The Orlando Fringe Festival

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Busking Around the World - Introducing the Orlando International Fringe Theater Busker Festival

Gene:
Hi everyone, I'm Gene Carr and I'm joined today by Evyn Lundy and Kelsey Guinnup. And we're here to talk with Brian Sikorski, who is the marketing director of the Orlando International Fringe Theater Festival. It's too many words! Welcome. And we're delighted you're here.

Brian:
Thanks for having me. 

Gene:
So, I think that since I couldn't even pronounce the name of the festival, right, why don't you give us a bit of background on the festival itself that people aren't aware of, -  setting the stage, if you would. 

Brian:
Certainly. The Orlando International Fringe Theater Festival, which I know is a mouthful, is a 14-day performing arts festival that takes place in and around Lockhaven Park, which is a little north of downtown Orlando.

And for people who are not familiar with it, what a fringe festival is -  to give you the long story short - I'm going to start in 1947, which I know is not a short story. But in 1947, there were some performers in Edinburgh, Scotland who wanted to perform at the Royal Edinburgh festival. And they were told “No you're not good enough. You gotta go”  and they went off on their own to the outskirts of town and they put on their own festival and they invited anyone who wanted to come and perform, and a local reporter coined it as the fringe of town. And that's where the name came from.

And to this day, Edinburgh Fringe is the largest theater festival. We're actually really the largest festival in the entire world. It takes place in Edinburgh, Scotland for the entire month of August, and takes over the entire city. And it's the place where performers go to be seen and to share their work. And, you've made it when you've gone to Edinburgh. And the world of Fringe started growing around the world. Canada really started booming with fringe festivals and one of the biggest in Canada was the Edmonton Fringe and some performers from here in Orlando, back in 1992, went to Edmonton and performed at their fringe, had a great time and said, “we need to bring this to Orlando”. 

So in 1992, the very first Orlando fringe festival happened. And we've been here ever since-  we've been founded on five principles, the first one being that we are 100% uncensored, meaning that anything goes. Essentially, we like to say, we have shows from G to OMG, so you can see something that's made for kids and families or you might see something that's totally off the walls with full frontal nudity and all that good stuff. We allow anything on the stage, as long as it's legal. 

The second thing is we're unjuried. Anyone can apply to be at Fringe, we literally put all the applications in a drum, spin the drum, pull a name out, and if you pull your name, you're in the festival. So you can see a show that's so polished and it's toured the world and it's been seen by all these audiences, but you also might see your 75-year-old next door neighbor, who is a landscape architect, who wants to tell the story of his courageous landscaping gigs. Both of those shows are amazing. And I would see both of them, but that's the nature of Fringe. You can get something that's polished, or something that's completely new and unseen before.

The next thing is 100% inclusivity. I mean that we invite anybody to come to the fringe, no matter what your gender is, what the color of your skin is, whether you believe in a God or not, you know, it doesn't make a difference. Just about anyone can come to the fringe. And then we're also 100% accessible, meaning that we help people with different disabilities, helping them with accessibilities to experience theater as well with a cell-interpreting audio descriptions of shows and things like that.

But also our price points: Our shows are as low as free and go up to $12. So anyone can come to the fringe and not break the bank and experience live theater.

And the last thing that we're founded on which is the most important to me is that 100% of all ticket sales go back to the artists. So when you come to the festival, you buy a $10 button, and that goes to the festival, that goes to us, and you can see whatever you want with that button, but you also have to have a ticket to the show. So each individual show can be anywhere from free to $12 and that money that you spent on that ticket goes directly to that artist on stage. So if you bought a ticket to that gardner that's doing their show, you’re paying 100% of that ticket cost, so that artist's fringe doesn't take a cut and back at a 2019 or less festival, we gave back almost a quarter over half a million dollars to artists over the 14 days.

Yeah, it's a whole bunch of fun for those 14 days. There's a free kids fringe that goes on the weekends where we have free arts and crafts activities, entertainment for kids, visual fringe is the visual component. So, there's known visual art on the walls and art performances that are happening. You can watch an artist create fringes of the future in our team programs. You can see local middle and high schoolers perform. And our outdoor stage is where you can come out to the lawn experience and incredible entertainment. It's all 100% free and there's nothing better than sitting out in the lawn in a May cool breeze, fresh tunes and cold beer in your hands, or, other libations from the beer tent. 

Gene:
And how many performers are in a given fringe? How many audience memes, all told?

Brian:
I'm not going to talk about 2020 as much because it's obviously going to be a misnomer to be a little different, but in 2019 we had an estimated 1300 performers during the festival and that. That included outdoor stage performers, the kids, fringe performers, and the artists on the stages. And we bring in about 75,000 patrons to the festival over those 14 days. 

Gene:
Wow. Holy smokes. Speaking of 2020, Ev, I think you have a question along those lines. 

Evyn:
Yes. I was wondering how has COVID impacted the operations of your festival? And do you see any of these changes being long term?

Brian:
 The biggest change to our operation is that I'm not in my office right now, I'm in my home office. So this is we're all been operating our individual offices. So, it's been obviously very difficult to work as a team because we're a very strong team of people that we work together very well, and having to do that from a remote location is a little bit difficult. So we try to get together as often as we can. We'll get together in the park, sit in a distance around the park and have a meeting and share some lunch or something. But as an organization, the biggest thing for us has been supporting the artists as much as we can because that's how we're founded, that we give 100% of the money back to artists.
Finding a way for us to survive as an organization, but still provide the artists, that has been the most difficult thing we can do. So we've opened things during the pandemic to help artists out. We have a website called Valon. That's at valon.ornaldofringe.org. And we invited artists to send us links to their online events and we would promote it and tell the artists, tell the patrons that, hey, these amazing artists that you know and love, they're doing a show, help them survive, give them some money and go see one of their shows.

So we opened that up and I don't know if it's slowed down a little bit at this point, but I don't know if it's going to go away. I think it's something that should always be there as a way for artists to promote themselves. So we have that. We started doing what's called a fringe today, where we did some online events, and during our slower months we held these online events on the first Friday of every month. And every event was a different theme. So that was a beautiful thing. And we'll probably continue doing that in our slower months. We did our first in-person event in December, it was a fringe Christmas Carol, and we invited six different artists groups to come and produce a scene from the Charles Dickens classic in the park.

And we led small groups around the park from the station and experienced the story of a Christmas Carol and each group got their own Scrooge and their own ghosts to travel with them to the different stages around the story. And it was really cool to see how each of the different arts groups interpreted the story.

So when we were at Cratchit and Scrooge, on an excursion to Marley's coin County shop, one of them was a frog pig puppet. They played the role of Bob Cratchit, and it was just really cool. And you go somewhere else and a dance troupe, do a scene and then another was a beautiful musical group.
So it's just really interesting. And then we did in January, our winter mini-fest. We put all of our shows online for the first time and patrons were allowed to watch shows as often as they wanted, they could buy an all-access pass. And then just because fringe fans are such a strong community, we had to do something to bring people together in a socially responsible way.

So, we had what we called Socially Responsible Hangouts, which is an oxymoron. But, we held these events outdoors and we projected shows on the walls of the buildings outdoors and allowed people to sit in the chairs and the cold of Florida, which I know is also a strange term, but it does get cold here. It was like 30 degrees. And for us that's really cold. So, we're all bundled up in 30 degree weather and watching shows on the screen that we easily could have done at home, but we chose to come together because it's, again, it's that strong, close-knit community. And we just wanted to just commune.

Gene:
That's beautiful. Let me ask you about your own relationship. You've been involved with this organization for a long time. So give us a sense of your journey. 

Brian: My journey is a strange one. When I was in high school, back in 1992, I had grown up in the theater or my family was very established in a local community theater.
My dad ran the soundboard. I did tech work. When I was in my teens, my brother was on the stage. My sister performed, my mom also worked at the place. We were all volunteering at this local community theater. So I was used to a lot of the classics and that's all I really knew in my theatrical life.
And then in 1992, I went to the first fringe. In downtown Orlando, they rented out these abandoned storefronts and performers were performing in places with broken air conditioning and flooded floors and rats running across the floor in the middle of a production. But it was like a theater, I had never seen it before. And I don't remember exactly what the show was, but I remember this performer and it was giving this just heartfelt monologue. And I was like, damn, this is what theater can be. And I was just so moved by it, and it just kept going back to the fringe year after year until I moved away to go to college.

And when I moved back to Orlando, I told my wife, we were going to get to go to the fringe together. She had never heard of it. So I took her and she fell in love with it as well as I did. It's just that. And so I started going back to fringe as a patron, and then learned that as a volunteer, you could see shows for free. I'm like, all right, I can also help the organization. I could see some free shows. So I started volunteering, and in the first year I volunteered, I think I put in the second most volunteer hours out of all the volunteers. So I just kept volunteering. After a few years, I became a donor and I was donating to the organization. At one point I became a sponsor because I had a photography business for a while.
So I sponsored the festival and then the executive director turned to me and said “You've been around for a long time and know everybody here. Have you ever thought about joining the board of directors?” So I was honored. I'd never served on the board before.

I applied and they accepted me and I was on the board of directors for three years, ultimately becoming the vice president of the organization for the 25th anniversary. And it was a huge honor to go from patron in high school to the vice president of the organization 25 years later. And whileI was on board, I was doing a lot of marketing work for the festival and in my free time, doing a lot of social media and things like that. And we got to the point where for the 25th, the anniversary, I felt like I was putting in almost like a second job of all the work I was doing for fringe, and I made a strong case for why the organization needed a full-time marketing person.

So I was in a unique position where I was creating a job that I wanted really badly, but also had to be responsible for the organization. So there wasn't any feeling of nepotism. I already have to wear it. And so I applied just like everybody else. And there were a few people that applied. I thankfully got the position.

So I was able to leave a relatively well-paying gig to work for an organization that is close to my heart and a non-profit, but doesn't pay very well. So it took a major step back in my life, but it was able to improve my life by working for an organization that I love.

Gene: What a beautiful answer. Kelsey, you want to ask a question? 

Kelsey: That was so beautiful. I love hearing how you rose up into the ranks.  and I think that's the best way, just like you said, you know how the organization works, and all the different aspects of how everything comes together. So I'm super excited for you.That's how you got this job that you created this job for yourself; I think that is amazing. 

Brian: The only role that I had not done in the organization was an artist. I'd never actually been an actual artist of the festival. And during fringe today, our virtual fringe festival last year in 2020, I actually got to do a show. I did a story time with Brian as part of the kids' programming. The kids would give me ideas and I created a story improv style for the kids and had special effects going off at the same time. So, I like backgrounds and stuff. And so I could actually cross that one off my list, so now I've held every position at fringe!

Kelsey:
That is awesome. So I'm curious, speaking of 2020, I was wondering in the fringe world, have there been themes that you've seen in fringe with 2020? And now, what's going on in 2021?

Brian:
I honestly expected to see more pandemic inspired or... politics-inspired pieces going into 2021. But I haven't seen any of that, which is surprising. I have seen a few and the artists that have taken the pandemic and been inspired by it and created things have done. I'll give you one example. An artist by the name of Martin Dockery. He does a show series online on social media called ‘right now’. And he did ‘right now’, the movie, and he's in Montauk, New York, and he's been sequestered there during the pandemic.

And he's, he shot this story of what it's like, and the emotional state that a person is in, and what they battle while being in a pandemic. And while that may sound really dark and depressing, it's actually quite funny and humorous. So I'm not going to spoil what happens in the show, but definitely look up Martin Dockery. And ‘right now’, the movie, it was fantastic. And we have that for our winter manifestations. 

Gene:
Excellent. I have a question that's come up before: There must be a moment or a day or a time during the festival that you say, boy, this is my favorite part of the festival. What would that be for you?

Brian:
 For everyone that's different. And everyone always has their moment at the fringe. And for me, whenever I get asked this question, I always think back to the last festival in 2019, because I want to say that - and this is going to sound strange at all the fringes I've been to over the years - this one moment that happened in 2019 was, in my opinion, probably the one moment that I just thought “this is it”.
And it's simple. It's so simple, because you are gearing towards this festival and you are working to promote it because as a marketing person, your biggest fear is that no one's going to show up, even though they're still going to show up, I lose sleep over it because I know that if people don't show up, I'm not putting money in artists' pockets and that's what I'm here for. So there's a point in the festival, and I can never tell you when that is, but there's a point in the festival where you feel like you’ve done all you can. It's usually sometimes maybe the second weekend or something like that. But in the 2019 festival, I had a few of my interns with me. I had some other staff members with me and we were all just there. It was a beautiful night.

The weather was perfect, and we're all just sitting on the grass and we had some drinks from the beer tent and we’re just lying out there on the grass. We're just talking, the festival is on autopilot, and we feel like everything is going smoothly. Everyone is going to shows, we're selling out constantly, etc. 
And I just remember lying there on the grass, staring up in a perfectly clear sky and seeing the stars, the music on the outdoor stage was filling the air and it was beautiful. And I was surrounded by people that I know and love. And I was like, this is it. This is the moment that it's all worth it, cause we had artists that we hadn't seen maybe in three years - you don't see the same artists every year. So I'm sitting there with some artists from Australia and some of my friends from Japan are over here and some of my interns that I've worked closely with and been working with to try to make them successful, and you know that feeling of success at that moment? Yeah, that’s my moment. 

Gene:
That is a very inspiring story. I will tell you that since we are going to be producing an event for the first time I deeply hope and pray that we find a moment just like the one that you just described, because we lose sleep over night worrying if anybody's going to show up, or we're going to do enough. But listen, it has been terrific and inspiring to talk to you, your enthusiasm having worked at this organization is infectious. And I would say anybody that's watching should figure out a way to get down to Orlando and go enjoy the fringe festival there. Brian, it's been delightful to talk to you. Thanks so very much for joining us.

Brian:
Thanks for having me and best of luck to all of you folks. And I'll let you know, there's a second time that’s really good: It's when it first starts. I will tell you when that first moment starts for us, our office is upstairs and you're working all day. You get there early in the morning and you're working and you come downstairs and the festival starts where you go to the location and it starts. And all of a sudden, the people are there. The artists are there and you're like, All right, let's do this. 
That moment was so amazing. And I know you're going to definitely have that moment.

Gene:
Thank you so very much. Great to talk to you.

Brian:
Great talking to you too.