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First-year Minnesota Fringe Festival executive director Robin Gillette had just a few hours remaining before the lights were due to come up on the festival's initial night of shows. It was also little more than 18 hours removed from the I-35W bridge collapse.
"Everyone wants to go forward," Gillette said, noting the impossibility of postponing a two-week spate of theater that takes an entire year to organize. "It's kind of unstoppable. Art is also about community, and hopefully the Fringe can play some part in pulling everyone together."
The Minnesota Fringe has certainly done enough over the years to forge community, while also earning a reputation for outrageous diversity and onstage daffiness. By choosing its shows randomly, through a lottery, and embracing everyone from Equity actors to eccentrics, it has come to be known as a kind of lovable misfit of local theater.
But the shaggy-dog angle on the festival might have passed its sell-by date. The 2006 Fringe roughly matched the previous year's attendance of about 45,000. And such is the Fringe's draw for audiences and performers alike (acts are coming to town from more than 15 states, adding to the already considerable local talent pool) that your chances of catching a very good show, unscientifically speaking, are better than even.
So it's a sturdy, world-class ship, this 14th Fringe, and this year sees it piloted by a new captain in Gillette after the departure of Leah Cooper. Gillette is enthusiastically optimistic about the gig, showing up for a meeting to talk about this year's festival in a Roller Girls tank top and looking notably chipper despite the spinning-plates-in-the-air nature of her new occupation.
"I love the job 90 percent of the time," Gillette says in a later conversation, after we'd hashed out what shows seemed likely to emerge as favorites from the kaleidoscopic variety. This year she leads an organization that must meet the needs of 162 shows and 22 venues. "There's a certain patience you have to have, balancing all the different personalities, issues, and agendas. For better or worse, my training as a stage manager prepared me to multitask and wrangle people, balancing and juggling."
Gillette won't be drawn in on which shows she's most looking forward to, prudently avoiding the appearance of playing favorites.
"I'm trying to walk into the festival completely open-minded," she says, "and see what I see, based on any number of reasons. Sometimes it's because someone pressed a postcard into my hand, or it's the venue I've settled into for the day, or maybe the title grabbed me, or the content grabbed me."
So the Fringe's new boss is like the rest of us, probably unable to see as many shows as we'd like. We're like diners at a sumptuous albeit unorthodox buffet, hoping not to get full before the kitchen serves up a dish we've never heard of but which might taste better than anything we've ever had.
Gillette also defends the Fringe's famously impartial show-selection apparatus, in which numbers are drawn from random ping-pong balls and the waiting list of unstaged shows includes the creators of proven hits from past summers. The devil's advocate might suggest proceeding differently—after all, shouldn't a track record of past success count for something?—but Gillette isn't having it.
"The system works," she says. "It can be painful on the waiting list, dozens and dozens of artists, names that I know and people I've never heard of who have an equal shot at being great. But I don't want to look at people and say their work is good, someone else's is not. Plenty of other companies work to reflect a level of expertise, or a theme, or a political agenda. I think that's great, but the Fringe is not that thing."
The result is a doggedly successful festival that is its own unique, formidable landmark on the Twin Cities art scene. The Fringe abets, co-conspires, and in some cases enables. What it doesn't do is judge. The result is explosive and rarely less than fun. When Gillette is asked to find a theme for this year's festival, she's game at first. And then she punts.
"Look at the lineup of 162 shows," she says, sounding a little amazed that it's all come together. "The theme is the lack of theme."
Find your own coherence, in other words. There are 162 worlds out there to explore this weekend.
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