By Madeline Ury
Pittsburgh Current Intern
For the past five years, the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival has gathered together artists of many different disciplines from around the country, and given them the opportunity to share their work in a supportive environment.
The festival prides itself on creating a supportive, inclusive environment for artists of diverse backgrounds to showcase talents in dance, comedy, theatre, music, visual arts, family entertainment and more.
The festival has continued to grow every year since its inception in 2014. Typically 20 to 30 shows have been performed, but the 2019 festival will feature more than 40. It is also the first year that the festival will go four days instead of three.
Co-founder of Pittsburgh Fringe Festival Xela Batchelder began her journey with Fringe Festival while living in Scotland. Beginning in 1947, Fringe originated in Scotland and is “the largest arts festival in the world.”
“I had to get involved,” Batchelder says. “So for 13 years, I ran a venue. At one point my venue had grown to eight theatre spaces—We produced 500 performances of 75 different shows in three weeks—but the Edinburgh Fringe is so huge that only made my venue a mid-sized venue.”
Batchelder has also written, produced, directed and acted in her own play for the Edinburgh Fringe. The importance of the festival to her life and career made it essential to search for a Fringe Festival when she found out she would be moving to Pittsburgh.
“What I found was that Dan Stiker was just starting to put the very beginnings of a fringe together, so we joined forces to build the Pittsburgh Fringe,” Batchelder says. “And here we are six years later.”
There is no central planning committee for the festival, and no one pre-selects shows and performers. Performers put in their applications, and one of the “Fringe Zone” venues takes it on.
Each year, the festival features one visual artist. For the sixth-annual festival, the spotlight is on visual artist David C. Mueller, who considers his art to be inspired by the Saturday cartoons that filled his childhood. Done on found or recycled wood, his paintings tell powerful stories.
Mueller will premiere his exhibition Unplayable Characters during the festival. The art opening will take place April 5 at 7 p.m. at Level Up Studios, which is just one of nine locations where performances will occur throughout the weekend.
Other locations in the Fringe Zone include Artisan Cafe, Bantha Tea Bar, Irma Freeman Center for Imagination, Boom Concepts, BGC’s Community Activity Center, The Pittsburgh Glass Center, the Ace Hotel and METTĀ. The Fringe Zone runs from Bloomfield to East Liberty.
Another unique performance that audiences will not want to miss is Brian Feldman’s “Dishwasher.” Unlike the other performances, this one takes place in a ticket buyer’s home.
The premise of “Dishwasher” is Feldman telling a personal story of his journey as from a child actor to a restaurant dishwasher. He’ll wash the dirty dishes, then perform a monologue of the audiences choosing.
Performing in a stranger’s home may sound unconventional to some, but Feldman says that it makes everything feel “immediate and real.”
“In this age of Netflix and ubiquitous streaming media, I wanted to create a live project that would reach people where they were spending more and more of their free time, in the familiarity and comfort of their own homes,” he says.
Batchelder echoed the sentiments of intimacy at the festival, describing performances as having “a very DIY feel.”
The plan for “Dishwasher” is for it to be a different experience each time for each audience. The number of audience members changes, kitchen layouts vary, the materials to work with are never the same. Going into a performance, “the answer to the central question of the project,” as Feldman put it, is always a mystery.
“I never know what to expect when I knock on the ticket buyer’s front door,” Feldman says.
The Pittsburgh Fringe Festival will be Feldman’s sixth Fringe Festival, with his ultimate goal being to perform at every one in the world, and there are more than 250 of these celebrations across the world.
In fact, one of the weekend’s shows serves the purpose of helping artists who are interested in potentially putting their work out at one of those 250 Fringe Festivals. “Beyond Pittsburgh: Which Fringe Is Next?” will hold a panel discussion for those who want to take that next step, or those who simply want to learn how it comes together behind the scenes.
Not all performances and exhibits are for everyone. But festival attendees can find out ahead of time if the show is suitable for children, or even themselves on the festival website.
The wide variety of genres and ratings presents the opportunity to unite all creative minds, regardless of interest or age. This connection is something that Pittsburgh Fringe Festival aims to strengthen through the weekend long celebration.
“I love working on Fringe Festivals because it means so much to me to create opportunities for artists to share their work with the world,” Batchelder says.
Prices for each performance vary and audiences can pick and choose what they want to see. Some shows are even free. Plus, with the purchase of a $5 Fringe Button, every show is $3 off, no matter what the original price is.
For those who want to see it all, a “See As Much As You Want” pass can be purchased for a whole day, or even the whole weekend. Batchelder described this opportunity to see anything you’re interested in any time of the day as one of her favorite parts.
Feldman summed it up best when he says, “I have an extraordinary journey ahead of me.”
It would seem we all do.