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Chicago Fringe Festival is On the Map, Under the Radar

Susan Du

Gabe Garza and Sarah Scanlon of The Mammals

Great white whales, peg-legged feminists, puppeteers, acrobats, necromancers and other ragamuffin creatures that inhabit the “fringe” of urban theater will congregate in Pilsen on Sept. 1 to 11. Acts listed on the program include avant- garde dancing, haphazard tumbling and some bizarre drama best experienced under the influence of a light buzz.

Chicago’s Fringe Festival has only been around for two years, but it’s already racking up a reputation for madness. Devoted to showcasing performers deemed too edgy for mainstream theater, it attracts professional and amateur artists from Chicago and out of town. The artists then use the festival as an opportunity to test experimental pieces on audience members and promote their brands.

This year’s theme is “On the Map, Under the Radar”, which expresses the rebellious nature of the festival’s guerilla roots, said Timothy Mullaney, Fringe Fest marketing director.

“It’s the spirit of fringe fests everywhere I think,” Mullaney said. “The festival is subversive in that it’s radical, experimental and may deal with subject matter that is controversial.”

History of the fringe fest movement

This spirit of Chicago Fringe Festival is derived from the very first fringe festival, which was held in Edinburgh, Scotland in the summer of 1947. After World War II, the Edinburgh International Festival invited a variety of theater groups to promote peace and reinvigorate European cultural life. This arts festival inspired many other artists working on the “fringe” of traditional theater to get involved as well.

Eight performance groups arrived to participate at the Edinburgh International Festival without an invitation. In the years that followed, other performers picked up the practice and in 1959, the Festival Fringe Society officiated the trend. The re-dubbed Edinburgh Festival Fringe became hugely successful, and other fringe fests emulating it sprung up all over the world.

In November of 2009, four cities including Kansas City, Mo., Minneapolis Indianapolis and Chicago created the Midwest Fringe Circuit, an opportunity for artists to tour fringe fests throughout the summer. It marked the first fringe tour in the U.S. This year, the Circuit will again culminate in Chicago.

Though the fringe movement originated in 1947, this is only the second year Chicago has hosted a fringe fest of its own. Mullaney said fringe fever might have been slow to catch on in Chicago because there is a wealth of other theater forms to compete with.

The winning poster design for Fringe Fest 2011

“I think part of it is an embarrassment of riches,” he said. “[Chicago] is a rich theater town already and people may not see the need for fringe. It’s almost a case of how the more theater there is, the more need there is for artists on the outside to come in and work without some of the pressures of working in established theaters.”

And just as the festival itself is an opportunity for upcoming performers to promote their work, Fringe Fest management explained that keeping the event in Pilsen is consistent with the their commitment to invest in “theatrically under-served neighborhoods.”

Artists and their acts

Fifty performance groups were selected by lottery to perform at Fringe Fest 2011. Local groups include The Harlotry & Necromancy Appreciation Society, The League of Miscreants, Suitcase Shakespeare Company and more.

Each group is allotted 15 minutes to build their set prior to their performance and 15 minutes afterward to strike it. These rapid-fire performances will follow one after the other for the entire duration of the festival, and artists will have only one chance to make an impression.

Bob Fisher, artistic director of The Mammals, one of Chicago’s alternative theater groups, said he hopes their act will be something exciting and exceptional. The Mammals plan to perform an all-female adaptation of “Moby Dick,” a traditionally male centric story.

“If you think of the word ‘fringe’—that which is on the edge or the outskirts—I think The Mammals fits very well with that,” Fisher said. “[The festival] is for people who want to be on the edge, who want to take risks. I try to view our company as risk takers, and in that spirit we definitely fit in the fringe.”

Megan Beseth, executive director of Core Project Chicago, said Fringe Fest is an ideal venue to showcase her group’s mission, to empower communities through art. She said the rampant creativity of Fringe Fest invites artists to inspire each other.

Core Project Chicago is a movement-based dance company that incorporates film, music and visual art into its acts.

Dancers of Core Project Chicago

“The Fringe is super invigorating in terms of being around that much art,” Beseth said. “It helps your own art to a degree and that is definitely beneficial for up and coming companies like us.”

The dance company plans to perform an original show called “Mother Tongue” for Fringe Fest 2011. “Mother Tongue” is a series of acts that explore familial relationships through movement, such as the gestures mothers and daughters make while talking about each other and the literal dueling of rival siblings from one end of the stage to the other.

Fringe Fest 2011 is expected to showcase an eclectic collection of artists that have little in common beside a shared sense of not belonging in mainstream theater.

However, the performers’ very diversity may be a case for unity.

“It’s sort of crazy that there were still so many people that are considered outside the margins, outside the norm,” Mullaney said. “For every one of these artists, it’s kind of what they share. You need an opportunity like the Fringe Festival to play with ideas that are outside the mainstream. We need more fringe festivals in fact so we can have a little more excitement, a little more diversity.”