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Mission, Money, Moxie & Muse -- FringeU Panels Swim Theatre's Deep Ocean of Issues

What role does New York's alternative theatre scene of 30 years past play in the development of new theatrical innovations? Should a theatre company be forced to compromise its original artistic statement for the sake of breaking the bank, and if so, when? Is securing the perfect location for a theatre production truly the most important element for satisfactory artistic presentation? What does the future hold as the alternative theatre scene enters the 21st century? These questions and many more were addressed by a diverse team of theatre professionals and performing artists as part of FringeU, in four different panel discussions at the Henry Street Settlement from Aug. 20-27.

FringeU is an academic extension of the New York International Fringe Festival (also known as FringeNYC), whose primary purpose has for two years been the coalition of alternative theatre artists and productions from the United States and abroad. Since 1997, The Present Company has served as producer of the festival, which hosts several dozen productions from every continent in such Lower East Side performance spaces as Surf Reality, Nada, The Kraine, and House of Candles. A series of afternoon lectures, panel discussions, and workshops, FringeU refers to itself as "the thinking-and-talking component of FringeNYC". According to Jennifer Carroll, who founded the program in 1997 as part of the first FringeNYC, and this year served as FringeU's assistant coordinator, "FringeU events express a vision of an invincible theatre community, an unstoppable cultural force. Community in this sense is defined as a group of people that share a unity of purpose. We want to create captivating, well-attended productions that reflect individual artistic integrity. By looking to ourselves for new ideas, possible changes, and fresh perspectives, we strengthen ourselves and our craft and further a thriving, vital word-theatre."

The nine-day-long series of panel discussions was coordinated by actor/director Joe Weston, who also co-moderated with playwright/director Shawn Nacol and Donna E. Brady, the executive director and president of Performing Arts Resources, Inc. (PAR), a prominent nonprofit problem-solving-and-networking resource for companies and individuals in the performing arts.

Three Decades of "Fringe"

The series officially opened with "Roots: 30 Years of Alternative Theatre in NYC," featuring speakers Judith Malina (founder, The Living Theatre), Richard Foreman (founder, Ontological Hysterical Theatre), and Lola Pashalinski (founding member, Ridiculous Theatre Company), as well as Diane Paulus, director of the Project 400 Theatre Group and co-artistic director of FringeNYC.

They were asked to explain their initial artistic missions. "We've always used the theatre to advance the nonviolent economic revolution," Malina told the assembled crowd, largely comprised of FringeNYC artists. "It's more fun to make revolutionary theatre in prerevolutionary times." She and late husband/Living Theatre cofounder Julian Beck started a tradition of presenting street theatre in Times Square to protest worldwide violence.

Pashalinski spoke warmly of such alternative theatre pioneers as Charles Ludlam and Ronald Tavel before explaining the Ridiculous Theatre Company's consistent goal, "to break down the sexual stereotypes so prevalent in the theatre, and to destroy the notion of the well-written play."

"I'm totally unsatisfied with the world in which I live," Foreman claimed, "so if I don't give rise to a particular artistic vibration inside of me which society chooses not to acknowledge, I suffocate."

Clear differences between the theatre scene of the '60s and that of today were explored. "Don't forget, when we started in the late '40s, there was no Off-Broadway," Malina said with a touch of seeming bitterness. "There was the Provincetown Playhouse and the Hedgerow Theatre, but they were mainstream. All we had was Broadway. The simple fact is, America hates art, and it hurts my heart to say it. 'Intellectual' has become a pejorative word. So, the Living Theatre's community of followers was made up of writers, poets, teachers, dancers, and painters." "In the '60s, Timothy Leary and drugs also thoroughly altered the consciousness," Foreman added, "so much so that suddenly our artistic ideas and visions were encouraged."

All of the panelists consistently touched on the importance of such festivals as FringeNYC, which would have been inconceivable three decades ago.

Selling Out or Buying In?

The question of compromising artistic integrity by presenting work of a low artistic standard which might achieve financial gain or accelerated audience development, was explored in Mon., Aug. 24's "Selling Out: Balancing Money and Mission." The panelists were Susan Bernfield (founder/artistic director, New Georges), Donna Walker-Kuhne (community affairs director, Joseph Papp Public Theatre/New York Shakespeare Festival), Jonathan Ward (drama program/family series director, Henry Street Settlement Abrons Arts Center), and Patricia White (company manager, New Federal Theatre). "The role of an arts adminstrator," Walker-Kuhne said, in a statement which clearly summed up the crux of the discussion, "is to define the line between money and mission. Of course the money is important for any number of reasons, but programming is everything. You can only maintain the balance by building the trust of an audience, and presenting the programs they especially want to see." Ward also pointed out the most important consideration for any arts administrator when balancing money and mission, "the four A's: altruist, artist, administration, and audience."

Additionally, the speakers mentioned the need for continuing to bring innovative presentations to the stage, and reaching younger people to carry on the traditions of today's most respected theatre companies.

What Price Space?

"Space Chase: The Lease of Our Problems" focused on the need to define priorities between the proper performance space and the artistic quality of the work being presented, by speakers Aaron Beall (executive director, Todo Con Nada), Claudia Catania (producer, New Group), David Herskovits (artistic director, Target Margin Theatre), Chris Jenkins (New York area program manager, Nonprofit Facilities Fund), Kristin Marting (HERE, Home for Contemporary Theatre and Art), Michael S. Rosenberg (founding member/managing director, The Drama Dept.), and Martin Russell (artistic director, Fool's Company).

General consensus among the panel was the need for shows that are portable and easily transferable from space to space. A debated subject was whether theatres should own or lease rehearsal and production facilities. The strategy for negotiating an engagement quickly, was also covered. "If your show is truly portable‹say a one-person show with just a couple of props‹and you find exactly the space you want but can't afford the asking price," Catania suggested, "you might propose half the cost with the understanding that your show can open a very short time later." Marting echoed that statement, explaining that a space like HERE is often faced with the difficulty of having one of their performance spaces go dark for an evening due to last-minute cancellations. And the idea of transferring theatrical productions to cabaret spaces was discussed.

A Creative Future?

"Future of the Form: Performance at the Millenium," defined theatre at the end of the 20th century. Panelists Julia Barclay (former artistic director, Monkey Wrench Theatre), Linda Earle (theatre program director, New York State Council for the Arts), Richard Maxwell (founder/director, Cook County Theatre Department, Chicago), Robert Mrozek (director, theatre project), and Treva Offutt (education/outreach coordinator, The Kitchen), explored a variety of angles.

Barclay specifically requested that any of her statements be tempered with a quote from Pina Bausch: "When it comes to making a piece, there's nothing you can hold on to. You start off again with nothing. In this respect, one never learns anything." All agreed that the most crucial element missing in today's theatre world is the ability to love the creative process. Also, in discussing the role of the entertainment press towards development of the performing arts in the New Millenium, the panel focused on the difference between critic and reviewer.

Additional panel discussions included "Artist as Mirror: Looking Through the Lens of an International Perspective;" "Going Back: The Americanization of Brecht;" "Gigabyte Theatre: New Media, New Art? Exploring Usage and Impact of Technology;" "Future of the Fringe: Now What?"and "Working Towards a New Children's Theatre."

For more information about FringeU or FringeNYC, call The Present Company at (212) 420-8877.

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