Hollywood Fringe Festival, a theater party with room to grow

On a crowded sidewalk outside of Theatre Asylum last weekend, Edna Garrett from "The Facts of Life" was virtually blocking traffic with her huge wig. Nearby, Lurch from "The Addams Family" was darting through the throng to greet a friend, his twinkling eyes and widening smile softening the effect of his cadaverous makeup.

Yes, it's that whimsical time of year again: the fourth annual Hollywood Fringe Festival has swung into action. The actors impersonating these famous TV characters had just finished a performance of "The Real Housekeepers of Studio City," and Joe Greene, who not only plays Edna in elaborate drag but wrote the music for this bite-size musical candy bar, was asking a well-wisher whether she had fun.

At the informal Hollywood Fringe Festival, the distance between the artists and the audience is negligible. It's not just the postage-stamp size of the venues that creates intimacy. It's that so many in attendance have friends onstage or are involved in their own fringe exploits. This is a theater party for theater people (amateur and professional alike) and the friends and fans who support them, a great many of whom look like they wouldn't mind taking a turn in the spotlight themselves.

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With 25,000 tickets sold in 2012 and expectations of selling more than 35,000 this year, this madcap Hollywood shindig is growing only stronger. The festival, which runs through June 30, includes more than 1,000 performances of more than 200 offerings spread out at 20 venues throughout central Hollywood.

One revitalizing fact: The age demographic of fringe theatergoers is decidedly lower than that of the blue-rinse set that keeps our larger institutional theaters afloat with their blessedly loyal patronage.

The HFF is clearly a civic boon to Los Angeles. The communal energy is infectious. The economic upside for local businesses is a political selling point. And throughout much of June the city's sprawling geography suddenly seems manageable — a hub is born along Hollywood's Theatre Row.

Does it matter if much of the work is trifling?

This is a question, not an evaluation of this year's offerings. Extrapolating from the handful of shows I've seen would be silly. And it must be said that searching for gold at any fringe festival in the world, including the all-mighty Edinburgh Festival Fringe or North America's grandee, the New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC), is a game in which the pursuit is the real thrill.

A fringe festival is a showcase (a more cynical type might say marketing tool) in which self-produced work of a scattershot nature — from wacky solo performances to embryonic musicals — can be introduced in a low-cost way to an adventurous audience and perhaps even an influential critic or two. Publicity rather than box-office lucre is the chief reward.

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Fringe festival habitués aren't packing in five shows a day to see next year's Tony Award winner for best play. Driving them on is the love of live performance, with its jaunty irreverence and allergy to mass-market conformity. Fringe-goers are like beachcombers with a metal detector, happy to come upon a curiously shaped solitary earring. Word of mouth, disseminated easily through online chatter and citizen reviews, guides their wanderings.

But how does the Hollywood Fringe Festival fit into a city that already has a year-round fringe scene courtesy of Los Angeles' 99-Seat-Plan, the Actors' Equity agreement allowing theaters "to utilize the work and talent of Equity members without wage compensation"?

At an outdoor table at Fringe Central Station, the festival's meeting point and watering hole, I asked two of the HFF's founders, Ben Hill, the festival director, and his wife, Stacy Jones Hill, the communications director, about the decision to make this an open or noncurated festival. Was this the right choice for a city already challenged by the varying quality of so much theatrical activity?

Hill, who previously founded the Hatchery Festival in Washington, D.C., a showcase of new plays from rising talents, knew he needed help in figuring out the dimensions of a fringe festival in Los Angeles. Having moved to L.A. from Iowa City in only 2007, he sought expert advice on a town that doesn't easily disclose its secrets to outsiders.

Ezra Buzzington, who had a hand in the birth of the curated FringeNYC, is one of several consultants who advised Hill to go in a noncurated direction, arguing (for reasons Hill never made entirely clear in our interview) that a curated fringe in L.A. would be harder to pull off. ("Most fringes are non-curated," Jones Hill elaborated in a follow-up email, though some operate on a lottery model versus 'come-one-come-all,'" the HFF's model.)

The HFF stands behind its decision to make this an open festival even if the rationale remains somewhat mysterious. L.A. theater could use a fringe with a filter — anything to separate the wheat from the chaff would be invaluable. But an open fringe is better than no fringe at all.

Noncurated, it should be said, doesn't mean flying by the seat of your pants. The festival is highly organized (http://www.hollywoodfringe.org is a user-friendly marvel). And there are steps that weed out the halfhearted. Artists have to create an online profile and secure a venue. They're also encouraged to take part in workshops that help them become better producers of their own work.

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The openness of the festival, Hill said, has become a "constitutional ethic," forcing his associates and him to wear "quality blinders," so that they can treat "all their participants equally." Behind this is a desire for diversity and experiment, but it also suggests a superhuman tolerance for semi-professionalism.