On the Fringe

The great frustration of being a lover of alternative theater is being limited -- by geography or vacation dollars -- to the amount of risky fare available in any given city. It was just such a frustration that, 50 years ago, led the alternative theater artists in Scotland to band together for what they dubbed the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and bring together a modest gathering of performers not only from Scotland but beyond. The event provided a big-top style venue for a variety of groups, catering to the alternative theatergoer and artist alike. The Edinburgh festival is now the daddy of all fringe festivals, and has grown to include more than 1,000 events in multiple venues over a six-week period. Taking a cue from the Scots, alternative theater and performing arts groups in San Francisco, Cleveland and Seattle sprouted their own festivals, though not quite as quickly or with as much success. Houston, though, has lagged at the back of the pack, without even a hint of interest in a fringe festival. At least not out in the open.

This week, though, Houston finally gets its own walk along the edge with the Fringe Theater Festival, which runs through May 31. The main force behind Houston's nascent fringe event is Gerry LaBita, artistic director for Theater LaB, a company that has the chutzpah to do plays such as Brad Fraser's Poor Super Man in the same season with Stephen Sondheim's Passion. LaBita has long felt the need for a fringe festival; he studied the listings for other such festivals, especially in Seattle and Miami, and read the plays they did, looking for clues as to why Houston was a cultural vacuum when it came to fringe groups. He looked at the considerable cost of bringing several different performers to town for four-night runs, and at the possibility -- which lies at the heart of the fringe festival philosophy -- of rounding up support from Houston's community of smaller theaters.

So why has it taken Houston so long to come up with a fringe gala of its own? LaBita surmises that it has to do with our comparatively tiny theater community (Seattle, Chicago, Minneapolis, heck, even Cleveland all have more professional theater than Houston), as well the financial risk of saddling subscribers with a packaged event in addition to a regular season of plays. Loris Bradley, performing arts director for DiverseWorks, thinks it has something to do with what she calls "the lack of critical mass of artists working here." Then, too, there are Houston's occasionally less than ambitious theatergoing habits. Give this city's audiences pap disguised as new comedy, and they'll flock to it; give them performance art, or edgy monologues, and they may run in the other direction.

Noted by his colleagues for his marketing abilities, LaBita seldom has a problem filling seats in his own theater. But the prospect of filling seats for a festival-length period was a bit daunting. It was made a touch less daunting when, following lukewarm offers from other local companies, Bradley and DiverseWorks came through as a co-presenter. Familiar with the risks of bringing in shows that have, at first glance, limited appeal, Bradley offered to make a dance contribution to the festival, and is hosting the inventive tap/clogging collective, Joe Chvala and the Flying Foot Forum, at her venue.

For his part, LaBita has scheduled a number of performers, including two well-known monologists: Liza Vann, whose work is titled The Top of the Bottom Half, and Eve Ensler, with her comic piece The Vagina Monologues. The latter has caused some confused chattering among ticket buyers, LaBita says. Scandalized by the potential for a Karen Finley encounter, some Theater LaB patrons have accused the artistic director of going down the risque performance art road. Not quite. Ensler's work is frank, but it's far from vulgar, says LaBita.

Both LaBita and Bradley hope that the festival will grow, but expect things to move slowly, primarily because signing on other small theaters may take coaxing. "Everybody is wary," says LaBita, "and they have to be." Still, after mailers were out for two days, Theater LaB had already sold 25 ticket packages, which is encouraging for a 90-seat house.

Most theater movements begin with someone who's willing to forge ahead artistically, and while the fare at Theater LaB isn't always on the edge, LaBita's tenacity has consistently filled seats over the past four years. That's enough to give the festival a jump-start, and with a little finessing, Houston may eventually begin to register on the alternative theater radar.

-- Megan Halverson

The Fringe Theater Festival plays through May 31 at Theater LaB, 1706 Alamo, 868-7516, and DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, 228-0914.

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Megan Halverson