The just-ended festival called Fringe offered an embarrassment of performing-arts riches: 80-plus uncensored and, in most cases, original or new works over nine days (not counting the bonus-show day). But how many performances can one person take in?
In line at a venue halfway through the festival, a man boasted that he'd already seen 12 shows, as though hoping to win a contest. Then again, he was averaging 2.4 a day, so he ought to get some kind of prize. Eavesdropping on others waiting — or joining in such conversations — is a way to compare notes and hear recommendations and tinker with one's itinerary. But the schedule made some things impossible as it was, and the last thing I needed toward the end of the fest was another suggestion. On the last night, four shows of interest took place around the same time. I wonder if even Mr. 2.4 gave up and just stayed home.
By day 10, I had checked off most, but not all, of my original list and managed also to see many more unplanned pieces. For the most part, the things I saw were funny, serious, moving, thought-provoking. I got close looks at local productions and actors, and I witnessed out-of-town acts I may never have the chance to see again.
The Dust was a modern-dance piece by the talented Core Project Chicago. Another Chicago act, Scarborough Fair, turned out to be a funny take on a Simon and Garfunkel tribute band. David Gaines' 7 (x1) Samurai was a clever one-man retelling of the Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven story depicted through movement, masks and minimal "dialogue." In Dada Is Dead/Long Live Dada, six performers gave a mesmerizing overview and tribute to the 20th century's Dada movement. And Ry Kincaid, backed by a 12-person cast of actors and musicians (including Cody Wyoming, Katie Gilchrist, Vi Tran and Amy Kelly), premiered Pilgrimage, a rock musical based on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
KC's Theatre Gym managed to place two one-acts in the festival: Underneath the Lintel and Stavrogin's Confession. The latter starred the very able Allan Boardman, Dean E. Mehling and up-and-comer Hannah Freeman (a high school student with a growing résumé). And Kevin Fewell carried the one-man Lintel. Neither play was new; Underneath the Lintel debuted in 1999, and Stavrogin's Confession also dates to the late 1990s. Both were still interesting and absorbing.
But the festival's scope doesn't necessarily impress. There are those who don't know about Fringe or — perhaps having seen one too many poorly created or performed pieces in the past — don't care about it. By its design, KC Fringe doesn't allow even the hardest-working viewer to see more than, say, a third of the events. I can understand why a casual theatergoer might shrug off the whole thing in frustration. How many of us take in one or two performances? a handful? or 12 in five days?
The Fringe Festival is all about access, for audiences as well as for artists. Both emerging and more established artists can participate, as long as they apply in time. (Some Fringe Festivals are on a juried or lottery system; Kansas City's is first-come, first-served.) But it costs them money; the more performances given, the higher the participation fees. This helps explain why some shows appear only three times on the schedule, while others fill five or six slots.
What do artists get in return? Besides the opportunity to showcase their work or the satisfaction of performing it, they receive 70 percent of the door. (The supporting venue gets 30 percent.) Because attendance affects their take-home, those shows that can afford five or six appearances spend even more money to make money. (One hedge: all those T-shirts that get hawked.)
In a town this size, where a limited number of arts patrons is spread thin, were enough seats filled? Weekend attendance appeared higher than during the week when, at the shows I saw, crowds were less than robust. That's a shame; there was good work being done onstage every night.
According to the U.S. Association of Fringe Festivals, the average payout from the 2011 KC Fringe Festival was $575. Given the costs and application fees (and the transportation expenses for out-of-town artists), that doesn't seem like much.
Besides the Fringe buttons required for admission, KC Fringe sells photos online and has sponsors. I don't know if the artists get a cut of those proceeds. Fringe, of course, isn't the only entity that needs to come out ahead, or break even.
Is KC Fringe too big for its own city? As I write this, the fest has been over only a couple of days. It left me feeling enriched but also a little regretful, still wondering about the productions I missed. If only there had been more days, more chances.
That kind of regret is worth it to me. But if this big event were a little smaller, maybe more people could, and would, experience it, regrets and all.