Hollywood Fringe Festival, a theater party with room to grow

Yet there's no arguing with success. Ticket sales have grown "at a rate of 25% during the first three years," said Jones Hill. Hill touted HFF's international name recognition, a precious feat given that the festival began in only 2010. The "Hollywood" in the title certainly offers a branding boost, something they hope to further capitalize on as the festival moves out of its toddler phase.

Still, Hill acknowledged that the festival hasn't spawned a "Urinetown," the musical satire that emerged from FringeNYC and eventually made its way to Broadway. Jones Hill said that the festival has presented work that has been subsequently produced elsewhere and published, but when asked if the range of participants tilted heavily (even by fringe standards) toward early-career artists, the two offered only vague qualifications.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, also noncurated, was an inspirational model for HFF. But it's significantly larger, much more established and a focal point of global media outlets, which descend on the Scottish city to cover the multitude of world-class arts festivals taking place simultaneously. Mature and entry-level theater practitioners are drawn to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for its pedigree and spotlight. The HFF doesn't have the same pull.

All it takes is one breakout hit for the prestige factor to rise and with it the quality of the next year's participants. Such a galvanizing winner is unlikely to emerge from the amiable group of shows I caught last weekend — "Experiment," "# Hashtag," "The Devil and Billy Markham," and "The Real Housekeepers of Studio City."

PHOTOS: Hollywood Fringe Festival, a theater party

All of these works were performed with admirable commitment, but I couldn't help thinking of the opportunity cost of my Fringe theatergoing — the L.A. productions I wasn't getting to see on those evenings, such as the Echo Theater Company's "Bob" or the Fountain Theatre's "Heart Song."

If a theater buff looking to binge on plays and musicals this weekend asked for my guidance, I'd point them in the direction of "Dying City" at Rogue Machine, "We are Proud to Present a Presentation…" at the Matrix Theatre, "Neva" at South Coast Repertory and "Alcestis" (just starting previews) at the Theatre @ Boston Court.

This work won't be to everyone's taste, but it's serious and substantial — qualities that aren't a top priority in the fringe marketplace, in which attention-grabbing titles ("Exorcistic: The Rock Musical Parody Experiment," "If You're Watching This, I'm Dead") do the work of a carnival barker.

Several L.A. theater artists I spoke to told me that they had no opinion of the HFF because they had been basically ignoring it. Regular theatergoers, they had yet to be enticed by the work on tap. But others spoke glowingly of the fringe's value to L.A.'s theater ecology.

One such yea-sayer, USC School of Dramatic Arts Dean Madeline Puzo, praised the festival for encouraging "theater artists to take authority and responsibility for mounting their own work rather than waiting for the next job or producer." She also approves of the way its concentration of offerings "draws attention to the energetic and diverse theater scene that Los Angeles supports."

Another advocate for the HFF is theater artist Luis Alfaro, who conveyed in an email his belief that the fringe is"essential for building a movement in Los Angeles for quality home-based work that allows for experimentation."

I agree with both of them, but as a critic, I want to see the best plays and musicals possible. How can the HFF's offerings grow in quality?

I put the question to Matthew Quinn, a partner with the producing group Combined Artform and owner and manager of Theatre Asylum, a busy HFF venue. He is also a producer of fringe shows as well as an executive producer of the Best of Hollywood Fringe Extensions in July, a program outside of the HFF that allows the cream of the festival crop to have an extended life at Theatre Asylum and other participating Hollywood venues. Quinn said that the festival has already "exceeded all expectations." The one area that he thought could be improved upon was the presence of international performers.

Any outreach the HFF presenters could do to increase the artistic level short of betraying their vision of an open festival should be undertaken. The Hollywood Fringe Festival is too big to ignore. But for the work to truly boost L.A.'s standing as a theater town, the art should be doing more of the talking.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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