Each year, the S.F. Fringe (part of a global network of Fringe Festivals) takes 12 days to showcase a mother lode of experimental pieces, sketch comedy, performance art, serious drama, puppetry, improvisation, cow-tipping, hula-hooping, and various other forms of theatrical expression that defy labeling. None of the work is juried, which means that each bit could rock out or flop down. But that risk is part of the fun, and since the shows are all less than an hour long, you'll never feel trapped in a disaster.
Traditionally, most performances take place at Fringe proper, in the Exit Theatre complex downtown. But since a new bring-your-own-venue category was added four years ago to offer more space, the festival has spread its wings, big time. This year there are nine locations, including the Shelton Theater and El Rio; most are still within walking distance of one another, so folks can easily see one show at the Exit on Taylor at 7, another at the Off-Market Theatre at 8:30, and a third at the Marsh at 10.
"It's really exciting to have this kind of partnership with other venues," says Fringe producer Meredith Eldred, who adds that the festival's emphasis on cooperation among theaters reinforces the sense of artistic coming-togetherness that's already central to the Fringe experience.
Matthew Quinn, artistic director of C.A.F.E. Arts and producer at the Off-Market Theatre (the festival's largest BYOV spot this year), is so juiced about Fringe that he's using it as an opportunity to kick-start an art gallery on the first floor of his sprawling space in SOMA. And apart from chocolate chips and cookie dough, what could be a better combination than art and theater?
With 45 companies represented and more than 300 performances planned, it's hard to summarize what's on the plate for this year's festival. Multiethnic sketch comedy shines under the direction of two troupes, Oui Be Negroes (with its eponymous improv) and OPM (doing its Asian for Dummies). Cabarets of all shapes and sizes make appearances: Lara Bruckmann & the Tuesday Night Quartet take us into the tormented psyche of a diva unable to escape her own act, while The Chinese Clown Cabaret is a more humorous piece developed by Jane Chen and S.F. Mime Troupe veteran Joan Mankin. There are rap and Chaucer on a bill together, solo shows galore, and some real-time drama. But there's no advance ticketing -- and no late seating -- so don't gamble on getting in.