As summer heats up, so does the summer festival season in New York City. Theater festivals are a wonderful way for artists and audiences to get what they need most: each other. These Off- and Off-Off Broadway festivals offer an abundance of affordable, convenient theater and give writers, directors and performers a chance to practice their craft with low overhead.
The Midtown International Theater Festival (MITF) begins its seventh season on Monday, July 17. It dares to brave the rough, largely undeveloped landscape of the Garment District, a region not generally known for a plethora of cultural offerings. The four theaters hosting MITF shows are located on the same block of West 36th Street. The venues are small, and the scale of MITF is more intimate than the sprawling New York International Fringe Festival held downtown. Forty shows will be presented between July 17 and August 6, with enough variety to satisfy a choosy audience.
The shows at MITF are in various stages of development, from staged readings and studio productions to full-length mainstage presentations. There are dramas, comedies, solo performances, and something listed as a “multimedia/collage” (that show is called The Answer is Horse, if you’re interested). No event runs longer than 90 minutes.
Unlike other festivals, the MITF is less
intensely juried in its selection process. John Chatterton,
the festival’s Executive Director, works with two
artistic directors who are responsible for creating the
season’s line-up. The co-artistic directors recruit
participants from theater professionals they’ve worked
with or whose work they admire, and choose the selections
they like best from the applicant pool. MITF also offers
several flexible producing plans that are ideal for Off-Off-Broadway
productions. These range from full festival support (with
the biggest box office split) to “pay up front”
plans that allow companies to pay for the space at a discounted
rate and receive the largest gross of the ticket sales.
“Giving people options makes them happy,” Chatterton
John Chatterton is no stranger to the Off-Off Broadway community: thirteen years ago he founded “OOBR: The Off-Off-Broadway Review,” a publication of theater listings and reviews. “Off-Off Broadway has gotten more serious; there are fewer marginal theaters, due to expense, you’ve got to have your act together.” Thus, he maintains, a festival is a great place to get your “sea legs.” An artist can gain exposure with less risk and concentrate on the show itself. “This is why we have more festivals,” he surmises. “For artists, it’s a step on the professional ladder. Your voice can be heard.” Chatterton also finds that festivals are a great way for participants to network with other theater practitioners.
What does it take to run a three-week theater festival? “Logistics,” Chatterton firmly replies. “I’m very fortunate to have Emileena execute the logistics.” He’s referring to Emileena Pedigo, the festival’s full-time managing director. It’s her job to hire the festival staff and ensure that the schedule runs smoothly. Along with Emileena, Chatterton has four full-time reports: Judd Hollander, in charge of publicity; Bob Ost, who oversees festival marketing; and lighting designer Carrie Yacono, who coordinates rep plots for all four theaters. Other staff members operate on a part-time or volunteer basis.
Logistics seem to be paying off. Over the last seven years, MITF has doubled the number of productions and seen a steady improvement on the business side due, in large part, to great organization. They’ve cut the number of shows per production from seven to five, and try to seek out shows that allow for more flexibility with programming. The festival tries to operate as a support system for the participants while encouraging them to market themselves. Not only does this place the business responsibilities with those with the most vested interest (the producers of the individual shows), it also allows MITF to keep its own costs down.
Looking forward, Chatterton hopes to continue to expand cautiously and find new ways to promote the festival. However, he’s not concerned that MITF might be dwarfed by FringeNYC or festivals with larger budgets. “I’m encouraged by the proliferation of festivals.” He cites them as a great way to grow an audience base – especially with ticket prices under $20 – and to filter out less-serious offerings.
“My mission in life is to get the general public comfortable with the idea of going to Off-Off Broadway plays,” Chatterton states. Fortunately, the Midtown International Theater Festival, along with all of the summer theater festivals, offers audiences ample opportunity to do just that.