Living on the Fringe: Chicago Fringe Festival 2011

fringe festival
Photo Credit: Deogracias Lerma

The year is 1947. Countries are recovering from our second World War. While political tensions are still high, civilians are eager to promote peace and unity after such major civil unrest. These are the conditions that surrounded the inaugural year of the Edinburgh International Festival. The festival focused mainly on classical work in music, theatre, opera and dance. They declined admission to many applicants, including eight theatre companies from the local area. In this postwar spirit of inclusion and acceptance, these rejected companies decided to perform their theatre anyway in the surrounding public spaces, hoping to gain an audience from those already headed to the festival. Their work was alternative both in content and in production, and was embraced by the general public. The groups were commended for creating theatre regardless of restrictions or rules.

The following year this alternative festival became an official event called the Fringe Festival, after a journalist quoted their project as something “Round the fringe of official festival drama.” By 1981, Fringe had grown to 494 performing groups, making it the largest theatrical festival in the world. This sparked a worldwide movement and Fringe festivals began developing everywhere including cities, colleges and small communities. Today, there is a national Fringe Festival network, uniting Fringes all over the globe.

Given our rich artistic history and culture, it seems natural that Chicago would have its own Fringe festival. Think again. It wasn’t until recently that anyone had the brains or courage to put one together. Sarah Mikayla Brown began visiting Fringe Festivals with her group “The Tantalus Players” back in 2008. She loved the Fringe experience and was shocked to discover that Chicago wasn’t part of it. After months of planning and hard work, the first Chicago Fringe Festival was launched in 2010. It drew a crowd of over 2,500 unique patrons, wrangled 200 volunteers to keep it running smoothly, and produced enough revenue to return $30,000 to performers.

Going into their second year, CFF continues to be a fantastic example of the same ideals held by the original Fringe. The 2011 event will consist of 50 different hour-long productions by not only local companies, but also national groups and a few even from out of the country. CFF prides itself on showcasing acts that take bold risks. “These may be formal risks,” Marketing Director Tim Mullhaney explains, “like the way in which they present their theatrical material.”

He referenced one group’s project of remaking of a 1960’s zombie movie performed as a puppet show as an example. They may be content risks that are controversial or untraditional, “for someone to bring themselves to the stage, share their own stories theatrically, bear their experiences,” Mullhaney says.

The productions featured are chosen by lottery with spaces reserved for various styles and subjects to ensure a diverse performance set. You can find a dance piece reflecting the lives of people living near the Berlin Wall, an all African-American and highly physicalized adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello, and a play based on the true stories of Chicago homeless women as they undergo a beauty treatment — all in one day.

Performances will once again take place in the Pilsen neighborhood. “Keeping with the spirit of Fringe, we want to hold the festivals in areas that are also on the fringe,” Mullhaney says. “We want areas off the beaten path.” CFF chose Pilsen for their second year in a row because it’s an artistically vibrant place with a tradition of public art, numerous art galleries and rich cuisine culture. Although they plan to rotate neighborhoods each year, they hope that by remaining in the area for another year, they will develop a core audience for their young project. CFF is also very money conscious because they want to make their art available to anyone who wants to enjoy it. Their admission prices are extremely reasonable for the quality of work they are producing.

The theme this year is “On the Map, Under the Radar” which means CFF is finally part of the greater Fringe Organization, but it’s still under the radar of mainstream Chicago theatre. Although they are a part of a much greater community now, they are still relatively unknown, allowing them to remain diverse in terms of the productions they choose.

With such a successful first year, CFF hopes to continue building a core audience in Pilsen as well as building a reputation in Chicago of producing unique art. They’ve already been able to expand with the festival lasting a longer time span, increased number of performance groups, the creation of a mobile app and advertisements on the CTA.

The Chicago Fringe Festival has been a monumental addition to the city’s artistic community. Not only has it brought Fringe to Chicago, but it’s also proven that there are always new ideas to be had. If that weren’t enough, it reminds us of the dedication of our city’s artists. CFF is a huge undertaking but it has been met with nothing short of incredible support, praise and excitement.

The Chicago Fringe Festival runs September 1st through the 11th. For information on ticket prices, showtimes and locations, check out the official website here.

Go Ahead. Live on the Fringe.

Jessie Stegner

About Jessie Stegner

Jessie has been living in Chicago since 2007 and loved every minute of it. Her only setback is, due to growing up in Sierra Madre, California, she can't feel her toes between the months of November and June. With a degree in Theatre from the University of Colorado at Boulder and training from Second City and Improv Olympic, Stegner can usually be found on a stage somewhere trying to make people laugh. She enjoys falling asleep to the sound of the El train, drinking Blue Moon, jogging on the lovely streets of Ravenswood, eating Thai food and watching White Sox baseball.

Leave a comment

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *