The FRIGID New York theater festival may be as cold as this winter’s heavy snowfall and lingering chill in name, but in practice, the independent, uncensored festival is far from frosty.
Co-founded in 2007 by Manhattan’s Horse Trade Theater Group and San Francisco’s EXIT Theatre—the same organization responsible for the San Francisco Fringe Festival—FRIGID New York, which is a member of the United States Association of Fringe Festivals and the Candian Association of Fringe Festivals, offers plays up to 30 festival slots based on an online first-come, first-served application process that takes place on Labor Day and a lottery held on Halloween.
“After Halloween, once we know all the shows in the festival, it gives us a couple months to gather all the information about the participants. We start with a graphic and a little blurb so we can get a press release and get the website built,” said Erez Ziv, co-founder and managing director of Horse Trade and executive director of FRIGID. “And then we continue collecting technical information, headshots, bios, videos. Videos are important, coming in right now. So by the time the festival starts, we have everything we need to market the whole festival.”
From semiautobiographical, one-woman shows like “Drag Queen Stole My Dress,” which recounts the events that ensued when the playwright called off her wedding, to fictionalized stories about celebrity’s lives such as “Tina and Amy: Last Night in Paradise,” which chronicles Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s years in the Chicago improv scene, and everything in between—infomercial gurus, sci-fi lampoons, and commentaries on immigration reform—FRIGID New York’s 2014 lineup has no shortage of diversity.
In addition to favoring a model of chance over one of adjudication, FRIGID is also artist-friendly in that it returns 100 percent of its box office proceeds to its participants.
Ziv said that, due to a lack of major wintertime theater festivals and inspired by the methodology followed by festivals in such places as San Francisco, Indianapolis, and Canada—a practice rooted in a lottery system and a full donation of sales to performers—Horse Trade had the idea to start a theater festival of its own.
“I met with a woman who runs the Fringe in San Francisco, and she was telling me about how there’s a whole group of festivals that do it this way, that pick names out of a hat,” Ziv said. “She was telling me about her festival and how it works, and it sounded like a very interesting idea. So we decided to give it a shot.”
Some artists, like Anaïs Koivisto—the writer and director of “Something Wicked,” which is based on “Macbeth” and told from Lady Macbeth’s perspective—were drawn to FRIGID specifically because of its emulation of the San Francisco Fringe Festival’s model.
“The San Francisco Fringe Festival is a really big deal in the San Francisco theater scene. When you’re a kid, it’s one of those things that you want to eventually become involved with when you’re an adult,” she said. “But I moved to New York. Really, for a long time, I wanted to find the right piece for this festival, because it’s part of my growth as an artist, knowing about the Fringe Festival and the work that they do.”
The right piece for Koivisto was one in which she could give Lady Macbeth “a chance to speak her piece, to actually stay onstage and say what she thought.” Koivisto specializes in adapting and interpreting literary works for the stage at the Everyday Inferno Theatre Company, where she serves as the artistic director.
For Amy Overman, who produced, helped write, and performs in “I Shall Forget You Presently...”—a nonlinear, poetry-infused play about Edna St. Vincent Millay—it was more a matter of finding the right platform than the right piece. She knew about FRIGID because her company, the Dysfunctional Theatre Company, has worked with Horse Trade since 2001.
“When we started working on this piece, it started out as a ten-minute play that we did in 2012, and we really wanted to expand it and make it something bigger,” she said. “And as we were talking about that and what would really be a good place to do it, we really felt like FRIGID and the festival environment would be a good format for it.”
“We wanted the exposure that we’d get in a festival, and I think being part of a festival, people come into it knowing that what they’re going to see may be a little bit different, and they come in with their eyes and their minds already open to that idea,” she said.
The Dysfunctional Theatre Company opted for a woven, nonlinear narrative so that the play could interconnect with various aspects of Millay’s life and poetry.
“We wanted the show to be a bit more like poetry itself, to be a little bit abstract, to be something that the audience had to think about, and besides think about, put their own interpretation onto what we were doing,” Overman said.
As far as marketing the festival goes, FRIGID New York primarily draws on the attention of those like Koivisto and Overman, who know about and are interested in the fringe festival circuit. Ziv said that FRIGID attracts artists by relying primarily on buzz generated among New York’s theater community.
“There’s a lot of natural demand for people to perform in New York,” Ziv said. “All we have to do is put it on our website and let people know it’s happening. Every year, the applications go up and up and up, and people know more about the festival and have the experience and tell their friends, and the community grows and grows and grows every year.”
But the FRIGID community is not limited to those who live in the five boroughs. While some participants have a short distance to travel from Brooklyn to Manhattan, others come from as far away as Texas and Toronto.
Artists are drawn to fringe festivals such as FRIGID New York because the random-draw policy gives young actors, directors, and playwrights the opportunity to have their works seen without the stress of a formal, adjudication-based application process. When it comes to FRIGID, anything goes.
“If you’re having a difficult time as a young performer, write yourself the ideal role and the ideal play, and just do it,” said Gillian English, the playwright and performer of “Drag Queen Stole My Dress,” which is her first solo piece and the first show that she has written completely on her own.
English was inspired to participate in fringe festivals after reading Mindy Kaling’s book, “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns).” In her book, Kaling discusses her play “Matt & Ben,” a satirical drama about Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. As it turned out, the first play that English produced was a production of “Matt & Ben” at the Theatre Elusive in Toronto.
This year marks English’s second time participating in FRIGID, but her first time entering as both actor and playwright. In 2013, she performed in the time-travel romance “Love in the Time of Time Machines,” another Theatre Elusive project.
Even more so than English, Antonia Lassar and Maria Gilhooley, who wrote and star in “Tina and Amy,” followed Kaling’s path but with a female comedy slant.
“In our version of Tina and Amy’s life, they’ve been in Chicago, living together, doing improv—it’s their friendship paradise basically,” Gilhooley said. “They work together and they live together, and our show is set the last night they have in their apartment before Tina leaves to join the writing team on ‘Saturday Night Live’ in New York.”
Like English, Lassar is a FRIGID veteran. Last year, she entered with her play “The God Box,” which focused on a Jewish mother who learned that her daughter stopped practicing Judaism. “The God Box” director Nikki DiLoreto collaborated with Lassar again for “Tina and Amy.” With the addition of Gilhooley, the women—who have known each other since college—officially formed a company, SixTee Collective.
“‘God Box’ and ‘Tina and Amy’ are two very different plays,” Lassar said. “And while ‘God Box’ explored one woman’s religious journey, and I think was definitely more realistic. ... This one is sort of our thoughts, our commentary on women in the industry through the eyes of these two women.
For organizers and performers alike, FRIGID New York presents an opportunity that is not commonly found in New York’s bustling theater scene.
“Over the last eight years, I’ve seen every show that came through the festival,” Ziv said. “For us, we actually make it a point to see the bulk of the shows and get to know the artists. We have parties throughout the festival that we invite the artists to. The connection with the artists, I think, is what sets us apart.”
FRIGID New York begins on Feb. 19 and runs through March 9. Shows take place at Under St. Marks, 94 St. Mark’s Pl., and the Kraine Theater, 84 East Fourth St. Tickets to most shows are $16, at maximum.