While the British theatre scene prepares for Edinburgh, in New York, the International Fringe festival begins on 14 August, and I’ve been planning my schedule for the opening weekend. In two and a half days I’ll see more than a dozen shows, and, if this year is anything like the last 10, I’ll also have to deal with too little sleep, too much pizza, freezing air conditioning, boiling sun, torrential rain and several of the worst plays I will see all year.
Photo: Time Out

While I love my work as a drama critic and used to very much enjoy my days of frantic Fringe-ing, I have begun to view this late-summer ritual with something approaching dread. It’s not the fault of the Fringe, but rather the fact that in recent years New York has come to suffer from a condition called festival glut. And it’s an acute case. Not very long ago, Manhattan theatre used to take a summer holiday. A few shows demanded attention, such as the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park, but, for the most part, a critic could have a holiday – some time to relax and indulge in other passions. Dagger-sharpening, say. Or making small children cry.

In 1996, the Lincoln Center festival opened its doors to counter the theatrical summer doldrums. The Fringe festival started the following year. Now New York is overwhelmed with dramatic events. These last two months have already seen the Summer Play festival, Summerfest, Summerworks, the Summer Solo Series and a dozen others. The Fringe has even spawned a knock-off: the International Cringe festival, at which I witnessed several (more or less intentionally) execrable shows last week.

I should say I’m not in the least anti-theatre. Last month I spent my holiday in London and Manchester, seeing plenty of plays. Nor am I anti-festival. Every year a critic friend and I hatch schemes to get ourselves to the Festival d’Avignon; they’ve yet to work.

But I’m unconvinced that the typical strategy of taking in as many shows as you can is a particularly functional or pleasurable way to experience theatre. It’s an efficient use of time, I suppose, and encourages associative thinking as you try to make sense of so many disparate works. But every year, even if I take assiduous notes and drink too much coffee, the shows start to blur together in my head – tragedies mixing with musicals, parodies with confessional solo works. I also find that festival-going itself appeals to me less than it once did. Experiences I used to love in my 20s – bad food, lack of sleep, quick-fire romance – no longer seem quite as fun.

I would never call for a moratorium on festivals; I’d just prefer that New York’s were fewer and better assembled, and brought more experimental companies to the city. Alas, many are overbooked, under-curated, and rely exclusively on local talent. What I miss most from 10 years ago isn’t so much the opportunity for a holiday but the chance to uncover a really exciting new voice. It’s that aspect that still makes me look forward to January’s Under the Radar festival, as well as September’s Next Wave and the Lincoln Center event. But it has been years since I anticipated the Fringe with such relish – or hoped to find there the next great writer, performer or company.


Alexis Soloski