Warming up for the Frigid Festival



For the third winter, Downtown theaters offer a roster of fresh drama

This may be the winter of America’s discontent as the nation struggles through a depending recession, but don’t tell that to the organizers of the third annual FRIGID New York Festival, which is set to return to a trio of Downtown stages on Wednesday, Feb. 25. “We’ve had more submissions than ever, and I won’t really know until the festival starts, but we’ve started selling tickets earlier than ever before as we’ve noticed a growing interest in the event,” says organizer Erez Ziv, managing director of the Horse Trade Theater Group. “I think people still want to go see theater, but they can’t afford the prices of Broadway, so they’re coming to our shows because $10 or $20 is a price point everyone can afford. As far as I’m concerned, bring on the recession.”

The FRIGID New York Festival was launched in 2007 as a wintertime companion to the yearly Fringe Festival that unfolds across the city every August. Orchestrated by both EXIT Theatre, which oversees the San Francisco Fringe Festival, and the Horse Trade Theater Group, which currently juggles three Manhattan performances spaces (the Kraine Theater, the Red Room, and Under St. Marks), the FRIGID Festival was an event that originally sought to take advantage of a month in the theater calendar – and a neighborhood – that was being under-utilized. “Summertime is so full of festivals that we wanted ours to stand out, and there’s nothing really going in February – things heat up April and May but February is pretty quiet,” Ziv says. “We used to be a part of the Fringe when it was still in the East Village, but as that started moving west we thought we’d try to do our own programming.”

Making the most out of their three spaces, and the fan base they had already established among those in the theater community over the past decade, Ziv said the economics of FRIGID just made sense: Limited overhead costs, and an excited customer base. Still, as Horse Trade organizers opened the first FRIGID Festival to submissions, Ziv says he held his breath, relieved when they finally met their goal of titles booked and seats sold.

Instead, Ziv says it turned out to be last year’s festival that marked the real test – as some wondered whether they replicate the success of the year prior. When submissions increased 20 percent, and shows started selling out in record time, Ziv knew that FRIGID was here to say. More than that: He says he was ecstatic to see a whole new sort of crowd finding their way to Downtown stages. “The reaction was so encouraging. I recognized some Fringe regulars in the audience, but then we had people coming down to see shows who told us that they had lived in the city for decades and had never seen a show below 14th Street,” he says. “And they didn’t just come down for one show, but were here for half a dozen shows. Some even donated money to this year’s event.”

Given this year’s early ticket sales, and its full slate of 30 titles – all one-hour performances that are scheduled to show five times across the festival’s 12 days – the 2009 FRIGID Festival looks to be a groundbreaking year for all those involved. Ziv points with pride to the festival’s expanding reach this year, attracting shows from San Francisco, Florida, Canada and from as far away as Syria. He also holds up the diversity of this year’s program as a sign that the festival is catching on with a more eclectic group of artists.

Surveying this year’s program, Ziv sees a few potential outliers in the roster. He calls attention to “The Hefner Dialogues” (Feb. 26, 28; March 3, 5, 6, 8), a show featuring the “estranged cousin” of Playboy magnate Hugh Hefner, as a work that deals creatively with issues of family and identity. Another one-person show, “Recess” (Feb. 25, 27; March 1, 5, 7), stars Una Ava Osato as an Asian-American actress who recalls her experiences in the New York City public schools as a minority student.

Ziv also points to “Habeas Corpus” (Feb. 27, 28; March 3, 4, 8) as a major 2009 contender, a performance art piece produced by the San Francisco-based company The Real Kim Harmon. Encouraging strangers to submit information about the “things you would most like to get rid of,” the company will then use the voicemails and e-mails to construct a multimedia arrangement for the FRIGID. Of the group, Ziv says, “They are wildly creative.”

Featuring shows that deal with a wide range of topics, from the Jersey Turnpike to the nature of language and speech, Ziv says this year’s FRIGID Festival is all about discovery. While he is personally most excited about this year’s unorthodox magic shows – “Brainstorming!” (Feb. 26, 28; March 2, 3, 7, 8), which is all about the reading of minds, and “Now, and at the Hour” (Feb. 25, 28; March 1, 5, 7, 8), a “slightly creepy” mix of magic – he fully expects that audiences will unearth a treasure trove of hidden gems. “Last year, all the shows that I thought were going to be great turned out to only be okay, and the shows that I didn’t give a second thought to wound up being phenomenal,” Ziv marvels. “One of the fun things about this festival, given its diversity, is that there are 30 shows that we don’t know that much about, the number of surprises we get each year is wonderful.”

All shows compete for one of three separate “audience choice” awards, in addition to a top prize bestowed by festival staff.