Fringe Festival 2013: Critic's Picks

Minnesota Fringe Festival celebrates 20 years in 2013

Fringe Festival 2013: Critic's Picks
Emily Utne

Back in 1996, Glenn Morehouse Olson took a job with the still-young Minnesota Fringe Festival. She had a child in tow and was very pregnant with another. Over the course of the spring and early summer (the event was in June that year), she cajoled local media and industry to aid the nascent festival. "At the Twin Cities Reader, I sat in a meeting with R.T. Rybak. He was all about the Fringe," Olson recalls.

That Fringe was a different animal from the one that starts tomorrow. At the time, there were "only" 46 groups presenting shows at five venues. "In 1996, we were a scrappy bunch," Olson says. "I looked through my files from that year, and we got faxes from the artists. We would send a letter and then get a copy of their logo in the program."

This time, 176 different shows will be presented at 16 venues spread around Minneapolis. Since its beginnings in 1994, when the Minnesota Fringe Festival was born, hosting a few dozen shows for a total profit of $37, the festival has grown to be one of the signature events in the country — and the biggest week and a half in Twin Cities theater.

Stardust by Kimberly Rolfs
Stardust by Kimberly Rolfs
Robin Gillette
Robin Gillette



176 different productions at 16 locations throughout Minneapolis

Each performance is no longer than 60 minutes

No late seating for any performance

Tickets: $12 for a single performance;
$5 for children under 12
Passes in various amounts: 4-show card, $44 for adults, $24 for students, and $20 for children under 12; 10-show card, $100.

A get-into-any-show ultra pass, $225

A $4 festival button is required to attend (no button required for children under 12).

Advance sales are available on the Fringe festival website. Walk-up sales begin 30 minutes before each performance.

The festival's popularity means that far more groups want to participate than there are spaces available. For the past decade or so, a lottery system has been in place, meaning that not everyone who wants to participate can make it into the festival.

That creates the veritable free-for-all that happens each year at the Fringe Festival. Seasoned professionals perform right after green amateurs. Shows that might have been years in the planning share space with ones that have been tossed together over a weekend — and sometimes those are the most memorable performances. It's like 176 Petri dishes laid out before the audience. Some may produce something beautiful. Others may end up being the theatrical version of the Ebola virus.

Some artists — such as the Scrimshaw brothers, Transatlantic Love Affair, and Four Humors — built their reputations on Minnesota Fringe Festival shows. All are represented this year. Yet you never know who the next breakout performer is going to be. It could be a familiar artist taking a fresh risk or a group of young whippersnappers who just have the age-old dream of putting on a show.

"The Fringe is still the place where the big risks are taken. It's a bonding experience for artists and audiences, and that's exceedingly rare," says Matthew Everett, creator of How to Date a Werewolf (Or Lonesome, Wild and Blue).

The festival grew out of "an explosion of performers from all disciplines, speaking their own truths, even if those truths hurt, embarrassed, or ostracized," says Heidi Arneson, who has put on numerous shows at the Fringe through the years and is represented in 2013 by Bloodymerryjammyparty.

"I was one of those embarrassing troublemakers," she continues. "About to burst with new work, I quit my job as actress for the Science Museum of Minnesota in order to devote myself to making plays, without knowing how I would support myself or my daughter, or what the plays would be about."

Then a fellow performance artist advised her just to get out there and perform as much as she could. "I took his advice," Arneson says, "and performed at every venue that would have me."

The Fringe provided one of those opportunities. "I hoped to make some money," she says. "I hoped that I would not be tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail. I got all that from the Fringe and more."

Arneson, in fact, has used the Fringe as a sounding board and launching pad for her work. Bloodymerryjammyparty traces its roots back nearly 20 years, starting as a one-woman show. It is now a full-cast extravaganza.

Fringe expectations and Fringe reality can be two very different things, however. When Joshua English Scrimshaw first entered the fray back in 1995 (with the Bally Hoo Players in a piece called 'Til Debt Do Us Part), he was expecting "a huge theater, throngs of people, critical adulation. That sort of thing."

What did he find? "We ended up in the black box at Rarig, which really wasn't that different from performing in the corner of the Espresso 22," Scrimshaw says. "Our biggest house was a whopping 14 people."

The critical response was equally poor, such as one in the Reader. "It was a devastating review except for one line that described the script as 'reading like it was written over a fifth of scotch,'" he says. "That we took as a compliment and used it on all our publicity for years to come."

The experience didn't deter Scrimshaw — he's gone on to perform in numerous festivals in the years since and has two pieces in this year's Fringe: Comedy Vs. Calories: Fight! (created with Scrimshaw's current group, Comedy Suitcase) and a remount of the steampunk epic To Mars with Tesla. Comedy Suitcase is a steady force at the Fringe, producing a string of highly entertaining shows centered on absurd and physical humor.

To Mars with Tesla is a slightly different beast — a sort-of silent film on stage that pits Tesla vs. his mortal enemy, Thomas Edison — but one that features the same steady comedic touch.

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