GREAT BARRINGTON — The three founders of the Berkshire Fringe theater festival look for creative answers. So when an unavoidable conflict popped up for one of them in the middle of last season, it was inconceivable that he should be completely absent for a few days. His partners fashioned a hilariously realistic puppet, complete with bits of brown wig hair representing his signature goatee, to stand in during pre-show curtain speeches.
Sara Katzoff, Timothy Ryan Olson, and Peter Wise (whose likeness was fashioned in puppet form) are the creators and co-artistic directors of this sometimes wacky, often irreverent festival. For its eighth season, they aim to keep its typical spirit intact; expect boundary-blurring plays by up-and-coming artists, with a contemporary sensibility. But they are also planning big changes.
Berkshire Fringe is based on the idea that this culturally rich region, already stocked with live theater, classical music, and dance, has room for a scrappy, fresh contender offering no big names but plenty of edge. Performances sometimes blend theater with dance or live music, and often employ experimental techniques. (“Our Man,” performed last season, represented a young Ronald Reagan with a wooden tennis racket.)
But there is a definite method to the madness. Unlike some other fringe festivals, this one offers its guest performers plenty of support in the form of a comfortable, air-conditioned studio theater, well-trained technical staff, slick marketing efforts, and meticulous planning.
“It’s not, like, the storefront of a Mediterranean restaurant. It’s not a garage that’s going to have the electricity turned off,” says Dan Bernitt, who has performed in two seasons and this summer presents his one-man show “Yelling at Bananas in Whole Foods.” “It’s a much higher level of craft.”
The action happens in the sleek arts center of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, the college attended by Katzoff and Olson. This season launches with a party and short-work performances on July 23, followed by five productions staggered through mid-August. Those shows are complemented with free, twice-weekly pre-show concerts, plus workshops for the public and a newly envisioned series of open rehearsals where visiting artists will develop fresh work.
Katzoff, 31, Olson, 33, and Wise, 32, founded this enterprise with youthful vigor tempered by shrewd maturity: The 2005 inaugural festival was preceded by 16 months of careful planning. In its early years, before its annual budget grew from $20,000 to about $75,000 and its staff to a modest dozen (split evenly between paid helpers and student interns), the festival’s founders would sometimes be mistaken for interns themselves. They would smile gamely when supporters asked them to pass on compliments to their “bosses.”
Though many Fringe performers are on the younger side, Olson stresses that the idea is to bring “emerging” artists to light, regardless of age. Even if not set in the present day, he says, their work tends to have an immediacy that audiences easily relate to.
“It’s not difficult for someone to come to one of our shows and say: That’s me onstage,” Olson says. “There’s a vibrancy. There’s a point of view that’s current.”
Still, audiences for Fringe productions (totaling 2,000 patrons last year) appear to skew younger and hipper than those at other Berkshire performing arts venues. And relatively cheap tickets ($15 when purchased in advance, and a name-your-price policy on opening nights) keep the productions accessible.
Rather than just compete with other theater festivals for existing audiences, the Fringe seems determined to grow its own.
“Everyone in the arts is concerned about the graying audience,” says Christopher Sink, the festival’s liaison at Simon’s Rock. “The Fringe, I think, is countering that very successfully. They’re quite successful in bringing in a very youthful audience, and I think that isn’t happening everywhere in the Berkshires.”
The three founders split their time between the Berkshires and New York. When not handling Fringe business, Katzoff is a freelance actor and director. (She and longtime boyfriend Wise, both natives of Great Barrington, will marry this fall.) Wise is a musician with a preference for electronic soundscapes. Olson, who earned an MFA in playwriting, keeps a day job as part salesman, part interior design consultant at a furniture retailer.
And, crucially, they are teaming up on the season’s leadoff show, “Dark: An End of the World Play With Music and an Exercise Bike.” Olson is the writer and director, Katzoff appears in the cast, and Wise composed the music, including four songs. The play is a dark comedy about survivors of a cataclysmic event, one of whom is determined to repopulate the world with Hollywood heartthrob Bradley Cooper (who, coincidentally, will perform this summer at the Williamstown Theater Festival).
In the past their leadership duties were too intense for the three to strut their stuff much at the festival they created.
Sitting with Olson in an empty Simon’s Rock classroom after a long rehearsal day, Katzoff says that for all their original planning, she and her partners miscalculated on one key front.
“I think originally we had this vision that we would have this utopian creative playground,” she says, in the dramatically exaggerated tone she favors when making light of something, “where people from all over the world would come, and we would make work, and collaborate with them, and then we would perform it! But we very quickly learned we had to figure out how to run a business and to run a [theater] company before we could support our own artistic work.”
Though she cites this original vision in purposefully rosy terms, the 2012 festival does bring it closer to reality. They finally have the chance to create a full-length work for their own festival. For the first time, theater groups from overseas (specifically, the United Kingdom and South Korea) will come for the Fringe. And in a move that freed up time for the founders to create and produce “Dark,” fewer companies will participate in the season than before, but they will each stay longer in residence, developing new work in a creative process open to the public.
Other productions include “Riot: An Epic Tale of Greed, Lust, and Cheap Sofas” by the UK’s nine-member Wardrobe Ensemble. A kinetic piece of physical theater, it’s based on a real-life disturbance at the opening of an English Ikea store in 2005, and was a breakout hit at last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the most famous of all fringe theater festivals. “Yelling at Bananas . . . ” is based on Bernitt’s experience going from eager meat eater to righteous vegan, while “Bathtub Play” is the US premiere of a two-person relationship study that debuted in Seoul.
Fringe folk know they are not luring audiences with big names or familiar titles. Instead, they aim to build a reputation for presenting exciting shows, in a professional environment, that are worth taking a chance on.
“We’re saying: It’s not that these are people you may have not heard of — we’re pretty much absolutely sure you’ve never heard of them,” Wise says in a phone call, breaking into a laugh, “but come see their work because it’s really great. That’s basically what we’re all about.”