Downtown Santa Cruz has a bedtime. Most shops close up before 9 p.m., leaving only a few caffeine refuges for students who stay out past sundown.

But during the week of July 13–22, the early evening signaled the start of the party.

Welcoming its first ever Fringe Festival, downtown Santa Cruz transformed into a miniature mecca for the performing arts — comprising not only theater, dance and comedy but also burlesque, spoken word and puppetry performances.

A worldwide fancy wherein groups of artists put on a rapid-fire show — and where both censorship and budget take a backseat — Fringe Festivals have been acclaimed as legitimate, if enterprising, platforms for alternative artists.

Dixie Shulman, founder and organizer of Santa Cruz’s Fringe Festival, was inspired by the world-class Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. She said it was “about time” for Santa Cruz to inaugurate the festivities.

“There are really so many talented and self-empowered performers and groups in this area,” Shulman said. “Speaking from experience, having a coordinated time and place to perform is such a no-brainer for [performance] groups like these.” The “collective platform” formed a ring around the downtown district. Venues like The 418 Project, Center Stage, Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, The Tannery and Motion at the Mill each hosted performances, making the festival over 175 “fringes” strong.

The festival tackled themes of self-acceptance and sexual encouragement in “Dominatrix for Dummies,” where a single woman’s spectacular golden hour included saucy segments of audience participation.

In “Circadelix” by Twisted Beats and Circus Feats, a haphazard clown seduced a full house with his farcically unabashed eye for the show stopping “assistant” aerialist.

“More Like Laurie” painted fiercely resonant portraits of each character’s inner “small-talk,” while “Incidents Dance” invited an intimate audience into the living room of a struggling marriage.

Performing to mostly full (and a good number of standing room only) houses, the festival’s performance art conglomerate both acquired performers by request and elected self-submitted performers by jury.

Rick Kuhn of “More Like Laurie” said his group’s experience with the festival has transformed their understanding of its purpose.

“To have such curious audiences come out has encouraged us,” Kuhn said, “and it also made us look much more critically at what [in our play] touches audiences, and what leaves them grasping.”