David Ortolano still fields the same basic questions and deals with the same puzzled expressions.
More than a decade after bringing the International Fringe Festival to Boulder, Ortolano finds plenty of gaps in the public's knowledge when it comes to the local installment of the global performing arts celebration. Whether he's spreading the word on the street or on the web, he runs into the responses he first encountered in 2005 and 2006.
"I ignorantly think that everyone knows about the Fringe," said Ortolano, who's returning as the executive director for the 2018 festival, which runs in Boulder from Wednesday to Aug. 26, after taking a four-year sabbatical. "People are still saying, 'I've never heard of it.'"
The phenomenon isn't limited to Boulder, as Ortolano found during his time away from the Boulder festival that incorporates theater, film, music and a host of other miscellaneous performing arts expressions. As he toured some of North America's most storied and well-established Fringe Festivals, he found that the spunky celebration of independent artists has retained its underground status. In cities like Edmonton, where the local Fringe Fest has taken on a nearly mythic status among artists, he still found people asking whether he was talking about a "French Festival."
"There are these huge festivals that have been around for 30, 40 years — they're ginormous. They're bigger than the Creek Fest in Boulder," said Ortolano, whose resume includes stints teaching and running performing arts events at Naropa University. "Interestingly enough, people were constantly saying, 'What's the Fringe?' That was a really interesting thing for me to hear."
In returning to the executive director position for Boulder's fourteenth annual Fringe Festival, Ortolano has been cognizant of the need to spread the word about the 12-day festival that unites hundreds of artists from across the country. He's not the only veteran who's returning to help spread that message — past producer Lisa McClellan is supporting program and ticket administration, while former festival event director and designer Alana Eve Burman is now serving on the board of directors.
With what Ortolano calls the "power trio" in place, he's hoping to further solidify the Fringe Festival's role in Boulder's art scene by highlighting its basic mission for both artists and audience members.
"What we're really selling is the risk," Ortolano said. "It's the Fringe, and that's the thing that we've never seen before and has never happened before. It needs a place to come out. One of my priorities and what I would tell an audience more than anything is to take a chance, take a risk.
"I can almost guarantee you're not going to go wrong that way," he added.
The theory of creative risk for artists and audiences alike goes back to the roots of the Fringe Festival in post-World War II Scotland. A movement in Edinburgh to create an inclusive, unjuried forum for artists to debut their work blossomed into a worldwide movement.
"The artists get in by lottery or on a first-come-first-serve basis, and that's about a year in advance. They go through a producing process with us," Ortolano said, adding that the festival's inclusive philosophy drew skepticism from city officials at the Boulder iteration's outset. "We've had spurts of support, and we've had spurts of resistance from the beginning."
This year's lineup features plenty of chances for audiences to take a risk. The lineup of more than 150 performances features a mix of local and international talent; it ranges from an award-winning parody of a funeral eulogy (Washington, D.C.-based artist Michael Burgos' piece "The Eulogy") to a mash-up of Shakespeare and Kurt Cobain (Boulder-based troupe Band of Toughs' "Nirvamlet," featuring Ortolano). The program includes films dedicated to Colorado cuisine, with screenings from the Flatirons Food Film Festival, and workshops on self-producing for aspiring Fringe artists.
The sheer scope of the program is enough to make Fringe veterans feel a bit overwhelmed. This year, however, audiences won't have to skip between as many venues. Apart from a few events, almost all of the 2018 Boulder festival selections will be housed in a central location: the The Pine Street Church, aka "Fringe Central."
"It's a one-stop shop for everything," Ortolano said, adding that the four indoor venues under one roof will lend the 2018 festival a cohesive feel. "It's going to be quite exciting. The audience will be in one place ... It's a much cleaner process."
The format also allows artists — native Coloradans and visiting out-of-towners alike - the chance to mingle and communicate. The Fringe Festival format tends to encourage a communal spirit among creators, as playwrights, musicians and choreographers find connections between gatherings of like-minded artists across international boundaries.
Jack Helbig, co-author of the one-woman show "Here Lies a Manic Pixie Dream Girl: A Pretty True Story," will visit the Boulder festival for the first time, after traveling with his collaborator Melody Jeffries to Fringe Fests in Elgin, Ill., Chicago and Milwaukee. Helbig, who works as theater critic in Chicago, said the Fringe Festival circuit has offered a chance to refine another facet of his creative persona.
"I have been a newspaper writer for a long time, and most of the time my words are just symbols on a page," he wrote in an email. "My audience is totally invisible to me. In theatre, my audience is right there. Sometimes at shows I will sit at the side and watch the audience while they watch Melody performing my words."
Helbig added that "Pixie Dream Girl," based on Jeffries' own trials, travails and experiences with bipolar disorder, neatly fits the irreverent mission of the Fringe Festival.
"This show seemed like a good fit for Boulder Fringe because it is easily portable (it has a small set and involves only one actor) (and) it deals with issues in a way that may be too edgy and quirky for a larger venue or a more conventional house," he said.
Ortolano insists that edginess isn't a prerequisite for the Boulder Fringe, but that it's always welcome. The bigger test is in risk-taking, whether it's for the playwright penning a new piece or an audience member choosing a production from the program list. He cited a motto that marked Fringe Festival promotional T-shirts in past years. "'The thing about the Fringe is that you're not always sure what's happening, and you're loving every minute of it.'"