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Seth wraps up Fringe fest for 2011

The 2011 Orlando InternationalFringe TheatreFestival ended more than a week ago, and normally our focus on it would have faded with our hangovers. But this year's fest ended with a bombshell that's still reverberating through the theater community. As Erin Sullivan reported in last week's Culture 2 Go, at the closing awards ceremony Beth Marshall announced her resignation from the festival she has led since 2005.

While Marshall's departure, effective June 3, came as a shock to some, the move appeared inevitable after her for-profit production company, Beth Marshall Presents, recently announced a full season of shows. Between her increasing focus on her company and the valedictory theme of this year's 20th-anniversary event, it seemed obvious that Beth was anticipating her exit.

What did surprise me (and many of her close associates) was the news that Beth wouldn't be staying on to ease the transition as the Fringe's board of directors searches for her successor. According to off-the-record sources, until a couple of days before the end of the festival Marshall herself had expected to continue as a consultant, and she implied in her farewell remarks that the change wasn't her choice.

While general manager George Wallace remains to ably handle the Fringe's financial matters, the abrupt departure of Marshall (along with her assistant Chasmin Hallyburton, nine-year Visual Fringe producer Anna McCambridge-Thomas, and her assistant Arwen Lowbridge) set tongues wagging. So to doomsayers despairing that it's the end of the Fringe as we know it, I offer this friendly suggestion: Chill the eff out.

It's true that during the past half-decade Orlando's Fringe has become closely identified with Beth Marshall's colorful, larger-than-life persona. But don't cry for Dame Beth, because in her own words she's looking forward to an exciting second act:

"I intend to take a much needed vacation for the entire month of June, and in July we have season auditions for Beth Marshall Presents as well as obtaining our 501(c)3 nonprofit status. In August, I hit the road producing Paul Strickland's Any Title That Works at Indy Fringe … Additionally, I plan on spending A LOT more time with family and friends and getting back to my acting roots, while pursing my dreams of being a poker star!"

The next Fringe producer needn't be a performer or personality (the Festival has enough emcees and mascots), but he or she must be an experienced nonprofit administrator with strong organizational skills and an understanding of artists' needs. With the local unemployment rate in double digits, I'd love to see the gig go to someone already part of our community, not an import. The future Fringe leader will have an opportunity to ameliorate past missteps, as well: Two teapot-sized tempests that emerged this year represent the kind of unnecessary drama he or she should seek to short-circuit.

First, an informal policy allowed Fringe artists and volunteers to fill any empty seats for free, bypassing the traditional comp ticket system. I appreciate the goal of building buzz for underattended shows, and confess to spending much less money on shows this year as a result. But that policy distorted audience counts and discouraged ticket sales for shows that weren't already selling out. A similar system could work if it were voluntary to opt into, and limited to certain dates or venues. But this year, it engendered resentment in some producers who point to it as a contributor to their lower-than-anticipated revenues.

Second, some artists were caught off-guard when they were asked for the first time to fill out IRS W-9 forms. Though the new policy should have been disclosed up front, it was always somewhat sketchy for a 501(c)3 to distribute checks for more than $600 without submitting a 1099-MISC tax form at the end of the year. Now Fringe producers will finally have the proper paperwork for their Schedule C forms, perfect for deducting all those business meetings in the beer tent.

Long-term, I'd like Fringe's next producer to address profitability. The 2011 Festival sold 20,139 tickets, returning $190,153 to the performers, so obviously someone is making money. But set aside sold-out hits Bitches of the Kingdom, My Monster and Dog Powered Robot (those shows combined grossed nearly $33,000, 17 percent of the fest's total ticket sales) and the remaining 67 shows each sold an average of only about $2,300. Suckers: A Freaky Little Musical, the show I helped produce, featured a slate of successful Fringe veterans and garnered rave reviews, but we only netted about $2,700 after a modest $1,200 in expenses (including Fringe's $775 fee). Once Upon a Pill producer Jill Craddock reports earning $1,600 on a $1,200 investment; split among a cast and crew of 10, that's meager compensation, considering the hours of effort that go into mounting a musical. With a record $36,000 in beer sales this year, I can guess what many artists did with what little they made.

If Fringe is to be profitable for more than just one-man monologians, the next producer must broaden paid attendance beyond the 6,000 people who bought buttons this year. Otherwise it's just us artists passing a dollar around in a circle.

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