SF Fringe Fest returns as EXIT Theater complex eyes 2022 closure

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The San Francisco Fringe Festival is always a dizzying handbag of theatrical performances, from solo shows to experimental theater, clown shows and always the unexpected. Shows are selected by lottery only, so even the organizers don’t know what they’re going to get.

Over 10 days, 21 companies put on 84 performances, with several performing simultaneously on different stages of the EXIT Theater in the Tenderloin.

“It’s like Christmas morning,” says artistic director Christina Augello. “You have all these packages under the tree. You have no idea what’s in them, but you can’t wait to open them.

The 31st annual festival is a return to EXIT stages after a two-year absence: there was an online sampler in 2020 while theaters were closed, and the 2021 festival was canceled due to a COVID surge.

This year’s festival is also the last at the EXIT Theater before the venerable independent theater center closes its doors by the end of the year. Augello intends to continue EXIT in some form in San Francisco, but its Eddy Street venue with three theaters and a cafe will be no more.

Countless theater companies and performers have debuted and developed their craft at EXIT over the years, whether through the Fringe or the many other events held in this space.

After 40 years on Eddy Street, 30 years at the current location, Augello decided it was finally time to close the venue. Audiences and rental companies have been slow to return to the theater complex after more than two years of the pandemic.

“It’s become clear that we can’t continue at the pace we’re going,” Augello said. “The audience is small. Rentals are zero. EXIT Theater was built with a village helping to make it work, and that has really changed tremendously. I reopened at the end of February and waited. But in June we had no show rentals, and in July I had one. That’s just not how it works. We really need a full house to keep him afloat financially.

Some of these issues were there before COVID, but the change has been dramatic.

“There was a time when I couldn’t book as many people as I wanted to do shows, and that slowed some down,” Augello says. “But it was enough to keep going. If the pandemic hadn’t hit, we’d probably still be doing the same thing. Now companies that were doing two or three shows a season are postponing or waiting until next year. In October I have shows, but they were people who had reservations in 2020, and they are postponing their reservations. Things have changed. And I’d like to think I’m smart enough to see this change and not continue with what doesn’t seem to be working.

The nearby EXIT on Taylor leased space at the Cutting Ball Theater will continue, and EXIT has a new theater in Arcata, where Augello lives part of the time. It’s an open question where EXIT programs in San Francisco, such as the Fringe Festival, will take place in the future, and the many smaller theater companies that have rented EXIT in the past (those that are still there, anyway) will have to find other places to perform.

“I can’t wait to see things change, but I think it’s going to take a while, and I don’t know how it’s going to turn out and who will survive,” Augello said. “I want EXIT Theater to survive. And it’s a choice that will help him survive. In what incarnation, I don’t know. Granted, brick and mortar, having this financial responsibility, just doesn’t happen. The Fringe, I don’t know. Maybe take a year off, maybe figure out how to associate with other people.

The closing date is not quite decided, but it will be after a series of pandemic stories in November, followed by a kind of farewell celebration.

“I really want this to be a happy ending, because it’s not the end for EXIT Theater,” Augello said. “I am simply amazed when I think of 40 years of doing theater on Eddy Street. Let’s celebrate what we’ve accomplished, because we’ve accomplished quite a bit.

Contact Sam Hurwitt at shurwitt@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter.com/shurwitt.


SAN FRANCISCO FRINGE FESTIVAL

Presented by EXIT Theater

When: September 8-17

Where: EXIT Theater, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco

Tickets: Free – $18; www.theexit.org

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