FringeNYC – Past, Present, and Future of New York City’s Annual Fringe Festival

Written by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

Theatre Reviews Limited was there at the beginning eighteen years ago when “the scrappy few” founded FringeNYC: Aaron Beall, John Clancy, Jonathan Harris, and (current Artistic Director) Elena K. Holy recognized the need for a Fringe Festival in New York City. John Clancy and Elena K. Holy were the founders of FringeNYC’s producing organization The Present Company. This is part of that 1997 manifesto:

“We need a place where the artists who do all the hard work, the early work, can incite and excite each other. We need a time set aside to look at all the exploration, a time for the front-line soldiers in our endless Cultural War to report back from their patrols.”

And so it began. Joseph and I crammed ourselves into little theatres dotting the landscape of the Lower East Side and opened our notebooks and our hearts to the efforts of artists committed to “the power of live human interaction – PERFORMANCE!” There was the Collective Unconscious, The Piano Room (now simply “Pianos”), and the Pink Pony among others. Most of these gems have closed in the recent past as rents have escalated and the splendor and grittiness of the Lower East Side have given way to gentrification, trendy boutiques, and a barrage of seemingly endless construction.

We saw the first production of “Urinetown” in 1999 staged with painted cardboard boxes. We sat on folding chairs that might have collapsed before the curtain went up on the performance we wanted to see; wires hung from the ceiling connecting overloaded sockets to a variety of lighting instruments from work lights to tin-cans filled with bulbs. Second-hand air conditioners buzzed and scraped belching cool air making the seating more bearable – until they were turned off just seconds before curtain. The early performances were edgy, provocative, mind-stretching, and memorable. When we pass those old venues in the present, we can name the performers who shared their vision inside.

FringeNYC 2014 – which closed on Sunday September 24 – continues to fulfill the original vision of the 1996 founders. Only one of those founders remains Elena K. Holy and she is now the Producing Artistic Director of the Present Company the not-for-profit theatre producing organization dedicated to inciting art, cultivating community and creating new American theatre.

Of the two-hundred shows in this year’s lineup, we saw forty shows and reviewed all forty of them – a remarkable feat for just two reviewers. We visited fifteen of the eighteen venues. We found a broad range of quality in this year’s shows from the excellent to the truly awful – par for the course for most Fringe Festivals. However, there were far more “bad” shows than “good” and this might signal the need for a more aggressive adjudicating process. It is difficult to adjudicate shows with a volunteer staff; however, it might be beneficial to explore other ways to assemble teams that can screen potential shows more thoroughly. Although AEA (Actors Equity Association) does not permit artists to videotape their work, there might be additional screening platforms that can be put in place.

FringeNYC 2014 introduced a new reservation and ticketing system utilizing the Eventbrite platform ( This “green” system allows patrons to purchase tickets to shows right up to thirty minutes before curtain. All confirmations and tickets are displayed on the patron’s smart phone or Eventbrite account online where tickets can be printed out if the patron does not have a smart phone. This is a wonderful addition to FringeNYC and will also expedite the administrative staff’s ability to determine what shows and what venues were visited most often immediately. The days of counting ticket stubs is over.

And what of the future of FringeNYC? This priceless contribution to the culture of New York City continues to need monetary support beyond the reasonable ticket price of $18.00. Sponsorships and donations of all sizes are required to ensure the future of this important Festival. The founding four said it best in 1997: “There is no map. The compass slowly spins, pointing to all directions. But if we walk together, eyes open, a step at a time, we’ll find our way.” Here’s to another eighteen years, FringeNYC, and more thereafter. Thank you, Elena K. Holy, for your gift of “doing the job that must be done” and continuing this place where “new artists have a chance of staying in the theater and a new energy and spirit can infuse our theater.”