Orlando Fringe Festival leaders think the way to theatergoers' hearts is through their stomachs.
When the oldest Fringe festival in the United States opens Wednesday, it will offer an increasingly upscale menu. On weekend evenings, the hungry will be able to forgo fried dough and corn dogs for conch ceviche, watermelon gazpacho or lavender tea cakes with Chambord icing.
And in a Fringe first, an onsite restaurant with table service will serve pizza, pasta and salads nightly at the festival's main gathering spot, Loch Haven Park.
"We've gotten a lot of letters" complaining about the food, said George Wallace, general manager of the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival. "People are here for 14 days. They want more options, they want healthier options."
For two weeks, the 23-year-old festival offers more than 90 shows in 10 venues in Loch Haven Park and the surrounding Ivanhoe neighborhood, north of downtown. Acts encompass drama, music, comedy, magic, acrobatics and performance art.
Festival producer Michael Marinaccio has made it a goal to expand the festival's reach — 31,000 tickets were distributed last year — and making the amenities better is key to his approach.
"These are the 'gateway drugs' to get people hooked on the Fringe," he said only half-jokingly. "We want to make it more of an overall experience to be at the festival."
Marinaccio has scheduled more free outdoor musical entertainment in the park. The festival's big weekend Art Bazaar is moving from a nearby warehouse to the Orlando Museum of Art, also at Loch Haven. It's the first time the museum and the festival have collaborated on such a large scale.
"We know the Fringe audience is an audience we should be embracing," said Randy Ross, director of marketing for the art museum. "We want younger people to experience the museum, we're looking for more diversity."
The collaboration will benefit both the Fringe and the museum, Marinaccio said.
"I really want our crowd to experience places such as OMA and the Mennello," he said. The Mennello Museum of Art hosts the family activities of Kids Fringe, which attracted more than 10,000 people last year.
In a similar manner, the new food options could introduce Fringe-goers to the restaurants that will be cooking up curried cauliflower tacos and duck lettuce wraps for the festival.
"We definitely think it will bring business to us," said Jason Lambert, owner of The Hammered Lamb in Ivanhoe Village. "It gets our name out there."
His restaurant is among a weekend lineup that also includes Orlando eateries Santiago's Bodega, The Bohemian Baker, the Spork Café and Hawkers Asian Street Fare. Shadrach's Fiery Furnace Traveling Pizza Co. will run the sit-down restaurant.
As more people come to have a drink or dinner, listen to a band or see the art, Marinaccio hopes they'll be tempted to try some of the festival's eclectic shows.
"In order to expand the number of shows we have, we need to expand our audience first," he said. "The way to do that is to get people in the door in an unthreatening way. With stuff like this, they don't have to spend a lot of money."
Food and drink also will be available at The Venue on Virginia Drive, the one festival theater not in Loch Haven Park. The Venue also will be the spot to see the Fringe's late-night shows.
Theatre Downtown, at Orange Avenue and Princeton Street, hosted Fringe shows last year but is not part of the 2014 festival. "It just wasn't affordable for us," said Frank Hilgenberg, who runs Theatre Downtown. "But we wish the Fringe the best."
Despite the changes, some aspects of Fringe remain constant.
"Our risqué content is still second to none," said Marinaccio, though he has been careful to schedule children-friendly shows around the free Kids Fringe.
And culinary traditionalists will still be able to find something deliciously fattening.
"You'll have your fair food, your doughnuts and your kettle corn," Wallace said. "What is better than a fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich sprinkled with powdered sugar?"
firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5038407-420-5038
Here are the specialty items on the Fringe Festival menu this weekend.
Friday's fare comes from Santiago's Bodega and includes:
•Jerk chicken thigh stuffed with pineapple, $4
•Conch ceviche, $4
•Creamy cheese over coconut rice and peas, $4
•Scotch bonnet and aioli, $4
On Saturday, the Bohemian Baker offers:
•Lavender tea cakes with Chambord icing, $2
•Apple Danish pie bites with pecan streusel, $2
•Pecan amaretto brownie bites, $2
•Parmesan pecan chicken tarts, $2
•What: Short plays, music, comedy and other performances; plus an art show and weekend activities for kids
•Where: Performances are at Loch Haven Park, 777 E. Princeton St., and The Venue, 511 Virginia Drive. Visual art and Kids Fringe are also at Loch Haven.
•When: May 14-27
•Tickets: Outdoor activities and the art show are free. To see a play, buy a Fringe button ($9), good for the length of the festival, and then a show ticket ($11 or less)
•More information: Orlandofringe.org