Fringe 2018: After 25 years, Minnesota's massive theater fest enters a new era

Bang Sangho

Bang Sangho

“You can’t leave your entire business model to chance,” says Dawn Bentley while sitting in the Minnesota Fringe’s Grain Belt Studio office. “Even casinos don’t do that.... That doesn’t seem like a good business practice, to just throw some dice down and see what happens, or run the bingo cage.”

And yet, an everyone-gets-a-shot model has sustained the theater festival for a quarter-century. A rattling bingo cage has become the emblem of the Fringe’s approach: No matter who you are, your number has the same chance of getting called as anyone else’s.

The result is a festival where you never know what you’re going to get. That’s exactly what thousands of people love about the Fringe, but it comes at a cost: If the show is bad, attendees can end up confused, alienated, or just bored. Brilliant artists can be turned away in favor of total duds. Ensuring a diverse mix of shows is more difficult than in a juried festival.

“Quality is an issue that some audience members and some artists are concerned about,” says Bentley, who became the Minnesota Fringe’s executive director last year. “If we’re dedicated to the flagship program always being what it was, then quality is left to chance sometimes.”

Bentley and her staff swear they’re committed to a non-juried summer festival as the Fringe’s core program, but they’ve also started to add juried elements to the programming. This year a juried Family Fringe will take place simultaneously with the regular festival, and the Fringe is gradually extending its activities throughout the year in a curated fashion.

Jeff Larson, Bentley’s predecessor, didn’t take that tack. “I think it makes it more like other arts events,” he says about the new direction. “I always fought against the idea that we are an arts event. You can see this [debate] happening with other events like Northern Spark: Are we an arts event, or are we a big party? I was always on the ‘big party’ side of the Fringe.”

Executive director Dawn Bentley at last year’s Fringe previews

Executive director Dawn Bentley at last year’s Fringe previews Courtney Pedroza / Star Tribune

Change and controversy aren’t new to the Fringe, which has been a work-in-progress from the first festival in 1994. Fringe founder Bob McFadden was inspired by successful festivals he’d seen in Canada—themselves descendents of the original Edinburgh Festival Fringe—but Minnesota was always destined to be different.

American festivals don’t have the government subsidies their Canadian cousins can count on, and the Gopher State poses its own particular challenges: We don’t have an obvious central space for a performing arts festival to happen, and getting to a festival in the center of the continent can be challenging for artists from the coasts.

On the other hand, Minnesota has advantages as well. Minneapolis has a wide array of professional theater venues and a deep bench of local onstage and behind-the-scenes talent. Ultimately, the Minnesota Fringe would become a strongly local festival, an incubator of homegrown talent.

That first year, though, the festival had a markedly international flavor. “We had Russians, Japanese, Brits,” remembers McFadden. One of the Russian artists said it was only appropriate to bring his craft to the U.S. by way of cultural exchange, since Liza Minnelli had recently played Moscow.

It was immediately clear that McFadden was on to something, but the Fringe initially struggled to gain a foothold beyond its core devotees. By 1997, attendance had been in decline for two years and the future of Fringe was uncertain.

Enter Dean J. Seal, a theater artist who had experience running the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater. That gave him a network of contacts, and also a set of best practices to share with producers. He established a precedent that would powerfully shape the future of Fringe: Artists would be supported with solid advice and logistical aid, meaning that even complete neophytes had a shot at a successful show if the art was strong.

Leah Cooper, who would succeed Seal in 2001, emphasizes that the Fringe’s production assistance is a critical factor in reducing barriers for new voices. “At the festival, they’re like, ‘We’ll show you how, and we’ll make it super, super affordable.’”

Seal also stepped up the Fringe’s marketing efforts, and the result was a breakthrough: In just four years, attendance surged from 4,300 to nearly 29,000. The Fringe had arrived as a major tentpole of the arts scene.

With that success came more applications for participation, and Cooper realized the first-come-first-serve method of filling the lineup was no longer equitable: She needed a fun but fair way to allocate slots. Cooper called on Amy Hubbard, a board member who had experience with manufacturing props.

“She built a giant bingo cage,” Cooper remembers, “and we filled it with ping-pong balls, and each show got a number. We recognized that, first of all, transparency was important, so people truly knew it was a random lottery, but second, that it was a chance to be silly and celebrate this thing that was the essence of the festival.”

By the time Robin Gillette took the helm in 2006, the Fringe was entering a golden age. Popular performers like Joseph Scrimshaw attracted reliably big crowds, and multi-show passes catered to a growing cadre of ultra-fans collecting annual Fringe buttons on their well-worn lanyards. Online audience reviews facilitated the rapid spread of buzz that could turn previously unknown artists into instant hot tickets.

What’s more, the impact of Fringe on the Twin Cities theater community was becoming clear. Companies like Walking Shadow and Four Humors got early boosts from the fest, then evolved to present full seasons of work.

“It’s an incubator for creative work,” says Walking Shadow’s John Heimbuch. “It’s the best tool serving creators—playwrights, directors, actors—who are at the early stages of their career, or who want to experiment.”

As attendance hit 50,000 across a range of venues, with the West Bank and the University of Minnesota’s multi-stage Rarig Center remaining a central hub, the Fringe had become the largest non-juried performing arts festival in America. Still, some theatergoers were getting bored.

“The thrill is gone,” wrote the Star Tribune’s Graydon Royce in 2012, arguing that it was time for the Fringe to evolve. “The organization fiercely defends the non-juried character of the festival and many theater folk say it’s that unpredictability that gives it charm. Charm? I say suffocating hours during which I’m checking my pulse.”

The balls that control the fate of each Fringe

The balls that control the fate of each Fringe

Taking the reins from Gillette in 2013, longtime Fringe employee Jeff Larson set out to lay the groundwork for growth by reducing the festival’s administrative burden. Minnesota became the first Fringe festival to move to a wristband system: Instead of single tickets, attendees would buy day passes. Larson’s hope was that the system would trim staff and reduce lines while simultaneously encouraging adventure. Once you had your ticket for the day, you might as well keep going to shows.

The system worked, to an extent. “My audience actually seemed a little bigger,” says perpetual Fringe favorite Les Kurkendaal. “I remember talking to people who I didn’t know, who had never seen my show before, who were like, ‘I came to see my niece’s show, but while I was here, I thought I would just take something else in.’”

However, the wristbands also sparked complaints by those who liked the single-ticket system, and it cut into the Fringe’s bottom line. In 2015, the last year of the old system, box office revenue was $411,799. By 2017, two years into the wristband system, revenue had dropped to $302,843; an income cut of 26 percent, with attendance declining by just 8 percent. (This year, the Fringe will experiment with offering both day passes and single-show tickets.)

The event that would come to define Larson’s tenure in the public eye, though, was the Fringe’s 2016 decision to bar Sean Neely, whose ping-pong ball was picked but who declared that his show would be an explicitly pedophilia-themed monologue called Having Sex with Children in My Brain. According to Neely, Larson told him that “I can’t afford the lawyers and insurance to protect the festival from liability and keep you out of jail.”

Neely sued the festival, arguing that by disinviting him, it had reneged on its claims to be “uncurated” and “uncensored.” Ultimately, Neely would present his show in 2017 with the content as promised but the title simply being Sean Neely. Though many Fringe-goers shook their heads in disgust, the performances went off without incident and Neely subsequently dropped his suit.

By that time, Larson was gone. He maintains that the lawsuit wasn’t a factor in his decision to step down, and Bentley also downplays its significance. “It needed to be dealt with, and then it went away,” says Bentley, “but I don’t think it has any influence at all on the transition now.”

Still, the incident fed into a debate about the future of Fringe. Had the festival reached the limits of its non-juried model? “It was such a catch-22,” says Kurkendaal about the Neely suit. “On the one hand, I am not about censorship. I believe in having an unjuried festival. On the other hand, the subject matter that the guy was producing was pretty damn disturbing. It’s a slippery slope. Once you censor one person, you’ve got to kind of censor everybody.”

Bollywood Dance Scene had a breakthrough hit in 2014 with 'Hi! Hello! Namaste?'

Bollywood Dance Scene had a breakthrough hit in 2014 with 'Hi! Hello! Namaste?'

Bentley doesn’t have the theater background that her predecessors had; she came from a successful tenure running the Art Shanty Projects. She believes the Fringe was looking for a fresh approach when she was hired. “I think they were ready for change,” she says, “and I have a history that shows that I can make a change.”

Under Bentley, the Fringe named Jay Gilman its artistic director—a title that would be essentially meaningless if the Fringe did nothing but present a non-juried festival.

Gilman’s responsibilities include “leading a juried curation process for our new festival, Family Fringe.” Also, “we’ve launched a number of other new programs which are very exciting and include Fringe Presents, which is a one-off presentation series for artists; and a new program called Drafts & Draughts. That’s a works-in-progress scratch series that this year took place at Surly Brewing.

“Those are all curated programs,” Gilman continues, “and so in this role of artistic director, I’m helping to develop, conceive, and implement a method of curation that is still in line with the visions and values of us as a Fringe organization.”

“The Fringe Festival will always be lottery-driven,” says Bentley. “That is the heart of that beast, and that will never change—but by extending these programmatic opportunities, we can also get the word out to new artists that we are a fun festival to be a part of, that we’re a viable festival if you’re a touring artist.”

Bentley and Gilman have braced themselves against potential criticism from Fringe purists. “I’m new, Jay’s new, [the festival is] 25 years old,” Bentley points out. “We’ll probably be given a little bit of forgiveness if we do something drastic at this particular moment in time.”

Indeed, most Fringers are taking an optimistic wait-and-see attitude. Seal, for example, a leading light of the old-school Fringe, is interested to see what’s in store.

“I think it’s probably a good idea,” he says about the Family Fringe. “I also think it’s a good idea to have stuff going around in the off-season. That develops talent, and it keeps [the Fringe’s] profile up during the off-season to remind people that it’s coming up. It’s a great way to keep in touch with the audience.”

The current organizational leaders’ assurances that the core festival will remain unjuried reflect a widespread consensus among those invested in the festival: Whatever its challenges, the randomness of Fringe is what makes it great.

“I think it’s absolutely essential. I would never have had any chance of becoming a popular performer in the Fringe if it had been juried when I started,” wrote Joseph Scrimshaw, the former Minnesota Fringe star, in an email from his current home in Los Angeles. “Even very well-intentioned people and institutions can form an idea of what is good that locks out the potential for something to be good in a different, surprising way.”

One of the Fringe’s most inspiring recent success stories is Bollywood Dance Scene. “We had no idea what we were getting into,” remembers company co-founder Divya Maiya about their decision to take the stage with a cast of amateur dance enthusiasts, over half of whom were immigrants. “We had no idea that we would have an audience like that, support like that. It was a shocker.”

The company’s 2014 show, Hi! Hello! Namaste?, was a huge hit, and its 2015 follow-up, Spicy Masala Chai, was even bigger: It may have been the best-selling show in any American Fringe festival, ever. Now, Bollywood shows at the Fringe are more common than Harry Potter parodies, Bollywood Dance Scene is a busy nonprofit, and Maiya is on the Fringe’s board.

She also salutes the non-juried model, even though it meant her company didn’t make the Fringe last year. “There was no way we would have gotten in if every year there were favorites getting in,” she says. “It’s a gamble, and we got in, and that’s how we proved to ourselves that we could do something like this.”

Without the ability to handpick a lineup, Fringe organizers have to rely on recruiting a diverse pool of applicants if they want the festival to come closer to reflecting its community. It’s been a constant challenge.

“I would love to see more people of color get involved with the Fringe festival,” says Kurkendaal. Diversity lags, he notes, despite the fact that “the Fringe has, throughout the years, made all sorts of efforts to get people of color involved.”

Although the Fringe has always been fundamentally non-juried, over the years there have been a wealth of tweaks and cheats. There have been sub-lotteries for groups like artists of color. The lotteries have been broken down by desired venue size. This year, the first 10 percent of spots were reserved for out-of-town artists. With every change has come a mix of excitement and trepidation.

“I remember the first year of the button,” recalls Kurkendaal about the requirement, starting in 2003, that attendees purchase an annual Fringe button. “That was an uproar!” Ultimately, the button became a cherished tradition; even when the button requirement was waived in favor of day passes, the Fringe still sold buttons for fans to collect.

“I put people who complain about something like the Fringe changing into two categories,” says Cooper. “One is, people who benefited from the status quo are not going to like change. That’s human nature.”

The second, she continues, comprises people who recognize a more subtle shift. “Different personalities get along with different personalities, and different artists appreciate different cultures when it comes to something as emotionally driven as the festival is.”

Challenges and conflicts notwithstanding, the Fringe has played a crucial role in providing a platform for artists who haven’t found that support elsewhere. “The Fringe and its lottery system has always been a great equalizer for getting queer content onstage, supporting it and helping it find an audience,” wrote veteran Fringe artist and attendee Matthew A. Everett in an email. “To see myself reflected onstage is a powerful thing.”

As the Fringe continues to reinvent itself, it now needs to do so as an established organization and a major cultural event. “When I first started,” remembers Larson, “the Fringe was wilder. Nobody knew what was going to happen, and there was a feeling of danger and weirdness around. That’s what I’d love to see come back, and I don’t know that you can do that once it’s gotten this big.”

“Conflict is always going to be at the core” of an unjuried theater festival, says frequent Fringe artist Phillip Andrew Bennett Low, “and that’s not a bad thing. The fact that that conflict is happening is healthy and inevitable.”