When Sara Katzoff spent her junior year in college in California, she had no way of knowing the experience would be life-changing.
Katzoff was amazed at what she saw at the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theater.
"They were creating their own works, speaking with their own voices," she said.
Katzoff, then a theater student at Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington, was intimate with traditional theater, but it was at Dell'Arte that she was introduced to experimental, cutting-edge productions through the month-long Mad River Festival.
"I was inspired by that. Not just the work, but how they interfaced with the community and how the community participated in making that work," she said. "Also, there were lots of young people there, and people from all walks of life."
That inspirational experience, 10 years ago now, led Katzoff ultimately to reforge some Simon's Rock connections with classmates Peter Wise and Timothy "Ryan" Olson, connections which would lead to the birth of Bazaar Productions in 2003, and, two years later, Berkshire Fringe, a 21-day festival of theater, dance, music and film.
This year's festival will kick off on Monday, July 27, with the festival gala, "Scored!" It will run through Monday, Aug. 17. (See accompanying box for the schedule of events.)
Katzoff, co-artistic director of the festival alongside her former Simon's Rock classmates, said the festival has grown and expanded since that first 2005 season.
"We started off really small on purpose. We had five shows over 10 days," said Katzoff, now 28.
During that first season, Wise's father, Jay Wise, a dentist in Lee, approached the trio with a proposal. Jay Wise, part of Quintessential, a Berkshire-based a cappella group, told them his group would like to write a song for the festival and perform it in the lobby before one of the performances. The trio thought it was a fabulous idea.
And it was. Katzoff said it was wildly popular with audience members, who thought it was great to be able to hear some music prior to a show.
"People flocked to it," she said. Based on the response, Peter Wise proposed the festival incorporate a free music series.
The next year saw additional growth. Besides the brand-new music series, one of the artists said he wanted to teach a workshop for audience members as well as other artists on the creation of experimental theater.
"We said, 'This is a really great way to get the community involved,' so we had a workshop series (:30 Live!) in 2006 as well. We grew very organically," Katzoff said.
But the three weren't done yet. In the 2007 season, they created an education program, EarlyStages. The program, a play development residency program that allows emerging local writers to work with a professional playwright mentor, is geared toward college-aged writers, roughly 18 to 26 years old.
"There really wasn't anything in the region appealing to that age bracket," Katzoff said. "It's a great experience for the writers." Not only do the young playwrights participate for free, but they are also given two weeks of room and board as well.
That concept of housing artists is one of the things that sets the Berkshire Fringe apart from other fringe festivals. Artists who choose to follow the fringe circuit are usually responsible for their own housing, as well as their own technical support, but not at the Fringe.
"What we wanted to do was celebrate new work, encouraging people to take risks, but also provide housing and professional support staff," Katzoff said.
The Berkshire Fringe is different in another fundamental way as well. Most festivals choose their participants either on a first-come, first-accepted basis or a lottery system. The Berkshire Fringe, however, chooses the artists from the pool of applicants.
"We are slightly controversial in the fringe community," Katzoff said. "We were trying to get artists who are like, 'I really need this, I really need this opportunity,' and to show the community a really diverse cross-section of work."
That selection process, however, is growing more challenging. The first year, there were only 20 applicants for the five spots. This year, there were about 100 for six spots.
One of the productions that won a slot is "Graveyard Shift," written by Berkshire-based Gabriel Patel and directed by John Hadden of Landgrove, Vt. Four years ago, Hadden directed Patel's workshop piece, then called "Real Dramatic," and it drew "a tiny, tiny audience," he said.
But Hadden said the piece was "one of the highlights of my whole career," and he knew it deserved more. The opportunity had to come soon, he said - "We were running out of time" - because the heroine of the piece is 17-year-old Alice. Irene Longshore, the actress who is reprising the role, is now in her mid-20s.
According to the Berkshire Fringe Web site, "with themes straight from Greek tragedy and language from the skate park, 'Graveyard Shift' paints an unflinching picture of young, lower-middle class life in rural America."
Hadden had been keeping his eye out for the right place to mount the production again.
"The Fringe is the perfect place for this. It's run by young people. It has an experimental cutting-edge to it. This play is gritty. It deals with marijuana, cutting school - it's about young people, and young people are the natural audience," he said.
Hadden has another reason they wanted to win a Berkshire Fringe spot: "The record shows they're gaining audience numbers and more and more respect."
This increasing respect among both artists and audience members can be attributed to the clarity of the three co-artistic directors' vision, as expressed by Katzoff: "Ultimately, what we want to provide is a safe testing ground for new work."
Berkshire Fringe Festival 2009 season
Monday, July 27: "Scored!" 2009 gala, a mini-marathon of dance, animation, film and visual art presentations inspired by an identical, six-minute soundscape composed by Fringe co-artistic director Peter Wise also featuring live video mixing, DJ and dance party, open bar, hors d'oeuvres, paparazzi photo booth and "not-so-silent auction," 7 p.m. performance, 8 p.m. dance party. $100/performance and dance party access, $50 or pay your age for dance party/auction access only.
* July 29-Aug. 2: "The Gay Agenda's Great Big Broadway Show," written and performed by Micah Bucey and Nicolas Williams, whose mission is simple: complete and utter world domination through show tunes. 8 p.m. July 29, 9 p.m. July 30, 7 p.m. July 31, 9 p.m. Aug. 1 and 6 p.m. Aug. 2
* July 29-Aug. 3: "The Disappearing Woman," created and choreographed by media artist Nell Bryer and dancers Alissa Cardone, Lorraine Chapman and Bronwen MacArthur, an exploration of how technology folds around us, squeezing our interactions into new kinds of abbreviated exchanges. 7 p.m. July 30, 9 p.m. July 31, 7 p.m. Aug. 1, 8 p.m. Aug. 2 and 3
* Aug. 5-9: "Circumference," written and performed by Amy Salloway, largely based on the year Salloway spent trying to get insurance approval for gastric bypass surgery. 8 p.m. Aug. 5, 9 p.m. Aug. 6, 7 p.m. Aug. 7, 9 p.m. Aug. 8, 6 p.m. Aug. 9
* Aug. 6-10: "Elephants and Gold," created by Eliza Ladd and Little Big Tree Productions, an ensemble-driven physical theater piece that drags, digs, buries, crawls and plunges into an archeological excavation of human identity. 7 p.m. Aug. 6, 9 p.m. Aug. 7, 7 p.m. Aug. 8, 8 p.m. Aug. 9 and 10
* Aug. 9: "Hurricane Hotel," by John Lawson, directed by Aimee Michel, a world-premiere staged reading event of a play that grabs a hold and takes the audience on a ride into the underbelly of New Orleans, a drowned city destined to be reborn. 2 p.m.
* Aug. 12-16: "Phi Alpha Gamma," written and performed by Dan Bernitt, a haunting portrait of brotherhood, masculinity, love and fear embedded in American culture that focuses a compassionate eye on young men searching for a deeper connection with each other. 8 p.m. Aug. 12, 9 p.m. Aug. 13, 7 p.m. Aug. 14, 9 p.m. Aug. 15, 7 p.m. Aug. 16.
* Aug. 13-17: "Graveyard Shift," written by Gabriel Patel, directed by John Hadden, which paints an unflinching picture of young, lower-middle class life in rural America in which Alice, a tumultuous, fast talking heroine, and Murdoch, a troubled late night convenience store clerk, strike up an unlikely friendship that awakens a deep current of love and mutual respect. 7 p.m. Aug. 13, 9 p.m. Aug. 14, 7 p.m. Aug. 15, 9 p.m. Aug. 16, 8 p.m. Aug. 17.
* Sunday, Aug. 16: Participants in the EarlyStages playwright mentorship program will present staged readings of new works, noon and 1:30 and 3 p.m. Free.
Ongoing: ":30 Live," music series featuring an eclectic mix of new music, emerging composers and sonic innovators from throughout the Northeast. 7 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays. Free.
Ongoing: Community workshops taught by Berkshire Fringe artists and open to participants of all backgrounds and levels of experience, 1:30 p.m. Saturdays. Free; registration recommended.
Tickets for opening nights are "pick your own price"; tickets to subsequent shows are $15. A $69 season's pass is available for all six shows. All performances, events and workshops take place at The Daniel Arts Center, Bard College at Simon's Rock, 84 Alford Road, Great Barrington. Info: 413-320-4175 or berkshirefringe.org.