Karim Muasher and Carrie Brown, creators of Darlings, which will be part of the 2016 Cincinnati Fringe Festival.

No one saw it coming. Not at the beginning, anyway.

When the Cincinnati Fringe Festival debuted in 2003, it was an ambitious, slightly wacky theatrical free-for-all. And I mean all of that in the best way.

But no one really had any idea what might come of it. By the end of that first two-week Festival, though, founders Jason Bruffy and Jeff Syroney were fairly confident that a second Festival would take place. Seed money from a generous patron all but guaranteed it.

But beyond that, it was anyone’s guess.

Obviously, that long shot has paid off. Come May 31, the Cincinnati Fringe Festival will launch its 13th edition in and near its Know Theatre base on Jackson Street in Over-the-Rhine.

“From everything I can see at this point, we’re on track for this to be the biggest-ever Cincinnati Fringe Festival,” says producer Chris Wesselman.

Those aren’t just empty promises. The Festival was deluged with 105 applications this year, 14 percent more than the previous record of 92. By the time all the reading and tooth gnashing was done, Wesselman and a small army of volunteer jurors selected 50 of those to become part of the 2016 Fringe.

“Realistically, there are limits to how many shows we can make space for,” says Wesselman. Scheduling a festival like this involves a dazzlingly complex bit of planning. There are three main issues for them to contend with: space, time and location.

- Space: Because OTR has become so popular, the empty storefronts that were once the mainstay of Fringe venues have been very hard to secure this year.

- Time: Realistically, productions can’t begin much before 6:30 p.m., though Saturdays and Sundays permit for some earlier curtain times.

- Location: Fringe is a walking Festival. Many patrons see several shows each evening. So venues can’t be more than 10-12 minutes from one another.

“We expect to have attendance of more than 8,000 this year,” says Wesselman, “so getting the logistics right is essential.”

Apparently Wesselman and Co. have been doing things right. There are more than 50 Fringe Festivals every year in North America. And the Cincy Fringe, as insiders call it, has developed a reputation as one of the most congenial and best run of the bunch. Some performers, in fact, regard Cincinnati as the one must-do Fringe Festival.

“I used to go to a lot of Fringe Festivals—maybe 10 a year,” says Kevin Thornton, a Nashville-based performer whose enormously popular shows include confessional—and hilarious—stories, music and whatever other performance skills he can draw into the mix.

But keeping a schedule like that is exhausting. So Thornton, who is spending an increasing amount of his time working on his queer alt-country act Indiana Queen, will do just one Fringe this year—Cincinnati.

“Cincinnati is a special place for me,” says Thornton. “It was the very first Fringe festival I did in 2009. It has built up such a special community around it. It really is just the right size. A lot of festivals are so massive, you don’t get to talk to your audience. At Cincinnati, you can. That’s important.”

On a more practical level, he says that Cincy Fringe does a better job than most at marketing its shows. At many Fringe Festivals, it’s a dog-eat-dog affair. There are so many shows and so little promotion from the umbrella organization that unless performers take to the streets to push their own shows, they won’t have much of an audience.

Another appeal of Cincy Fringe is the mix of returning performers and newcomers. Of the 50 productions, 22 are performers or groups who have appeared here previously. So more than half are newcomers. That doesn’t mean they’re theatrical rookies. Some of those new participants are simply new production companies populated by veteran actors, many of them well known to local audiences.

SHEatre: Cincinnati Women’s Theatre, for instance, is a first-time Cincy Fringe participant. But the company has been a player on the local front since last fall when it began presenting “theatre by and about women, for everyone.”

2060 Theatrical Productions, on the other hand, is an honest-to-goodness Fringe newbie. Carly Mungovan, the show’s production stage manager, spent the past year as a stage managing intern at the Playhouse in the Park. Her collaborators on Ryan and Alice? all have Ohio roots, as well, but they are spread all over the country. The playwright is in Los Angeles, the director and two actors are in New York.

So rehearsals take place in New York with the playwright and Mungovan occasionally checking in via Skype.

“We’ll have a few rehearsals when we all get together in Cincinnati,” says Mungovan.

She first heard about Cincy Fringe from her professors when she was a student at Miami University. So Mungovan took their advice and popped in at a few shows.

“It was really inspiring,” she says. “So when I found out I was going to spend the year working at the Playhouse, I said to Libby [Gardner, the playwright] that we should take a chance. We should do it.”

She applied and here they are. They don’t know the specifics of their performance dates yet. Or where they’ll perform. The schedule isn’t finalized until a couple of weeks before the festival opens. You can find the information online at cincyfringe.com.

Tongue of the Mind Theatre is new to the Fringe, too. But all of the members of this Cincinnati-based theater collective have spent the past couple of years establishing a relationship with the Know and the Fringe.

Playwright Robert Macke graduated from Northern Kentucky University in 2015. But even before he graduated, he volunteered at the theater and has written or co-written three plays that were part of the Know’s highly successful “Serials” series.

“The Fringe feels different from anything else we’ve done before,” says Macke. The “we” he is referring to includes director Nate Netzley, who he has collaborated with several times in the past. “Fringe has a much wider audience, I think. So our audience is going to be more of an unknown to us. But that’s what makes it so great.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the appeal of the Fringe. The unknown is something to be relished.

At most theaters, people want to know precisely what they’re getting into. They want assurances. But the Fringe audience is there to experience the unexpected. The only thing you can be sure of is that it will be an adventure.

What do you have to lose? Tickets are just $15 and most of the shows are just an hour long.

Be brave, leap in and get a glimpse of what might just be the future of theater.