You know how when you get together with your siblings or cousins you can say super disparaging things about your grandpa or aunt or mom? But how if some person not in your family said awful things about your grandpa or aunt or mom you'd be really, really mad? Yeah. That basically sums up my feelings about criticism of FringeNYC in a nutshell. Unless you were in certain rooms round about 1998 or 1999, I don't want to hear about it. However, if you were, let it fly!
The 16th edition of the New York International Fringe Festival begins tonight, something that makes me feel shockingly old. This also marks the first festival since the very first in which I am a complete civilian. I haven't been on the festival staff since 2003 (nine years!). For better or worse, I did all my mourning for the early years of the festival in slow motion while I was still involved with it so, honestly, what I mostly feel is relief.
Let me explain.
A number of years ago I attended a book event at which art and performance luminaries of the 70s and 80s spoke about the downtown art scene back then, and about the state of the current art and performance scene. I remember Bogosian speaking and a few others, and person after person went on and on about how much more creative, what a better sense of community, how exciting it all was compared the scene now. Needless to say, I was furious.
Then the sainted Michael Musto got to the podium. The very first thing he did was blast (nicely) all the previous speakers for their criticism of the current young artists. He said (and I'm paraphrasing wildly - this is from my memory of an event like seven years ago), "It seemed so great back then because we were so young! Of course everything seemed so much better, we're all old and cynical now." Bless him!
I'm old enough that those (now curmudgeonly) 70s and 80s artists were a part of what my idea of the world of art was like. Downtown lofts and punk rock and nightclubs (the kind without all that table service nonsense) and galleries in Soho. I read the Voice (back when you had to pay for the privilege) and Interview (when Andy was still alive). I smoked cigarettes in the East Village, I saw bands play at CBGB and The Ritz. I wrote short stories about paranoid, displaced Lizard People living in New York. I became an actor. I drew pictures. I dreamed of Cafe Cino. In the 90s I interned at Circle Rep, Lanford Wilson's company and I became a playwright. That led me to the Present Company and FringeNYC.
You'll likely be reading lots about the early days of FringeNYC in my memoirs one day so I'll keep it short. We were so young. We worked so hard. It was messy and dirty and punk rock. We had the best time and it was hell. It was equal parts magic and exhaustion. We were very, very young. And I want to be very clear about one thing: FringeNYC gave me my life. I can't even imagine what my life would look like now without it and the downtown theater scene of the late 90s, because my life would look 100% different.
So, I look at Fringe NYC now and it looks like an institution. I was a participant last year and there are a lot of rules. I look at the kids working there and all I can think is, "my god it looks dull" and "poor things, they'll never know the fun and horror of what we had". And then I realize that I'm just old. Nothing is new to me and these young people need to find their own way as I did. And their community seems a little invisible to me because I'm not a part of it, and I'm not welcome because I'm not in the trenches. I can keep my memories of the festival's gritty, punk rock past intact. The festival as it now stands may not be my festival, but that's okay. It's theirs. I'm sure I'll be reading some of their blog posts 20 years down the road, writing about how very young they were in 2012.
The New York International Fringe Festival begins today. I will be covering it from the depths of my cold, black heart. Check back frequently.