Fringe and purge 

If ever an event had a black cloud over its head, the 11th annual Orlando International Fringe Festival was it. This year's forum for the performing arts was in dire financial straits from the outset, and it hardly helped when a March fire destroyed the lion's share of its official materials. As the proceeds from some hastily arranged benefits rolled in, the faithful filed into SAK Comedy Lab for a late-April preview of some of the shows. Most looked absolutely terrible.

Disaster waited in the wings, but never made it to the stage. The May 10 through 19 Fringe was, by all outward reckoning, a sterling success. Though final numbers are not yet available, the recurrence of sold-out performances indicated that ticket sales may have set an all-time record. More important to us groundlings, the quality of the shows was unexpectedly and remarkably high. Some veteran Fringe-watchers, in fact, pronounced this year's model their favorite.

Credit for snatching this baby from fate's reptilian jaws starts at the top. Executive producer Chris Gibson and financial manager/ associate producer Alauna McMillen were models of professionalism and capability from the moment they took control. (Gibson was new to his position, and McMillen's job had never been on the payroll before.) Even with so many obstacles to surmount, schedules went out on time and phone calls were returned, among other crucial requirements the Fringe hasn't always met. One show producer expressed amazement that he had actually received a layout of his venue in advance. (It was inaccurate, but, hey: "A" for effort.)

The Fringe's artistic supremacy, of course, lay with the performers, particularly the newcomers. Trained Human Club taught us that juggling -- yes, juggling -- can make for transcendent entertainment; and playwright Joseph Reed Hayes captured the essence of the Jewish spirit in "A Little Crazy," a beautifully written and acted drama that was among the best of the 28 shows I saw. The emergence of a new breed of Fringe talent may have been this year's unheralded leitmotif.

Installing five of the festival's nine temporary venues in the vacant Church Street Exchange meant maximized business: Folks who were turned away from sold-out shows had to walk mere feet to find a backup. The lack of thorough soundproofing played havoc with a few performances, but at least the applause and laughter that sometimes wafted in from neighboring venues helped the curious decide what to see later. Marrying convenience to quality reaped dividends for groups like Chicago's Mission IMPROVable, who recouped their airfare after only two shows.

The synergy between audience and performers was also something to behold. I don't know which was better, the lesbian who ate a foot-long hot dog while waiting on line for the gay revue "Fairy Tales," or the little kid who got his posterior stuck in a folding chair minutes before a matinee of the ironically titled "Step on a Crack." He wasn't a paid ringer. These things just work out sometimes.

Import fees

A few hitches prevented Fringe 2002 from doing even better. International participation has hit a distressing low, with post-Sept. 11 travel anxiety the common excuse. But some of the remaining foreign performers scoffed at that explanation, maintaining that their absent counterparts had sat out the proceedings solely because they lost a whopping amount of money at last year's Fringe. One returning company played to a sold-out house of 90 bodies last week, only to learn that 36 were comped (nonpaying) spectators who the performers neither knew nor could identify. That's not supposed to happen.

On opening weekend, some regular attendees groused that they had not realized until the 11th hour that Fringe was upon us, due to reduced coverage in the daily press. When a media giant like the Sentinel is the corporate presenter, that's really not supposed to happen.

Finally, those of us who were quick to judge this festival a winner also had to admit that the behavior of the volunteer labor force was, to put it nicely, inconsistent. Yes, these people work for nothing. Their training is less than ideal. And most of them do a bang-up job anyway. But bad apples can spoil any barrel, and the rotten fruit seemed more rotten in 2002. There is no reason for a Fringe representative to be outright nasty to a paying customer who is acting politely or to be unresponsive to a senior citizen's easily satisfied needs. A constituency that is treated with contempt will not stick around forever.

Grace notes

At the festival's May 19 closing-night party at the Back Booth, Gibson assumed responsibility for the Fringe's failings while transferring the praise for its many slam dunks to his team, McMillen in particular. From the potential improvements he mentioned -- like streamlining the ticketing process via credit-card and online purchasing -- it was clear he intends to be back. Consistent leadership, he said, should help resolve the festival's lingering problems.

But first, he should allow himself the satisfaction of shepherding a Fringe that worked better than anyone had reason to expect.

"There were times this year [when] I was pretty sure it wasn't going to happen," he revealed, relieved.

Smells like team spirit

Within the happy hubbub of the Back Booth party, performers were also making plans for next time. Eric Pinder, who satirized "War and Peace" in his "Waiting for Napoleon," may collaborate with "Street Seuss Deuce" gangsta fabulist Dave McConnell, which would certainly bring both ends of the literary spectrum together. ("Tolstoy has bitches," Pinder clarified. "They just translate it so it sounds better.") Monologist Alex Dallas talked about possibly working with storytelling dynamo TJ Dawe ("The Slip-Knot"), who happens to be her roommate.

And we may see more of Sadie Maddocks, who was so appealing as a sex worker in the Manchester Central Theater Company's "Black Stockings," but who restricted her party shenanigans to introducing the slightly older Dallas as "my mum." Her reward: A smack on the bottom, totally appropriate for the S&M-laden revue Maddocks had just wrapped.

Some people never know when the show is over. For that, I thank them all.

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