —

Copyright © 2010, The Los Angeles Times

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