On the fringes: Playhouse Square streets, venues become stages at BorderLight Fringe Festival

Since 2019, the BorderLight Fringe Festival has taken over the downtown Cleveland streets, theaters, and other venues in an artistic display unlike any performing arts event. With both a local and an international flair, BorderLight truly offers something for everyone.

With a mission to create innovative, inspirational theater that builds and celebrates the diversity of the human experience, in late summer BorderLight hosts a performing arts festival that shines a spotlight on Cleveland’s arts and culture community and its rich cultural assets.

While previous Fringe Festivals have been biennial events (with the 2021 festival taking place virtually), this year BorderLight Fringe Festival becomes an annual event.

Previous festivals have lasted four or five days and featured international artists, BorderLight co-founder, executive and artistic director Dale Heinen says the move to an annual festival that focuses on local and national performers—with 70% of box office sales going back to the artists—keeps the momentum going.

“Rather than reinventing yourself every two years, then kind of disappearing and not having content, it's just easier to keep the thing going,” she says. “And these artists self-produce their work, so it takes some work off of us to do one of those instead of the full big [international] festival.”

Yet this year’s festival in Cleveland is not a small-scale production.

Jailyn Sherell Harris - I Am But A WhisperJailyn Sherell Harris - I Am But A WhisperFringe Festival, running this Thursday, Aug. 3 through Saturday, Aug. 5, is poised to rival past years—with more than 110 performances by 35 unique local and national acts that will take over the Playhouse Square District across 15 indoor and outdoor stages at six venues.

Heinen first got the idea for BorderLight Fringe Festival after living in Europe for 15 years and experiencing internationally-known arts performances like Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Festival D’Avignon.

The general concept of a fringe festival started in the 1940s in Edinburgh after artists wanted to participate in the more formal, structured festival hosted by Scottish officials.

“So, they just kind of crashed it,” Heinen says. “They started doing their own stuff, and they were on the fringes of that official festival.  That idea took off and today, decades later, there are 300 or so fringe festivals in the world of which BorderLight is just one.” 

Heinen explains that the Edinburgh and Avignon Fringe Festivals attract people who may not be traditional theater goers “The artists are self-producing their work and reaping the benefit of the box office,” she says. “You see them sometimes outside, performing to try to build an audience.”

This year, organizers decided to also increase the density of Fringe Fest, Heinen says, by keeping all events in and around Playhouse Square.


"We just had this huge learning experience in 2022, and we're immediately applying all that feedback from artists and from audience members,” says Heinen. “So, we’re adding things like food trucks this year. People wanted us to densify the footprint to one neighborhood because people said, ‘hey, I didn't always feel safe in Public Square at night.’ And it's kind of a long walk between Public Square and Playhouse Square.”

This year’s venues include the Hermit Club, Cibreo Privato, Parnell's Irish Pub, the Middough Building at Cleveland State University, US Bank Plaza, and stages in Playhouse Square.

Heinen says some local shows that are a must see include Marie Curie Horror Story, Sundaze,  and Living on the Moon

Heinen says organizers have partnered with some nonprofit organizations this year, including Adoption Network Cleveland, YWCA Greater Cleveland, and Plexus LGBT + Allied Chamber of Commerce, to promote its diversity, equity, and inclusion message.

For instance, Cleveland native and Chicago actor and storyteller, Kevin Gladish is partnering with Adoption Network to bring his one-hour solo performance “A Secret in Plain Sight” to Kennedy’s Cabaret in the Mimi Ohio Theatre lobby.

Keving Gladish - A Secret in Plain SightKeving Gladish - A Secret in Plain SightAt the age of 43, Kevin Gladish discovered the truth behind a family secret that completely altered everything he knew, sending him back to Cleveland to uncover his roots. The performance traces his journey from missed clues in childhood, to his shocking discovery, and finally, through investigative research and DNA testing, to his obsessive search for the truth.

Based on his blog “A Story with No Beginning,” Gladish takes the audience on a journey of discovery that continues to ask what is true, what is false, and how much any of us can ever know.

“Much of the show takes place in Cleveland, both when I grew up there and when I came back to do research and find my family,” says Gladish. “It feels like a homecoming in a way. I also have the opportunity to perform for members of the Adoption Network Cleveland, who are responsible for getting the laws changed that allowed me to access my vital records. They offered much emotional and logistical support in my search from the early days after discovery.”

Performances are Friday, Aug. 4 at 5:30 p.m. and Saturday, Aug. 5 at 1:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.  The 5:30 performance will be followed by a talkback event hosted by the Adoption Network.

Heinen says the YWCA is marketing three shows that fit into Fringe Festival’s equity, resilience, and justice spotlight—"Tesha; an ‘Other’ Look at Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” “I Know It Was the Blood: The Totally True Adventures of a Newfangled Black Woman” and “Three Countries, One Mother.”

Code RedCode RedPlexus is promoting BorderLight’s spotlight on LGBTQ+ shows—"Code Red: A Drag Manifesto,” “The Expiration Date: A Work in Progress,” “Revealing: Burlesque, “I Know It Was the Blood,” and “The Peek-a-Booth.”

“That's just another way to make inroads into new communities,” says Heinen.

Tickets to the events are based on a pay-what-you-can-afford platform—Concession tickets for those on a budget are $12; Standard tickets are $15; and Pay-it-Forward tickets, to help cover the Concession ticket prices, are $20. Binge on the Fringe 4-packs are $55, and 8-packs are $100; while an All-Access Pass is $200.

In addition to ticketed events, The Fringe Festival will offer three events this year that are free and open to the public. First is opening night on Thursday, Aug. 4 from 9 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. at Cibreo Privato, where attendees will be treated to an explosive, majorette-style performance by members of  CSU’s Black Leading Arts Cultural Club and Blakk Jakk Dance Collective. Complimentary hors d’oeuvres and a cash bar will be available.  RSVPs are recommended and a suggested $10 donation is appreciated.

Then, on Friday, Aug. 4 from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. a Silent Disco will occur on US Bank Plaza, where attendees will wear wireless headphones and choose the music styles they want to dance to. RSVPS are encouraged.

On Saturday, Aug. 5 from 9 p.m. to 12 a.m., the BorderLight Fringe Festival closing night party and Fringe Festival Awards will take place at the Hermit Club, where top honors will be given out for Audience Choice, Spirit of the Fringe, The Hope Award (focused on shows in equity, resilience, and justice spotlight), and The Vivid Award for visual theatre. Complimentary hors d’oeuvres and a cash bar will be available. 

To satisfy guests while they take in all these performances over the three days, local food trucks will be on-site, in addition to all the dining options available at Playhouse Square.

On Thursday, Aug. 3 from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Rabbit Food  and YumVillage will be serving; on Friday, Aug. 4 from  4 p.m. to 10 p.m. The Manna Truck  and Empanadas on Wheels will be on the scene; on Saturday, Aug. from 1 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. Off the GRIDdle, The Manna Truck , and The Longship Food Truck will be taking the early shift, while Empanadas on Wheels and Off the GRIDdle will take the late shift, from 5:15 p.m. to 9 p.m. 

For a complete listing of everything happening at the 2023 BorderLight Fringe Festival, be sure to download the Fringe Festival Guide.

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.