World's Fringe Festivals Celebrate the Unusual and Experimental

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I'm Faith Lapidus.  And I'm Steve Ember with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. Today we travel to the boundaries of artistic production by visiting fringe festivals around the world. Something that is on the "fringe" means it is on the edge, outside established boundaries. Fringe festivals celebrate all kinds of art in many exciting, unusual and experimental forms.

The roots of these independent festivals are in Scotland. In nineteen forty-seven, eight theater groups showed up uninvited to the first Edinburgh International Festival. Every year, more and more artists came to town during this festival to perform outside, or on the "fringe," of the official festival.

In nineteen fifty-eight, the performers formed a Fringe Society to organize their event and provide tickets and programs. The central aim of the Festival Fringe Society was not to have a selection process deciding who could or could not take part. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is open to anyone who wants to perform.

Today, it is the largest arts festival in the world. Starting on Friday, this year's festival will run for more than three weeks. Over two thousand shows will be performed in over two hundred and fifty different places around Edinburgh. Performers and visitors travel to the city from around the world for this event.

You could hear local performers like the Scottish folk singer Jake Cogan.

Or you could listen to the experimental music of Greek singer Marika Klambatsea.

The Fringe also includes theater, dance, comedy, and performances for children. There is something for everyone at these events. Local galleries also hold exhibits of art work and other forms of culture. A show might include some of the most important names in modern art. Or, a gallery show could include art made from aprons, protective clothing worn when cooking. Some Fringe shows are very strange and experimental, while others are more normal, or mainstream.

At any given moment, there is a good chance a fringe festival is going on somewhere in the world. Like in Edinburgh, these events are open to any artists who want to perform. Many festivals even give the artists part of the money raised from ticket sales.

There are fringe events in Britain, Canada, Australia, the Czech Republic and Singapore, just to name a few of the more than eighty examples. In the United States, there are about twenty official fringe gatherings. One of the first American fringe festivals was in Orlando, Florida. Some festivals, like the one in Adelaide, Australia, are very large and have been going on for many years.

Others, like the Capital Fringe Festival in Washington, D.C., are relatively new.

LYNN OLSON: "I love the Fringe. I think it's the absolute best event in DC. You get to see all different types of performances, you go to things you might not normally go to."

That was a volunteer at this year's Capital Fringe which ended last month. The festival is in its fourth year. This year, most performances took place in the center of Washington in a group of old buildings that used to be businesses. The abandoned buildings added to the experimental "fringe" feel of the event. Visitors to the festival could see all kinds of performances with all levels of artistry and talent.

Capital Fringe describes itself as rebellious and adventurous, alive in the present moment. Festival organizers asked visitors to put their worries aside and laugh, cry, clap, dance and hug.

JULIANNE BRIENZA: "Local people, individuals and their voice are important."

That was Julianne Brienza, the executive director of the Capital Fringe Festival. Here she explains why she thinks fringe festivals are so popular.

JULIANNE BRIENZA: "And no matter where you are in the world, that is a very important thing, to be proud of who you are and be able to let people hear what you have to say, whether they like it or not. That is what Fringe enables people to do. You don't have to be from the theater world to do a show. It's not pretentious, it's not expensive to attend, and there are no judgments."

Julianne Brienza says the fringe festival will never be mainstream. She says it remains fresh and unusual because the event does not try to tell society's views about the performing arts. It is about giving individuals freedom to create.

At the Capital Fringe Festival, members of Opera Alterna skillfully performed the opera "Magnum Opus." It tells about a troubled writer named Robert who makes a deal with women with magic powers to help him finish his play.

The two muses promise to give him artistic greatness. But the agreement comes at a price for Robert.

Like many of the performances at Capital Fringe, this opera is not about costly and complex production values. The sets on the stage are very simple. The performers look like they used their own personal clothing for costumes. But this simplicity helps bring attention to the creativity of the music and the strength of the actors' performances.

Some of the performances at the festival are very strong, while others are less skillful. But it is the energy of the artists and their willingness to share their work with others that makes the festival so interesting.

We asked the Washington, D.C., arts blogger Bob Anthony how this summer's festival compared to those of past years.

BOB ANTHONY: "It's better and better. It's very professional this year. It used to be more mediocre-type stuff. This year there are some two-hour plays. There used to be just an hour play and a lot of monologues."

Dancers from Old Lore Theater performed the poem "Annabel Lee" by the nineteenth century American writer Edgar Allan Poe. The performance combined dance with song and theater.

The dancers expressed the sadness of the poem which tells about the deep love of a man for his sweetheart, Annabel Lee. The dancers used their bodies to express the setting where the poem takes place, in a kingdom by the sea. "Annabel Lee" won this year's audience award for best dance performance.

Some of the performances at Capital Fringe were for children. Many others were for adults only. One of the very popular theater shows was called "Bare-Breasted Women Sword Fighting."

WOMAN: "What a magnificent night we have in store for you! A scintillating spectacular of swords!"


For this event, a group of women acted out a series of funny performances. At the end, two women had a sword fight while dancing to tango music. Every time a woman lost a round of the fighting, she had to take a piece of clothing off. It was the sort of performance that you do not see very often. But you can see this kind of show daily at the Fringe.

August is a busy month for fringe festivals in the United States. There are fringe events in cities including Minneapolis, Minnesota; Boulder, Colorado, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The Fringe New York City will help organize over one thousand performances this month.  Like many fringe events, some performances at the New York City fringe are free, while others require visitors to buy tickets. These tickets are generally less costly than the price of going to a New York theater or arts show. Tickets alone do not pay for the festivals. They receive support from companies, local organizations and individuals.

In Washington, Julianne Brienza notes that next year it will be more difficult to get donations for Capital Fringe. The recession has deeply cut the number of groups willing to give money.

Yet, the recession did not keep people from attending the festival. She says they sold four thousand more tickets this year than last year. And, Mizz Brienza noted another thing that made the festival special this year.

JULIANNE BRIENZA: "People made friends more. I noticed that people would sit with strangers and have conversations, so that was a great thing. It is about coming out and meeting new people and listening to different ideas."

This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I'm Steve Ember­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­. And I'm Faith Lapidus. You can find transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our reports at voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.

Voice of America Special English

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