Orlando Fringe Festival 2024 wrap-up: Critics' Choice award winners, an ineffable 'vibe shift' and three pieces of advice for next year

There were some questions about Fringe's ongoing commitment to its mission of being '100% Uncensored'

click to enlarge Orlando Fringe 2024 staffers at Loch Haven - photo by Seth Kubersky
photo by Seth Kubersky
Orlando Fringe 2024 staffers at Loch Haven

On Memorial Day, the 33rd Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival wrapped up with its annual awards ceremony at Loch Haven Park, featuring the presentation of Critics’ Choice awards selected by myself and Orlando Sentinel arts writer Matt Palm. Over the 14-day event and the week of press previews, I saw more than 85 performances and published reviews of 52 shows, which you can find here. 2024’s big Best Show winner was Tanabata, an original Japanese-American musical by Andrew Heidorn I hailed as a “diamond-in-the-rough,” which I can see evolving into a Broadway hit.

Other critics’ picks I penned praises of included Joanna Rannelli’s Bangs, Bobs & Banter: Confessions of a Hairstylist for Solo Comedy; At the Table With Keith Brown for Magic Show; Adam Francis Proulx’s Emilio’s a Million Chameleons for Family Show; Edu Díaz’s A Drag Is Born for Solo Specialty; Disco Iskandar’s Journey From the Nile to the Tigris for Dance Show; Amanda Grace’s Love In for Site-Specific Show; Kevin Kriegel’s Mitzi Morris: Live at the Come On Inn for Solo Musical; Big Bang Boom Collective’s Masquerade of the Red Death for Specialty Show; RibbitRePublic Theatre’s Juliet: A Revenge Comedy for Comedy; and Push Physical Theatre’s Hyde (which had addressed many of my initial critiques by the time of their closing show) for Drama.

Individual honors also went to Martin Dockery — who earlier endured (with co-star Jon Patterson) a 24-hour marathon of their time-loop play Inescapable, aided by unscheduled pinch-hitter Brian Feldman — for his Original Script of The Stakeout; Amelia Bryant in The Magic Castle Still Stands for Dramatic Performance; Jessica Hoehn in Cocaine Bear: The Opera for Musical Performance; and — in an unprecedented tie — Rauce Padgett and Joel Warren for their Comedic Performance in 10 Sketches With Rauce and Joel.

The handful of Critics’ Choice winners I wasn’t able to write reviews of before the festival ended included Who’s Afraid of the West Cherry Orchid: An American Classic in an Active Quiznos, a witty Noises Off-style skewering of postwar drama, whose crack comedic cast led by Mike Carr and Julie Snyder (who co-wrote with Gwen Coburn) earned Best Ensemble; and DK Does ‘Movie’: An Improvised Make’em-Up Cinematic Film Experience (Performed Live on Stage in Front of Audience People), which earned nods for both Longest Title and Technical Achievement, broadcasting the improvised antics of D.K. Reinemer and his pals (including Robby Pigott and the irrepressible Emily Fontano) in real time using roving audience-held cameras. 

Damian Barray scored with his tuneful Original Score for Life Goes On?, a heartfelt pop musical about a struggling actor in NYC. Solo Drama winner Eleanor’s Story: Life After War, Ingrid Garner’s riveting sequel about her grandmother’s return from Nazi Germany, was even more emotionally engaging than her original installment. And Chris Metz took home Best Director for Barbenheimer: The Musical, a smarter-than-expected spoof whose staging employed color-changing squares and an instrument-playing ensemble to impressive effect.

Although there were dozens of strong offerings at this year’s Festival, I repeatedly encountered (both in person and online) patrons, participants and longtime festival supporters expressing concerns about an ineffable “vibe shift” at this year’s Fringe, the first one under interim executive director Scott Galbraith. Some of the complaints I heard seemed petty or personal, but others raised valid questions about Fringe’s ongoing commitment to its mission of being “100% Uncensored.”

The hard numbers may reflect that gut feeling, with the key statistics self-reported by Fringe — 50,000 attendees and 30,753 tickets sold — falling significantly from last year’s post-pandemic peak of 67,241 attendees and 43,428 tickets sold.

I know Fringe’s front-line staff [which, full disclosure, includes my spouse, recipient of Fringe’s 2024 Lifetime Achievement award] are already working as hard as they can, but I’ll offer three unsolicited suggestions for stemming the tide.

Retreat from downtown: ArtSpace was a wonderful dream, but (perhaps thanks to Mad Cow’s curse) it has become a monkey’s paw. Until the city rescinds recent restrictions on nighttime parking and provides dedicated funding to staff the space, it will be a drain on the organization. Either affordably sublet it most of the time to local companies seeking space, or surrender the keys.

Back off from BYOVs: These semi-official off-campus venues were great when Fringe had limited stage capacity, but the far-flung locales can dilute audiences while providing an inconsistent experience for artists. If Fringe can keep using the theaters of Orlando Family Stage after the Lowndes Shakespeare Center’s renovations are complete and make the excellent Renaissance Theater an official venue again, BYOVs would be better used for curated encores in the weeks following Fringe.

Double down on digital: Matt Palm and myself do our best to inform the public about Fringe in print, as do our radio friends at WMFE and WPRK, but fewer potential new patrons are consuming legacy media today. Fringe needs to expand their marketing reach, leverage social media influencers, and invest in a useful smartphone app in order to make the Festival more attractive to a fresh audience, lest it become a bunch of aging artists passing dollars in a circle.

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