In 1947, a small group of theatre performers showed up uninvited to the International Arts Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, but the festival turned them away, so the actors performed in makeshift venues on the fringes of the city. Empty lots, warehouses and small cafes were transformed into cabarets and homemade theatre venues, and overnight the Fringe Festival was born.
And that fringe theatre festival in Edinburgh became so big it actually eclipsed the original performing arts festival, and is now the biggest performing arts festival in the world. Kristen Evans teamed up with local performer Dennis James Monn, Jr. and decided that they wanted put together a fringe festival here in New Orleans. Kristen went to New York and met with the organizers of fringe there. While she was there she plastered the town with flyers.
Kristen: "I did my best, and D.C., too. We did mailings to universities and local groups there, and mailed some to friends so they could bludgeon their city with flyers." In the following weeks, Kristen and Dennis went through the piles of submissions that came in from all over the country and chose the 15 best. Then they threw the rest in a hat and drew 15 more at random. The range of acts at this year's festival is staggering.
One group, called Nana Projects from Baltimore, will perform their ground-breaking shadow puppetry in the story of a mischievous group of thieves who steal the moon. Aerialists will dangle inside warehouses, Dr. Valour will read Bukowsky in his living room, and what fringe festival would be complete without a one-act play about radio porn?
But assembling the acts was the easy part. Kristen and Dennis had to come up with enough venues for over 100 shows. "Well, we kind of brainstormed and then drove around and it was like this would be a good space, this would be a good space, this would be a good space, that's not a good space because the ceiling is too low, that's not a good space because there is no toilet, or you know, until finally we came up with a list."
"And then we gave people the option if they wanted to find their own venue, kind of a location-specific venue and do their thing there, and they are part of the festival. So we have some very unusual spaces. We call them "bring-your-own" venues. Maw Maw, the chicken memorial theatre in rosalie alley, the voodoo alley is one of them. There is doctor Valour's living room. The performer is in the front room of his shotgun house, he's gonna be doing his show, so it's all types."
Over the course of the next week, 16 different spaces throughout the neighborhood will be transformed into performance venues. I wanted to see some of the venues for myself, so I took a trip over to the Skull Club, a loft on Rampart where the infamous Lord David reigns decadently over his underground speakeasy. "You know, this is a city built by Pirates, and nefarious characters and lunatics, and I think that they needed their own club."
Lord David greets me with a beer and welcomes me into his palatial loft, decorated with antique couches and an 18-foot table fit for royal feasts. It was this very table that featured models wrestling in leather underwear as part of a fashion show called apocalipstick. "On the city charter, this building is still called Temperance Hall, because the woman's prohibition movement bought it and used it as a place to have meetings against demon alcohol. So opening a bar seemed like the first order of business. I suppose that was as much a statement about their belief system and their neighborhood and what they wanted to do as the skull club is about the people who live here now and what we want to do."
Kristen wants the festival to maintain a neighborhood feel: "The spirit of the festival that we want to make sure we maintain is that it's not a big commercial marketing tool, which is what a lot of festivals have become, you know. They've become so driven by the marketers or whatever, that they lose the spirit of what the festival is about." As visitors pour in for events like Fringe Fest and Prospect.1, and new galleries pop up along St. Claude, phrases like "post-apocalyptic renaissance" are being used to describe what's happening in New Orleans right now. It will be interesting to see how all this attention affects the rebuilding of the city. Will New Orleans become an art mecca, will condos spring up and rents sky-rocket? That remains to be seen. But for now, the artists and pirates and nefarious characters still have a city to call home.
For more information on show times and locations, you can visit nofringe.org or pick up a copy of this week's Gambit. Or you can stop by the festival tent at Press and Dauphine Streets, where there will be free all-ages shows and an open stage where you — yes, you — can show up uninvited and do whatever you want. The Fringe Festival runs from November 13th through the 16th at 16 different locations throughout the city.
". . . and when we were choosing the venues, we made sure that no one had to walk more than 50 feet to get a beer"