I arrived in the Seattle theater community in 2009, and within weeks became accustomed to hearing frequent nostalgic tales of the Seattle Fringe Theater Glory Days (SFTGD). From what I gathered, SFTGD were in the 1990s, had something to do with a festival, and involved a lot of booze, nudity, and artistic epiphany. Every time someone launched into a Glory Days eulogy, it was a lot like hearing about past seasons of Saturday Night Live or the Clinton Administration—always accompanied by heavy sighing and maybe a tear or two. As a human barely birthed in the 1980s, I was simply "too young" to understand what happened in SFTGD, and according to Those Who Were Around During the Glory Days (TWWADGD), that time in Seattle was dead and never to return.
Except now "that time" may be circling back. Last Sunday was the close of the freshly reborn Seattle Fringe Festival, and word is that it went pretty damn well. I interviewed Pamala Mijatov of the steering committee before and after the festival.
Unpaid Intern: Share a brief history of Seattle Fringe Festival’s origin.
Pamala Mijatov: The original Seattle Fringe folded in 2003. During the intervening years, many of Seattle's other small theater venues closed. The loss of the low-cost, low-risk production model was keenly felt. Last fall, during the "Seattle Theater: What's Next?" forum at West of Lenin, Beth Raas-Bergquist stood up and said, "My master's thesis was a business plan for a revived festival. Does anybody want to talk about it?" Separately, Sean Ryan was working on a plan to create an umbrella organization which would produce contemporary arts festivals. Karen Lane from Theater Puget Sound connected Sean with Beth, and a festival committee was formed. With less than a year to put the festival together, committee members decided to start small, with five venues and 21 artists.
Why choose to produce a high-output festival as opposed to developing works as a part of a traditional season?
Our goal is to allow audiences to make dozens of new connections in a short space of time: new plays, new companies, new artists. The uncensored and tightly-packed programming creates a sense of immediacy and cross-connection.
What makes the process and/or product of Seattle Fringe Festival unique?
Unlike many other festival formats, this one is non-juried. While this choice was made partly for logistical reasons (to facilitate cooperation with the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals), the upshot is that audiences get an incredibly broad spectrum of shows to choose from. There's a beautiful, chaotic randomness to the offerings.
What are the drawbacks to a festival format?
None! …except the logistical challenges of having multiple venues. There are five times as many techs to hire, five times as many house managers, five times as much signage and green room cleanup... The dense cross-programming does make it difficult to see every show in the lineup, but the overwhelming energy of a busy festival is so incredibly worth it.
How diverse are the experience levels and backgrounds of the artists involved in your festival?
Hugely! This year we have established local acts, returning favorites, Canadian fringe veterans, brand new plays, and emerging companies just getting their first works off the ground.
So... How did it go?
Pretty darn good. We're feeling positive and beginning planning for 2013.
In less than a year, we launched a 21-artist, 84-performance festival that was fast, light, inclusive, and accessible. While there were certainly disappointments, we heard almost universally positive feedback from both audiences and artists about the incredible passion of Seattle's theater community. We relied on absolutely amazing venue techs and volunteers to bring this to life, and can't thank them enough for busting their asses over a very long, very full week. The steering committee had a steep learning curve, but we're really eager to put a lot of the lessons we learned into action as we begin the planning for next year's festival; we made some crucial connections with organizers from other North American fringe fests, and will be picking their brains for advice on how to produce more broadly and efficiently.
Attendance numbers were a little lower than we'd hoped. Our best-selling shows were mostly beloved local acts; next year we'll put more effort into connecting Seattle audiences with the incredible touring productions from the wider fringe community.
It was really, really hard to rebuild this festival from the ground up in a short time span, but so worth it. Look for us in fall 2013.