In Focus: Grand Opening at Fringe ArtSpace
A new performing arts venue is opening its doors in downtown Orlando.
That was quite the open house and show-time extravaganza the occupants of 54 West Church Street staged last month to announce their presence in the heart of downtown Orlando, which is pretty much what you’d expect when the new kid on the block is definitely the oldest and arguably the rowdiest fringe festival in the country.
That would be the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival, a scrappy, longtime haven for outsider artistry that suddenly finds itself on the inside looking out. That would be from the prime-real-estate luxury of a two-theater, second-story complex in the heart of downtown Orlando.
It would be hard to overestimate the cross-cultural sea change that the move represents.
For years, Fringe has brought scores of routinely outlandish local, national, and international shows to Loch Haven Park for two weeks of feisty guerilla-theater artistry every spring.
Fringe is certainly no stranger to downtown, which is where its fledgling season was staged in vacant storefronts 30 years ago and where, in recent years, its annual spring festival has been followed up with Winter Mini-Fest, featuring a smaller selection of curated productions presented in temporarily available downtown locations. But this new enterprise on Church is a game-changer, and not just for the Fringe, but for the downtown scene; the Central Florida theatrical community at large; and the heart and soul of The City Beautiful itself.
In line with an agreement that was developed following several months of meetings with the Downtown Development Board and local arts organizations, Fringe will not only present its own shows at the theater, which is owned by the city, but will operate the venue, dubbed “Fringe ArtSpace,” as a so-called arts incubator; an inclusive workspace providing a wide range of local theatrical companies—not just the Fringe—with performance and rehearsal space, professional guidance, camaraderie and moral support.
Arts incubators began cropping up across the country decades ago, mostly in New York City, where the majority of them serve as theatrical workspaces for playwrights, actors and producers to convene to develop and rehearse new productions without going broke in the process. But this is the first creative haven of its kind to get a try-out in Central Florida.
Support for inviting Fringe to take over the space came from several directions and included a boost from Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, a longtime supporter whose Fringe creds date back to his chance encounter with the granddaddy of all Fringe Festivals in Edinburgh, Scotland while on a European vacation. He enjoyed the Fringe back home just as much, and not only for the scrappy individuality of its productions but the diversity of the crowd it attracted. “One minute I’d be getting hugs from a couple of drag queens, and then I’d see a couple of mom-and-pop senior citizens wandering around,” he says.
Meanwhile, downtown Orlando was evolving into an increasingly diverse business, residential and cultural epicenter, bristling with artistic and lifestyle multiplicity. Studies were making it clear that the arts could provide a tremendous boost to both the health and well-being of a community; not to mention the overall success of its businesses. The Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts was working its way into fruition at the heart of town. And a two-stage theater on Church Street, converted from a space that was originally a chain restaurant, was quietly awaiting its opportunity to join the party.
That chance came upon the collapse of a more traditional theater that had occupied the space, which is owned by the city, due to longstanding financial and organizational issues. Soon after Mad Cow Theatre and its landlord parted ways, the idea for the arts incubator evolved out of discussions between city officials and representatives of community arts organizations with Fringe executive director Alauna Friskics, her staff, and board members.
Under the resultant arrangement, Fringe, whose annual spring festival will still take place in Loch Haven Park, will not only use the downtown facility for its own productions but will make it available to other theatrical troupes in the city for both performance and rehearsal space. Financially, Fringe will be responsible for operating costs, which are estimate to run at over $400,000 a year, and the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency will provide the Fringe with $307,000 yearly to pay for artists who perform there. Fringe will also be responsible for an estimated $2,500 in monthly operating costs to cover utilities, insurance, and various other fees, including a modest rental fee from the city.
It’s a win-win windfall for the city as well as the Fringe and other local theatrical groups, several of which are newly homeless, having yet to recover after closing down because of Covid. Something that will likely become apparent, according to many observers of the local cultural scene, is that Orlando is a creative hotbed, stocked with performers drawn to theme park jobs, community theatrical organizations, and thriving theater departments at the University of Central Florida, Rollins College, and Valencia College. There’ll be no shortage of performing artists eager to take advantage of the chance to develop projects in the new space.
“I get excited thinking about the potential,” says Paul Opedisano, a former Walt Disney World exec who’ll be serving as general manager of business operations for the Fringe to give Friskics and company the chance to get the new initiative downtown underway. “Just the idea of a space for the talented people in this town to bounce ideas off each other, for somebody to be sitting in a corner writing a great new play, that makes me happy.”
“My dream is that the space becomes an incubator for original, innovative, tour-able works so that artists from Orlando can create shows that travel the world, and we become a place known more for that than for theme park entertainment,” says former Fringe producer Michael Maranaccio. He’s in a good position to float that prospect, having successfully developed a show at the Fringe—”Josephine,” a tribute to the African American international superstar—that went on to successfully tour nationally, as well as in Canada and England, and has tentative plans for a second European run.
“I just look at what Fringe was able to do without a theater of its own,” says Barbara Hartley, executive director of the Downtown Arts District. “Imagine what they can do now that they have one.”
Save The Date
Here’s a look at the tentative schedule of performances at the new theater next few months.
February 3-5, 2023
CARRIE, the Musical, by William Daniel Mills Theatre Company: “CARRIE, the Musical” is a thrilling and engaging retelling of the classic thriller novel that tells the story of Carrie White, a teenager from a small town in New England, who is relentlessly bullied at school for being different and is harshly controlled at home by her fanatical mother. This is the first production as part of a new collaboration between Fringe ArtSpace and the William Daniel Mills Theatre Company.
February 17-March 5, 2023
Middletown, by Kangagirl Productions & Ant Farm: A deeply moving and funny new play by acclaimed writer Will Eno that explores the universe of a small American town featuring an all-star cast directed by Orlando Fringe Festival Lifetime Achievement Award recipient David Lee. As a friendship develops between longtime resident John Dodge and new arrival Mary Swanson, the lives of the inhabitants of Middletown intersect in strange and poignant ways in a journey that takes them from the local library to outer space and points between. Middletown, which is modeled after Thornton Wilder’s classic play, “Our Town,” will draw together artists from across the Central Florida community to collaborate on a very special production.
March 9-11, 2023
A Quarter of A Century…and then some! By Beth Marshall Presents: Arius has been on this Earth for A Quarter of A Century…and then some. Throughout his evolutions around the sun he has learned so much, but also has unlearned or recalibrated some of those learnings to fit his morality of understanding them. Through brave exploration, vulnerability, self-discovery, reflection, discipline, love and motivation, Arius has found the new hobby of growth. He continually finds ways to do the inner work and share his light and joy. By mixing comedy, drama, rap, R&B, spoken word, dance and songs to share his evolution of growth as a Black queer artist in 2022, Arius tells the story of his 25+ years of what he has learned and unlearned.
March 17-19, 2023
Our Lady of the Tortilla/Nuestra Señora de la Tortilla by Descolonizarte Teatro: This comedy tells the story of an intergenerational, Latinx family in the U.S. struggling with tradition, culture, language, love, and… each other! Everything changes when the pious tia (aunty) sees the Virgin Mary on a tortilla, and family ties are put to the test. Written by Emmy and National Hispanic Playwright Award Winner Luis Santeiro. The play is in Spanglish with Spanish and English supertitles, and features live music.
May 16-29, 2023
Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival: Most venues will be located at Loch Haven Park, as usual, while the two theaters in the downtown arts space will serve as the Purple and Teal venues. For tickets and information about ArtSpace events, visit fringeartspace.org.