The venerable Edinburgh Festival Fringe was established in 1947 and has since seeded fringe festivals around the world. The Boulder International Fringe Festival has been enlivening Boulder summers for fourteen years, and there’s an annual one-weekend fringe festival in Fort Collins. Now Denver will finally get its own fringe fest.
The fringe concept is to allow theater artists of every kind to show their work, no matter how experimental, strange or outrageous, utilizing small venues from basements to bar rooms. So when Colorado Theatre Guild boardmember Seth Palmer Harris, who has worked with both the Boulder and Fort Collins festivals, suggested to his fellow boardmembers that it was time for Denver to have its own fringe festival, the response was enthusiastic.
“Within the community, there’s a craving for new work, playwrights wanting to get their work seen, smaller companies to really experiment," Harris explains. "The fringe will investigate available spaces and form the relationships you need to be a full producing company.”
Harris's plan is to create an event that brings together “people thinking progressively about what theater can mean, draws in a community of those who aren’t necessarily already theater-goers to see work that’s more exciting and experiential than usual, and increases the audience pool for the rest of the local theater community," he says. “It felt like a void that needed filling, and it’s been fun so far.”
The organizers are accepting applications to participate in the 2019 Denver Fringe Festival starting today through March 31; the fest itself is set for September.
The Colorado Theatre Guild, which has represented theater companies around the state in one form or another since 1979, is best known for sponsoring the annual Henry Awards. In the past, there has been some grumbling that the organization hasn’t done much more for the community. But the guild’s board is now rethinking its mission and expanding its reach; Harris points to workshops on topics like auditioning and issues of consent.
And now there's the Denver Fringe Festival. It's a nonprofit venture for the guild, with funding being raised from outside the organization. Some neighborhoods and venues have expressed interest in “attaching their brand to this kind of arts event," says Harris. Payment to participate by small theaters, though minimal, will add to revenue.
Harris is chairing a three-person planning committee with Rebecca Gorman O’Neill, who chairs the English department at Metropolitan State University and teaches playwriting and cinema studies, and arts administrator Leah Podzimek, an opera singer who has worked with Denver Immersive Opera, among other groups. “They go into non-traditional venues and perform operas with people right there, sitting with them,” explains Harris. “You’re accustomed to an opera singer being at least several feet away; when he or she’s right next to you and you’re part of it, it creates an altogether different experience.”
Harris himself is an actor, and has performed locally with such companies as Germinal Stage and And Toto Too. His interest in challenging theater is not new. “When I was in high school, I discovered Ionesco, and I remember finding this joy in work that was not what I was accustomed to seeing — not Shakespeare, Chekhov, realism," he recalls. "It stimulated me to think about theater in a different way. When I grew up, I consistently looked for opportunities to bring that more to the fore. We shy away from things audiences might not immediately accept, but people respond when you do something new and stimulating and show that theater is not just pageantry, but a living breathing art form.
“I love what the Denver Center is doing with immersive theater,” he adds, “setting a precedent for the kind of work that should and can be done, a world where immersive and experiential work is part of the conversation. But this is a very different world. The Denver Center has the resources it has. The kind of work we are looking to see done is very low-budget, more raw and vulnerable, very much about the theater of it, not the production values."
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So he's taking some cues from the Boulder and Fort Collins fringe festivals. “What I liked about these events is the use of space," he says. "They managed to create these festivals in largely non-trafficked venues — in Fort Collins by a river at the Museum of Discovery, in Boulder outside an old, beautiful building on Arapahoe Avenue, the Highland City Club. I love the idea of people being able to walk from venue to venue and take in different performances. In Denver, there’s a lot more space to play with and a different culture. A lot of venue partners here are breweries. With a neighborhood like RiNo, with its great artistic expression, bringing in theater feels very natural — seeing murals, ducking in somewhere to watch a performance, then maybe going on a tour of the neighborhood.”
Harris intends to keep the first fest small, with about fifteen venues in RiNo, LoDo and around downtown. The performers will be chosen by a three-person panel. While the Boulder fringe welcomes artists from all over the world, Denver has a deeper pool of talent, Harris notes, so the initial fest will show only the work of Colorado artists, though eventually that may change. “Because we’re just starting off, we wanted to make sure the quality of the performances was high so audiences would want to come back,” he says. “There are so many artists who have so much to offer here.”
And after the first year? Harris's hopes are high: “Because Denver does have this rich vein to draw on, we see within five years growing into one of the foremost festivals in the region, driving tourism.”
For more information, go to denverfringefestival.org.