The organizer of Pittsburgh’s first showcase for under-the-radar performance says that while attendance at the May 2-11 event fell short of his expectations, “We’re not in the red. … We pretty much broke even this year.”
Dan Stiker says he’d hoped for 2,500 attendees and got an estimated 1,200. (He hasn’t yet tallied official figures.)
While 90 percent of the box office went directly to the performance companies, funding and other support from backers like The Sprout Fund kept the two-weekend fest financially solvent, he says.
Moreover, Stiker and his team of volunteers pulled off the remarkable logistical feat of staging some 70 performances by 26 acts in four different Shadyside venues. (I attended three of the shows, and they all started on time, with no serious tech glitches.)
So Stiker’s primary goal was achieved, with positive feedback from both attendees and performers. “Everyone who came to see the fest really enjoyed themselves and started understanding what fringe really means,” he says.
The fringe fest concept, with lesser-known artists doing mostly short, often edgy work in a short, tightly scheduled time period, is new to Pittsburgh.
The venues included Steel City Improv Theater, the Boys & Girls Club and borrowed spaces (including a library and a dance studio) in Winchester-Thurston School.
Stiker acknowledged that attendance was better for in-town acts. Indeed, of the three shows I attended, only one had more than a handful of people: We Sing the Body Eclectic, an engaging work by Pittsburgh’s Eclectic Laboratory Chamber Orchestra and Shanna Simmons Dance.
By contrast, Friday’s show featuring the closest thing to a visiting marquee name — Joe Medina of the nationally known indie rock band Merch — drew just four people, me included, for Medina’s fine monologue.
(The performance was hampered, Medina acknowledged, by the fact that he had kidney stones and had taken a certain quantify of Vicodin, for which he apologized. But after the show, as I was leaving, he ran outside to thank me for attending. How often do you get that at the Benedum Center?)
Will there be another festival last year? I asked Stiker this morning.
“It definitely seems like we are [doing another festival],” he says. This year was a challenge, he admits, but adds, “I need to do it."
Stiker said he was pondering what kept attendance down. The time of year? The showtimes, many of them on Saturday or Sunday morning or afternoon? The venues, which while all located in Shadyside’s Ellsworth Avenue corridor were both unfamiliar to most theater-goers and spread unwalkably far apart, with mostly inconvenient parking?
Stiker says he scheduled the festival in May to catch the beginning of the season for groups that tour fringe fests. One show that played Pittsburgh, Anthony Giunta’s play Skin in the Game, for instance, was bound directly for the New York International Fringe Festival.
The showtimes, meanwhile, were an inevitable byproduct of cramming so many shows into so few days. In fact, while the fest technically ran two weekends (a handful of shows took place May 2-4), Stiker says he’d like to condense it to one weekend, but give performers more places to play: “Instead of growing days, we’ll grow venues.”
As to parking, maybe a shuttle would help, Stiker says.
One thing that won’t change, he says, is the unjuried nature of the show. Pittsburgh Fringe received 44 submissions, and literally drew the performers’ names out of a hat, so many were scheduled sight unseen.
Stiker acknowledged that meant the quality of the performances varied. But “that’s part of the excitement and adventure of the fringe festival,” he says.