Banish those terrifying images of shivering, starving theatre artists from your mind. Well, at least those that involve shivering, for while Frigid New York is the chilling name for the festival of 30 hourlong works being presented by Horse Trade Theater Group over two weeks in February and March, the work is hot.
"A couple of summers ago," explains Horse Trade co-founder and managing director Erez Ziv, "a woman named Christina Augello walked into the Red Room," one of two performance spaces he manages on East 4th Street (the other is Under St. Marks, only a few blocks away). Augello, who has been the artistic director of San Francisco's Exit Theatre for nearly 25 years, produces that city's annual fringe festival, "and she was renting the Red Room for a show she wanted to do in the city while she was here," Ziv recalls. "So we started talking about how they run their fringe festival there, and it sounded like a wonderful, friendly idea."
By adhering to guidelines established by the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals (CAFF)—in short, there's no adjudication—the San Francisco Fringe Festival boasts a freewheeling spirit. And Ziv realized that a similar effort probably ought to be presented in New York City. Today, not only is the three-year-old Frigid festival "open and uncensored," but it is, he says, "the only New York festival in which the artists keep 100 percent of the box office receipts."
Not only is that a great deal for theatre artists, but, Ziv notes, it's similarly favorable for Horse Trade, which is that rare bird: a commercial Off-Off-Broadway organization. "We get to put up 30 new works by artists in two weeks and three theatres, and it doesn't cost us anything," he says. "It doesn't cost artists very much either—and that's a lot of new art to spring on the world in one shot." In exchange for retaining all box office receipts, artists pay a $30 application fee and a participation fee of $500 to $800, depending on the venue. "If the show is produced by New York–based artists," Ziv adds, "they get five performances; if they're coming from out of town, they get six. All in all, they should be able to pay their expenses back and potentially could make a decent amount of money if they do well enough."
And Horse Trade, Ziv emphasizes, "doesn't curate this festival at all. That's what uncensored means. You get in based on a combination of first-come, first-served and sort of pulling names out of a hat. That's part of the criteria for being a member of CAFF." By presenting the Frigid festival before most other fringe festivals get underway, "we become the first stop on the North American fringe circuit."
Horse Trade, which hosts dozens of Off-Off-Broadway productions during the rest of the year, is operated by a small staff—largely Ziv and Producing Director Morgan Lindsey Tachco, "and it would be impossible to run without her," he says. It's an important comment because Ziv's graciousness is obvious when you meet him, and it may in part result from the fact that he never intended to go into the theatre. "I grew up in Israel until I was 11, then I moved to Minnesota," he explains. "I got a B.A. in Jewish history and philosophy from the University of Minnesota and then traveled Europe for six months. Then my mother got a job as a librarian at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and I went there to get a master's in medieval Jewish theology. I became a carriage driver in Central Park too—which is how the Horse Trade name comes in. One of the other carriage drivers was a theatre guy, and I was getting bored looking at horses' asses every night." When a chance arose for Ziv to gallop, if you will, from horses to Horse Trade, he invested some money and plunged right in.
That was October 1998. And while Ziv has learned the business, he gives the distinct impression of being highly committed to ambitious experiments. Yet he says he probably wouldn't have embarked upon Frigid New York had the CAFF members he met through Augello and other industry colleagues not been generous with their ideas and support. And anyway, he half jokes, "if not making money was a problem, I'd have gotten a different job a long time ago."
CAFF, he goes on, "is a really wonderful little organization. When we began to put together the festival two years ago, we announced it in November and had it up by February. That would have been impossible without the guidance of the CAFF people, who have done this sort of thing for the past two to 25 years. CAFF meets once a year—a three-day meeting in which we trade tricks and secrets. There's a lot of 'Hey, we tried this last year and it worked really well' and 'Hey, we tried this two years ago and it didn't work at all.' These people are everything you'd want theatre people to be—and generally are not."
A look at the lineup of this year's festival underscores its egalitarian spirit. While careful not to be partial to one show, Ziv cites the self-explanatory American Badass (or 12 Characters in Search of a National Identity) and Subway Series, an improvisational work derived from the stories of the morning commutes of five random New Yorkers. Ziv sees every festival production and lends a hand when needed.
As for the rest of the 30 shows, you have to admire some of the descriptions being used to lure audiences. Here's some information, for example, on the Nonsense Company's Great Hymn of Thanksgiving/Conversation Storm: "Around a dinner table, three actor-musicians sing, pray, beat forks, deliver the news, and snap between scenes in midsentence in this brutal but timely deconstruction of War-on-Terror-speak…. Torture, ticking time bombs, faux–Middle Eastern folk tales, broken clocks, unreliable waiters."
And then there's Tracey Erin Smith's Two in the Bush!: "A female rabbinical student teams up with exotic dancers, taking their show on the road to seniors' homes." (It is also one of several Frigid New York shows that ran in last year's New York International Fringe Festival, which favors an adjudication process.)
And then there are some titles seemingly designed to keep you wide awake—and warm—at night: Speedo & the Straight Man, Rebel Without a Niche, and the attractive-sounding Thanks for the Scabies, Jerkface! The kind of theatre, in other words, that'll make you melt.
Frigid New York runs Feb. 27– March 9 at the Kraine Theater, the Red Room, and Under St. Marks. For tickets, call (212) 868-4444 or visit www.frigidnewyork.info or www.smarttix.com.