Regardless of whether San Diego is really America's Finest City or more like Kansas-by-the-bay, the weirdest, wildest and most experimental artists from around the world are going to converge on its streets.
If all goes as planned, the inaugural San Diego International Fringe Festival will be willed into existence July 1 through 7 by the efforts of Kevin Charles Patterson (Contact Arts), Patrick Eugene Stewart (former executive director of Sushi Arts), Katherine Harroff and Patrick Kelly (Circle Circle Dot Dot) and Michael Schwartz (Max Fischer Players.)
Anyone—truly, anyone—with a show, exhibition or cultural event can register through the Fringe website, use a registered venue or arrange their own and join artists from across the country and all over the world in producing art forms spanning busking, cabaret, comedy, circus, dance, film, poetry, spoken word, theater, puppetry, music and anything else concoctable by the mind of man or woman.
As per tradition with fringes everywhere, it will be an unjuried affair, with none of the festival organizers screening or rejecting entries. Fringe staff only manage logistics and provide support to participants. Therein lies the potential for amazement and terror among audiences and sponsors.
"Despite the incredibly traditional nature of much of the art that's presented in San Diego, there's an audience for nontraditional performing arts," Stewart said. "We're sophisticated here, but not always the most adventurous. Fringe festivals give an opportunity to explore."
Organized independently, fringe festivals sprang out of a spirit of rebellion: Eight theater companies turned up uninvited to the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947 with a plan to capitalize on the assembled crowds and press for their own shows. It worked, so much so that the Fringe immediately became an annual tradition, growing until 2011, when the Edinburgh Fringe sold 1,877,119 tickets for 41,689 performances of 2,542 shows in 258 venues over 25 days.
While some fringe participants certainly carry on the tradition of performance artists like Karen Finley—simultaneously wielding nudity, foodstuffs and controversy for dramatic effect—baiting the rotting ghost of Sen. Jesse Helms is not a prerequisite. Audience-favorite musicals like Urinetown and Debbie Does Dallas made their critical debuts in the New York Fringe, as did the English-language adaptation of The Black Rider by Robert Wilson, Tom Waits and William S. Burroughs. Edinburgh Fringe premiered the full-length version of Tom Stoppard's Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead and launched Derek Jacobi's career through a production of Hamlet.
Being a newcomer to fringe festivals with a background rooted in traditional theater, Kevin Patterson booked himself a marathon educational excursion first to the Edinburgh Fringe, then to festivals on Oahu and in New Orleans, San Francisco and Santa Cruz, as well as the United States Association of Fringe Festivals in Indianapolis, where he met directors from all over the country.
"I heard feedback that we're a city with enormous potential for a fringe festival because of where we are," Patterson said. "We're one of the top destinations in the world, one of the most desirable locations to live, one of the biggest cities in the country, right next to the Mexico border, and we have a high level of arts and culture, too, though we're often not thought of that way."
Patterson added that the San Diego Fringe was slated for the first week of July to take place in-between the Hollywood Fringe and Santa Cruz's festival. Artists traveling from afar could hit up all three for the cost of one plane ticket, effectively creating the basis for a West Coast Fringe tour every year.
Stewart witnessed firsthand the transformative effects such festivals have on a city and its economy. While director of the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington, D.C., in 2006, he served on a committee for the inaugural Capital Fringe Festival. The experience garnered him an invitation from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to take a month-long trip to experience the festivals of Adelaide (the largest arts festival in the southern hemisphere and second in the world), Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.
Imagine the millions of dollars that ticket sales, plane flights, hotel bookings, restaurants and other miscellany would generate, and it's self-explanatory why an arts event would interest departments of trade.
The investment by the Australians, Stewart said, was a pump-priming initiative to draw more international artists and create opportunities for their artists to work internationally.
Patterson said San Diego Fringe already has had more international submissions from artists than other U.S. fringe festivals that have been running for years. Registrants hail from Israel, the U.K., Canada and Australia, in addition to out-of-state Americans.
One of the greatest challenges for the organizers will be drumming up involvement among San Diego's creative community.
"It's great that you have community organizing," Stewart said, "but you also need representatives of the artistic community. The local arts scene can be pulling audiences intrigued by what's happening regionally while the national / international arts scene is presenting something otherworldly to us."
The call for local artists is in full swing. The 10th Avenue Theater in East Village will function as Fringe Central, with the entire festival occurring within a one-mile radius. Busking and street performances will stretch to Seaport Village, and site-specific installations are planned for various locations including the ferry to Coronado.
A poster competition, soliciting artists to create the single design that will symbolize San Diego Fringe Festival 2013, runs until Jan. 31. Submissions can be made through the Fringe website. Venues interested in participating as official locations should also apply.
Registration for artists is open through the website for $40 until March 31. Additional fees for participating vary according to venue. To help recoup fees, artists keep 100 percent of their ticket sales.
"I've always hoped San Diego will become the kind of arts scene that I want it to become. To start anything new is tricky, but I think you've just got to rip off the Band- Aid," Stewart said. "Kids, I think we're ready for this. Let's do it."
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