Free Fringe Philly provides an alternative to alternative theater

Chris Davis is a co-founder of Free Fringe Philly. He says he couldn't afford to put on a Fringe Festival show this year, so he and two others launched the program which is free to performers and audiences. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Chris Davis is a co-founder of Free Fringe Philly. He says he couldn't afford to put on a Fringe Festival show this year, so he and two others launched the program which is free to performers and audiences. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

For theater fans, the Fringe Festival is a busy time. With hundreds of performances across Philadelphia, it can feel like Christmas in September.

For theater artists, it can be depressing. The Fringe Festival involves upfront fees to the FringeArts organization to cover insurance and inclusion in the Fringe catalog.

For an artist who can’t pay, it can feel like being alone on Christmas.

“If you’re an artist and you can’t afford to do work, it can be a sad time,” said theater artist Chris Davis. “You want to be doing stuff.”

For the first time in 10 years, Davis will not have a show in the Fringe. He said it would have cost him about $500, in addition to the cost of renting a venue, building a set, and hiring crew.

FringeArts also operates the festival box office, so any return Davis might get in ticket sales would not be realized until sometime in October.

He just couldn’t afford it this year.

“If you don’t have the initial money to put down, it can be a burden,” he said.

So Davis teamed up with Betty Smithsonian and Sarah Knittel — two other financially outcast theater artists — to create Free Fringe Philly, the alternative to alternative theater.

About 60 artists have signed on to perform works in locations throughout the city. Like the regular Fringe, the performers are not vetted. Anything goes. Free Fringe Philly merely provides them a platform on which to present their work.

But unlike the Fringe, Free Fringe Philly charges neither the artists to perform nor the audiences to watch. No tickets are sold, though audiences are encouraged to pay what they wish after the performance.

The Free Fringe has received support from Kismet, a coworking space, and Fergie’s Pub. That allows the festival to establish a central hub for performances and after-parties.

While the Free Fringe does not have the reach of the regular Fringe, it can provide support to artists in terms of marketing and creative critical mass. If you build it, as the wisdom goes, people will come.

“It is really hard to do it on your own,” said Davis. “Especially during this time when there are so many shows in the original Fringe and our Fringe, you need some backing.”

Free Fringe Philly runs parallel with the regular Fringe, until Sept. 28.

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