ORLANDO — For most businesses, being able to brag about getting “bigger and better” is a sign of their overall health, expanding market, and ability to find new customers — genuine bragging rights, in other words.
The concept takes on even more meaning, though, for the executive director and producer of the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival. The oldest and largest Fringe festival is about to celebrate its 25th year in May, but even more importantly, their growth this year is coming in major leaps and bounds.
Just how far Orlando Fringe has come over the past few decades was readily apparent on Monday, when George Wallace, the executive director of Fringe, and the show’s producer, Michael Marinaccio, opened Fringe Night, their annual sneak preview of what to expect when the festival launches on Wednesday, May 18.
Fringe Night — which allows artists participating in this year’s Fringe festival to give a two-minute glimpse of what audiences can expect to see during the run up to Memorial Day Weekend, was held at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center to a near sold-out crowd.
And there are plenty of extra reasons for the Fringe organizers, artists, participating performers, and audience to be celebrating this year, Wallace said.
“There is no escaping the 25th annual International Fringe Theatre Festival,” Wallace told the crowd during the opening of Fringe Preview for mature audiences, which followed a 90-minute preview of family-friendly shows.
“This is a really big year for us,” Marinaccio said. “Not only because it’s our 25th year, but because we have the most shows ever — 148.”
That’s a big jump from previous years, when Fringe tended to host less than 100 shows. In part, that was because virtually all of the shows were either on stages in the Lowndes Shakespeare Center or at another Loch Haven Park theater, the Orlando Repertory.
In the past few years, Fringe has been adding venues, including the Orlando Museum of Art and The Venue, the performing arts center in the Ivanhoe Village area nearby. This year, Fringe has added even more extra stages, from the Parliament House on Orange Blossom Trail (which, as Marinaccio noted, will offer patrons at Loch Haven Park a shuttle bus to and from the Parliament House’s Footlights Theatre), and even the living room of longtime Fringe director, performer and critic Al Pergande.
“You cannot escape the Fringe this year — we are literally everywhere,” Marinaccio said.
“We’re up to 21 venues,” Wallace said, and jokingly added, “You’re trying to kill us!”
The Orlando Fringe, which moved its offices and headquarters recently to the Lowndes Shakespeare Center, has experienced growth in another way, Wallace noted — and come very far indeed from the days when they had just a small handful of people juggling all of the Fringe responsibilities.
“We have 50 people on staff, and we couldn’t do it without them,” he said.
More are needed, he said, particularly people willing to volunteer at the event itself, which runs from May 18-31.
“Right now we are still looking for volunteers, and it’s a great way to give back to the community,” Wallace said.
He also urged the audience members themselves, from longtime Fringe fans to people attending for the first time, to play their part.
“Last year we sold 42,500 tickets,” Wallace said. “I want you to buy more!”
This year, Orlando Fringe has also launched something else that’s new.
“Today we launched our own free Orlando Fringe mobile app,” Wallace said. The app enables Fringe patrons to learn everything they want to know about the shows — content, who is performing in it, where and when it is playing, ticket prices, etc.
“It’s really amazing,” Wallace said. “You can sort by venue, you can sort of genre.”
Just as important, he said, “You can donate to the Orlando Fringe” using the app.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..