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Beyond the Fringe

A stage fight breaks out downtown.

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Dying your hair platinum might not be the most obvious way to save struggling Off-Off Broadway theaters from skyrocketing rents, but for downtown impresario Aaron Beall, a new do is a sort of theatrical flourish, like the throwing down of a gauntlet. Between gulps of granola and soy milk at Stanton Street's boho Lotus Club, Beall -- once dubbed "the Joseph Papp of the Lower East Side" for his high-concept theatrical stunts (31 different Hamlet productions in 1993; 43 Fausts in '94) -- announces that he'll soon be sporting a Warhol look to let the world know about his new theater festival. This one's called Pure Pop, a six-week, 75-production extravaganza that will open the same August day as the last festival he helped start, the New York International Fringe Festival. "I challenge them to bring downtown the 35,000 people they brought last year," he says, smiling, "and I will bring down an additional 25,000 people."

In truth, Beall is as much Joe Papp as P. T. Barnum. The director of Nada and two other tiny Lower East Side theaters insists he's only trying to "complement" the Fringe with more mainstream material -- but it's hard not to view Pure Pop as pure revenge. Beall left the festival last fall when, after one of his theaters didn't meet code, his partners, John Clancy and Elena J. Holy, wouldn't pay him his venue fee. Now, faced with the prospect of four dark theaters come August, Beall is counterprogramming against the 175-production Fringe and accusing the remaining founders of downplaying his role. "It's hard when the people you worked with claim they worked harder than you," Beall says. "I'm still officially co-artistic director of the Fringe." (Clancy, for his part, blames the rift on clashing management styles. He wishes his old colleague well, but likens calling him a Fringe co-artistic director to "calling Gerald Ford president. He's not involved.")

Pure Pop boasts a more direct revenue-sharing plan than the Fringe's: Theaters will each take $3 straight out of the $9 ticket price. This could help Beall end Nada's current eviction battle -- and perhaps help other struggling theaters survive the Lower East Side's rent boom. Beall dreams of starting a huge university-style capital campaign for Off-Off Broadway, hitting up famous stage alums like Dustin Hoffman and John Leguizamo for contributions. But sustaining a major fund-raising operation would be a new trick for Beall, who made his rep more as a launching pad for talent than as an entrepreneur. "Every artist in New York who started downtown says, 'You have to do a show at Nada and then move on,' " says Diane Paulus, who also co-directed last year's Fringe. "You can fault the way Aaron's done business, but he's given opportunity to hundreds of young artists."

Pure Pop, then, could be Beall's last shot before high rents boot him off the OfF-Off Broadway map. The best theater, like any haircut, is ephemeral; can Beall's pop revival outlast the competition? "I feel like I'm going up against Seinfeld," Beall admits. "But I have to do something."


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