Monday, March 9, 2009

How Long Must Iowa Remain Fringe-Festival-Free??

The other night I was at an grand opening event for Des Moines's newest arts venue, The Des Moines Social Club, when a regular theater-going patron recognized and approached me. He asked me if I knew if there was going to be another Iowa Fringe Festival this year. I guess, for some reason, he thought I might have the answer. But, sorry to say, I did not.

For those unfamiliar with the history, Des Moines hosted Iowa's very first Fringe Festival in the summer of 2005. It was organized by the then newly-appointed Executive Director of Stagewest, Ron Ziegler. Ziegler had had the idea of organizing a Fringe Festival here in Des Moines for a while after having seen the success of the Orlando Fringe Festival down in Florida. Whether or not he brought the idea with him to Stagewest or helped fully realize it is a bit unclear. But since Stagewest touts itself as being "theater on the edge" they immediately jumped at the idea and got the ball rolling with Ziegler at the helm. Consequently, it was a smashing success thanks to all of the supporters throughout the community.

In 2006, after just one year of service, Ziegler stepped down from his position at Stagewest for reasons unknown. But with him went the sense of the fringe being a community-wide effort. The fringe, now solely under the direction of Stagewest, left a lot of people involved with the organization and planning from the previous year scratching their heads. Non-the-less, the event went on and again the community particapted despite some bitterness.

Because of this feeling of animosity that was left over from the 2006 fringe, a new independant committee comprised of people from various other theater groups throughout the community came together. This group was formed to address the Stagewest Board of Directors concerning opening up the Fringe Festival planning as a community-wide effort. With some persuation, the group was able to coerce the board into conceding their stronghold on the event.

In 2007, the Fringe was again on its feet with a renewed sense of openness throughout the theater community. And again the festival grew in both numbers of performers and numbers of attendees. Unbeknownst to everyone, that would be the last time Des Moines would be hosting the Iowa Fringe Festival.

It is now approaching the summer of 2009 and there's not one sign of another Fringe Festival. Why? What went wrong? What happened to the idea of the fringe being an open, communal experience? What happened to the SPIRIT the FRINGE??

Well.. I don't know. That's a question only Stagewest can answer. I've heard various reports from the independant organizers of the 2007 Iowa Fringe Festival. I'd hate to relay any of them if they weren't true. But I think the theater-going public deserves an official response. Because I'm tired of people asking me about it. And I've not read one public report concerning what happened or if there are any plans to continue. No one seems to know. And if they do, they don't want to talk about it.

So I'm laying down the gauntlet for anyone willing to comment here in public on what happened. Otherwise, I'm going to offer the version I was given.. true or otherwise and people can judge for themselves.

Any smart person knows that in order to build an annual event you have to keep it going. Businesses and artists know that in order to become successful, you have to produce. This is coming up on two years now without a Fringe Festival and I for one am a bit upset considering the thing was just beginning to take off and now we're back at square none. (And no, I didn't misspell that.) So if anyone has an explanation as to what transpired and how we can "fix" things please comment here.

We can't have another Fringe-free year!


  1. John, I wish I knew! I've been wondering about the Fringe too. Good for you for writing about it :-)

  2. Hi John:

    So has anyone taken up the gauntlet? Because I'd be curious to hear your version of the events.


  3. Well from what I was told, the crux of the problem revolved around the dispute over naming rights. It is my understanding that Stagewest threatened legal action against the newly formed independant Fringe organization over the use of the name "Iowa Fringe Festival" without due financial compensation. The new group, due to lack of funding, was unable to continue legal proceedings and had no choice but to conceed and forfeit the use of the name.

    Seems somewhat childish, if you ask me. And I seriously doubt the dispute would have ended in Stagewest's favor had it gone to court. But c'est la vie. I've had no direct involvement with either party, so who cares what I think?

    Anyway, Rachel Glaza had a very good suggestion: rename it. I think The Des Moines Fringe Festival has a certain ring to it. Don't you? NO ONE owns the rights to the words "Fringe Festival."

  4. Thanks to Thatcher Williams one of the former organizers of the independent group for pointing out a Des Moines Register article published March 21, 2008 which explain (somewhat) the details of the dispute. However, this still relives just a few things unresolved.

    According to the article, the main dispute was over the word "Fringe." (Apparently, Stagewest has no problem with them using the words "Iowa" "Theater" or "Festival") This means anything with the word Fringe in it could be disputed.

    THIS IS BULLSHIT. Given the history and the use of the word WORLDWIDE, Stagewest's argument WOULD NEVER HOLD UP IN COURT. Unfortunately, the indie group didn't have the money to fight it. So here we are. Fringe-less. Thanks, Stagewest! Where's the 2009 festival you promised us in the article?