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The Philadelphia Fringe Festival is my favorite time of year. For most of September, performers and creators mount shows, happenings, and performances, and the city TURNS OUT (this year’s fest is September 7-24). There’s so much delight in figuring out your Fringe schedule, discovering new artists, and staying up a little too late at a Fringe bar (I like Quig’s, the MAAS garden, or Sutton’s). But even for insiders, it’s a lot to navigate—and a lot is changing! Here’s a look behind the curtain.
Why the hell would you listen to me? I’m a Philly-based performer, comedian, event producer, and clown. I produce a monthly variety show called HELLRIDE. For the last seven years, I have also self-produced and performed many shows, including Nightmare Fuel and Ben Franklin Sex Party (which officially premiered in March 2020 ... and may or may not have caused the pandemic). My new show premieres in this year’s fest—more on that later.
Personally, I feel my most powerful during the Fringe. I see glimpses of my purpose in life: artistic expression, community, curation, and rule-breaking. I’m not the Queen of the Fringe, but I am probably a Fringe lord or a mage, wicked-cool duke, avant-garde necromancer, and therefore a SOURCE for you to trust in.
The Fringe Festival has expanded rapidly in recent years: in addition to big-time curated shows presented by FringeArts, we have more than 300 productions in the Independent Festival Hubs, including Cannonball, Crossroads Comedy, and Circus Campus Presents. And don’t forget the Late Night Snacks cabaret. Yes, dear reader, within this one niche-ass festival, there’s a shifting landscape and a huge diversity of experiences, not just for the audience but for the artist.
History on the fringes
In case you’re new here, a Fringe Festival is defined by avant-garde live performances across a city in lots of non-traditional spaces outside of the conventional theater season. And what started in Edinburgh in 1947 is now a worldwide phenomenon. These festivals have grown to include all performances, including digital work. There can be festivals within festivals in each city's fringe, and there’s even a fringe circuit where performers can travel around the whole world with their show throughout the year.
The Philadelphia Fringe Festival (now FringeArts) launched in 1997 and ran our Fringe on its own for, like, forever. Nightmare Fuel, my first self-produced show, traveled through festivals in Edinburgh and Cincinnati (brag: where it won the Spirit of the Fringe Award) before my homecoming to the Philly Fringe in 2018.
At that time, FringeArts had a monopoly on the Philly Fringe, leaving creators to meet whatever requirements and fees it laid out or not participate at all. In 2018, that was $350 for registration, plus venue, insurance, and show costs. Even with the DIY nature of my show and minimal expenses (no additional performers, no designers, no set), I barely broke even. Because of the costs, many artists’ works never even see the light of day.
Dawn of the Free Fringe
In 2019, a gaggle of clowns (Betty Smithsonian, Chris Davis, Katherine Perry, and I) cofounded Free Fringe Philly. The Free Fringe ran concurrently with the existing Philly Fringe but without the gatekeeping, curation, and increasingly pricey tickets. Our goal was to make Fringe accessible to everyone. And it was a success! Businesses, bars, designers, and performers donated their spaces and skills. Producers could choose to join both the Fringe and the Free Fringe if they offered a few free or pay-what-you-can tickets. We used the existing Fringe hype to market everyone’s shows.
That year, I presented an early version of Ben Franklin Sex Party only in the Free Fringe. The venue was donated, and the show was pay-what-you-can. It sold out and made a bigger profit than it would have through the traditional festival. Show costs aside, I think the model works because it lowers the barriers to attending. Ticket prices aren’t standing in the way, which allows for lower stakes and easier buy-in for crowds. And in my experience, audiences are inclined to give more in this model because they are helping the artist directly. Some people are broke, and others might give $50. Both should be able to see the show. Somehow, it balances out.
In the last few years, venues with specific programming, called hubs, started popping up within the FringeArts umbrella. The scene expanded from “curated” and “independent artists'' to festivals-within-the-festival—most notably Cannonball, which launched in 2021 with Almanac Dance Circus Theatre with a mission to “disrupt traditional arts models by centering artist-to-artist relationships, pooling and channeling resources to these artists, and building a sustainable arts ecosystem from the ground up.”
This year, it seems that the Cannonball Festival is attempting to transform from hub to Fringe Central, with four venues in Kensington and Northern Liberties. It looks to me like it’s taking on the roles of Fringe Festival curator and out-of-town artist coordinator, while FringeArts has reduced its work to providing the festival guide and recommending shows that are local favorites of the artistic director. (Both FringeArts and Cannonball declined to answer questions, or they pointed me in the direction of their bare-bones FAQs, so I’m going to go off the vibes).
Cannonball has a lot to offer, like space, tech, and light marketing. It provides an opening for out-of-town artists and some financial support to selected applicants, but it potentially costs more than FringeArts ever charged. There are two financial tracks for most participating artists: a refundable “co-presentation” deposit of $300 and then a share of the proceeds or a “buy-in” track, which requires paying a flat fee upfront ($325 to $2750 depending on venue and number of performances) and keeping all proceeds.
The new FringeArts?
At this point, it feels to me like every self-producing Philly artist I know is as beholden to Cannonball as they once were to FringeArts. That might be due to pandemic exhaustion, confusion over what venues still exist, or an easing of the load on marketing and production elements (benefits not offered by other Philly festivals).
I know lots of artists who love Cannonball—built-in audiences going show-to-show, networking at the bar, and no headache around show-running. While these are huge selling points, Cannonball seems to have accepted everyone, and, with a huge number of shows, I predict artistic limitations to make the hub work logistically. Will it be able to support each of these artists? Is it expanding too fast? (Six hundred performances this year? Wild.) While expansion can be great, I hope artists in that festival get what they want from it.
I think the scale of the Cannonball Fest is rad, but it’s not what I need this year. I'm a very particular artist, which is either to my detriment or extremely punk rock. I could not bend myself to meet the organization's limitations: disparate show dates and times, minimal load-in time, and little to no say in what's happening around the show. As a creator and producer, I obsess about the audience's experience from the moment they approach the venue.
Imagine, if you dare
The Fringe features the wildest shows. Imagine, if you fucking dare, a clown piece with live electronic music, IUD puppetry, Brandon Boyd from Incubus regretting his breakup, and fake balloon boobs. Does that compel you? Does that even exist? Yes. It’s my new show, Sarah Knittel/Marina Abramović, a sloppy, sexy clown autopsy about the agony of starting over—part therapy, part stand-up, and full performance-art wet dream.
I performed a zygote of the show to a sold-out crowd at Case Comedy in January and workshopped it further in Cannonball's Miniball, a spring festival of early work from some of the artists planning to premiere in September. I planned to be co-presented by Cannonball in this year’s Fringe, but I quickly realized it wasn't going to work for me: I need control over the set, lights, pre-show music, and housekeeping announcements. So I broke off and found my own venue. The show will be part of both the Philly Fringe and the Free Fringe.
What did we learn?
Philly is a unique, amazing city for art, and our Fringe is truly its own special happening. Regardless of all this mishegas, Philly loves Philly and will support Philly artists. That feels rare in a Fringe. It’s not about Team Cannonball or Team FringeArts or the glory of the Free Fringe … it’s the fact that SO MANY PEOPLE are making new work here. Organizations and citizens of Philadelphia, we must do everything in our power to support artists and remove barriers to sharing art. Is that pooling resources? Is it a Captain Planet invocation situation? Should we have more hubs and festivals?
I am interested to see how the Fringe’s tectonic plates will shift over the coming years, but for now, for the love of Gritty, Party Steve, Walmart Pier, and the rest of Philly deities, go see a Fringe show! Share your favorite performers with friends and strangers! It’s the best thing you could do for us.
Find a searchable lineup of the full 2023 Philly Fringe at phillyfringe.org.
At top: Sarah Knittel’s first self-produced show, Nightmare Fuel, had its Philly Fringe debut in 2018. (Photo by John C. Hawthorne.)
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