Cincinnati's Mod Squad

A private joke among the six Cincinnati Experimental Arts (CineX Arts) directors is to list their super powers used to successfully stage the Cincinnati Fringe Festival, whose sophomore edition wrap

Jun 29, 2005 at 2:06 pm

A private joke among the six Cincinnati Experimental Arts (CineX Arts) directors is to list their super powers used to successfully stage the Cincinnati Fringe Festival, whose sophomore edition wrapped on June 12.

Each staffer — or Fringe Hero, if you will — is responsible for specific tasks such as Web design, box office and programming, all necessary for staging a performance series as expansive as Fringe Fest. But gathered around a table on the second floor of Milton's Tavern on Liberty Hill, the Fringe leaders bond over common beliefs about the arts, shared ideas about how to generate excitement in the city and growing relationships with each other.

They're a modish squad of arts idealists, volunteers too passionate about their plans to accept failure. It's no surprise that no one in charge at CineX — presenting organization of the Fringe Festival as well as Artists for Change, a public gathering of artists speaking out on social issues, and V-Day, the February 2005 staging of The Vagina Monologues — is over 32 (age). Youthful excitement and blind faith is everything when it comes to starting something new in a town that favors the tried, true, old and predictable.

Asked to list his Fringe Festival priority, Gabe Johnson, the ticketing director, answers matter-of-factly.

"To do art that should be done in this city," he says.

With a brief sentence, he sums up why Fringe matters in a city desperate to attract young professionals and hold on to young artists who call Cincinnati home.

The first Fringe Festival was just a year ago, and all agree that watching the Fringe grow with increased attendance and financial support in 2005 has been satisfying.

The group talks about budgeting while passing around packs of Marlboro Lights. (Fringe 2005 ended with a $10,000 surplus after breaking even in its inaugural year.) They pledge to keep an open submission policy for future festivals, which means newcomers just making their mark and coming into their own as artists will always be welcome.

But don't expect them to become a year-round programmer setting up shop at one of Cincinnati's performance venues. Their focus remains on producing the best Fringe Festivals possible. Basically, CineX isn't going to grow into a weekly presenter like Los Angeles' REDCAT Theater or Columbus' Wexner Center no matter how many locals beg them to.

More importantly, they banter about Fringe's future growth and what needs to happen for Fringe to succeed even more. Everyone gathered around the small table agrees that the potential for a Cincinnati success story is within reach. After all, Cincinnatians love summertime festivals.

The stats for 2005 are good: $34,156 in ticket income matched with $37,510 in donations. And Fringe posters and postcards featuring a shaven Jennifer Spillane, Fringe's Asst. Producing Director, with arty scrawl written across her face and shoulders were everywhere.

But Development Director Jeff Syroney agrees that not everyone came to the shows who needs to in order to make the Fringe an unqualified hit.

When it comes to achieving their lofty goals, Producing Director Jason Bruffy cites dropping the term "avant-garde" in marketing materials as a way to reach a broader audience. He talks about emphasizing the festival's diversity, programs that appeal to families as much as adults, over a mission of non-censorship.

Bruffy sums it up like this: The future of the Fringe depends on how they sell it to the community — and they have to convince the community that there's something for everyone at Fringe.

His comments attract an immediate question from the concerned group: "Are you thinking about changing programming?" They bristle at the idea of toning down programming to attract more attendance and support from corporate sponsors.

On this dilemma — the oft-repeated questions of how to attract suburbanites downtown and how to persuade people to take a chance on new fare — Fringe's Mod Squad are uncertain about how to proceed.

Asked if there's a glass ceiling for how many people they can attract to a Cincinnati Fringe Festival, they refuse to believe they've topped out at 4,500 people in just their second year.

"I would like to come back in 20 years and see the Fringe," says Spillane, the festival's poster child. "It is a program of real diversity in a city with serious social problems. I don't know if this city will ever get its shit into place. But it's possible."