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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

It's Fringe Time again Los Angeles!

Now, that will likely elicit one of three responses: Yay, thank god! More theatre! Ugh, whatever - more theater!? or Hunh? What's a Fringe festival?

For folks in that third group, here's a quick primer. The Hollywood Fringe is currently celebrating its fifth year. It bills itself as the largest arts festival west of the Mississippi - a dubious metric, but I'll get back to that in a minute. Practically, it means that the tiny shoebox theaters in Hollywood are filled with more than 200 shows across three weeks in June.

Now if you're familiar with the idea of a Fringe, you're probably thinking of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival that literally takes over the Scottish city for the month of August. The model embraces a come one, come all ethos. Unlike most film festivals - think Sundance - the Fringe isn't juried or curated, so while there's a wonderfully inclusive spirit there's no real quality control. Ben Hill, the Festival Director of the Hollywood Fringe, sees this as a feature not a bug. In conversation, he's quick to offer, "There's no way judge quality in theater. It's subjective. But you can measure quantity."

Again, I'd beg to disagree but let's focus on the experience.

I have to admit that driving down Santa Monica Boulevard at 7pm on a Saturday night, it's great to see folks lined up outside several venues. At least on a weekend night the Fringe seems to have captured critical mass and has created enough density that you could think about parking once and seeing two or three shows within a quick walk. By any measure that's a success in LA.

Saturday, I waded through the Fringe website and picked a couple of shows that allowed for a quick bite to eat and a drink in between. While it's impossible, given the scope of the festival, to imagine capturing it's flavor in a snapshot, my experience was pretty typical of the Fringe's I’ve been to around the world.

My rule of thumb, if 50% of the shows you see are good you're doing really well. The two shows I saw Saturday held true. The first, The Last Train reminded me of the classic theater joke: 'The actors were completely committed. To what? I have no idea.' The play was an odd, convoluted tale of two lifers sharing a prison cell who are randomly visited by a woman in a skin-tight mini dress who mysteriously gets locked in their cell with them. The setup should tell you a lot.

The second, Ligature Marks by Mac Rogers is a quirky, dark, two person comedy centered around a troubled relationship and a multi-player computer game titled "Noir." The first level of the game, that takes over the relationship and the play, requires that you plan a murder and get away with it. Definitely Fringe material.

When I step back and consider the Fringe against the broader ecosystem of LA theater, I'm left with the same questions: what's it all add up to? Does LA really need more small theater or do we need more good theater?

For now, grab a couple of friends, pick a couple of Fringe shows within walking distance of a good bar and roll the dice on a night of quirky theater.

The Fringe shows play across Hollywood through June 29.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.


Photo courtesy of the Hollywood Fringe Festival

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