Noe Valley Voice September 2003

Let Bylines be Bylines: Fringe Benefits

By Stephanie Crowley

One of the things I have loved about living in Noe Valley for the past nine years is that it is a part of the city that doesn't necessarily feel like The City. It's mostly quiet, with single-family houses and shady sidewalks. There are hundreds more couples pushing strollers than homeless pushing shopping carts. And at the same time, we're only a stone's throw away from jazzy nightclubs, skyscrapers, an amazing array of arts and culture, and all the things that make living in a city wonderful.

As a theater publicist, I'm always heading out to the Curran Theatre, or the Magic Theatre at Fort Mason, or to the latest 42nd Street Moon show at the Eureka Theatre--but possibly my favorite project is the annual San Francisco Fringe Festival. Based in the heart of the Tenderloin, the Fringe is an unpredictable collection of maverick microtheater where anything can happen (and usually does). It's my annual foray into the world of low-budget productions, a world that in some ways represents the opposite of my Noe Valley experience.

I'll admit it, as I approach my middle years I am less and less inclined to indulge in the city's nightlife. Dance clubs that don't open until midnight are lost on me (I can barely stay awake past 10 p.m.). Bar-hopping lost its appeal right around the time my college loans were paid off. But the San Francisco Fringe Festival is a perfect opportunity to counterbalance the safe predictability of my Noe Valley life; a time to dip my toes in that cool, edgy, hip, artsy scene without venturing in deeper than I can swim.

The Fringe, now in its 12th year, always happens during the first two weeks of September. The festival showcases about 55 different performances from around the world, in a 12-day rotating schedule. I usually pick the first Friday and Saturday of the festival; shows start on Friday at 7 p.m., on Saturday at 1 p.m. I head to Castro and Market to catch the Muni and ride to the Powell Street Station. Once above ground, I head west with a growing crowd of other intrepid art lovers.

They are all strangers, but strangers like me. Many of us look around a bit nervously as we make our way through the gritty streets of the Tenderloin. We offer each other friendly, slightly relieved smiles. We wait in line together, then sit through a show that lasts just under an hour and is deeply dramatic (or strangely funny, or even just strange). Once it is finished, we stream out onto the sidewalks again, joining the outflow from the other theaters. We check our programs, and head toward another venue.

Over the next few hours, I see two or three or four shows, run into some of the same people at some of them, and sometimes even strike up conversations with these now-familiar cohorts, these fellow Fringers. I stop by the EXIT Café (in the EXITheatrePlex) for a short break, a cup of coffee, and something sweet. Night falls and we theatergoers stride down the sidewalks like a country unto ourselves. We hardly even notice our surroundings now--we are a community experiencing, evaluating, being entertained.

By the time I am getting tired, or hungry for an actual meal, I've seen more theater in one day than I usually do in months. My imagination is sparking with the things I've seen and heard, and normally the entire enterprise hasn't cost more than $40. I've had my little excursion into the urban jungle, and as I climb the hills back to my quiet little Noe Valley apartment, I once again feel silent gratitude to have the best of both worlds at my fingertips.

The San Francisco Fringe Festival runs Sept. 3 to 14 and offers 34 "core" performances in three venues near Union Square, plus 20 shows in locations throughout San Francisco. Tickets are $8 or less per show. "Frequent Fringer" passes, good for 10 shows for $55, are available at TIX Bay Area, Union Square, or by calling 415-931-1033. For a complete schedule, call 415-673-3847 or go online at

Let Bylines Be Bylines

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