How one local lured in hundreds of artists for the ultimate fest
Let’s play a game. I will describe something for you, and you guess what the subject is. This mystery subject focuses on the performing arts—theater, dance, performance art, puppetry, spoken word, improvisation, film and visual arts. This mystery thing is uncensored— no one is too overly concerned with swearing or nudity, and family-friendly content is also welcome. What’s more, participation is vital and varied, and it celebrates originality. Now, what would you say I have just described:
0 Santa Cruz, California
0 A Fringe Festival
If you chose both of the above, you are on the right track. The artistic phenomena known officially as the Fringe Festival began in 1948, and journalist Robert Kemp coined the term. He referred to the unofficial performances surrounding the Edinburgh International Festival, “Round the fringe of official Festival drama, there seems to be more private enterprise than before.” Fringe refers to performances that are not considered mainstream. Fringe effectively describes art and artists who create works at the edge. Fringe refers to an edge that is fraying, in multiple directions at once, unencumbered by anchors. Artistically, fringe can sometimes refer to method, subject matter, interpretation, accessibility, or, in some unfortunate circumstances, a fraying, chaotic performance itself. (Fringe is also a British name for what we Americans call “bangs”—the clipped hair north of the eyebrows. Although, arguably, since this “fringe” frames the face, and is therefore at the edge of expression (facial), I move that the word “fringe,” in all of its connotations, will do just fine, thank you.)
These festivals regularly celebrate performers following disciplines such as dance, theater, magic, comedy, performance art, burlesque, circus and various combinations thereof. Santa Cruz will be no exception—it’s everything we love, all in 10 days.
Scotland, birthplace of bagpipes, golf, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the best James Bond character to date, Sir Sean Connery, also lays claim to birthing the Fringe. Edinburgh is home to the longest-running and most famous festival in the world, annually presenting approximately 2,400 events. There are close to 50 festivals worldwide, according to the fringefestivals.us website, an informational hub for traveling fans, participants and presenters. The site lists statistics on artists, venues, financials and audiences—thanks to the participation of organizers from Seattle to New Orleans stateside, and from Prague to Singapore overseas. An average fringe festival, if any single one could possibly be described as “average,” presents approximately 100 events to the spectating public.
From July 13-22, Santa Cruz will experience its inaugural Fringe Festival, presenting 40 artists in five downtown venues, and the biggest question local artists and supporters are asking is, “What took so long?”
Meet Dixie Shulman, chief cook and bottle washer of the Santa Cruz Fringe. As her first name suggests, she’s from the south, Yorktown, Va., to be exact. “It’s where the revolutionary war was won,” she offers proudly. She knows from experience that Santa Cruz is the perfect location for a fringe festival. “Santa Cruz is perfect because there is a disproportionate number of artists here, and it’s a great location for visiting artists. Not to be rude, but if you’re a fringe artist and you are choosing between Kansas City and Santa Cruz? Please.”
As one of California’s favorite destination spots for everything from surf and sand to wine and dine, Santa Cruz is poised and ready to add fringe and festival to the list of reasons to Cruz.
The locale in general is an ideal destination, as our roots in tourism have proven for more than 100 years, and the individual venues taking part are also models of atypical presentation. The 418 Project, Center Stage, Motion at the Mill, Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center, and the Louden Nelson Center all have what is commonly considered “street cred,” meaning that they all have that certain je ne sais quoi that attracts the adventurous audience. They are at once intimate and public, old school and state of the art, familiar and adaptable. All of these character traits suit the fringe ethos to a “T.” There will also be performances at the Felix Kulpa Gallery and the Museum of Art & History (MAH)—artistically diverse by design. All of the venues are in downtown Santa Cruz, another planning coup designed to keep audiences engaged with multiple events and with each other.
Shulman’s path to Santa Cruz Fringe began like so many other artistic journeys—with a baton and marching boots. First came ballet shoes at age 5, and the inevitable addition of tap and jazz classes soon followed. But although she would focus primarily on dance and choreography in her adult years, what changed her life early on was … wait for it … baton twirling. She became so skilled and passionate about this hobby that by age 12 she was teaching and choreographing other kids under the tutelage of her instructor. When it was time to choose a college, she headed to the University of Georgia, based not on the strength of their dance program (her chosen major), but on the success of their Bulldogs football team, and the performing and travel opportunities available to a girl with a baton.
“At 16 I was Miss Majorette of America,” she laughs, “I was a snobby champion.” While she reaped the full benefits of a dance program with five full-time faculty members for 15 students, she continued to twirl. “I liked performing for 80,000 people and being on TV!”
However, at some point the conflicting ideals of her two pastimes came to the fore. While she was learning the celebration of self-expression in her dance classes, she was being weighed in at baton practices. “Baton was about being pretty, dieting down, having a small butt.”
In perhaps an unwitting and subconscious act of defiance, she ate her way off of the baton squad and focused fully on art and dance. The oppressive and omnipresent issue of weight and self-identity became the topic of Shulman’s art and expression for the next decade through her moving performance/dance piece titled “The Thinnest Woman Wins.” The piece employs three groups of eight women, and each of three sections is presented like a beauty pageant. “The first group is professional dancers, but their sashes proclaim Miss Bulimia and Miss Anorexia.” The second group is women who are “… at least a size 12, and their titles are Miss Good Personality, Miss Pretty Smile, etcetera. Deflections from any shortcomings.” The third group, women over 50, proved to be a challenge. Shulman was hoping to elicit monikers reflecting an acceptance of oneself, finally, at a mature age, but what she found was similar issues, like Miss Having Menopause While my Daughter Hits Puberty, or Miss Late Life Weight Gain. These pieces were self-defined, and Shulman acted more as editor than writer. “They were just as screwed up, had the same issues, but were trying to make the best of it,” she says. The finished piece were such a success that she toured American Fringe Festivals with it, and even had a production in Italy—in Italian.
Her experiences at these various festivals around the country inspired something in her that wouldn’t surface until years later.
After attending grad school in Boulder, Co., living in Seattle for five years and New York for 10, Dixie and family moved to Santa Cruz two years ago. The reasons are familiar. After considering a number of cities, Santa Cruz rose to the top of the list because it’s on the ocean and “it’s not too hot or dry, not too wet, there are palm trees and redwoods, a disproportionately high number of artists, and it’s close to San Francisco.” However, after the death of her father and a re-evaluation of her life, Shulman recognized that the time was right to reinvent herself. She had numerous irons in the fire, but the one that really ignited was presenting a Santa Cruz Fringe Festival. She consulted with local experts, and the responses she got varied from “That’s a good idea” and “That’s a really good idea” to “Duh! Yes!” And of course, “Why hasn’t anyone done this yet?”
Shulman wasted no time in getting the fringed ball rolling. She recruited a board of directors including production expert Ana Marden, choreographer Cid Pearlman, dance educator Cat Willis, and arts patron Holly Walton. Her supporters and consigliore include former First Night organizer Trink Praxel, Santa Cruz Dance founder and director Abra Allen and Downtown Association Director Chip. She secured a grant from the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County, and easily won the enthusiasm of fellow presenters and venues. Sponsors are continuing to align themselves with the organization, and long-term relationships are budding. Financial backers are still more than welcome to contribute and help build this yearly event, and put Santa Cruz on the fringe map. “This is way too much work to do for one-time,” Shulman says. “This will be an annual festival.”
Metaphorically speaking, the administrative, business and financial elements woven together would be the swath of fabric. Gathering the artists that comprise the actual fringe were the next step in the process. The Santa Cruz Fringe artists are drawn from applications—more than 80 received—and the 40 artists chosen will be a combination of eight director’s picks (hand-picked by Shulman), based on content, presentation, and that certain something special that Shulman recognizes from her fringe experience. The remaining shows were chosen lottery style. “Santa Cruz loves accessibility, lottery makes sense for this community.”
The breakdown of this year’s performances: 33 perecent are from Santa Cruz County, 50 percent are from California, and the rest are from various spots in the USA, including some foreign-born artists who now reside here. Each artist performs five shows, giving them a chance to reach a wider audience and also providing the audiences the opportunity to see many, if not all, of the shows offered. With the maximum length of a show being 60 minutes, seeing multiple performances on any given night is a given, and the events are staggered to make this possible.
Information on each artist, with a description of their performance is on the scfringe.com website.
The Santa Cruz Fringe Festival will kick off Thursday, July 12 with a free evening event in Abbott Square on Cooper Street in Downtown Santa Cruz. The Artist Meet-n-Greet will take place from 6-9 p.m., and will feature a DJ and the promise of spontaneous performances by the acts on hand. Tickets, schedules and SC Fringe merchandise will also be available. The Festival officially opens on Friday, July 13 with a 6 p.m. performance by boom! theater company at Center Stage.
After 10 days and nearly 200 performances, the festival will close on Sunday, July 22 with a presentation of Flesh by Open Source Theater Company.
The real question for these 10 days is “When not fringe?”
Tickets for the Santa Cruz Fringe Festival shows are sold individually, in five and 10 packs, and a very handy Full Festival Pass. Visit the Santa Cruz Fringe Festival website for venue locations, ticketing information and updated schedules.