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Breaking Through

The cast of Astoria playwright Kari Bentley-Quinn's "The Permanent Night" includes Dave Beagle (l. to r.), Vina Less, Kat Garson and Cory Whitfield. Photo by Ka-Man Tse
By April Isaacs

Probably since the death of Shakespeare, theater has had to defend its will to survive in the face of its more technologically advanced successors like radio, movies, tv and vlogging. Through the centuries it's managed to persist, and probably always will in one form or another, but now with a steady spike in ticket prices and an even steadier plummet into mainstream manufacture, there are few forums for fresh ideas and experimentation to thrive and breathe new life into the New York theater scene.

Enter the New York Fringe Festival, an annual 16-day event showcasing plays in venues throughout the city by independent production companies.

Playwrights Kari Bentley-Quinn from Astoria and John Trevellini from Bayside, while veterans in the theatre scene — Trevellini is a stage manager and teaching artist and Bentley-Quinn is a former actor — both are relatively new to playwriting and are first-time entrants at this year's festival.

At FringeNYC, “you get to see plays that normally wouldn't have a chance,” said Trevellini, who has been involved with the festival in the past as a technical director.

Trevellini's play, “Boots,” explores the distance and indifference people feel towards tragedy that isn't immediately connected to them. To illustrate this, Trevellini's characters wear masks. The setting is nonspecific, but the play's storyline deals with war and resonates with today's political climate. Trevellini describes his style as “mythical” with a “fairy-tale” feel and believes the play would have a hard time landing a venue if it weren't for FringeNYC's willingness to take risks on more avant-garde plays.

FringeNYC was started in 1996 by The Present Company as an alternative to the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh. When The Present Company, a small Off Off Broadway theater production group, was trying to figure out how to afford putting a play on at the Edinburgh festival, Artistic Director John Clancy wondered why New York, with a theater scene second only to London, didn't have its own comparable arts festival. The group then went to work organizing what would be the first New York festival in August 1997.

Since that first year, the festival has grown tremendously, and last year was attended by more than 75,000 people. The festival is juried and a committee reviews and accepts about 200 plays into the festival. If a play is accepted, its production company pays a $550 fee for inclusion in the festival and use of a venue. FringeNYC reserved 20 downtown theaters for this year's event.

“That's nothing!” Bentley-Quinn said of the fee. “It normally costs way more than that to produce a play.”

Bentley-Quinn's entry, “The Permanent Night,” is set on Aug. 14, 2003, the day of the widespread Northeast blackout. Throughout the course of a night without power, the characters experience both internal and relationship struggles.

“It's a more mature play,” she said, comparing it to a play she submitted to FringeNYC last year that wasn't accepted into the festival. She got the idea for the play while walking to work one day thinking about the relationships between events that happen on an individual level and those that happen on a larger national or sometimes worldwide scale.

“I was thinking about Sept. 11, and how there must have been stuff happening to individual people that day, and how those were overshadowed by the larger tragedy.”

Both Trevellini and Bentley-Quinn have seen sold-out and nearly sold-out performances since FringeNYC began Aug. 8 and are hoping the popularity and good reviews of their respective plays will create more public awareness of the independent scene.

“People have always been saying that theater is dying. I don't think that's true, I think it's found its niche,” Trevellini said.

If you go:

New York Fringe Festival

When: Through Aug. 24

Where: Venues throughout downtown Manhattan.

Cost: $15 per ticket

For More: fringenyc.org or call (212) 279-4488 for tickets

The Permanent Night: www.thepermanentnight.com

Boots: www.bootstheplay.com

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