Performance

Denver Fringe Festival Celebrates Diversity In the Performing Arts

The Denver Fringe Festival will be held fully in person for the first time this year.
The Denver Fringe Festival will be held fully in person for the first time this year. Kalen Jesse Photography
In the world of performance art, fringe festivals worldwide have become a host for artists to attain complete freedom of expression and a venue to share their unique ideas, stories and talents with their surrounding community. “It’s a critical part of the arts ecosystem,” says Ann Sabbah, founder and executive director of the Denver Fringe Festival. “Every city has independent and emerging artists who are trying new things, who are pushing new boundaries…and the fringe festival provides a platform for them. Without nurturing that part of the ecosystem, what becomes of the arts?”

The Denver Fringe Festival, a four-day celebration of the performing arts, will take place Thursday, June 23, through Sunday, June 26. Scattered across ten venues throughout Five Points and the RiNo Art District, this diverse and immersive festival will showcase more than forty unique shows from local creators ranging from comedy to cabaret, circus to magic and musicals to solo acts, as well as original theater productions.

This will be Denver’s third fringe, which has quickly become an enriching addition to the city’s burgeoning arts scene, despite the fact that its first two editions were stunted by the pandemic. This year’s festival will be the first where all performances will take place in person. In 2020, its inaugural year, with twenty acts in the lineup, the festival had to make a quick pivot with the onset of COVID and presented all of its performances in a virtual format, either pre-recorded or livestreamed. And in 2021, the festival offered a hybrid format, with about half of its 37 original shows performed virtually and the other half setting the stage for the live festival scene that Denver will experience this year.
click to enlarge KALEN JESSE PHOTOGRAPHY
Kalen Jesse Photography
According to Sabbah, the Denver Fringe Festival's goal is twofold. First, it aims to promote independent artists by enabling them not only to mount a production, but to get feedback and create a community around their art at a low cost. It is open-access, meaning that anyone can apply and all submissions are generally accepted. If there is not enough space for all applicants, a lottery system, rather than a jury, is used to decide who gets to perform.

Second, the festival aspires to make the performing arts more accessible to the audience, as well, particularly those who might not otherwise attend theatrical shows. “There is a place for high-dollar, big-budget productions,” says Sabbah, “but the performing arts should be for everybody.” Ticket prices are intentionally kept low, and in the case of the Denver Fringe Festival, 70 percent of the proceeds go directly to the performers themselves.

As a third-generation Denverite, Sabbah grew up immersed in the arts. Theater and performance are a common thread throughout her family lineage, she says; her brother was an artist as well as a playwright. “Very early on, I discovered and internalized what is magical about the arts and what it does for us," says Sabbah, who is a painter with a background in journalism, photography editing, project management, website development and new-media technologies.

After she attended the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival, the idea to start a fringe festival in her hometown became impossible to ignore. “I just knew right then and there. It just became a plan and a vision. … It was something I didn’t know anything about until I found myself there,” Sabbah reflects. “And I really wanted to do something for Denver. It’s a goal of mine to contribute something to the fiber of the city in my lifetime.”

Sabbah promises this year’s festival will exceed expectations. With over forty unique performances planned — many of them running each day of the festival — there will be a huge diversity of content for festival-goers to explore and discover. “[The festival has] everything from original plays and musicals to comedy and improv, dance and aerial, magic and illusionism. And this year we also have a lot of solo performances; some of it is comic, some of it is really personal and deep and moving," she says.

“I think artists process what's happening with them internally and what’s happening with us externally — that’s just what artists do,” Sabbah continues. “And so it runs the gamut from diversity, equity and inclusion issues to gender identity and the queer experience. I feel like because it’s open-access, there is such a diversity of experiences and voices. That’s just part and parcel of what a fringe festival is — it just lends itself to that.”

One of the shows she is most excited to see, Sabbah says, is Un/Packing, an immersive, multimedia, interactive performance. "The audience helps guide the performer through time, space and gender," she explains. "There are twenty different characters and tracks possible, but the audience will determine all of that as you go along, so you’re creating the narrative.”
click to enlarge KALEN JESSE PHOTOGRAPHY
Kalen Jesse Photography
Another highly anticipated show is Josephine, a one-woman “burlesque cabaret dream play.” A  musical tribute to the life of Josephine Baker, it has been touring and playing at various fringe festivals across the country, and has even spent some time on Broadway. “It’s really picking up steam,” says Sabbah. “It’s going to be so beautiful, so powerful and so amazing.”

Between a vintage circus show by a local troupe, a Radiohead aerial dance concert, a standup comedy special featuring BIPOC comedians, and a self-described "gay multiverse romcom about the Beatles" called Yesterday/Today, there will truly be something for everyone. In addition to the huge variety of genres and shows for adults, there will also be a Kids Fringe on Saturday and Sunday, with free workshops and performances for kids ages five through twelve. “I wanted there to be a component that involves families," Sabbah notes, "because that’s where arts supporters start — they start as kids.”

The Fringe Festival shows will take place in ten venues across the greater Five Points area, including the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Theater, the Mercury Cafe, RedLine Contemporary Art Center, a unique black-box space at the River North Media photography studio, and even some event rooms at various breweries in RiNo. “Part of what fringe festivals do is that they utilize non-traditional theater spaces,” explains Sabbah. "It lends a different feel, a different experience. It’s just that much more immediate and impactful.”

There will also be a central gathering place called the Fringe Hub at the Backyard on Blake (between 30th and 31st on Blake Street), which will serve as a home base for artists and audience members to coalesce before and after shows, as well as a place to buy tickets and pick up programs and merch. Throughout the festival, there will be additional street performances by Circus Foundry, a live Rubik's Cube art performance at the Hub, and chances to see the Denver Fringe Festival poster printed in person by this year’s poster artist, Akyros (Harry Foreman).

“The only way to really understand [fringe] is just to experience it,” Sabbah says. “And the minute you have that experience of seeing something that you didn’t expect and loving it, or being inspired by it or amused by it, it truly just makes you want to walk down the street and buy another ticket to another show.

"There’s something that happens in that moment, in that exchange between the performer and the viewer, that implants something new," she continues. "Maybe it's a better understanding of yourself, maybe more empathy, maybe a resolve to do something, or maybe it’s just a sense of joy. But I hope that everybody who comes and sees a show has an experience where they come away with something new and valuable.”

Denver Fringe Festival, Thursday, June 23, through Sunday, June 26. Tickets, $15 per show, can be purchased at denverfringe.org, at the door or at the Fringe Hub. A festival pass, which provides access to all shows, is available for $75.
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