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Tackling The Fringe

September 4, 2008

The San Francisco Fringe festival started yesterday. Every year, when it comes to Fringe time here in this city, I spend hours trying to figure out what shows to see. I never had this problem in Edinburgh: The Scotsman would simply give me a list of shows to review which pretty much kept me busy from 9am till 2am every day for a month. If I managed to find an hour to go and see a production which wasn't on my roster, I was lucky.

The San Francisco Fringe isn't nearly as big as its Edinburgh equivalent, but here, I'm my own boss: I can see whatever I want. This is both a blessing and a curse. How to choose from the myriad offerings? What selection criteria to adopt?

One approach, which I might favor if I had all the time in the world to potter around from show to show for the entire two-week span of the festival, would be to leave things to chance. I could draw show titles out of a hat or shut my eyes, turn to a random page in the festival brochure and pick productions according to where my index finger lands on the page. Another method, though a boring one, would be to wait until the last few days of the festival and only go and see those shows that have been earning raves from audiences and critics.

But what if you're faced with having to go at the start of the festival and only have the chance to see a few productions on one or two days? It's impossible to come up with a set of fool-proof criteria for figuring out which productions to choose from the slew of offerings. But, for what it's worth, here are a few notions that pass through my head when I'm trying to work out what to see:

1. The Fringe is packed with solo shows. It's harder to bring a show with a cast to a fringe festival, so I'm interested in seeing ensemble productions.
2. There are many interesting site-specific productions in this year's festival. I like seeing productions that take place in non-traditional venues, as this seems very much in keeping with the ad hoc spirit of the Fringe.
3. I admire companies that trek over here from faraway places to participate in the festival. It's fun to check out theatre from other cities in the US and abroad.
4. If a local company whose work I admire or hear is great but haven't gotten around to experiencing yet has a show on, I'll try to get there.
5. In terms of content, I'm generally less attracted to self-revelatory auto-biographical solo shows about a writer-performer's struggle to recognize his homosexuality with his religious faith than I am to, say, a kamikaze take on a classic or a physical-theatre piece about dog racing that blends original storytelling with clog dancing. It is the fringe after all, and I'm on a hunt for the deranged and different.

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