MATT (RITCHEY) and BEN (HILL): A Very Fringey Conversation


Matt Ritchey

Matt Ritchey

Writer, Non-Registered Critics


The 2017 Hollywood Fringe Festival has arrived!

A full month (well, not quite - June 1-25) of dramas, comedies, dance pieces, devised productions, cabarets, one-person shows, musicals, burlesques, and more!  I've been a big Fringe fan for years and I wanted to find out a bit more about how this all began. I had a chat with Ben Hill, the Festival Director, about just that.

BEN HILL, The Fringe Guy

MATT: What was your process for starting the Hollywood Fringe Festival?

BEN: Well, first off it wasn't just me - there was a dedicated team of folks - many of them family and close friends working for basically nothing while we planned month over month and year over year.

Dave McKeever and I had produced an awesome little festival in Washington DC called The Hatchery Festival. The idea was to produce three workshop productions a year from emerging playwrights. It was fun, a wonderful learning experience and ultimately gave us the taste to do something more expansive.

Our communication director Stacy Jones Hill and I did quite a bit of traveling - and we'd make our way to Edinburgh whenever we could. This was before we moved to LA. Edinburgh Fringe is a truly inspiring event - I've never seen so many people congregated in one place to enjoy the performing arts; it's incredible. Those trips planted the seed.

So then we move to Los Angeles - and we live just off Wilcox adjacent to Theatre Row. We'd walk up and down that road every day and wonder: could we bring a fringe here?

The talking heads at the time weren't that bullish on our chances. I took a lot of meetings that ended with a “good luck with that, kid” remark. But somehow our obsession drove us on.

We started planning in late 2007 with the idea we'd launch the festival in 2009. Two years passed and we decided we still didn't have our ducks in order so we decided to push a year - best decision ever.

And so after hundreds of meetings and thousands of planning hours, we were ready to launch in June of 2010.

MATT RITCHEY, playwright/director

MATT: And I know it's been getting bigger every year - this year with over there hundred shows! I'm always making a spreadsheet of shows so I can see as many as possible, but it's a sea of theatre! How many shows are you personally able to go to see these days?

BEN: Oof. Not nearly as many as I'd like. My schedule is pretty crazy during Fringe. I do try to see as many shows as I can during extensions.

MATT: The Encore Producer's Awards for extensions is sometimes the only way I'm able to catch shows as well! When originally planning a big theatre Festival, did you have any particular goal in mind?

BEN: It's always been about bringing the performing-arts-loving community together around the best theatre party ever.

We were thinking at least 20 official venues to be filled with performances of all types: Comedy, New Plays, Hip Hop, Dramas, Solo Artists, and more. her would be multiple programs to keep things interesting. For example, there may be two nights dedicated to 10-minute plays. Perhaps we will stage a new play festival to celebrate new works. We may stage an improv festival or one dedicated to sketch comedy. The nice thing about Fringe is that it is all-encompassing. We needn't be hog-tied by a specific vision; all performance-based art is welcome.

Up and down theatre row, everywhere you look there will be stuff to look at. Clowns, Mimes, Commedia, fire eaters, performance artists. Add to that food stands, merchandise sellers, information booths. We hope to create a real circus-like scene, making the the neighborhood a little crazy.

Hollywood is a wonderfully diverse neighborhood steeped in history and culture. It's also a little rebellious, a little rock n' roll. And, of course, there are tons of venues all within walking distance. We want audience members to easily wander between theatres to check out new and interesting events. And we wanted this to be for the community. We welcome  participation, feedback, thoughts, complaints – all of it. We oblige every request; we will always be open minded. It is not our place (the festival producers) to make judgments on art, politics, religion, etc. If you have the passion, we are here to help you realize your vision.

MATT: It's common practice in the community to get postcards to hand out to other participants and potential audience members to promote the show and I know you offer ways to advertise online, in the main program, and by hosting mixers.  Are there any keys to successfully promoting?

BEN: We try to give people lots of options - paid and free - to promote their shows. This lets participants mix and match with their available budget.  Ultimately, the best promotion at Fringe is to have a great show, word tends to spread.

MATT: The Fringe has such a wide swath of styles - from kids shows to burlesque and even “the audience is naked” shows. Do you have ways to delineate family-friendly shows from the more irreverent ones or to lure the family audience?

BEN: We do have a “family friendly” flag on shows that can be used to sort results. As a family guy, I'd love to see more family friendly shows participate at the Fringe.

MATT: What about a longterm plan? Like, where do you see this in five years?

BEN again

BEN: The long term plan is expanding our collective cultural reach to new communities. Our scholarships program is an example of what we are doing here.

And of course, we want to hook more people into the performing arts. Hundreds of years ago, my theatre tech professor held up a vial and said “this is theatre dust, it's the most addictive substance in the world. Once you breath it in, you will never shake it out of your veins.” We want to be enablers of theatre junkies.

The Hollywood Fringe Festival has just opened! Check out hollywoodfringe.org for the schedule!

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