France and Scotland have been enjoying theirs for decades, and the Canadians joined them several years ago. Now, Americans have one, too.
The First Annual New York International Fringe Festival, which showcases the works of new playwrights, gets under way Aug. 13.
Like many people whose work will be presented at the festival, Mark Lonergan and Todd Hammond, who are bringing their urban fable "White/Noise/Jump" to New York from Toronto, hope the exposure will lead to bigger and better things.
"This is our New York premire," Mr. Lonergan says, "and we're really pleased about it, because if you come here as an out-of-town company, you can get buried if you're not part of a festival. Our great hope is a run off-off-Broadway after the festival ends."
Scheduled to run for 12 days at 17 different locations and featuring more than 170 productions, this ambitious event was initiated two years ago by actor-turned-director John Clancy.
Our first show was a "very odd, very funny, very fast slice of Americana about senior proms," says Mr. Clancy, who oversees the small Present Company theater group in New York.
When it received raves from critics and audiences, the group was encouraged to take it to the Edinburgh Festival, the annual showplace for new theater works.
But they eventually decided not to go. "We realized we were engineering a very expensive detour to come back to three blocks from were we were," says Clancy. "Then I started asking why there isn't a New York festival."
With Aaron Beall, veteran of downtown New York productions and his friend Jonathan Harris, an organizer of festivals in Seattle, Clancy set about to create a New York event.
For playwright Travis Baker, the Fringe could guarantee "that my future work might get through the reading process at theaters a little quicker." Mr. Baker's play "Cold" is an examination of how several friends discover their lack of emotion when a colleague dies.
The festival schedule moves from "Cold" to "Hot Copy," a free-wheeling hour-long comedy satire on the day's headlines.
The Neo Lobos Dance theater is presenting "Threshold," which grew out of work by acclaimed photographer Sally Mann. "It explores the worlds of adolescent girls just at the cusp of womanhood," says Michele Elliman, who helps run the troupe.
"We're happy to be a part of something that will reach out to the community," she says.
A different community, that of Pueblo Indians, comes to life in "Old Man Kokopeli," a presentation of Gateway Productions, Santa Fe. Making its New York debut, the group has performed throughout New Mexico.
"Children are especially engaged by it because of the use of puppets and masks," notes director John Jakamillo. "One puppet, for instance, is used to show the growth of a seed that then grows into an ear of corn. Another mask becomes that puppet and eventually evolves into a live character."
The New Mexico play is one of 36 American productions from outside New York City.
"From the beginning, we ambitiously called it the International Fringe Festival," says Clancy. "We figured if one person comes in from Toronto and one from London, it's an international festival."
In fact, about 20 of the participants will come from outside the United States, including performers from Amsterdam, Warsaw, and the Czech Republic. "We try to look for diversity, vibrancy, and innovation," Clancy says.
The Fringe Festival also judges submissions. Clancy points out that "at every other festival, it's usually a first-come, first-served basis, which creates this wonderful chaos."
But he felt that New Yorkers in particular expect preselection.
"We had about 450 submissions - tapes, scripts, and bios - and we reviewed all of them. In the end, we accepted 175." Included among the lineup is "American Absurdum," a new work that Clancy will direct.
Opening-day ceremonies, called the Community Show, feature free performances on one street that will be blocked off from cars. And while the emphasis is on cutting-edge theater, the festival doesn't overlook families.
One show that's bound to draw a crowd is "Grimm's Fairy Tales," from the group that does the Magic Circle Series of children's shows, led by Cassandra Johnson.
"She's well-educated in folk tales, as well as the Suzuki performance style, which makes for tremendously ferocious physical productions," Clancy says. "I've seen kids lean forward the whole time to stay with the story." He adds: "You can't not look at it!"