Out on the Fringe – An Intimate Portrait of the Hollywood Fringe Festival

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The Hollywood Fringe Festival, the premier gathering responsible for uniting theatre companies, performers and civilians, in celebration of live theatre, kicks off on June 12 through the 29th here in Hollywood. And with the lofty goal to challenge the limitations and conventions that people set for themselves through the use of performance art in a festival setting, it’s no wonder Festival Director Ben Hill has little time to rest.

“Fundamentally, we have 280 different theater companies each pursuing their own vision, so we have to set up an environment where they are offered tools for success,” he says during our interview. And with nearly 300 scheduled shows, 1,423 performances, 45 participating venues, and upwards of 35000 tickets sold, the Hollywood Fringe Festival is the place where success is truly made.

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“The artists really use Fringe as an opportunity to hone their craft in an environment that doesn’t cost $250,000 to stage a show,” he says. “And as a result, they’ve gained the valuable experience of overseeing every aspect of what it takes to produce a piece of theatre, including everything from marketing to maintaining a press list to dealing with patrons and production costs.”

And with upwards of 35000 tickets sold, it’s not only the experience the artists are getting. They’re also making money. “We’ve returned $163,000 back to the artists, which is 100% of the tickets sold. And that doesn’t even represent every ticket sold because sometimes they’re purchased at the individual venues,” he comments. “But we sold upwards of $163,000 through the website, the mobile apps and the centrally located box office, and all of that money went to the artists.”

Yes, with such huge gains for the artists, it certainly does seem like the most viable option for content creators. But what Ben and his staff are out to create stretches far beyond the artists, impacting the community as a whole.

On the Fringe of a Great Idea

The Fringe Festival really started as a movement, and came out of necessity as a response to the discrimination eight performance groups faced when denied inclusion into the 1947 Edinburgh International Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. And since then, the festival has continued to provide artists with direct access to discovering something about their craft, as well as providing patrons with direct access to discovering new possibilities, having challenged their point of view and fixed ways of being.

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Since its inception in Edinburgh, Scotland, Fringe Festivals have sprung up all over the world, particularly in Europe where Ben first fell in love with the idea, bringing it to Los Angeles in 2010 along with his partner Stacy Jones Hill, Communications Director for the Hollywood Fringe Festival. “When we moved here about eight years ago, we looked around and saw a bunch of shows and fantastic theaters, and many very enthusiastic, underrepresented theater-makers and makers of dance, cabaret and burlesque,” he recalls. “And we saw an opportunity to take what we knew about Fringe festivals and combine that with what we knew about the local art scene. And we planned for about two and a half years before launching.”

And with the first launch came a slow burn of a response. They didn’t have many shows scheduled, and the audience wasn’t the size it is today as people didn’t really know what to make of them or how to approach the Fringe Festival experience. “So we started out in small venues. And we were thrilled if someone got 25 or 30 people in a house with all of the few hundred performances we had,” he comments. “But today, that number is steadily growing, and more houses are selling out.”

And it’s not just the audience that’s growing, but the amount of venues looking to do business with Ben and his team is swiftly expanding as well. The first few quarters of their first year in business, they focused on recruiting venues, strategizing their sales pitch around what would make a real difference in the revenue and exposure of said businesses. “We went in and said, ‘Look, we’re producing a festival, and it’s going to be huge,’” he comments. “And from a financial perspective we were giving venues a boost not only from the rent they collected from all the participants using their space, but a boost in creating contacts for potential bookings all year round.”

It was a win/win situation for both entities. Venues rent out their space to one or two organizations over the course of a few weeks, which is a typical booking for a theatrical show. But in the case of the Hollywood Fringe Festival, they could rent to several different shows a day, divided into smaller slots. And that’s a win for the venue because they stand to make considerably more money. “But it’s also great from our perspective because participants don’t have to pay nearly as much for access to the space, so it’s a win/win/win for the festival, the artists and the venues,” he says. “And you’re dealing with up to 75 bookings for one resident theater as apposed to just one booking. So the more venues we have, the better the experience for the patrons and a better festival for everybody.”

That first year, they started out with around 30 venues, just 4 years later, that number has increased to 45. And the increase has also added value to the audience experience in terms of the cost to them as well. With venues keeping their rents low, unwilling to price themselves out of the market, it allows for lower production costs for the artists and lower ticket prices for the patrons. So everyone benefits without having to give anything up.

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But the biggest benefit really belongs to the artists.

Visions Fulfilled

Through their participation in The Hollywood Fringe Festival, participants are provided with not only affordable rates on venues, but also with group marketing efforts via festival promotion through channels like billboard, radio and print ads. And then there’s the international appeal of the Fringe Festival brand, well known by millions of people familiar with the Fringe experience in places like Canada, New York, Australia and the United Kingdom.

“What we really love is to see an artist who has never performed before, but they have a really interesting story and they share that on stage, and people are blown away,” he confesses. “And over the course of the festival, after they’ve had five or six performances, the house gets bigger and bigger until the last show that’s totally sold out. And that person is like a celebrity. That’s the impact.” And part of the reason it’s even possible for such a scenario to occur is due to Fringe’s policy on censorship. Basically, there is none. Artists are required to create from the most authentic place possible, and that’s not possible where constraint is present.

“The artist’s vision if often burdened by grumpy old men in the board room,” he says, “and while the artist’s vision is significantly powerful, it still gets diminished. The benefit of Fringe and theater in general is that you see art in the raw. You see the art as it was intended by the visionary behind it as apposed to after it’s gone through a million rounds of edits and censorship.” And as a result, the audience is allowed to really experience authentic connection.

“We actually tell patrons to see shows that seem safe or that they would normally see and have that as their base- but to also see shows that will challenge them and their comfort zones,” he says. “You might surprise yourself because the thing that theater does best is it makes you question your fears. And it’s because of the immediacy that there are people right in front of you that theatre has the power to directly change you more than any other medium.”

The World Unleashed

Yes, theater may take place on a stage, but it’s reach and impact is certainly not limited to that. And this is something that Ben Hill and his staff are a stand for, and commit to fulfilling on with every festival they produce. The goal of The Hollywood Fringe Festival is for this work to make a significant difference in what people all over the world are dealing with and what they care about.

And in Los Angeles specifically, the more fine-tuned goal is to create community. “We know the power and the bond that people who work in performing arts have for one another. But we’re in Los Angeles, and Los Angeles is difficult because we are so geographically all over the place,” he says. “And because of that, it’s difficult to create a sense of community within the performing arts. So for one month of the year, we give the performing arts a place where people can gather and celebrate as a community.”

And as communities unite in celebration, they begin to grow and evolve, and little by little, so does the world.

For more information on the Hollywood Fringe Festival, please visit: http://www.hollywoodfringe.org/