My (very limited) thoughts on the Chicago Fringe Festival


This past weekend was the first annual Chicago Fringe Festival. Developed by a group of Chicago-based individual artists and producers, it follows the footsteps of theatre fringe festivals in other major cities. This year’s ChiFringeFest featured 46 performance groups that were selected by lottery. These artists performed in six venues around the Pilson neighborhood, centering around Halsted and 18th street.

I had a desire to attend, but things got in the way this weekend, and I had to cancel my plans to catch a show I wanted to see Saturday night. I finally got my act together and made it down Sunday afternoon to see Inner Cartography, a dance work about neuroscience and learning of the brain by local choreographer Megan Rhyme. (My thoughts on that show in a forthcoming blog).

So, my thoughts on ChiFringe (based on one show and one venue):

The awesome:

  • The entire concept. I love the idea of showcasing new talent and allowing creative new voices an opportunity to put their work before an eager audience.
  • The volunteers. Everyone who works at the festival is an unpaid volunteer. Based on my one experience Sunday, the volunteers were all professional and friendly and they wore shirts and name tags that clearly identified who they were. They all seemed to know what was going on, which was nice. So, bravo/a to them!
  • Support and respect. There were a surprising number of people at the theatre yesterday afternoon to see this experimental dance piece. And other artists from other shows were on hand to not only promote their show, but support the other artists’ shows. Ms. Rhyme gave a nice speech following her performance, urging us to see the many other shows playing that evening.
  • The running time for each show. With a maximum running time of an hour, it’s perfect if the show isn’t your style. You don’t feel overwhelmed or trapped. It also gives you the opportunity to see a few things in one day.

The not so awesome:

  • The location. I understand the Chicago Fringe Festival’s goal is to feature neighborhoods that might not typically be represented, but getting to Pilson is a major chore (and a time commitment for us northern Chicago folk), and the surrounding areas are really sketch. Let’s hope they choose a more accessible location next year.
  • Promotion. I’d heard about the fringe festival mostly through twitter. I don’t know if I would have learned about it otherwise. Many of my friends hadn’t heard about it — even ones who attend the theatre on a semi-regular basis. So next year they really need to focus on getting the word out — beyond the inner circle of Chicago theatre folks.
  • And, by far, my biggest gripe: the seats. On my goodness. The venue (Adelaide stage) had “benches” constructed out of a single two-by-four strapped to a pair of cinder blocks. It was positively medieval.

Thankfully, the not-so-awesomes are easily correctable (well, maybe the promotion part will require some effort). I’ll make it a point next year to make a weekend of the 2011 Chicago Fringe Festival. You should, too.

13 thoughts on “My (very limited) thoughts on the Chicago Fringe Festival

  1. I agree that getting to Pilsen is a chore, but during the day the parts to the north, west and east of the venues are just as sketchy as parts of the North Side.

    That being said, is a problem possibly that neighborhoods lacking in theaters are that way because of the lack of mass transit?

    1. You bring up a good point, CS, and I’m not sure I’m really equipped to provide an answer to that. But it would make sense.

  2. Every ‘hood in Chicago has sketchy bits. Like I would in Pilsen, I watch my back when I’m seeing shows in Rogers Park (after seeing purses snatched and having friends get mugged while waiting for Red Line trains.) I think you guys are on to something… starting a theatre company in an area that lacks in mass transit will cost you audience members. I’d love to say I’ll go anywhere for theatre, but yeah – I’d be lying. It’ll be a long time before I take the endless bus down to Pilsen only to have to take a cab home versus wait by myself out there for a bus. My sense of self-preservation is really high. :)

    1. I saw a show at Dream Theatre not too long ago in Pilson, and I made the mistake of walking back to the Cermak/China Town stop at 10 at night. Yeah. Never again. Long stretches of unlit streets by empty warehouses and no people ANYWHERE.

  3. As another frequent transit user I point out that while it takes some bus usage, the roosevelt stop was just fine for my travelling home at all hours even though we all know the red line isn’t desirable after midnight. The halted bus took me to and from boystown in an average forty minutes, much less than I had expected, and less time than my trips to theaters in the burbs. Remember though that not all theatre goers are on the northside; the neighborhood was as full of life as ever with fringe there and looks forward to next year if they can get a repeat in! Sometimes it takes a little work but I for one thought the trek was worth it!

    1. “Not all theatre goers are on the Northside” Correct! Pilsen is a beautiful thriving arts community that benefited greatly from the Fringe Festival, also many Chicago natives who were too “nervous” to go to Pilsen before were able to see the great artistic area that exists around the Fringe Venues. Wherever the Fringe is next year, if it moves or stays in the same neighborhood, it is going to be hard for some Chicagoians to get to. Chicago is huge, and full of beautiful, small , lively spots like the streach of Halsted used for Fringe. I hope we all get to see more of them through the Fringe Festival endeavors. And maybe because of this small look into Pilsen, people will make the “trek” to get there on 2nd Fridays of the month to peruse the local galleries, bakeshops and boutiques that open their doors.

      1. I was surprised to see all the art galleries on Halsted next to the Fringe venue I went to Sunday afternoon. Too bad they were all closed so I couldn’t explore (a mistake on their behalf, I believe). If they have this opportunity to sell themselves through these endeavors, as you say anonymous, why don’t they take advantage of it?

  4. Yes, the wooden benches were not the most comfortable, but I think what everyone is underestimating is the amount of time the Fringe staff had to get the venues together. “Tech and Venue set up” was only a few days long, in 8 venues done by maybe 15 people with a very modest budget that was received from one fundraiser a few weeks (if that) before the beginning of the festival. Thus, with limited funds, human power and time to get into the rented spaces, the bench idea arose. Look up how much it is to rent folding chairs…unthinkable really. I think for a first year, it was a fine way to have the seating issue solved, espcially since they had to be moved in and out in a matter of days. And as you said, with an hour limit to performances, is sitting on a wooden bench really that much of a sacrifice to see a piece of theatre?

    1. Sure — I get what you’re saying, but couldn’t you put TWO two by fours on the cinderblocks? At least? Sitting on a four-inch wide piece of wood was RIDICULOUS. Eight inches I could bare (insert joke here).

      1. Yes, Two 2 X4’s would have been a little more comfortable. A lot of people saw more than 1 show … for example, I saw 2 shows and was a part of the panel discussion on Saturday morning so I spent more than 3 hours using those benches and then another hour on Sunday when I came back to see another show.

        Someone pointed out on Twitter that if the show is good enough, you don’t notice how uncomfortable the seats are. Very true, but my back and neck noticed the following morning.

        A question to the Fringe folks … do you think you could ask fellow Chicago Theatre companies to donate chairs to the Fringe for next year to save on rental costs?

  5. Hey Bob, Rebecca, et al:

    We did have some loaner chairs from Links Hall – about 60. Next year, with more of a rep, perhaps we will be able to forge more relationships with theaters. For the record, I agree about the benches! 2011 will definitely feature more comfy seating. I think we may end up revisiting benches as seating, but they will be much more deluxe and not medieval as Bob would say – which I thought was a fair term! Bob, thanks for this feedback, I find it invaluable.

    – Mikayla

    1. Look — this was your first fringe festival, and from my experience, it was wonderful. The only shitty thing was the chairs — which is easily correctable. If that’s all you have to worry about, then that’s just awesome.

      Keep up the great work. I really look forward to 2011’s festival!!

      Bob

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