“When we started, FRINGEPVD was off the beaten path,” says Josh Short, artistic director of the Wilbury Theatre Group and founder of FRINGEPVD, which returns to live performances along with a streaming component after two years of virtual productions due to the pandemic. “But in the last five years or so, people are coming out and really appreciating the groundbreaking, interesting stuff that happens here.”
Fringe festivals are an import from Europe, with the largest and most famous in the world being the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which was founded in 1945 and takes over Scotland’s capital city every August. The fringe festival concept spread to the US, and particularly in the late ‘90s and early aughts, it flourished. A circuit of festivals that run every summer throughout North America was established.
Like most (but not all) fringe festivals, FRINGEPVD is unjuried, which means that everyone who applies is accepted. The egalitarian nature appeals to Short. “Fringe festivals that are juried feel like an oxymoron. It defeats the purpose. Being unjuried and uncensored is the guiding force for these festivals. Gatekeeping is the antithesis of the fringe spirit.”
Short credits the indie spirit of Rhode Island’s network of performing artists as his inspiration for founding the festival in 2014. “A lot of independent performing artists really depend on fringe festivals as an opportunity to perform their work,” he explains. “There were a lot of independent artists throughout Providence performing in the old mills or in studio spaces in Olneyville. It seemed like Providence should be part of [the fringe] circuit.”
Fringe theater is notoriously edgy and often weird. How did Providence audiences respond to its first outing? “It took a minute,” says Short with a laugh. “For some of us, it’s the weird, fringy stuff that is the most exciting. I think it took a couple of years for more people to appreciate that sort of nonlinear or less conventional work. But now we have the full support of the city, the Department of Art, Culture + Tourism and the Providence Tourism Council. Brown Arts Institute and RISD are sponsors this year. So, people have sort of caught up to what we’re doing.”
When FRINGEPVD was founded, the focus was on local talent. While 60 percent of submissions still come from performers close to home, as it’s grown over the last nine years, the entries became more far-flung. This was especially true during the pandemic when, like other theaters, the festival pivoted to online viewing platforms. Because of the success of the streaming option, a virtual component will remain as part of 2022’s roster.
“Digital streaming not only expands the reach of FRINGEPVD, but it allows artists who maybe can’t travel here for one reason or another to participate as well,” says Short. “Last year, we had someone performing live from Cambodia through the streaming platform. It made the festival even more international than ever before.” However, Short notes, “There’s nothing like live theater and being in the same room with the performer.”
Short points out that FRINGEPVD is not solely made up of theater. It has a wonderful dance component and, this year, the organization partnered with Motion State Dance Company for the dance presentations. There’s also a mix of magic arts, solo acts, and experimental, multimedia works that cross, and even defy, genres.
With the Wilbury Theatre Group now settled in their new homebase at WaterFire Arts Center and FRINGEPVD growing every year (it’s now the largest fringe festival in New England), Short appreciates the thriving arts community that’s built around the city. “I’ve always thought that Providence is the greatest city. I love it,” says Short. “I can’t imagine being anywhere else.” July 17-30, FRINGEPVD.org
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