With official figures finally in for the May 20-30 Orlando International Fringe Festival, it appears that the event's drastic organizational overhaul– including the splitting of venues between downtown Orlando and Loch Haven Park – was neither an instant windfall nor a calamitous fumble.

A total of 18,507 tickets were sold to the nonjuried showcase of theatrical arts – a negligible drop from last year's figure of 18,600. Sales of the Fringe button (required for entry to all performances) rose from 5,800 to 6,430, denoting a respectable increase in overall attendance. The total ticket monies returned to the performers (which must always equal 100 percent of ticket sales) sank noticeably, from last year's "over $103,000" to $98,456. But according to Cid Stoll, president of the Fringe's board, that figure needs to be put in context: Longer running times at this year's festival meant fewer shows could be fit into the schedule, translating into decreased moneymaking potential. She also says that the 2003 figure may not have been wholly accurate, representing an "educated guess" made at a time when ticket and merchandise sales were lumped together.

It was obvious to anyone who attended even a smattering of this year's shows that the event's downtown component was by far the weaker of the two. Low turnouts were a recurring problem, and Fringe Central South was a veritable ghost town after opening weekend.

Still, any conjecture that Fringe 2005 will abandon the area outright is premature, Stoll says. Though the Loch Haven venues (especially those located in the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival complex) received high marks from almost everybody involved, a return visit to those boards hasn't yet been finalized; it's on the Fringe's wish list, but hardly a done deal. There's also the possibility of a dramatically revitalized downtown being in place by next year's festival – at least if the city's sunny forecasts in any way reflect reality. And with theater professional (and former Fringe board member) Ron Legler assuming the presidency of the Downtown Arts District initiative, the impetus to keep at least part the Fringe below Colonial Drive is strong.

"If they could pick up Loch Haven and put it in the middle of downtown, I think everybody would be happy," Stoll jokes.

What's certain is that Christopher Lee Gibson, the executive producer of the Fringe, won't be back for an encore, having decided instead to return to his main passion of acting. That seems to cede the reins to associate producer Beth Marshall – whose hiring this year was at least partially intended as on-the-job training for the producer's spot – but an offer has not yet been made nor accepted. Ed DeAguilera, who was hired as executive director late last year, is on board at least until his contract runs out in December.

At least one change made this year seems permanent: The Fringe has said sayonara to its former business of building temporary venues out of empty storefronts and other less-than-luxurious locations.

"The overwhelming thing [we heard] this year was that the artists and audiences were happier because they were in real theaters," Stoll says. So if 2004 won't go down in history as the date of the festival's big breakout, it'll at least be remembered as the year the Fringe got real.


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