Peter Sellars, the newly appointed director of the L.A. Festival, made his position on the Fringe Festival crystal clear in a Sept. 26 press conference: Not only is it no longer to be known as the "Fringe" (a new name is pending, apparently), but it is going to be incorporated into the main festival. Sellars wants both festivals to be "part of the same mix." Why? "I don't think it's the fringe."
Since Sellars was out of town for virtually the entire festival month preparing two operatic premieres, he didn't have much of a chance to catch the Fringe. This is what he missed:
--An explosion of Equity-Waiver productions (182, according to the festival's estimates) that released too many goods in too many theaters with too few patrons.
--The instant appearance of untalented unknowns who needed only to put up the Fringe entry fee ($100 to $250, depending on a company's annual budget) to be let in. In several cases, the fee was dropped, lending new meaning to the phrase Waiver Theater.
--A frantic mentality that compelled theater groups to join in, which is to say that if they didn't, they didn't really count. Evidence? Look at the number of productions listed in the Fringe catalogue that never put on a show.
--An embarrassing poverty of creative ideas when compared to the riches of the L.A. Festival. Who could look at the '60s rehash of "Feast of Illusions" after what the Wooster Group wrought?
--A let's-be-like-Europe mindset, from the name itself (recalling the Edinburgh Fringe) to even the banner graphic style (a popular German typeface).
No matter how much the L.A. version tried to ape Edinburgh, one couldn't get away from the fact that Percy Mtwa's "Bopha!", part of our big festival, was an award-winner at the Edinburgh Fringe a few years ago. You can still be called "fringe" and still be about quality.
But that takes years (Edinburgh's Fringe just had its 40th birthday). Bringing in Theatre Rhinoceros' "Pulp and Circumstance" from San Francisco as part of the gay-oriented Purple Stages lineup was smart. Arranging for the Latino Ensemble and Purple Stages to collaborate, and on an Arrabal play ("Garden of Delights"), bode well for the future, even if the particular show did not.
Outside of the occasional surprise like the Reduced Shakespeare Company or the Ensemble Studio Theatre's look at southeast L.A. in "S.E.L.A.", the home-grown harvest was typically huge and unnutritious. Sellars' takeover bid is doubtlessly not hostile, but it's anybody's guess what it is that he's taking over.