Fringe Festival 2011: A preview of your best bets

Theater fans can pick from 168 shows

Fringe Festival 2011: A preview of your best bets
Jayme Halbritter

So, which Minnesota Fringe Festival do you want to see?

With nearly 170 productions presented over two weeks, Fringe offers options for just about any fan of theater or entertainment. It also offers plenty of opportunities for creators, who bring just as many reasons for participating as there are shows.

For some performers, the Fringe has become a tradition, a part of their regularly scheduled theater season. Others are professionals looking to stretch beyond their normal boundaries. Some are newcomers looking for a breakout hit; others just have an idea, a bunch of friends, and a slot on one of the 18 stages.

Executive director Robin Gillette gears up for two weeks of Fringe frenzy
Jayme Halbritter
Executive director Robin Gillette gears up for two weeks of Fringe frenzy

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"Not everyone does Fringe for the same reasons," explains executive director Robin Gillette. While some are familiar faces with many shows under their belts, the festival also needs to be open to "those who want to explore their personal experiences through a show."

Joseph Scrimshaw is no stranger to the Fringe, having crafted a string of hits at the festival (including last year's The Damn Audition, one of my 10 favorite shows of the year). This year, he brings Brain Fighters, a show all about the power of imagination. That's an important factor for any show at the festival, as time, space, and budget limits put pressure on the creators.

"I enjoy working within boundaries as a creator, because I think some surprising and novel choices come from thinking inside a box," Scrimshaw says.

What are those limits? The artists get a 90-minute slot to set up, perform (limited to 60 minutes of that), and tear down. Lighting cues are limited, and rehearsal time onstage is short.

Still, size isn't everything. "It's easy to slip into thinking all Fringe shows have to be bigger and bigger, but one of the great things about the festival is you can do shows with different goals. If you have an intimate show, an experimental show, it's also great to be able to plan for a smaller venue," Scrimshaw says.

And no matter the size, the limits are still the same. "Since the audience knows there are things we can't do, it's a source of excitement to see how the artists will do it anyway. The Ikea chair is a fixture of Fringe shows. A Fringe audience gets to ask: 'How are they going to suggest Scotland in the year 3066 with Ikea chairs?' Audiences year-round would tend to ask: 'Why are they using Ikea chairs?'" he says.

WHILE THE FRINGE IS STILL GOVERNED BY a random selection of theater companies that apply, adjustments have been made this year. The venues have been split into large, medium, and small, with different admission fees for each. For a popular artist like Scrimshaw or other longtime Fringe regulars, that offers more clues as to where the performances will be (and essentially guaranteed them spots, as there were fewer applicants in the lottery for the large venues than the number of performing slots).

Local performer Tamara Ober put Fringe "out of my mind completely. In fact, I was convinced, in some fit of dyslexia, that I was 114 on the waiting list instead of 44."

So Ober was speechless when she got a call offering a spot. "I got the message and had a short drive to think about it before I called them back. My first thought was there was no way I could have my new solo show ready in time for the Fringe, so what in the world could I possibly do to present or perform in such limited time," she says.

Money was also an important consideration for Ober, who was robbed earlier this spring. The venue was one of the large ones—which included an additional fee—and time was severely limited for coming up with a title, description, and the cast. Her eventual approach was to enlist several colleagues to piece together a series of solo dance pieces under the name Flesh.

One of the touring productions, Four Clowns, built a tour around several Fringe appearances this summer. That allows the Los Angeles-based company to bring its show to a wide swath of the country, and to interact with a number of theater companies, says Jeremy Aluma.

"I've heard such positive things about your Fringe. In fact it's the one of the five I was most hoping we got into. I hear your town turns into a theater community and everyone from the city comes out. Already I can feel the momentum 3,000 miles away. The staff and site are very well organized, and it seems like they have got it down in terms of how to produce a festival," Aluma says.

For the organizers, the goal is facilitate the performers—offering the space and technical crew, box office, and marketing support—without interfering with what is being presented onstage.

All these efforts have made the Minnesota Fringe Festival a consistent success and one of the oldest such festivals in the United States. That reputation has made Fringe a popular stop for touring performers.

"Audiences love the chance to see the strangers," Gillette says. "There's an extra cachet to it." 

Your Fringe Starter Kit

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