ORLANDO – It has a fairly long title, but for anyone who has lived in Central Florida for the past two decades and loves the local theater scene, it really just comes down to one word:
“Fringe is the biggest and baddest arts party/creative schmorgasboard that you can find on the East Coast,” said Paul Castaneda, executive director of the Greater Orlando Actor’s Theatre, or GOAT.
The Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival kicked off the spring Fringe season on Monday night with the annual Fab Fringe Fundraiser, an opportunity to sample food and drinks, to take part in auctions and raffles, and to meet some of the creative forces behind this event, which was held at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center.
This is, as Fringe’s Producing Artistic Director Beth Marhsall noted, a special year for the event that brings together more than 70 shows in Loch Haven Park.
“It’s our 20th year, and the theme of it is ‘The Reunion,’ “ Marshall said. “One of the cool things is we’re celebrating all the things we have done over the years.”
It’s a homecoming, in a sense, for past Fringe artists, some of them — like veteran stage director John DiDonna — once again involved in this year’s Fringe festival.
DiDonna’s production this year will be “Unspoken,” which he described as a “dance-spoken word multimedia project” that includes Punch & Judy-type puppets, similar to the ones DiDonna used last year in his Halloween production, “Phantasmagoria.”
Fringe, he said, is the ultimate theater experience – such a wild collection of pieces that there’s virtually guaranteed to be something for everyone.
“It’s everything from high drama to classical works to bizarre new works,” DiDonna said. “Twelve days just to see theater – how incredible is that?”
Fringe General Manager George Wallace said there are definitely 75 shows booked for Fringe this year, about three less than in 2010, although his office is still negotiating with a few artists who are on a waiting list to see if their productions can get accommodated.
“We’re right on target with last year,” Wallace said. “It’s such an eclectic mix of first year performers and veterans who are coming back here. We have a lot of new artists this year as well.”
That would appear to be good advertising for any veteran Fringe audience members who have come to expect the offbeat, zany and unpredictable during Fringe – artists who are given the opportunity to let their creative juices run wild and see what they come up with. Fringe’s philosophy, as its Facebook page notes, is “100 percent UNCENSORED, 100 percent UNJURIED, 100 percent ACCESSIBLE.”
“We’re the oldest Fringe festival in the country,” Wallace said. “And it’s a big year for us. There’s a lot to be excited about.”
The 2011 20th Annual Orlando Fringe will be held May 19-30 in Orlando’s Loch Haven Park at various theater “venues,” including stages inside the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre and the Orlando Repertory Theatre. In keeping with the homecoming/reunion theme this year, “Our program book will be looking like a yearbook,” Marshall said. “On Wednesday, May 18 we will have our ribbon cutting ceremony, and then we’ve got the 12 days of Fringe.”
Hosting this event has been a wonderful experience over the years, said Rita Lowndes, who runs the John & Rita Lowndes Shakespeare Theatre.
“We’re delighted to have the building so well used,” she said.
Al Pergande – who bills himself on his business cards as “hack writer,” “raconteur,” and “bon vivant” – is one of the returning artists. He first produced a Fringe play in 2004 called “Go Left Right,” “which was completely awful beyond words,” he said – and then followed it up in 2009 with “The Mayor of Orange Avenue,” of which he said “I thought it went well. It had a few issues.”
This time, Pergande is producing the comedy “Big Swinging Dick’s Topless Bar,” about a guy named Dick who tries to turn a failing bar into a success by making it a strip joint, with comedic results.
Fringe, he said, is distinctly unique because “It’s like this massive place where you’re not responsible for anything – unless you’re producing a show. Then you’re responsible for everything.”
To learn more about Fringe, email producer@orlandofringe.org, log on to http://orlandofringe.org, or call 407-648-0077. The Fringe Festival office is at 398 W. Amelia St. in downtown Orlando.

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