U.S. Fringes are Local Festivals, Plain and Simple.

local vs national

A Caveat: I know a lot of organizers of Fringe festivals personally through a variety of circumstances. These opinions are my own and are no reflection on the huge amount of respect I have for the dedication, perseverance and aptitude they demonstrate to bring alternative and small scale theater to their communities. 

Also, I’m up to anyone disputing this but I want the math to back it up, not just general numbers. How do out-of -towners payouts differ from local producers?

Last year  published a post called To Fringe or Not to Fringe in which I broke down what the circuit was like. I have only toured fringes in the U.S., and only if I’ve done extensive research on them so that I’m not walking away in the red (although I have anyway). In my previous post I spoke briefly about how some fringes can have a local focus where out-of-towners such as myself get lost in the shuffle. I realized something however…

All United States Fringes are Ultimately Local Festivals

Again I haven’t reached the promised land of Canada (which I know has it’s drawbacks in terms of audiences deciding what shows to see based on the amount of stars it got). I have plenty of friends who have toured the summer east to west from Montreal or Toronto over to Victoria and made a decent living for the rest of the year doing so. I can only speak about the U.S. from my experience and from the multiple conversations I have had with other artists who are also touring. I want to emphasize that not everyone has this experience but I’m noticing something broken.

First off you have to pay a participation fee to be in the fringe. Upfront you’re paying between $300-$700 depending on the size of the venue and the festival itself. Most festivals will try to find you a homestay so that expense is taken care of, but you need to get there and eat and get around everyday. If you have a part time job that isn’t telecommuting you need to say goodbye to that income for two weeks. Ok, so you’re already in the hole about a grand.

Local companies and out of towners may be well represented at the festival but usually this is the “crazy” show that the local company does once a year that people are expecting. Already they have an advantage of having a local base and pulling on their friends and family to buy tickets in advance.

The Minnesota Fringe (which I consider my summer camp) has done a great job of educating their audiences about out-of-towners through a showcase that happens right before the festival starts, to locals mingling with them to generate buzz. However even with all that awareness there are some audience members who see two shows of people they know and then throw in the towel. There are the hardcore people who buy ultra-passes and see over 50 shows in 10 ten days but they are a small subset.

Why Take a Risk When I Can See Something I Know is Good

This is basic psychology. There are people who think in broader terms and want to experience a show they know nothing about other than the description and the smart press photo. Love those people. Then there’s the majority who need to be influenced by word-of-mouth and audience reviews to tell them what they’re going to like. Similar to a Netflix algorithm, even people who think they take risks are more likely to stick with rom-coms if that’s their thing than to see a butoh comedy (whatever that is).

There are certain genres that do better in different festivals. At one fringe, if the piece isn’t funny, you audiences numbers will perish. Musicals can sell out simply because they’re musicals. A play about two women dealing with middle age can sell out all it’s shows in advance because 62% of audiences are women are the age of fifty. Even in a fringe, where risk taking is encouraged, people naturally gravitate to what has satisfied them in the past.

Locals are known and therefore already have a unique advantage. This was my third year going to Minnesota and each year the payouts have been decreased. 2012 was my fault. I went in March with a show and then returned to the fringe with the same show which must have thinned out my audiences. Minnesota is already unique in that the payouts are lower than most fringes but the advantages of it functioning like a well oiled machine somewhat subsidizes that; not enough however to make it profitable.

Being More Transparent 

Although an artist who is thinking about doing the fringe circuit can get a lot of info online including average payouts, I want the fringe festivals to be even more transparent. Most artists needs things broken down in easily digestible chunks and visuals help tremendously. If I had a pie graph to look at that showed me local payouts vs. the out of towner payouts that would be great information.

If it went further and showed returning out of town producers payout vs. relatively new out of towner payout that would be even better. I want every fringe to have a dedicated page to out of town producers that lays out how their fringe functions. What do audiences tend to gravitate towards, what types of shows don’t sell well, what type of budget should an out of towner have (not just a general budget for everyone).

Basically the fringe should try and sell their festival to out of town producers with a list of disclaimers so that the producer knows what to expect and not expect. There are always hidden and known factors that come into play. If a performer is meek about handing out postcards and working the lines that’s on them in terms of audience attendance. However having all the information up front about where the festival is at in terms of their successes and failures would not only help potential new artists in making a decision to apply but also help the circuit as a whole create a collective approach to seeing what works and what needs adjustments.

In the end…

…festivals of this kind are hard to run. I appreciate the time and intense energy that goes into making them happen. I’m just at a point where I need to make decisions that are financially viable. I love going away to theater summer camp every year but next year I may just end up writing a play and having someone local produce it, or just fly out for a few days, see my friends and catch some shows.

I will miss the community feeling. That can’t be beat, but I have to be more pragmatic with my artistic career and make decisions that have a sustainable foundation.