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BorderLight Theater Festival Looks to Bring the World to Downtown Cleveland

The summer months are usually a dead time for theater with many stages going dark.  But, a new group wants to turn on the lights and stage a spectacle. The BorderLight International Theater and Fringe Festival aims to turn the corridor between Public Square and Playhouse Square into one big performance space.  This four-day event was five years in the making and will offer a grab bag of entertainment.

After visiting theater festivals in Europe, Dale Heinen said she and her collaborator, Jeff Pence, decided to come back home and stage one of their own. 

“We probably started talking about it in 2014, and we incorporated as a non-profit in 2016,” Heinen said.

Pat Kinevane from the Fishamble production "Silent" [photo: Ger Blanch]

The acts range from traditional plays to a series of events known as a fringe festival.  In one case, an Irish troupe, Fishamble, will recreate a silent movie on a Cleveland Play House stage.  Over in Public Square, three New Orleans actors will perform their story in and around an abandoned car. 

Jeff Pence said several established Cleveland theater groups, including the Play House, Karamu, Cleveland Public Theater and Dobama, will stage shows in collaboration with five international artists.  And it will all happen downtown.

“We saw that most of the theaters were dark during this certain period of the summer,” Pence said. “We looked around and thought what we need to do is to leverage what's here, we don't need to build anything new.  We've got all this capacity, let's use it in a special way, and, just once a year, have everyone work at the same time, share work in the same space and everyone elevate the entire profile of Cleveland as a theater center.”

Pence and Heinen are looking to make the festival an annual event.  He adds that start-up funding is always a challenge, so cost savings were sought out everywhere – both to help produce the event and to attract young experimental performers who might have difficulty with travel expenses.

Scene from the Masrah Cleveland Al-Arabi production "Dream of Home" [photo: Steve Wagner]

“We have really low fees,” he said. “We give almost all the box office to all the fringe artists. We've worked out and arranged with Cleveland State for dormitory housing. We are going to make it really attractive for young artists to come show their work in Cleveland, and our belief is that they'll come to Cleveland, show their work, look at our quality of life, look at our city and say, 'this is a great place to incubate new work.'”

Scene from Djapo Cultural Arts Institute production "Toukii: The Journey" [photo: Janet Century]

In all, over 100 artists from Northeast Ohio and around the world are due to perform 40 productions.  Pence and Heinen cut a number of deals with specific partners and foundations to help pay the freight.

“Strategically, for our first year, we took an approach of prioritizing work that we thought we could get subsidies for,” Pence said.  So, for instance, Culture Ireland is supporting Fishamble, to a certain degree, that’s left some plane tickets and hotels for us to pay for.”

Heinen added that the Gund Foundation is supporting the Cleveland collaborations and the Cleveland Foundation is supporting the fringe festival, among a list of contributors.

The Avignon Festivalin France runs over three weeks each summer in venues ranging from the streets to a palace courtyard. Edinburgh’s Festival Fringe is nearly a month-long, featuring thousands of different shows. The Border Light International Theater and Fringe Festival may be a more modest affair but plans to make its own sort of splash, capping off four days of entertainment with a free, public parade of life-sized animal puppets on July 27. 

"Ostrich Flying" [Photo: Roger Titley]

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