Hanging out on the fringe

Boulder International Fringe Festival celebrates the weird, the deviant, and the offbeat

photo courtesy of the Boulder International Fringe Festival

The Boulder International Fringe Festival (BIFF) is a little more than a week away, and Executive Producer David Ortolano has deep, dark bags under his eyes.

“I work probably 30, 40 hours a week [on the Fringe Festival] in addition to my full-time job,” he says, noting that he peaks at around 100 hours a week. He adds wryly, “There’s not that much time for sleep.”

Sitting in a chair at the Naropa Performing Arts Center, as various artists performing in this year’s festival check out the space, hash out technical details and rehearse, Ortolano talks about the festival he birthed eight years ago with a pragmatic savvy. He casually reels off ways he could put on the festival given a fraction of the current resources available, saying that because the Fringe Festival provides such a valuable service for artists, any scale of festival would be successful.

“If we had to and we had no support from the community, we would put on a festival and make it nice. It’d be something,” he says. “If my resources are my body and my mind, I’m going to grab cardboard boxes out of a trash bin and I’m going to make finger puppets with an old pen that I found in the street, and I’m going to sit in front of the goddamn courthouse and I’m going to make a festival because I think that’s important for our community. And people would just be like, ‘Yeah, oh yeah, that’s exciting,’ and maybe they would bring their own version of that to it.”

Of course, the festival is much more than a street performance on Pearl Street. The Fringe Festival is an artist’s festival, a chaotic smorgasbord of more than 250 artists and 300 events taking place over 12 days (Aug. 15-26) in 14 different venues. There are no stuffy juries or artistic boards deciding who gets in and who doesn’t. Nobody exercises prior restraints on artists. Instead, performers submit applications to enter the festival, and the first 25 percent automatically get in. Organizers select the remaining 75 percent with a lottery. It’s all chance, and everything’s fair game.

Photos courtesy of Boulder International Fringe Festival

The festival does a bit of outreach to performers, too, Ortolano says. Ortolano reached out to Imagine! — a Longmont-based organization for adults with developmental and physical disabilities — and asked the program’s participants to create a piece for the show. They had done a piece the previous year, and he found it very moving.

“Fringe provides a venue for people who aren’t being selected because of whatever reason,” he says. “All of a sudden you have a big community event happening that’s unjuried … and right after [Imagine!] is Still Napping, dance choreography veterans who are doing a New York-level modern dance piece. And they’re one right after another.”

The Fringe Festival follows four main rules: the artists get 100 percent of the ticket sales, ticket prices are kept low, the acts are unjuried and the acts are uncensored.

The first rule encourages artists to take full responsibility for the content and promotion of their show, while the second keeps the festival accessible. Those last two rules encourage artists to bring work that has nowhere else to go, and they ensure a healthy variety of the weird, the deviant and the obscure.

“The whole point of the Fringe Festival is to inspire the work to be happening no matter what, no matter what the resources are,” he says.

As a result of the lack of censorship, you get shows like David Kleinberg’s autobiographical one-man show about sex addiction, during which he frequently goes into character as his penis, performing the same week as a clown troupe, a one-woman burlesque show, improv comedy and a battle of the bands. The lack of a jury deciding who gets in guarantees diversity, Ortolano says, in both content and ability, and he acknowledges it turns each festival into somewhat of a grab bag.

“We’re asking the audience to take a chance on something that’s a little different than usual,” he says.

But that diversity, the mercurial randomness that makes each festival unique, is what fringe festivals are all about. The term dates back to the Edinburgh International Festival in the ’40s. Legend has it that artists and performers not invited to participate in the festival crashed the edges of the festival, setting up impromptu performances. Journalist Robert Kemp wrote, “Round the fringe of official Festival drama, there seems to be more private enterprise than before,” and a movement was born.

By providing a venue for acts that might fall outside the standards of an artistic board, fringe festivals give a voice to artists who might not find one elsewhere.

“That’s the soul of the fringe festival,” Ortolano says. “It’s not really about me deciding what makes a Fringe-y show and therefore fits into some model that’s inside my head. An artistic board choosing work? That’s sort of counter-fringe. The fringe is about letting the work choose itself.”

For a full schedule of the Boulder International Fringe Festival, click here.

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