Interview with Ben Hill, Hollywood Fringe Festival Director, and Fringe Founder, 7/12/11
by Bree Long~
Last year marked the inaugural festival for the Hollywood Fringe, with nearly 200 performance groups, 17,000 seats occupied and 40 percent average capacity- a very good start for a first year effort. By the numbers, how would you compare the success of this year’s Fringe Festival to last year?
Well, to get specific and stuff, there were 174 performance groups and 17,000 seats sold. This year there were 214 performance groups. Because only a percentage of seats are sold through the Fringe organization, we poll participating members to see how many seats were sold. We should have those numbers shortly.
To give you an idea from the perspective of our on line sales, we doubled how many shows we sold through the various Fringe box offices and Fringe Central box offices. Those tickets were doubled. Now, we had a lot of sold out houses so I’m sure what we’ll see is that a greater percentage of tickets were sold through the Fringe box office, because there was this specter of shows being sold out that we didn’t necessarily have last year. In general, all the indicators, statistical and anecdotal, [suggest that the numbers are higher than last year.] I ask everyone ‘how was your house?’ Last year, a really bad house was zero to five. This year, a “bad” house was more along the lines of fifteen or twenty [people] and there were lots and lots of sold out shows.
You’ve brought a considerable history of success with you to Hollywood, having founded and produced the Hatchery Festival in your hometown of Washington D.C. In bringing your experience to Hollywood, what has been your happiest surprise about the arts scene in L.A.?
Oh man, you know what I love about the arts in L.A. is that a lot of the east has so much infrastructure and so much history behind it, and while certainly there’s a lot of history behind what’s happening in the arts in L.A, but in a lot of ways- and I’ve said it before-it’s like the wild west, the wild west of theater. That’s the exciting thing about it, that it’s still being defined, it’s in the process of being defined, there aren’t all these institutions and unions and what not really keeping it from evolving more. Rather, it’s a constant state of evolution and constant state of revolution and that to me is so very exciting. And I also think that’s why it’s so fitting for a fringe festival, because fringes really provide, I think, a great snapshot and a place in time where emerging art stands because you’re obviously dealing with so many numbers, you’re going to start to see patterns. So one of the things that I like about the Fringe, or fringe festivals in general is that, by their very nature, they start to redefine themselves every year.
The 2011 Fringe will be vastly different from 2010 Fringe and it hopefully will continue that way. I think in a sense it not just fringe festivals, it’s the state of the Arts in Los Angeles. It changes so rapidly and evolves so rapidly that being able to put up a fringe festival in a place like Los Angeles, it’s almost an ideal candidate for a festival of this nature.
Compared to traditional theater festivals, one of the things that is special and different about fringe festivals around the world is that they serve as an uncensored and uncurated forum for emerging artists and their bodies of work. How do you think that Los Angeles and its community uniquely supports the mission of Fringe and how otherwise does it provide a challenge?
The challenge is a whole different question. There’s a long answer to that too. It is just that. Los Angeles in a lot of ways is a fringe town. It’s a town where you see a lot of experimental stuff, where you see a lot of emerging stuff, where there are always people coming and going and as a result there’s always new companies, new ideas, and new works to experiment with. In that, it’s a perfect place for a fringe. And, you know, you’re always going to have the people that are going to come every year that are doing new, interesting stuff every year. As far as the challenges go, the number one reason that I think there hasn’t been a festival like Fringe sustained for multiple years is because of the various challenges that a very modern city like Los Angeles proposes. And the biggest of them, of course, is geography. Which- I know there were several festivals that preceded us that aren’t necessarily around anymore- were very much confronted with the problem of geography in that L.A. is such a big sprawling place that if you’re going to have a ‘sense of place’ festival, where is that place?
From our perspective, when we founded the Fringe, we were very aware of this issue and obviously there was a lot of wrestling back and forth between those who were planning the festival as far as, like, ‘should it just be in Hollywood or should it be all over L.A.?’ The decision we initially went with- and I think it was ultimately the right decision, and I will say that I was on other sides of this debate while this debate was happening because I want the whole city to experience the Fringe festival- but because we isolated it in this one place- this one place being Hollywood- and really there is no one spot in Los Angeles, but from a geographical perspective with the convergence of highways, between the valley and the rest of the city, Hollywood is really a nice little nestled place. By creating it all in Hollywood, we have this area where people can walk between theaters and performance spaces, where there’s multiple public transportation [options] to bring you in, that it is fundamentally a walkable and bikeable area and that really creates that sense of place, which is really what tipped us in to doing it in one single place instead of all over the city.
To really create that sense of place, like, this is where it’s happening, this is where it is, this is where you come to because all over Los Angeles all of the time there’s all sorts of fringe-y things happening all year round. So when we have a festival, the answer is it provides a sense of time, a sense of place, and a sense of community. Those three things converging are what make the festival special. So it needed to be an all-in-one, close space so that there was this sense of time, place, and community.
You’ve talked about the outpouring of support that the festival received from many of the city’s critical publications like LA Weekly and Backstage West. How instrumental has the feedback from the press been to the success of Fringe as compared to word-of-mouth audience support that naturally develops from the momentum that comes out of the festival?
We had the L.A. Times write three articles on us too. There was one feature article, and there was one article that went over all the theater events and festivals happening in L.A., and then there was a fantastic pictorial that the L.A. times did, and of course, the L.A. Weekly. I said this before, of all the articles that I read- and I actually try not to read a lot of my own press because sometimes it upsets me- but reading Steven’s last thing, (Steven Leigh Morris’ article in the L.A. Weekly) when he talks about the concept of the open market and the Fringe, I read that and I was like, ‘Oh my God, he totally understands what we’re trying to do!’ That was just an amazing article. I had, like, tears coming down my cheeks. There’s always going to be the people that just know about us because they’re in the arts community or the theater community and they just know about us through word-of-mouth and I think that fundamentally word-of-mouth is the most important thing as far as spreading this. You read about something in the newspaper and now it’s going to get you interested, but it’s not until you met your friend or a friend of a friend at a bar who actually did it and had a great time or saw a show and had a great time, that that’s what really drives people to action, I think. But it’s hard, exposure to the festival, the marketing muscle of the festival, all these things are extraordinarily important.
All the various media partnerships we have from Los Angeles Theatre Review to Bitter Lemons, to L.A. Times- I could go on and on- have all been really critical to building up the sort of critical mass that we need to do a festival of this scope.
You’ve spoken also about the need to create a more carnival-like experience for Fringe patrons, which was demonstrated this year by the inclusion of a film category, food trucks, and an enhanced Fringe Central location for networking and socializing. What can Los Angeles expect to see as new and improved elements to the festival next year?
There’s always stuff that we want to do. I can go through a list, though I can’t guarantee exactly what’s going to come next year but there’s definitely stuff as far as the general future goes that we want to start investing a lot more time in. We had our Family program this year and that was new and it was a big success. We had a big partnership with LAUSD, and we did Fringe a show called “How to Survive A Zombie Apocalypse,” which was three hundred middle-schoolers from Bancroft Middle School and afterwards the drama teacher came up to me and said that was the best presentation they’d ever had and that she’d never seen the students that engaged.
I remember when I was growing up and I used to go to school, and I used to go to these assemblies, I loved that! I can’t remember liking theater more than when I was in school watching “Our Town” by a public school up the road. With the knowledge of that and the personal experience of that, we launched into the show and that was the whole goal- to engage people at a very young age to say, ‘hey, the performed arts, the exhibited arts, are a lot of fun. You should check them out, you should consider getting into them and supporting them while you’re alive.’ You’ve got to grab them at that age. So that’s great and we have a lot of plans for expanding that and doing more workshops specifically towards families, of doing more partnerships with the schools, to do more outreach in the schools, to bring people in on field trips to see shows and, you know, more workshops for them. So Fringe Family I’d like to see grow significantly.
Fringe Film was a blast this year. It’s funny, a lot of haters say that theater is the ugly stepchild of film in L.A., and what I feared about doing film is that film would become the ugly stepchild of Fringe. As it turned out, I felt that it actually meshed very well. From the beginning, we didn’t just want this to be a theater festival. I love theater festivals, I’ve been to a lot of theater festivals, but this was never supposed to be a theater festival, it was supposed to be a fringe art festival and that includes film and that includes all these other genres and so we wanted to incorporate that as much as possible.
So I see in the future an expandable program, which is fantastic and we’re really pleased with the quality of the stuff that ended up joining us as well as the film program that expands beyond just Fringe Central. We have other venues participating in that as well, so it really becomes a Fringe version of a film festival.
Are there any plans in the works to develop a year-round Fringe presence leading up to the festival?
It’s definitely one of our goals in the future to have some sort of community space that keeps the Fringe feeling alive throughout the year and then that explodes into a festival every June. That’s always been a long-term goal of the organization. I can’t say when that’s going to happen but I can say it’s very much an all around vibe. What’s great is that you have the month of June, eleven months go by, we see each other again and it’s fantastic. It would be much more fantastic in my mind if there was always that place for the community to gather and create together and then it explodes across all of Hollywood in June.
Another thing that we’re focusing on for next year, is that it’s great that we’re giving these artists an opportunity to develop their work and to work with audiences and to get real critical feedback through the Fringe. I would love to actually create a development program in the Fringe so that if you wanted to bring something to the Fringe with the specific intent of developing it, it’s that there was a program in the Fringe that would allow you to get more formal critical feedback, more formal engagement and dramaturgical resources from directors. There’s a lot of- especially one-person shows- that come, and it’s really an idea and the first time they perform it is at the Fringe. Wouldn’t it be great if there were tools at the Fringe that you, as an artist, could utilize to actually develop your show? That was actually an idea we had in the last two weeks, so we’re looking for partnerships right now to figure out how we can actually make this program become a reality. It’s one of those ‘giving back’ things, how can we really give back to the people who have been investing in us to help them really take a strong hand in developing their work?
And then it’s always been my dream to incorporate more of a visual art element into the Fringe. We’ve always had a few visual arts show in the Fringe thus far, but having a broader program for visual artists to engage in the Fringe is important, as well as music. We’ve had music in the Fringe, but there hasn’t been a program like the film program that specifically speaks to the model that musicians are used to working under. The current model is where you find a venue and you pay your registration, and it isn’t really the way of music, it’s only how bands do it, in just the same way it’s not how film does it. That’s why we created a new model to accommodate film commission, so what we’re exploring is the difficult intellectual problem of, ‘how do you take the existing model of how musicians are used to working and Fringe-ify it?’ So that’s something in the future that we’re also strongly looking in to.
And then we’re always developing our international attendees because there’s a special place in my heart for that because I attend so many international festivals that it’s great to have people come to our country and our festival and our city and attend here. They also add an x-factor layer on top of it and some of my fondest memories are of Internationals coming and being so enthusiastic of what we’re doing. We’ve had some Internationals come and say ‘we enjoyed doing Hollywood Fringe so much more than we enjoy doing some of the biggest festivals in the world because of the sense of community that develops through the Hollywood Fringe.’ We’ve said from the beginning, it’s all about our mission statement- it’s the word ‘community,’- fostering community, developing community, nurturing community. There’s a warmth there that creates an environment where artists can work, and artists can create, and artists can partner and that really is the core and the soul of the Hollywood Fringe Festival .We try very hard to make that a real stand out feature. You come and you feel like you’re really a part of something. It goes back to that sense of time, sense of place, and sense of community, so you’re really a part of something for these eleven days.
Do you have any rags-to-riches success stories from this year’s Fringe participants?
There’s a great story- I have one group- it’s where the “How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse” guys came from- from an international perspective. And so they came, they knew no one, they had no leads. They just had a booking and a registration, that’s all they had, and their first year houses were pretty sparse because, you know, they just didn’t know anybody. But then something happened- and that’s sort of what happens, I think the sense of community really fostered it- there started to be a buzz about this group from the UK who’s doing this zombie show. Like, ‘what’s up with these guys?’ They did their work, they did everything we told them to, they went and flyered natural places, they hung out at Fringe Central, they met people, and they socialized, and they networked, and they saw other shows, and the whole thing. Every performance started to get more crowded than the last so that by the end every house was filling up and they walked away with the Fringe International Award. They came in with nothing, knowing no one, and they left with full houses and an award. It’s because they engaged with the community and they had a great show, you know, so all of these things sort of came out of it.
The nice thing about Fringe is that there are all sorts of stories, people come from different places. You have someone like Pam Noles who did “Death 40 Feet Tall,” that was her show this year and, you know, she’s not a theater person, she’s not a performer, that’s not where her history is, but she’s always had passion for it and so she comes and she does her show and she realizes her dream, something she’s always wanted to do. She has her show, people went, and she got great reviews, she got nominated for a theater award and she left with so many more friends and so many more people that have given her critical evaluations and help in developing her work, an award nomination, and the satisfaction of knowing that she’s accomplished one of her dreams as a result of participating in Fringe.
Then there’s a show like “The Milford Project,” which is a new musical and they came to Fringe to develop their show, they sold out houses, they did amazing work. It’s just taking something. Where there was nothing, now there is something, and it’s garnered a lot of critical appeal and it’s really kick started a few people’s careers. The real success stories take years. For example, people like Craig Ferguson. I think he said in his book, ‘if it weren’t for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I’d probably be dead today,’ because that’s the only place he could get the opportunity to really get off the ground. Or even someone like Tom Stoppard who is known for the Edinburgh Fringe, and it was that opportunity that really got people to see his work and now he’s obviously one of the best-known playwrights working today. It’s all of these little stories- even a show like Urinetown- which was this dinky little fringe musical in the fringe in NYC and now is like, off-Broadway, touring the country, and the whole thing.
Things really get started in fringe festivals because there’s no, you know, bearded man in a closed room deciding who gets in and who doesn’t. Anybody can get in. It’s up to the people to decide what they like and what they don’t. It’s the people’s decision.
I read an article in which you were quoted as saying that your “definition of success isn’t that everyone agrees that a work is good, but that everyone agrees that this is where people are taking it seriously.” To that end, how do you believe that the all-inclusive nature of the Fringe Festival has contributed to the perception of Los Angeles as a ‘serious’ theater town?
You know, I think that any serious theater town- and I’ve used this term before- ecosystem- has a strong ecosystem and an ecosystem isn’t just, you know, one organization and it isn’t just one type of theater. It’s all types of theater, and I think that the concept of Fringe plays a major part in a healthy ecosystem because it’s the stage that artists are in where they’re nurtured. So you can have extraordinarily successful theaters, and God knows we do in this town. Obviously, we have the largest regional theater in the country and we have big monsters like Geffen and the Pasadena Playhouse making fully realized, beautiful productions, but what about tomorrow’s artist? When you think of a generational thing, like, over time does your city nurture its artists? Does your city provide a safe haven for artists? These are the parts of the ecosystem that the Fringe needs to address by providing these opportunities for nurturing and development as well as providing the opportunity to nurture audiences and patrons. A patron can’t necessarily afford a seventy-five dollar ticket for a production with full production value, but they might be able to afford a ten dollar ticket, or a five dollar ticket, or a pay-what-you-can ticket. As a result, you’re nurturing young audience and these young audiences are the ones that, down the road, are going to be able to pay for a seventy-five dollar ticket to a major theater, but they get the itch- what my shop teacher called ‘theater dust’ in their veins- early, and for only twelve bucks, and that’s what’s really going to build an audience. Especially in newer generations, for any city, and I think that’s the itch that the Fringe scratches.