10 Years. Nearly 3,000 Shows. Countless “Fringeships”: A Decade of Hollywood Fringe

How the annual outré theater fest has transformed L.A.’s scene

Have you heard about the big, breakout hit show that got its start at Hollywood Fringe? No? That’s because it hasn’t happened yet. Ben Hill, the festival director and one of its founders, says that’s never been the focus. “Our goal is not to find that diamond in the rough, clean it up, and push its way to Broadway. Our goal is to basically take this art form that’s wonderful and that we all love, that has gone through many deaths and many Lazarus-like risings since the beginning of recorded history, and be a part of this new wave of bringing people to the theater.”

In its tenth season, which runs through June 30, Hollywood Fringe will present roughly 400 productions, from solo shows to immersive experiences. After this year, that’ll bring the tally of shows that’ve been staged as part of the fest to a dizzying 2,915.

A major theater production can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but at Fringe, Hill says, putting on a show can cost as little as a grand. “So what’s the worst-case scenario?” he asks rhetorically. “You’re going to make a few hundred dollars at the box office, even if it doesn’t go well. The worst-case scenario is you’re down a few hundred dollars, but you’ve left it all on the stage, and you could take those risks. As an audience, that’s exciting. For $12, I can see some artists leave it all on the stage and bleed metaphorically—sometimes literally.”

Hill sees Fringe as a place to take risks and make bold statements, even if they offend people or make them run out of the theater crying. “The community is one that is supportive and helpful, positive, based on partnership and love of what you’re doing,” he says. Hollywood Fringe, a nonprofit, gives 100 percent of its box office revenue back to participating artists and venues—a total of over 2.8 million dollars since the festival launched. Participation is open to anyone who books a venue and pays the registration fee. 

Kat Primeau, a member of the musical comedy collective Robot Teammate, remembers Fringe’s early days because she was writing for L.A. theater websites at the time. “I have lots of nostalgic memories of how teeny-tiny it was that first year compared to how humongous it’s grown,” she says. “Eventually, I convinced Robot Teammate that it would be a great testing ground for our scripted musicals—and we haven’t been able to stop since.”

When Primeau first joined Fringe, she’d hoped one of her shows would go to New York. “Six years later,” she says, “that’s what happened, and it was like a dream come true.” The Robot Teammate musical Turbulence! received an Off-Broadway run as part of a Fringe encore series at Soho Playhouse. This year, Robot Teammate returns with another original musical, Pockets, which Primeau describes as “British-ish.”

Unknown Artists’ production of Wigfield

Peter Carrier

Local theater company Unknown Artists staged its first Fringe show, 13th Grade, in 2017. Cofounder Pamela Eberhardt says being part of a weird show made her feel like part of the Fringe family. The show got lots of positive feedback and gave the company a good reputation, which helped attract audiences to future shows. “It’s really about getting your work out there and getting your name out there, because there’s so much traffic in Fringe that they really get to know you by history,” Eberhardt says. “For instance, at Office Hours, which is something that Fringe throws together at different bars, people come with their show postcards, and everyone meets each other and you promote your show.” At this year’s fest, she’s presenting the world premiere of her play Wigfield, an adaptation of a book she fell in love with in 2003.

Kristen Boulé, founder of 2Cents Theatre Group, says she didn’t take full advantage of the whole “Fringe scene” when the troupe first staged a show back in 2014. “I feel like a lot of people don’t their first year—they’re focused on their own show. They don’t realize how much Fringe has to offer, and how much there is to be a part of, and how much it can help you grow as an artist,” she says. “We have this incredible theatre community here in L.A. that’s very tight-knit. Everyone works together, and a lot of people know each other, so Fringe is this part of the year that everyone really looks forward to.”

This year, she is producing four Fringe shows through her company, in addition to two others. A show she produced at last year’s festival, Bill Posley’s The Day I Became Black, just closed a three-month run at the SoHo Playhouse in New York.

The Cherry Poppins in Shakeslesque (To Thine Own Cherry Be True)

For some people, Fringe can become all-encompassing. Alli Miller, cofounder of the burlesque theater company Cherry Poppins, became so involved in the community that it sort of took over her life. “The thing they don’t tell you when you sign up for Fringe the first time as a producer or as someone who gets really involved, is that it never ends,” Miller says. “Yes, it’s only in June, but your whole year becomes about Fringe. Like, ‘What are you doing next year for Fringe?’ and ‘Oh, we gotta stop auditioning for things in January, because we gotta get ready for Fringe.’ And then you’ve got to make sure you have that after-Fringe vacation planned, because you’re going to be exhausted—and your after-Fringe diet, because you’re going to be eating food-truck food and drinking and partying with your theater friends all month.”

She believes working together on Fringe shows solidified her company, and says, “We made so many of what people call ‘Fringeships’ that are now, like, our whole group of friends.” She also met her husband, Michael Shaw Fisher, through the festival.

Fisher, founder of the Orgasmico Theatre Company, describes Fringe as “a gateway drug to theatre” and credits it for kick-starting his career as a composer. He won a 2016 Ovation Award for his original musical, Shakespeare’s Last Night Out, which premiered at Fringe in 2015. Last year at Fringe, his musical Doctor Nympho vs. The Sex Zombies was named Best Musical and Best World Premiere. That show just ended a run at the Celebration Theatre. Fisher says the show has come “leaps and bounds” from the Fringe production, but adds, “Fringe provided the workshop, the playground, the laboratory, to make it the thing that it is.”

Gregory and Jenn Crafts of Theatre Unleashed have produced shows at Fringe every year. Gregory Crafts, managing director of Theatre Unleashed, appreciates that the festival is a “free-to-fail environment” that allows people to go out and try things they’ve been too scared to do. The Crafts took a deep dive into the insanity of Fringe a few years ago, when they bought Studio/Stage, a venue that will host 20 productions this month. Jenn Crafts, artistic director of Theatre Unleashed, says, “We have shows every single night. On the weeknights, we have three to four shows in a row, usually starting at seven and going to midnight. Some of them end at 11, depending on the weekday. And then on Saturdays, it’s insane. We start at 10 in the morning, and our last show ends around 1 a.m. We have 103 performances on our stage during the month of June.” That still wasn’t enough Fringe for the Crafts, so they also run a pop-up venue called the Hobgoblin Playhouse.

Unlike most of the festival participants with whom we spoke, Padraic Duffy, managing director of the Sacred Fools theater company, wasn’t always a Fringe fan. When Fringe began, Sacred Fools was based in East Hollywood, outside the Fringe zone. Duffy saw the festival as competition for the last show of Sacred Fools’ season. When his theater company started looking for a new location, becoming a Fringe hub wasn’t part of the plan, but in December 2015, Sacred Fools moved into the Broadwater Theater in the heart of Hollywood. Duffy says, “In retrospect, I can’t imagine us moving to a place that wasn’t in the Fringe footprint.”

As Sacred Fools enters its fourth year with Fringe, he says, “It has become sort of the center pole that we plan everything around, because it isn’t movable, and it’s huge.” When Sacred Fools moved to the Broadwater, the complex had five theater spaces, all with separate entrances and lobbies. Duffy says, “We thought we thought we needed one fewer theater space and one more drinking space,” They converted one theater into the Broadwater Plunge, a full-service bar that opened last June and immediately became a popular Fringe hangout.

Hollywood Fringe may not have created any Broadway hits yet, but it’s strengthened the L.A. theater community, enabled thousands of people to take creative chances, and spawned countless “Fringeships.”

Tickets are available through the Fringe website, where you can browse listings by categories such as “political,” “heartfelt,” or “dark humor.” Theater-goers can preview some of the options at Fringe Cabaret, a show that features short performances from other Fringe shows.

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