The second annual Tampa Fringe artist lottery is almost upon us – just two days left to apply and, as the day approaches, I thought I would take a moment to address a topic that seems to interest many of our participants and audience members alike:
Why a Lottery?
We do not pick the shows that get into the Tampa Fringe. All participants are selected by lottery from amongst the applicants and this means that, every year, there will be some great shows that don’t make it into the festival. It also means that there might be some shows that leave us all scratching our heads and asking ‘why?’. This year, we’ve already had an incredible response to our call for applications, and many of the shows look absolutely incredible. So, why leave it up to chance? Why not just pick the best shows?
The answer to this question cuts right to the heart of what fringe means to me personally, and to the mission of Tampa Fringe as an organization. Quite apart from being a CAFF requirement, the lottery keeps the festival objective in its goals and offers every would be participant an equal chance (see sidebar) at getting onto one of our stages. There are a lot of outlets for established acts with good track records and closets full of awards. For shows with some recognition, there are regional tours, West End and Off Broadway opportunities, and commissioned performances. In a worst case scenario, a show with some drawing power can self produce a tour and know that they will make back their investment through ticket sales. And we all know which shows are doing well at the moment.
Did You Know?
Following a successful model can lead to some reflected success for artists who are willing to play it safe and create the next Hamilton, or Blue Man Group. And those are great shows. But what about the unknown company striking out on their own? Theatre audiences buying tickets to shows at venues like the Straz are looking for a sure bet. They’re less willing to take a chance on a risky idea, and with good reason: tickets are expensive. The costs of mounting a production like the kind that tour to large receiving houses can be astronomical, and even those shows with modest production budgets can still end up costing a pretty penny. Audiences who don’t want to take a chance breed producers cut from the same cloth, and programmers who can’t afford an empty seat all contribute to an overall culture of commodified consumer theatre that’s pervasive, not just in Tampa Bay, but around the world.
Fringe takes a different approach…
Not all fringe festivals use a lottery. Some, like the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, just pretty much let everyone who wants to do a show into the festival. Others, like the Cincy Fringe, curate their festivals – selecting each act by hand. Both of these approaches present potential problems to artists and audience members alike. By allowing every show onto the stage, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe has grown to become the largest fringe festival in the world. In 2017, there were over 50,000 performances of 3,398 different productions taking place around Edinburgh during the festival. The overwhelming amount of work means that audiences are faced with the almost impossible task of picking an itinerary. Overwhelmingly, audiences tend to pick either perennial favorites or big name acts. It’s the same problem facing the commercial theatre scene – a glut of options leads to less risky behavior and smaller, more daring, or experimental work inevitably suffers.
Despite an occasional runaway success, unknown artists face a decidedly uphill battle in markets like Edinburgh. One of my friends once described the Fringe there as ‘tears in your porridge’, and almost all touring artists who have taken the plunge and taken a show there will know this sentiment. Having performed in Edinburgh multiple times, I have a deep fondness for the festival. It’s an incredible experience – and one I can not recommend highly enough (to audience members and artists), but Edinburgh is generally too costly and too risky to take shows to year after year unless you happen to be based in the UK. For audiences, this means that the majority of work tends to be fairly ‘safe’ and a little bit ‘samey’. Of course, with so many shows, there are always going to be incredible exceptions to this, and the diligent ticket-buyer will still find an amazing array of work on offer, but you really have to be on your game if you’re looking for new, unexpected, or diverse work.
With curated fringes, the problems tend to fall into one of two categories, either of which create roadblocks to the would be performer (and therefore ultimately end up limiting the choices of audiences). Some festivals try to program only ‘the best’ work. This was certainly the case when I was Festival Technical Director at FringeNYC. Others risk becoming cliquey, a sort of ‘friends club’.
And of course, trying to program only ‘the best’ work presents many problems of its own. What is the best? Are we talking about the highest grossing shows? Those with the best reviews? Those with the greatest amount of artistic merit? Top name stars? ‘The best’ is a sticky, subjective term and my idea of what’s great does not (and should not) reflect what another person might consider fantastic performance. All of these options are employed with only the best intentions. We’re all just trying to create the best festivals we can. Ultimately, we all end up trying to create some sort of quantitative benchmark to meet and that is definitively un-fringe. Art is slippery, elusive, amorphous, blobby. Art needs to be able to take chances, and it needs to be able to fail sometimes.
Fringe lets artists fail.
An un-curated fringe presents a unique opportunity for artists and audiences alike. Lower costs make it easier to take a chance, for everyone, and make the price for failure much less daunting. Artists who are willing to take risks produce a greater variety of work and audience members who might not mind watching a questionable show for the cost of a fringe ticket (between $5 and $13 per show) have a greater possibility of seeing something they never imagined on stage. Unheard-of artists are much more likely to attract wide spread audiences couched in the midst of a cornucopia of other work, but by limiting the number of slots, we keep competition lower allowing audiences to experience a greater proportion of the overall festival, and everybody wins. Fringe lets the unknown quantity play on equal footing with the household names.
When we select our participants by lottery, we avoid the problems of subjectivity facing programmers and curators the world over. We eliminate the barrier of our own bias, and give ourselves (and our audiences) the opportunity to experience something new. And while this may occasionally result in a cringe-worthy experience, it far more often (in my experience) succeeds in uncovering diamonds in the rough we would very likely have overlooked if we were picking and choosing.
Last year, the Tampa Fringe presented twenty-nine acts ranging across the spectrum of performance. This year, our festival promises to be even more diverse, eclectic, and delightful. Artists have responded to our call for submissions with shadow puppetry, drama, magic, family shows, cabaret, and so much more, it makes my head spin! In the run up to our lottery (check out our event here), we are all biting our teeth as much as our artists and audiences to see what’s going to be drawn. One thing is certain, there will be work we never imagined before, and that’s the way fringe should be.
– Will Glenn, Festival Director