Orlando Fringe celebrates 25 years. We look back on how the hell that happened

By : Billy Manes
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It’s just another regular April Thursday in Orlando. The steamy afternoon has brought its kaleidoscopic blur of meteorology and subtext, of underachieving and overstatement, into its typical sea breeze collision, leaving the brightest colors to shine while the rest just wash away. Addison Taylor, the lovely drag persona and Orlando Fringe regular, has agreed to join us in blue hair with a hat on it, there’s a bright red Radio Flyer wagon at the ready, a man in the corner takes pictures of bright buttons on the ground and the generalized frenzy of creating a festival pauses to take a look at itself, its history and its principals.

Orlando Fringe founder Terry Olson, currently holding the arts up high as director at the Orange County Office of Arts and Cultural affairs, is wasting no time hamming it up in Radio Flyer as Taylor pulls him around for an arranged photo shoot. First being pulled left, then being yanked right, Olson is a good sport. Though he may have mumbled one thing or another about arts funding and hotel bed taxes in advance of our meeting, he’s all smiles today, palatably proud of history he helped to create.

“Well, It started when I was running SAK, and I took a trip to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival,” he recalls. “I guess I had been in Scotland and I thought we should go perform there, which we did. SAK started at Renaissance festivals and we were familiar with Renaissance festivals, and we kept thinking ‘there needs to be a festival here in Orlando.’ A couple of us went to the Canadian Fringe producers’ meeting in Victoria that year, I believe. It was in November and we were like ‘well maybe, like, a year from next spring. What do you guys think?’ They were like, ‘Do it this spring!’”

That spring awakening in 1991 led to what is arguably Orlando’s greatest claim to its freak flag: Orlando Fringe (a recently shortened nomenclature for the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival). For all of its beer tenting, hobnobbing, pamphlet-sharing, hair-coloring glory of recent years, the festival did have humble beginnings, Olson says. More humble than the unjuried, slightly (and intentionally) varnished silver it sits upon today, largely in Loch Haven Park.

“Rats, rotting materials, you name it,” he says, recalling the art of turning old downtown buildings into theaters.”

“I remember seeing a show in a venue that was separated from another venue by pipe and drain, so you get two shows for the price of one. Really the show that you listened to was whichever one was louder,” current Fringe producer Michael Marinaccio chimes in with a laugh. He’ll have his go on the wagon a bit later.

Olson carried the festival for the first five years, winding through the tenets of city code. “The main thing was egress and exits. The city wanted it to happen. When I would try to do something crazy, I would try and get a proclamation from the mayor [Bill Fredericks] and hang it up really high the day the inspector would come by.”

Would it work?

“We didn’t know,” Olson says. “I thought it would be [accepted] and it was. That first year, we did a lot to try to get the press involved and we got on the 5 o’clock news. It used to be a big deal, and they interviewed some very expressive people…”

And the expressive people flooded in, Olson says. And, though he may have moved on to greener administrative pastures five years after its local inception, his heart still lies with the Fringe.

FIND OUT WHAT 2016 ORLANDO FRINGE SHOWS NOT TO MISS.

“Well, first of all I’m delighted that it’s continued to grow and be successful. Our original goals were to make a meeting place for the community that was an inclusive place where people from different walks of life would come together and rub shoulders, because they’re standing in line together, and talk to each other, because you don’t know what you’re going to need to know about the shows until they started,” he says. “Creating that kind of meeting place and creating a place where artists can express themselves, those were basic goals and that has continued to be the case.”

Those goals included, he says, the ability to put a show on yourself without all of the posturing and waiting for an established theater company to take you on. There was a critical shift in power; the norms were being adjusted, reframed and re-energized. Fringe didn’t stand against the arts establishment, Olson says, but more likely invigorated it. After all, putting on shows for 20 people in an abandoned downtown storefront with no air conditioning wasn’t exactly a challenge to the system. It was, however, empowerment from beneath.

By some purely Fringe-tastic twist of fate, Orlando theater powerhouse Beth Marshall floated into the picture, carrying the festival through to its next level. It wasn’t an immediate transition, she admits – there were debts ranging up to $65,000. But nothing about Fringe is supposed to be immediate, anyway.

“In 1997, I attended my first Fringe as a patron and a volunteer, and I ended up by a fluke, being put in the beer tent by Terry Olson, who had to run off for an emergency,” Marshall, who now runs her own production company, says.“This was in Heritage Square Park, and I ended up covering for him for a short amount of time. And that was fun, because I had never served a beer in my life.”

Marshall soon after was producing, directing and acting, running the full Fringe racket. In 2002, things got more intense and serious.

“The year that I was associate producer, I just had a knowing come over me that I’m going to end up running this festival,” she says. She did. A seed was planted, but not without its storms to weather.

“Artistically, one of the things that happened in 2001 was obviously Sept. 11,” she says. “And when that happened, the numbers that we had grown for international artists were down tremendously. At the same time, more Canadian festivals were booming. At the time, artists could make much more money doing the show.”

“Probably the thing I’m most proud of that I was doing was really going out to get these artists to these festivals, and they did come,” she adds. “And once that happened, they started telling each other, and it was less work for me.”

By 2012, she launched her own endeavor, Beth Marshall Productions. Arts administration, her de facto role with the Fringe, wasn’t quite the creative outlet she had been seeking, she says, with no disrespect. The meetings, the paper pushing, the rat race were all a trade-off for immersion in the arts, wholesale.

“I think the hardest part is coming to terms with the fact that you can’t please everyone, and you’ve really got to come to terms with that fact, and not have a sensitivity to it,” she says. “As an artist, people expect you to have that sensitivity, and you have a fragile ego, and all that stuff. When you’re an arts leader, that’s not the case. I’m a tough cookie. But I’m not a morning person. I didn’t like getting up at 7:30 a.m. and meeting with the county and the city.”

Since Marshall’s stage-left exit, the reins have been taken up by executive director George Wallace (and producer Marinaccio), who have carried the nation’s longest-running Fringe festival to the historic levels it rests at today. Again, the ascent wasn’t a planned one; that’s the happenstance of Fringe.

“I started as a volunteer, and I volunteered for a few years,” Wallace says. “My first year volunteering was 2002. It was still downtown, and I remember this whole chaotic spirit and I fell in love with it. I won Volunteer of the Year in 2006 and in 2007; I still vividly remember this, I was sitting outside on my porch smoking a cigarette and I get a phone call ‘Girl, it’s Beth Marshall! Wanna be the volunteer coordinator?’ And, literally, that’s how it happened.”

Times changed, staff coordination changed (year-long staffs ebbed and flowed for a bit), Wallace became general manager and then, naturally, executive director. The festival was moved to Loch Haven Park, the historic beer tent found its roots and the whimsical shows went on and on.

“I remember the first couple years thinking Loch Haven Park would be such a pivotal change,” Wallace recalls. “I think it was a big move for the organization at the time, I think one of the things I’m most proud of about my tenure is that we’re her and we have this beautiful space. It really does legitimize us as an arts organization. We now have moved into the large pool at United Arts, we have hit a $1 million annual operating budget, and we have annual programming, which speaks volumes of our organization, not just our artists, but our Fringe Fanatics. We love them.”

And Fringe Fanatics come in all different stripes, according to Marinaccio. When asked about what a “fringe” population means to a Fringe festival, he’s clear on the fact that outsiders are welcome, but not necessarily given a leg up. As the festival increases its audience, the quality has to rise with its ships.

“Our very first meeting after I was hired as producer, we sat down and we shared a vision for the festival, and that is that we do not want to alienate anyone: We want to be inclusive not exclusive,” he says. “We have been branded for a long time as really avant-garde or really gay or whatever the trend was at the time, but a lot of the time our public faces were playing into those things. Our campaigns have been ‘everyone can fringe’ and ‘we have 100 shows rated G to OMG’” and not specifically gay, he says, although such over-the-top fare as the Lion Queen andBathhouse: The Musicalmay have tilted that scale (at least in terms of appearances) in recent years. But, ultimately, it’s Fringe and not the fringes that power the festival’s ever-growing machine. And that’s something for Orlando to be proud of.

“Coming into this year, over the last four years, we’ve doubled overall attendance to the festival and artist payout, increased the number of shows by about 75 percent, which this year will be doubled” Marinaccio says.

Oh, and there’s always that beer tent for when you’re off the wagon.

“People always say ‘How do you describe Fringe?’ I have one word ‘Community,’” Wallace says. “My favorite piece is not the shows. I love the shows, but my favorite piece is sitting out on that beer tent for that one time a year and you get to see it. I will be tired coming off 18-hour days pissed off at something, and I know I can go to that beer tent and get re-energized.”

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