When the New Orleans Fringe Festival announced in 2014 that the festival was ending after a seven-year run, the news left a fringed hole in the heart of the downtown theater community.
Some former Fringe Fest organizers threw their efforts behind last year’s Faux/Real festival, but there were people in the theater community who felt like the weekslong arts and culture extravaganza lacked the same spirit of the original festival, which traditionally was one frenzied weekend packed with experimental theater and performance.
Now, almost a year-and-a-half later, a trio of events — InFringe Fest, the Giant Puppet Fest, and FORGE — bring the spirit of fringe back to downtown New Orleans, as 12 different venues in the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods host more than 50 diverse shows, including absurdist dramas, ridiculous comedies, and flamboyant cabaret and burlesques.
What’s in a name?
After the dissolution of the New Orleans Fringe Festival, one of the festival’s earliest organizers, Dennis Monn, owner of the Allways Lounge, floated the idea of a new festival called “NOLA Fringe: Original Recipe.”
Squabbles ensued over the “Fringe” name, which was trademarked by the New Orleans Fringe Festival, but is considered by many as a catch-all term for experimental theater events around the world, dating back to the 1947 Edinburgh fringe festival in Scotland.
Frustrated, Monn was ready to call the whole thing off, but local theater artist Michael Martin stepped in and took over, slyly renaming the event InFringe Fest.
Martin believes that a fringe-like festival is crucial to the development and growth of artists working outside of the mainstream.
“By traditional measure, these are not commercially viable shows,” said Martin. “One of the ways that shows that have questionable commercial viability get attention is by banding together, by making themselves an event, or a scene, or a source of excitement.”
InFringe features more than 30 shows that highlight lots of local talent, like “@jerseyarnie42,” about a tech-junkie threatened with disconnection, from Joseph Furnari and Garrett Prejean of the Elm Theatre. “Insomnia Café,” starring local comedian Bob Murrell and NOLA Project member Kali Russel, is the tale of obsessive “friends” who re-create the iconic apartment of their favorite sitcom.
The lineup also features out-of-town acts, including “Mi Casa Es Su Casa,” eight original short plays from the Los Angeles group Chicanas Cholas y Chisme.
Running concurrently with Infringe Fest is the Giant Puppet Festival, organized by Pandora Gastelum, owner of the Mudlark Public Theatre. Gastelum regularly presented puppet shows during the New Orleans Fringe Festival, and she branched out with the puppet festival in 2012.
“Puppetry is my heart, and I really believe in it as an art form and want to see it flourish,” said Gastelum.
The puppet festival includes nine shows at the Mudlark and PORT, a new downtown performance venue.
The Mudlark Puppeteers, the theater’s resident company, will stage “Fitcher’s Bird: A Mystery in Clockwork,” a kid-friendly feminist retelling of the “Bluebeard” story.
Also in the lineup is “What Keeps Us,” by local puppet troupe Abandoned Ships, about a small-town witch. The show, which Gastelum calls “the big draw of the festival this year,” received funding from the Jim Henson Foundation, an organization formed by the late Muppets creator to support puppetry arts in America.
Another group of established theater artists are banding together for FORGE, a three-show “microfestival” at the Theatre at St. Claude.
“Our Man,” presented by Goat in the Road Productions, is an absurdist political drama about two men living in a box who elect a tennis racket named Ronald Reagan as their president. The show first premiered in 2010, and since the company is preparing to take “Our Man” on the road this summer, it seemed like a good time to remount the production for local audiences.
“She Was Born,” from Nat & Veronica of Skin Horse Theater, also is a return engagement. The performance piece, which follows the life cycle of an extraterrestrial insect, premiered last year and was recently nominated for two Big Easy awards.
“Creep Cuts” is a new alternative cabaret work from Mz. Asa Metric and Mqr. En Between, better known as Evan Spigelman and Dylan Hunter, members of Skin Horse and Goat in the Road, respectively.
Shannon Flaherty, co-artistic director of Goat in the Road, said FORGE was born out of the same impulse as InFringe Fest.
“This came from the desire to create a fringe-like feeling that we have really missed in the downtown scene here, where there’s one weekend, a ton of excitement around theater, and people can come out and see more than one show in a night because of the way they’re scheduled,” said Flaherty.
“That brings us new audiences, and just brings a lot of energy to the downtown scene.”