Ann Sabbah knew when she attended the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2017 that such an event belonged in Denver.
Considered the largest arts festival in the world, Edinburgh Fringe attracts millions of guests, runs for about a month and introduces thousands of performance artists on the “fringes” of mainstream performance. In a single day, you might see a circus act, a dance theatre troupe, comedy routines, magic shows and experimental performance art.
During Sabbah’s first day there, she saw five different shows without having planned on any of them.
“It was really like this totally magical chaos happening,” she said. “You might stop for lunch, and somebody walks by and hands you their information, and says, ‘The show is starting, just around the corner in 15 minutes.’ You run over there, and get in on it, and come out completely exhilarated with something that you never even expected or planned to see. And that’s, I think, what is really magical about it.”
After about two days, it occurred to Sabbah that Denver should have a Fringe Festival. It was incredible to her that it didn’t already. Denver, she thought, is brimming with talent and artistic innovation. It has one of the highest art participation rates per capita of any city in the country. This has to happen in Denver, she thought. And I’m going to make it happen.
Right then and there, she bought the domain “denverfringe.org.”
Sabbah is planning the second ever Denver Fringe as a “hybrid” event this summer. It’ll be the first time Denver will host in-person Fringe shows.
“This December, when they announced that there was a vaccine, I think it just gave me enough confidence that by June it would be possible to have some in-person performances,” Sabbah said.
From June 24-27, guests can discover more than 35 live shows, about half of which are local to Denver and Colorado. Two thirds of the shows will operate out of live venues in the RiNo/Five Points area. One third will be virtual only, and many in-person shows will also be available to stream online.
What exactly is a “fringe festival?”
A typical arts festival, Sabbah said, takes place in one location. The festival coordinators decide what the festival will look like and who gets to perform. It’s highly produced.
“A fringe festival kind of turns that concept on its head,” Sabbah said. “It’s not produced, per se.”
Rather than being set in traditional theatre spaces, the festival is scattered across a designated area in several small venues, including bars and theatres, but also places like, say, the basement of a drugstore, or the remains of underground tunnels. Some big acts have come out of fringe festivals. Phoebe Waller-Bridge originally debuted Fleabag as a one woman show at Edinburgh’s festival in 2013.
“In a way, a fringe festival is sort of an art incubator,” Sabbah said. “It allows people who are just developing brand new things to get them in front of audiences.”
What a given festival looks like, she said, depends on who applies. It’s typically made up of an eclectic array of performance art across many genres and some acts that define genre altogether. It’s everything from immersive theatre, to improv, to experimental dance.
Sabbah and her cofounder, Nancy Larned, started planning the first ever Denver Fringe in January 2020.
They posted an open-call for applications. By spring, they knew exactly what they wanted it to look like. They’d chosen dates for that summer and had 19 shows ready to go.
Then COVID hit.
“In April, we had to turn on a dime,” Sabbah said.
The inaugural Denver Fringe Festival suddenly became a virtual one. But Sabbah said she was happy with how it turned out.
“It actually was very, very impressive, the innovation that all those performers showed in making their shows into a virtual format that could be seen by people online,” she said. “It was really pretty wonderful.”
The festival streamed online last June. It sold more than 500 tickets to viewers from more than 25 states and even several different countries. And while more than half of the participating artists were from Colorado, some participated from places as far as New York and Vancouver.
Sabbah said last year’s festival serendipitously became a sort of “soft launch.” It helped them streamline their mission and solidify their hopes for what Denver Fringe might look like in the future.
“We felt, in a sense, that that was the best of all possible worlds,” she said. “We really got our feet planted on the ground. We had a really nice, well rounded lineup of shows. We got viewers from all over. People participated. And we kind of got to focus on just introducing people to the concept of a Fringe Festival.”
Sabbah said they opened this year’s application to anyone and gave performers the choice whether they wanted to perform in person, virtually, or a combination of the two.
“We basically try to accept as many as we possibly can,” she said. “We have been able to accept everyone for the last two years. If we should get into a situation where we don’t have the bandwidth or the capacity at the venues, then we will make a waitlist and do a lottery from that waitlist.”
She said the virtual nature of last year’s shows reflected the spirit of fringe: that the arts should be accessible to all. A virtual component means that people from all over the world might be able to attend the festival, and to perform in it, without having to travel.
“I learned last year that it’s probably something that we want to continue to do every year, because it makes what we do more accessible, both for performers and audience members,” she said. “It gives people who don’t feel safe attending in-person events the chance to experience something new.”
Sabbah said some performers are zooming in virtually from other states and countries. One performer is doing her cabaret out of Australia.
This year’s festival will also feature aerial and circus arts by Rainbow Militia, Frequent Flyers, and a new local group called Soul Penny Circus; local theatre group Theatre Artibus; comedy by locals DeadRoom Comedy, BK Sharad, Eeland Stribling, Sammy Anzer and international comedian Tamer Kattan; and kids shows and workshops. The full artist list will drop sometime in May and will include a variety of original theater and solo performances by emerging artists from Colorado and around the country.
Fringe festivals essentially take over one part of a town. Denver’s will take over part of RiNo/Five Points, about a square mile in area.
Sabbah said they chose that area because it’s a hub of arts and creativity that she believes will lend to the atmosphere of the festival, and which the festival in turn can contribute to.
The four venues — Blake Street Tavern, The Walnut Room, Savoy at Curtis Park and a circus wagon parked at Sonny Lawson Park — will have distancing and mask requirements. People attending in person can also buy a Denver Fringe button that they can wear as they move between venues. The button buys you “Fringe with Benefits,” a pass for discounts and specials at participating restaurants and businesses in the area.
“It will all be really centralized, so that people can walk from one show to the next, and maybe on their way stop and get something to eat or drink,” Sabbah said. “All of the shows are usually under an hour long. So you really can pack in three or four performances in one evening. And it just makes it so much fun. You come out of one show, and you’re, like, that was so cool and exciting and weird. And I just want to go see another one. It’s kind of addictive that way.”
Sabbah said it’s important to understand that fringe is not necessarily about polish. It’s not like going to see a Broadway show, and it’s not priced that way (Denver Fringe shows cost $15). It takes a lot of money to put on a production in a theatre. Fringe fests provide artists with the venue, removing a lot of risk for the performers and cost for patrons.
“It can open up a community to new ideas,” Sabbah said. “That’s what Fringe Festival is about, is really being open to the unexpected.”