Two years ago, as artistic director Joey C. Pelletier prepared for the second show from his brand-new Heart & Dagger Productions, he ran into a problem all too familiar to fringe theater companies: Performance venues were scarce in Boston.
He’d been hoping to put the play up in February or March. No such luck. But the Factory Theatre in the South End had a summertime slot open, from the end of June through the first week of July. Pelletier was dubious. He was planning to stage “MilkMilkLemonade,’’ Joshua Conkel’s comedy about the sexual awakening of a boy who lives on a chicken farm with his grandmother. “My first thought was, well, all my gay friends will be in P-town,’’ Pelletier recalled. “And the students won’t be here. Who is our audience going to be?’’
But “MilkMilkLemonade’’ went on to enjoy a solid run, with houses that ranged between two-thirds full and sold out. Since then, Pelletier has made sure that each one of Heart & Dagger’s seasons features a summer production. This year, it’s Charles Busch’s “Psycho Beach Party,’’ slated for July 25-Aug. 3 at the Factory Theatre.
“Our summer shows have really helped Heart & Dagger get on the fringe map,’’ he said.
A lot of other fringe companies want to plant their flags on that increasingly crowded map, and some of them see summer as a golden opportunity to do so. It’s a time when large and midsize theaters often go dark, or at least scale back operations from mid-June to September, reducing the competition for audiences. So some smaller theaters are heeding the sage words of the old-time baseball player “Wee Willie’’ Keeler, whose advice to batters was “Hit ’em where they ain’t.’’
Tim Hoover, president of the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston, said there will be at least 14 local productions by 10 different fringe theater companies in July and August. Among them will be the Vagabond Theatre Group’s production of Heather Houston’s “Supergravity and the Eleventh Dimension,’’ at the Factory Theatre July 11-20; “Paper City Phoenix,’’ by Walt McGough (“The Farm,’’ “Priscilla Dreams the Answer’’), to be produced by Boston Actors Theater at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre July 12-27; and “Rooms: A Rock Romance,’’ a musical by Paul Scott Goodman and Miriam Gordon, to be staged Aug. 10-25 by Bad Habit Productions at the Wimberly Theatre in the Boston Center for the Arts.
“Summer is pretty active for a lot of small and fringe theater companies,’’ said Hoover. “It definitely can be a way to broaden their audiences and get people who are much more willing to just go out later at night. When the weather is prohibitively cold here in Boston, people aren’t as willing to go out.’’
It’s a time when larger theaters often go dark.
Of course, warmer weather is often vacation time, and hard-working staffers at fringe companies — most of whom have day jobs in addition to their theater work — need time off as much as anyone else does. Many companies also use the warmer months to prepare for their fall seasons.
“The summer is the time when we recover from the rest of the year and then dive back in and go full-force from September to June,’’ said Meg Taintor, artistic director of Whistler in the Dark Theatre. She added with a laugh: “In the summer I could organize a fringe festival or I could go to the beach. Sometimes the beach wins out.’’
One recent harbinger of summer that is falling by the wayside this year is the Emerging America Festival. A collaboration between the Huntington Theatre Company, the American Repertory Theater, and the Institute of Contemporary Art, it was held from 2010 through 2012, providing a showcase for up-and-coming playwrights, performers, and directors.
Huntington communications manager Rebecca Curtiss said in an e-mail that the theater’s “priorities shifted to other projects more closely tied to our mission,’’ such as a summer workshop for members of the Huntington Playwriting Fellows program. Kati Mitchell, the ART’s director of press and public relations, said in an e-mail that this summer the theater is co-curating presentations in a Spiegeltent at the new Outside the Box festival, slated for July 13-20.
Though Whistler in the Dark’s final production this season will be “Vital,’’ June 14-30 at Charlestown Working Theater, Taintor sounded open to the idea of extending the traditional fall-to-spring theater season. “It’s not that the city becomes empty; there are rock concerts and sporting events going on,’’ she said. “The September-to-June model is just one of those inherited things that we don’t question. There isn’t really a strong reason why those summer months couldn’t be activated. It’s just habit.’’
Habits are made to be broken. Since fringe theater companies pride themselves on doing things differently than larger theaters, why follow the same calendar and play by their rules? Why shouldn’t fringe companies try to grab a chunk of their audiences — or, even better, attract entirely new audiences — by offering new productions in July and August? The New York International Fringe Festival (Aug. 9-25) and the New York Musical Theatre Festival (July 8-28) have each managed to draw a critical mass of artists and audiences, despite the steamy, smelly, scorching heat of Manhattan in summertime. Among other enticements Boston has to offer: balmier weather. So why hasn’t a fringe festival taken hold here?
Charlotte Meehan, the artistic director of Sleeping Weazel, has been pondering the question of habit. It’s only been a year since Sleeping Weazel debuted in Boston (the company’s first full season here will conclude with Meehan’s “Real Realism,’’ scheduled for May 30-June 8), but she already wants to shake up the paradigm.
“We are strongly thinking about June-July for next summer,’’ said Meehan. “We’re thinking there won’t be as much theater going on, so we’re kind of seeing what we can get for that. It might be an opportunity.’’