Darnell Benjamin Helps the Cincy Fringe Festival Adapt to a New Reality

This year’s Fringe Festival goes virtual, with online-only performances through June 13.

Illustration by Zachary Ghaderi

This year’s Cincy Fringe Festival will be even more different than usual, thanks to the new collective pandemic reality: All performances and art installations will stream online from May 29 to June 13. Know Theatre continues to produce the festival, enlisting Darnell Benjamin once again as a juror, a role he’s served since 2010. He’s also choreographing a dance piece, Dream&, for this year’s event. The local actor, director, and teacher shares what he looks for in a Fringe performance, how an application can hook him, and the sort of pieces he’s already anticipating next year.

What does a Fringe Festival application entail?

If it’s a play, they’re going to submit their first 10 pages, but a lot will also submit the full play. They’ll have video, if they have any recordings of the production. If they’ve shown it to an audience, you have the reviews and the testimonials. We have a month or two months to get through it all. [The 2020 Cincy Fringe Festival received a record 127 applications.] It takes some time being as thorough as possible and as fair as possible. From there, you have the assessment form to ultimately rate them based on what you read. Know Theatre staff compare and contrast their own notes with our forms.

How many submissions do you review?

We have a form we fill out before we actually do submissions that asks, How many do you think you can realistically do? What’s your max number? I always tend to be more comfortable with a higher number because I like doing it. They also make sure we’re being unbiased. If [a submission is from] someone we’re really close to, you can trade it for another.

How do you rate performances?

The application is good about making sure that we’re not saying something is necessarily good or bad art, but instead it’s about, Does it speak to you? Do you see this being unique and applicable to where we are in Cincinnati? I love those kinds of questions, because it keeps you from judging whether or not you approve of the content. I can’t tell you how many things I’ve seen where it’s like, If I read another play about President Trump, I’m gonna kill myself. But at the same time, if the person has an interesting angle that’s a little more exciting, well…. One of my favorite [questions on the application] is, Is this applicable to this region? Obviously there are different issues in different places. I’m expecting, of course, that next year’s Fringe will have a ton of coronavirus plays and pieces about isolation.

What do you look for in an entry?

The whole business of art is being able to sell yourself and sell a product, and I feel like you have to be genuine about it. I love the fun proposals—let’s say it’s a clown show, and they decide to write their proposal from that perspective. The other thing I find really important is source material, whether you have videos or reviews, just so I can get an idea of what other people are saying about your work.

I have to be hooked from the beginning, but it’s not hard to hook me. A lot of times, people get a little bit relaxed, especially if they’ve done the festival a few times or if they’ve done multiple festivals. My favorite entries are the new ones, when it’s their first time applying to a Fringe festival, the excitement that they have. There’s nothing more inspiring than to have someone who’s taking a risk and trying something different.

In addition to attending Fringe online, how can people support local artists during the stay-at-home order?

Keep an eye out for projects people are working on. There are tons of artists, large- and small-scale, creating amazing work on social media. Follow their work. Venmo them. Reach out to individual artists whose work you enjoy. Commission them for projects, if you can. And maybe create art inspired by your favorite local artists. Things like that will inspire and lift us.

Before the stay-at-home order, what were you working on?

I was acting in Pride & Prejudice at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, and I was also directing The Agitators at Falcon Theatre in Newport. We actually would have opened that show on March 20 [without the stay-at-home order]. At the end of April, I was going to start rehearsal for The Book of Will at Cincinnati Shakespeare, but it was cancelled. So I had a lot of things all lined up, and one by one they all started dropping off.

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