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FringeNYC: Five Questions for Playwright Sorrel Barnard

The 15th annual New York City Fringe Festival begins on Friday. To mark the date, WNYC asked five playwrights and alumni of the FringeNYC five questions about what it's like to be a part of the fest.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Sorrel Barnard previously participated in the FringeNYC as a producer, but is participating in this year's festival as a writer of 
"The Apartment" along with Melissa Moran, Lindsay Joy Murphy and David Scott. The play began as an experiment: each playwright wrote scenes set in a Lower East Side apartment, documenting the various tenants subleasing the apartment in quintessential New York fashion.

Barnard currently sublets her apartment in Carrol Gardens, Brooklyn. This year's Fringe festival is her first foray back into the theater world after a few years of what she calls "hibernation and motherhood." Barnard produced "Dog Sees God," which played Off-Broadway, then in Los Angeles and the U.K. after a successful run at the FringeNYC in 2004.

WNYC's Julia Furlan: You've done the FringeNYC before, but this is your first time participating as a writer. How is that different from being a producer?

Playwright Sorrel Barnard: For me, being the writer has been much more difficult than being the producer. As a producer, I can appreciate the work, map out my game plan, dot all of my "i's", cross all of my "t's." Being the writer has meant giving up that control in order to allow other people to do their jobs. Fortunately, for me, this play has an excellent team of people working on it!

JF: What are the benefits of having a show at the FringeNYC as opposed to other festivals? 

SB: Taking part in the Fringe allows shows to do things on a much lower budget. That $600 dollar participation fee covers the theater rental, and just being included in the Fringe means you have some available marketing there. It runs the gamut, but I can say that for the last show that I produced, I paid $14,000 to rent a theater for four weeks, and it was nothing special, so you can see the difference with the Fringe. To me, it's a great opportunity to explore. I think it gives artists, writers, actors, musicians, directors -- whomever -- the opportunity to actually just explore what might happen in circumstances where the financial stakes are much lower.

JF: Is there anything that you're giving up when working with those lowered financial stakes?

SB: What you're giving up is being able to be in the space much before your performance, and you give up a lot of the design control in terms of lighting, sets and so forth. But I really think some people thrive in that sort of situation and I feel like it forces anyone involved to be highly creative in the face of so many other limitations. Never has the statement "The show must go on" been more true than when putting together a Fringe show. My mantra today has been "Keep calm and carry on." It would be easy to let yourself get stressed out, but since you've stripped away all of that, what you do have control over are things like the story and the play itself. I think it gives you an opportunity to concentrate on that, particularly as a writer, but really, for anyone involved. 

JF: There is a huge range of shows that get produced each year as part of FringeNYC. What comes out of that, in your opinion?

SB: I think it's an ideal way to experiment. Don't get me wrong -- I've seen my fair share of not fun things at the Fringe. But I've seen my share of things that were excruciating to be in that you pay a whole lot more to get into, as well. It's like any festival -- it's a crap shoot. You roll the dice, you look through your program guide, you make decisions based on what your taste is -- somebody's blurb looks interesting or their show icon looks interesting. But you don't actually know how good it's going to be until you see it. I will say this: Some of the best productions I have ever seen were at the Fringe. Maybe even as an audience member my expectations are set in a different way. My standards are possibly different than if I had spent $150 to see something on Broadway, you know what I mean? It's so nice to have that pleasant surprise where you think, "How cool is this?"

JF: "The Apartment" is set in a Lower East Side apartment. Does this fictional apartment exist?

SB: There's a little community garden on 6th Street and Avenue B, and in our play, there's a window in the apartment that overlooks it. The stories take place on the same day, August 14, but [in] different years ranging from 2003 to 2011. The apartment is being sublet which, to me, is what makes it such a New York story. It's a story about how people can live in the same space. If you have ever walked down a city street at night and looked up and seen a light on in a window and wondered who lives there or what might be going on there, that's what this is about. Only in New York have I found that people almost immediately ask you two questions -- 'What do you do?' and 'Where do you live?'

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