Since its inception in 2010, the Hollywood Fringe Festival has done its best to provide an unique outlet for artists in the Los Angeles theater scene. From avant-garde musical comedies to one-man improv shows, the organization has spent the better part of the decade offering a spotlight to unique and unparalleled voices. Ten years later and Hollywood Fringe is bigger than ever, offering more plays, more experiences, more opportunities to burgeoning playwrights, and more chances for artists to get weird on stage.
“Our mission was to bring together the local theater community around a single event. In 10 years, that hasn’t changed,” says Fringe director Ben Hill. Founders Hill, Stacy Jones Hill and Dave McKeever got their start in Washington, D.C., with their first fringe project, and it just kept growing. “The first time we tried, we had one play, but I wanted more. So the second year, we did three,” says Hill. “Then we moved to Los Angeles, and I wanted to do it again, but this time, larger. We wanted big, chaotic, messy, fun and adventurous.”
The idea of Fringe Festivals is far from new. The concept began over 70 years ago on the outskirts of the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947. Governed by a board who selected theatrical productions via committee, the curated content of EIF meant that there were plenty of unhappy campers who felt shafted when it came to fest selection and scope.
In an attempt to get their work seen, artists setup their own theater experiences along the periphery of the EIF festival, hoping to lure in audiences and patrons hungry for new, out of the box work. As a result, these groups who set up at “the fringe” of the fest became their own organization called the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Set up as an open access event that anyone could enter, there was no governing body or curated content. Revolutionary for the time, the fest grew and became a model for Fringe Festivals around the world.
“We didn’t think of L.A. as a theater town. It’s amazing how wrong we were,” recalls Hill, who nonetheless saw a void in the scene that needed something unexpected and inclusive like Fringe. “There are hundreds and hundreds of theater companies, but it was so scattered. We wanted to bring that together to help people develop personal and professional relationships in the theater scene, as well as friendships and partnerships. It was just one of those times when we found we were at the right place in the right time. So we moved on it.”
Publicity manager and Fringe Fest fanatic Scott Golden agrees that the stigma attached to Los Angeles as a dead zone for theater can hinder people’s expectations of the local scene. “We need to get over the hump that people think this isn’t a theater town,” he says. “In the last couple weeks, I saw a few articles that read ‘L.A. is a theater town!’ Why do we still have to say this?”
“This is a supportive community where we all want to share our stories,” adds Golden. “Because it’s so big and so broad, we want to change the way it works. We want to offer as much outreach as possible, but we as we are an uncurated festival, there is a fine line we need to walk.”
Prior to sacrificing their sanity and free time to an arts organization, Hill and McKeever established a web development company, which looked at digital solutions for the artsy crowd, something that helped the fest take off. “We pulled inspiration from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Hatchery Festival in D.C. and a lifelong career in technology,” Hill says. “The technology framework we created for the festival really helped Fringe to grow and allowed us, a small team of just a few people, to manage it even as it got larger and larger.”
“My background is as an actor and in technology,” adds Hill. “Dave and I have a background in tech and with the Hatchery Festival. And Stacy’s background is in PR and communications. With all our aspects rolled together, we realized what we can each bring to the table.”
The first year brought in well over 100 shows. A decade later, and they’re pulling in almost 400 shows. The robust growth has been a constant for the last few years, thanks in part of the community itself. “It started so much bigger than we thought it would and grew into so much more than we ever planned. It’s at the point that it sustains itself,” says Jones Hill, who is entering her final year at the festival. “It’s cool to go back each year and see the need for this type of community event.”
“It’s different than the film community,” explains Hill. “In theater, there are moments when everything comes together and you reach someone. You truly create art. It’s those moments that drive theater people. If you put a bunch of theater people in a room, they understand each other immediately. They get each other. It is that shared drive and passion that keeps theater alive.”
“We wanted to provide a medium for these partnerships to be built. And in 10 years, that hasn’t changed,” continues Hill. “Just meeting people who understand who you are and your passions helps drives you towards your goals.”
In addition to acting as a divining rod for theatrical talent and an outlet for new talent, the Hollywood Fringe Festival is a nonprofit that supports the local scene by giving 100% percent of the box office revenue back to participating artists and venues. It is a unique model that benefits the venue, the artist and the city. Hill says the past few years that equaled to a couple million dollars. “It also aids tourism,” he says. “It is about the artists and the art, but the festival is also a mecca for theater people.”
In addition to helping artists, venues and the community, the Hollywood Fringe Festival also offers scholarships for up-and-coming talent. “This is the fourth year for the scholarships. With the scholarship, we are adding diversity to the scene by helping people who are underrepresented in the art world. It is an opportunity,” Jones Hill asserts..“The scholarships were started as a program as a way to develop our base mission. We wanted to make Fringe about the neighborhood, the area and the community, as well as indulging artists. And we want everyone to do this. We knew there was something there and we can prove them wrong. There can be a giant theater festival in Los Angeles and it can inspire people.”
The Hollywood Fringe Festival runs June 13-30 at various locations. Full schedule, info and tickets at hollywoodfringe.org.