Freeing the artistic fringes

Popular queer performer Betty Smithsonian and local performance artist Sarah Knittel are creating change in Philly’s indie-art scene. Now they’ve joined forces to offer Free Fringe Philly, a no-cost alternative to Philly’s famed FringeArts festival.

Inspired by Edinburgh’s free fringe festival, the registration-fee-less, free-to-see series will run in Philly at the same time and in some of the same spaces as its for-pay predecessor, from Sept. 5-22. 

Both Smithsonian and Knittel have participated in FringeArts — but that was then. An activist at heart, Eisenberg said she wants art to be accessible.


PGN: How did you and Sarah meet?

BS: Sarah and I met when we were both cast on “The Philly N Crowd.” From the moment I met her, we were long-lost curly haired mates. She and I also do some silly musical improv under the title “Period Belly.” We perform three to four days per month when our cycles are in sync.


PGN: What has been your experience playing or participating in FringeFest?

BS: I have done Fringe a few years. In 2008, I did my very first show, “A Grateful Kingdom” — my homage to a dead friend. I took “Grace,” by Jeff Buckley, and reimagined each song using different, diverse artists: jump ropers, singers, painters. I made a painter live-paint each night to the song “Eternal Life.” He even sold some of the paintings to people who came to the show. It was the greatest fun, and it rocked. It was before I ever did anything performance myself. I was only a writer and producer. I raised money by cutting hair to help put on the show. Then I did a few musicals for Sarah Clemency as part of Fringe last year and the year before: “Only In Your Dreams” and “Becoming Vegan.”


PGN: Did FringeArts’ fees upset you even then?

BS: It is my mission in life as an artist, comic, clown … to create space and stages to encourage underserved populations to come and make stuff. This is why I helped kick off The Bechdel Test Fest. This is why I produce the open mics in the early time slots. This is why I put on Queer Bits and the Porn Stash. I do a lot of stuff. The whole point for me as a person with privilege is to make spaces more accessible for those without that. Personally, I want to rattle cages for an individual performer, ask them to dig deeper and come to the work alive, because selfishly I want to watch work that moves me. I am easily bored. This is not about being a broke artist, but I am frustrated at the model that this festival and others have taken on. The idea that a show has to be in some fancy theater, with a staff of 20, and all sorts of bells and whistles, well, that makes the whole concept of a fringe festival seem phony. The fact that there is a curated portion of a festival that was initially created to disrupt a curated festival is bonkers. Knock it off, I say. Knock it off!


PGN: How did you and Sarah come to create the Free Fringe Festival?

BS: Sarah went and did free Fringe in Edinburgh. She said we should do this in Philly, so we started to chat. Bradley Wrenn and Adrienne Mackey [local performers] also helped us talk out the idea. After multiple clown-ferences, we said, Let’s just do this.


PGN: How is the Free Fringe Festival different?

BS: We are focused on empowering the artist. We will list your show. We will promote it. We will print a sweet zine and pass it out. We will list all the free resources and, hopefully, shake the tree to get cool venues to open their doors to you. But you gotta go do your thing. This is a movement. It’s whatever the artists want to make of it. We are not going to do all the work for you. Y’all gotta do that. Let’s together, as a community, deconstruct where we can do theater, comedy, clown, music, dance, blah-blah-blah, and let’s dismantle this agreed-upon norm that it has to look, feel and be this specific thing to be considered art. That is a false narrative. 


PGN: How much of a focus is it for you to reach marginalized communities?

BS: My whole mission in making and producing anything is to reach out to underserved populations. That is literally the whole point of Betty making shows. So, as for me as a person, Betty Smithsonian, I am running a few shows in Free Fringe Philly and, as I do in my regular shows — Porn Stash, Queer Bits, etc. — I always seek to book and cast as much diverse peoples as possible. I am also doing what I can to reach out individually and in communities to encourage marginalized communities to make work and share or show it.


PGN: Are you looking for a different sort of programming for the festival?

BS: We are not looking for anything specific. This is open to all artists. People are submitting shows on bikes. People are submitting conference-call shows, meditation shows, things in parks and on porches. Yes, the space where art will happen will expand exponentially. 


To register a show with Free Fringe Philly, sign up via Google form at