CINCINNATI -- If you’re up for unique, experimental, unpredictable performances, and the personalities and parties that go along with them, you’re in luck. The 11th annual Cincinnati Fringe Festival is upon us.
Ostensibly, the Fringe is theater, but little of it will look familiar to regulars of, say, Playhouse in the Park, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company or the Broadway series at the Aronoff Center. There’s interactive comedy, flashbacks to the 1770s and 1960s, women romping as pirates, sign-of-the-times drama, solo storytelling, conceptual dance as social activism and even, as the title of one show lays out, “short-attention-span” theater—30 plays shoved into an hour.
In all, there are 32 productions, including half from local creators and performers, the rest from all over the country and beyond. While Know Theatre is the festival’s host, performances are scheduled in 10 other locales, several of which—including an open room in a chiropractor’s office—would otherwise never be confused for theater spaces.
The Fringe opens Wed., May 28, with shows happening simultaneously every night at every venue through Sunday, June 7. Each production will see three to five performances during that span.
WCPO.com will review most, if not every, show.
“It’s a struggle to do edgier work in this city, so an upstart company with no audience to speak of has a much easier time generating audience with Fringe than trying to do it on their own,” said Eric Vosmeier, executive director of Know Theatre and the Fringe Festival. Vosmeier is soon stepping down after five years in both capacities.
“It’s not just about the plays, it’s about the community of the festival as a whole,” he said. “We really try to make sure people are coming down for the whole Fringe experience. The shows are definitely an important part of that, but just a part.”
Cincinnati is one of two-dozen American cities with Fringe festivals—they’re connected by spirit but not by organization—each with its own history and personality. Canada has a thriving Fringe circuit, as does the United Kingdom, anchored by the granddaddy of all Fringes, in Edinburgh, Scotland (nearly 2,700 shows each year crammed into a month of performances).
Unlike most Fringes, which applicants enter into a lottery for inclusion in the festival, Cincinnati’s Fringe is curated—meaning, Vosmeier and others connected to Know choose shows from a pool of applicants, working for even mixes of locals and out-of-towners, Fringe veterans and newcomers. The benefit for Cincinnati audiences is a modicum of quality assurance.
If the Fringe gave an award to the performer traveling the longest distance, it would go to Mica Dvir of Tel Aviv, Israel, who explores her self-described obsession with the Holocaust in her solo show, “Around Dark Matter.”
“We weren’t certain Cincinnati would accept a festival like this, and guaranteeing the quality is something we thought was smart,” Vosmeier said. “And artists seem to like it because it means they’re playing with the best of the best.”
Visiting artists are also happy with another Fringe benefit—free lodging at the Art Academy dorms or at the home Know Theatre keeps in Kenwood for visiting performers and directors.
In some respects, Cincinnati’s Fringe has seen impressive growth. The 9,000 people who attended in 2013 were double the number from just five years earlier. FringeNext—shows fully produced by high schoolers—has become so popular, largely with family members driving attendance to the top of the festival’s box office, that it’s now expanded to four productions.
Still, the number of locals inspired to create and produce Fringe-ready work—new, original, offbeat—hasn’t caught up with the ambitions of festival organizers, who want to see a greater pool of local applicants.
A more recent and vexing challenge, Vosmeier said, is the annual hunt for venues. As properties in Over-the-Rhine rise in value, fewer owners are willing to turn their spaces over to Fringe organizers at little to no cost. This year, Vosmeier felt lucky to find a chiropractor, Gateways to Healing, with a room large enough to accommodate a small audience. He also managed, after several unsuccessful years, to track down and get a “yes” from the elusive owner of a vacant store at 17 E. Court Street.
One sure destination is Know Theatre. In addition to staging performances in its upstairs and downstairs spaces, Know is the festival’s hub, with the public encouraged to mingle with Fringe performers every night at themed after-shows parties.
“In general, we’d like to think Fringe imbues the whole city with a greater love of the art form,” Vosmeier said.
IF YOU GO ...
What: 11th annual Cincinnati Fringe Festival
Where: 11 locales in Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati
When: Wed., May 28 through Sat., June 7
Cost: $12 individual shows, $25 for an evening, $60 for six-show passes and $200 for all-access festival pass .
Info: cincyfringe.com or (513) 300-5669