All dressed up with somewhere to go: Fringe festival gives artists creative space

What do you do if you’re an artist with nowhere to perform? Perform from home for small groups of friends?

What are your options if you’re a playwright who can’t afford the overhead to put your work onstage? Put your manuscript in a back drawer and forget about it?

These are struggles encountered by many non-professional and non-traditional artists. But since 2015, Athens, Georgia has been home to an outlet for them: the Classic City Fringe Festival (CCFF), which spans three days of performance art staged at venues ranging from Terrapin Brewery to artists’ own homes. This year’s venue took place on October 27-30 and included appearances by more than 40 artists and vendors. 

“Simply put, fringe is performance art,” says CCFF co-founder Marty Cronk. “It can include puppetry, dance, theatre, and many other performing arts….To a lot of people fringe is edgy or weird or outsider art, but I think that’s just one aspect. Traditional art can also be a part of it. The purpose of theatre is to entertain; it’s not to be exclusive in any way.”

Ironically, fringe is itself founded on exclusivity. In 1947, Scottish political and cultural leaders established the Edinburgh International Festival. This drama festival, which is still in existence today, was meant to be a world-class event celebrating culture and art. Festival leaders were thus rather exclusive in selecting artists. Cuts were made, indignation abounded, and the rejected artists established their own alternative festival on the “fringes” of the main festival. Fringe had officially been born.

But fringe does not exist just to highlight the “weird” or “rejected” stuff. In many cases, artists create fringe productions to lessen the financial burden of moving a show from idea to reality.

“I have a video production company called Randomosity Productions,” says Cronk. “And my partners are writers, playwrights, screenwrights, etc. And one of them had a play he wanted to produce and he wanted to put up his own money to make it happen, and I said that might be more risky than is necessary. Maybe if we pool our money with other artists or join a festival we could make it happen and not stand to lose all of the capital that he put into it.”

But Athens did not have such a festival. Though the United States Association of Fringe Festivals lists more than 30 festivals nationwide, in 2009 the only such festival in Georgia existed in Atlanta (and it too was in its very early stages). So Cronk and his partners decided to create one in Athens.

“When we first started tossing the idea around it just seemed interesting and fun,” says CCFF co-founder Megan Dunn. “We didn’t realize how much it was truly needed. But the more we talked with people the more we realized that there are music festivals and theatre festivals and food festivals, but nothing for people whose art doesn’t necessarily fall in those categories, or for non-professionals. It’s fun to see because quite a few of them are just doing [their art] at home because they love doing it, and would never think to come onstage and do it in front of an audience. So I’m really happy to give them that opportunity.”

One such group of artists includes Jacosa Kato, Steve Seaberg, and Deedee Chmielewski. At 85, Seaberg is one of the world’s oldest acrobats. Seaberg has been working with Kato for more than 20 years and with Chmielewski for 6. They met at a circus event 6 years ago and have been doing events like this ever since. 

Seaberg and his “Beach Babes” perform at Terrapin Brewery on October 28, 2016.

“I’ve been doing or teaching acrobatics for most of my life,” says Seaberg. “I’m glad I still have outlets to perform.”  

Also included in many fringe festivals are vendors selling jewelry and art. Bill and Lori McConnell of Under the Slab jewelry create dark fantasy-inspired jewelry and props, some of which have been featured in television shows such as The Originals. They devote many weeks of the year to traveling to festivals such as these.

“We do primarily make a living from our creative work,” says Bill McConnell. “But what lets us do that is definitely the prop work we get. I’m not sure we could make a living doing festivals alone.”

Lori McConnell discusses her work on October 28, 2016

The McConnells are experiencing one of the great challenges of the artistic life—struggling to make a living from it. Most artists today are not able to make a living doing their art alone, and must work other jobs on the side to make ends meet. Addressing this challenge is something about which Cronk is especially passionate.

“Part of our motivation in doing this is that art is undervalued in our economy,” he says. “I’m trying to create a situation where people stop giving it away for free and start to value their own work, and even start to create a situation where artists can make a living doing what they’re best at. Because when artists give their work away for free, it depresses the value of all other art. If someone can get your work for free, why would they pay for mine?” 

The financial challenges of art do not extend solely to individual artists. Funding a festival like Classic City Fringe is no mean feat, and in the early years of a festival’s existence, revenues are small. Ticket sales totaled $607 in 2015, 80 percent of which was passed back on to the artists. This left organizers with a “seed” of only about $120 to help fund 2016 costs. Organizers have obtained more sponsors as awareness of the festival grows (this year they were excited to receive support from businesses such as Terrapin Brewery, Zombie Coffee, and Walker’s Pub and Coffee), but many expenses still come from their own pockets.

“When this first started we wanted to be able to give artists everything they earned through ticket sales,” says Dunn. “But we realized we just needed something to help with the next year’s expenses.”

Organizers are hopeful that donations and sponsorships will continue to grow in the next year. Cronk and Dunn have applied to form a non-profit, which should be approved soon. They hope promise of tax-deductible donations to a non-profit may encourage more businesses to support the festival in future.

Still, many challenges remain due to the festival’s youth.

“I mean, with Athfest we get people [visitors and performers] from all over because it has a big enough following that people want to support it and be a part of it,” says Dunn. “It just takes years sometimes to get the word out. That’s been something we’ve been working on more this year—getting the word out.”

Social media has been of tremendous importance to the team—the festival’s website is dotted with share buttons linking to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Google+, and more. They’ve found Facebook to be the most useful, as they say that users still tend to share and interact with content more on Facebook than they do with other platforms. Instagram, they say, has been something of a learning curve, as they way one uses Instagram for private use (perhaps taking a picture and linking to your personal Facebook) is often different from the hashtagging and linking savvy employed by those truly trying to Insta-market themselves.

“We’ve had other festivals in Portland and then in Prague pick us up [on Instagram] just recently, though,” says Cronk. “I think that will really help us build a wider audience. But I think we’ll see the effects of these things happening now, next year.”

Organizers plan for the Classic City Fringe Festival to return in the last weekend of October every year. To learn more about this year’s past festival, next year’s plans, or fringe in general, please visit http://classiccityfringefestival.com/.

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