What’s new, my friend?

The old-timers’ guide to the 2019 Philly Fringe Festival

5 minute read
So much to see. Have you taken a look? (Photo by Alaina Johns.)
So much to see. Have you taken a look? (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

After attending more than a decade of the Philly Fringe, I’ve consumed Fritos, chocolate, yogurt, wine, and a potluck dinner as an audience member (and there were other things I declined—like the offer to bite an actor). I’ve watched performances from a skate park, an alley, gardens, graveyards, churches, warehouses, basements, living rooms, museums, bars, and more. The Fringe is that old friend who’ll meet you anywhere.

But like a lot of folks you might see only once a year, the Fringe can change on you, and it’s good to keep up with what’s new when you crack that jam-packed catalogue.

A better welcome

After last year’s Fringe Festival nearly did me in as a person living with limited mobility due to chronic illness and pain, I wrote about being on the Fringe’s fringe. While the festival is an inclusive destination in many ways, it’s tough if you have a disability. Traditionally, many Fringe venues are inaccessible to everyone but the most able-bodied patrons (including many performances that place active physical demands on the audience or happen sans seating). Not only are many venues challenging to enter—in my experience, artists and producers have done a poor job of communicating what to expect, making it hard for me to decide in advance what’s feasible for me to attend.

So I’m excited about page 7 of this year’s Fringe catalogue, which is all about accessibility. It’s the first time I’ve seen this focus at the fest, and it extends throughout the guide. Now you can see icons at a glance for every listed show telling you if the event is wheelchair-accessible or offers ASL interpretation, audio description, open captioning, or a relaxed performance.

I got in touch with Fringe spokesperson Claire Frisbee for info on how this came together. She says FringeArts knows that accessibility “means different things for different people” and wanted to make it easy as possible to spot that info—and highlight the artists taking extra steps to make their shows more welcoming to all.

Are those shows accompanied by a wheelchair icon really accessible? Yes, Frisbee says. A combination of “extensive” surveys of artists and venues and follow-up from the FringeArts team ensures that if a venue is listed as wheelchair-accessible, this doesn’t just mean it’s a ground-floor space. There are wide doorways and accessible restrooms. Not all wheelchair-accessible venues are fully ADA-compliant, but those with limits are noted in the ticketing info for each show.

It’s a move in the right direction for the Philly arts scene.

Meet the FestiFund

Another new feature of the guide is a bit buried, but worth noting. All the way on page 100, you’ll find info on the new Independent Artist FestiFund. Fringe Festival coordinator April Rose has more.

“One of my main goals coming into coordinating the festival was to find ways to make participating more accessible,” she says. This includes the aforementioned accessibility boosts, but also an expansion of funding for participating artists, who can face steep costs for everything from venues to actors to insurance.

Day by day, every day. We’re here to help during the Fringe. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)
Day by day, every day. We’re here to help during the Fringe. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

FringeArts can’t tip the scales itself with funding for independent artists, Rose explains. But the FestiFund (Rose’s brainchild) is a project of CultureTrust Greater Philadelphia, with some seed funding from Figure 5, QLab, and individual donors. This year’s FestiFund will benefit five works by independent Fringe artists: Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Period House, Staci Schwartz’s Billy the Baaadly Behaving Bully Goat: The Musical, Leah Stein’s Close to Home, Marissa Kennedy’s Out of the Shadows, and Tara Lake’s I Know It Was the Blood: The Totally True Adventures of a Newfangled Black Woman.

How were the recipients of these “meaningful microgrants” chosen? An independent selection committee (including FringeArts volunteers, community members, and local arts leaders not involved in the fest) considered application surveys scrubbed of names and identifiers, Rose says, with selection criteria “based on intention for use of funds and the project’s intended impact on its audience/community.” Donations are welcome right up till the start of the fest.

Is it enough?

Still, offering a microgrant to five independent artists out of more than 170 involved in the fest is hardly a sea change for making the festival more accessible to cash-strapped creators. But for now, other local artists are stepping in with Free Fringe, running the same dates as the established festival: September 5 through 22.

The Free Fringe founders (whom you can hear on this BSR podcast episode) were frustrated with the high costs for participating artists, the struggle of standing out in the busy FringeArts guide, and prices that feel less and less fringe-y. Tickets for most curated Fringe shows will run you $35 to $60 each (with discounts for members, students, and patrons under 25). In this year’s independent fest, there are some free shows, but most tickets fall in the $10 to $25 range—though the new Gunnar Montana will run you $45. (JUNK’s new show, Skein of Heart, costs up to $35, but it’s partnering with Free Fringe to offer 10 free tickets each night.)

Free Fringe, with its own zine guide, is what it sounds like: free for participating artists and free for audiences (who can, of course, donate if moved). Peruse the lineup and look out for the BSR preview.

Before you start

The Philly Fringe continues to evolve and explore. This year’s guide further embraces the trend of interdisciplinary and non-theater work emerging over the last several years, including dedicated sections for comedy and improv, music, dance, visual art and film, and the returning Digital Fringe (keep an eye out for our preview). And in a welcome change, this year’s guide isn’t organized by neighborhood, but by genre, letting you more easily find the stuff you’re interested in instead of scouting by location.

One more hot tip: while we’re talking about different kinds of access to the Fringe, don’t forget to do your part for the art. Kyle V. Hiller is writing about how theater had him in way over his head, and he has a great suggestion for you, come Fringe time.

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