In 2001, two local thespians went to the Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs to pitch an idea that would incorporate experimental theater into the Piccolo Spoleto Festival. They got the go-ahead, and Piccolo Fringe was born.
Almost 15 years later, Brandy Sullivan and Greg Tavares are still committed to bringing innovative plays and quality comedy to the Holy City.
“It was always such a goal to be a part of Piccolo Spoleto,” Sullivan said. “It was a wonderful opportunity for us to be able to put together a series and to fill a niche that was missing.”
Piccolo Fringe is hosted at Theatre 99, which Sullivan and Tavares cofounded in 2000. The pair also serve as the co-artistic directors of that company.
This year’s series features 13 shows, eight of which are returning after successful past Fringe runs. “One Man Star Wars,” “Reformed Whores,” “The Complete History of Charleston for Morons” (which is written by Tavares) and the Upright Citizens Brigade touring company are among the shows reappearing. Reformed Whores and Upright Citizens Brigade have been coming to the festival every year since 2005. Also returning is musical comedy duo Stuckey & Murray, comprised of Andy Stuckey and Jon Murray. “The Slipknot,” a comic monologue, is returning to the festival for the first time since 2002.
“Charleston really supports work that they’re familiar with,” Tavares said. “People don’t want to buy a new type of soft drink. They want to buy Coke.”
While recurring shows make up the bulk of the Fringe lineup, new work by emerging artists also plays an important role. “Every year we have a balance of well-established favorites and risky, cutting-edge stuff,” Tavares said. “There are shows that might not draw a huge audience during their run, but the people who do see it talk about it for the rest of the year. They take on an almost mythological quality, and the next time they come, they get the big crowd.”
Tavares and Sullivan said that they like to showcase an array of comedy styles in the festival every year. This emphasis on variety is exemplified in the five shows making their Piccolo Fringe debut this year. There are the sketch comedies “Nameless Numberhead” and “Melanchomedy,” the comedy duo Hype Squad, the musical “F*%cking Identical Twins,” and the multimedia heavy act McQueen Adams
“A lot of stuff that comes to Fringe are shows that we’ve seen elsewhere as audience members and been like, ‘This is great, Charleston would dig this,’ ” Sullivan said.
Tavares and Sullivan always keep an eye out for new acts performing at other festivals, such as the Del Close Marathon in New York City and the Orlando Fringe Festival. Over the past few years, though, performers have also started to reach out to them independently.
“Because the Fringe has been around for almost 15 years now, when we reach out to an artist, they’ve heard of us,” Tavares said. “We’re kind of a known commodity after years of doing it.”
Piccolo Fringe provides Theatre 99, which mostly stages improvisational comedy, including Sullivan’s and Tavares’ troupe, The Have Nots! — with an opportunity to explore other forms of theater. Among those, according to Tavares, are more highbrow productions.
“Fringe lets us introduce our audience that just comes here for improv to see other kinds of things,” Sullivan said. “There is an audience in Charleston that’s open to more experimental, off-the-mainstream art.”
Piccolo Fringe runs through June 6 at Theatre 99, 280 Meeting St. For tickets and more information go to www.piccolospoleto.com.
Haley Chouinard is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.