Exploring Fringe Theater in the Central District

On the Ground with the People Who Make Fringe Tick.

Fringe. Off-Off-Broadway. Free theater. It doesn’t matter what name you choose, it doesn’t matter what preconceived notions you dragged in with you; all that matters is when you walked away you were sure that what you saw was weird and awesome. Experimental and innovative theater, whether the medium is acting, movies, shadow puppets or something more unexpected plays a role in our communities and our self-expression which is often passed over and left unacknowledged. That’s what this article is all about: giving the venues and artists in our community the shoutout they more than deserve. An exploration of the community isn’t complete without boots on the ground, so I visited two local venues to meet the cool people that make fringe possible, get to know them, and interview them about their work.

Central Cinema

“I wish I could hit a magic button that tells everyone: ‘no, really, you should go see this one. It’s so worth seeing,’” longed Doug Willott, Central Cinema’s program director. Last month, Willott would have used his magic button for Liquid Sky – an independent film from the early eighties – “it’s a trip of a film,” Willott told me, “It didn’t sell great, but at the same time everybody who saw it had the same reaction: ‘oh my god, I had to see that this exists.’” For Willott, offering experiences like Liquid Sky is part of Central Cinema’s mission; lazing on your couch as you munch on pringles and binge Netflix sits aparts from going to the theater to enjoy something unexpected on the big screen with savory poutine or creamy crème brûlée.

Willott told me that Central Cinema strives to be a “good time theater,” and that the good time goes beyond movie selection. The venue is unique, even among other repertory theaters, for serving reasonably-priced restaurant quality food to its patrons. The booths and tables contribute to a casual, diner-like feel.  

If food and movies aren’t your thing Central Cinema integrates trivia nights and cool science into its schedule: before showing Killer Klowns from Outer Space (“A delightful film,” joked Willott), “a scientist is going to talk about how society can come up with new group fears based on what’s happening in culture […] clowns weren’t considered scary until the 80s.” In the same vein, when Central Cinema showed The Return of the Living Dead it was preceded with a talk about the science of a real life zombie apocalypse.


18th and Union

“No single space can be everything,” David Gassner, producing director at 18th & Union, told me; “the strengths of the space come from the same thing [as its weaknesses]. This small size makes it so intimate, but that also means there’s certain kinds of shows where you think ‘you know, you really need a bigger space for this.’” The geometry – the shape, size, and layout – of a venue makes and breaks a performance. Artists have to adapt to the size of the stage, the distance from the audience, and the tech available to produce an awesome show. For the artists’ sake, cultivating the “vibe” of a venue matters, and Gassner has a vision in mind: “I like small, intimate theater. I love that sense as an audience that you’re right there […] It’s kind of like having a theater that’s the size of your living room.”

I was “right there,” in the front row, for the closing night of Amy Escobar’s We Go Mad. Escobar’s production combined on-stage acting with full-size shadow puppetry to unfurl a powerful narrative about love and abandonment, and to “interrogate this idea of women and madness,” Escobar told me in an interview after the show. “Even if somebody’s experience isn’t specifically and exactly the same,” Escobar said, “I would hope that me trying to be truthful in the telling of it would elicit that response, that other people feel like it was relatable.” Escobar’s narrative spoke truth, even through layers of allegory and metaphor, and I walked away moved: I had taken a front row seat to something powerful and unexpected. I had seen something weird and awesome.