Jeff Larson is leaving his position as executive director of the Minnesota Fringe Festival. The timing of the decision, he says, will allow for a smooth leadership transition between seasons of the annual summer festival.
"The Fringe is in really good shape," says Larson. "This is the time of year when it can be handed off really cleanly, and someone else can come in and not be overwhelmed by being right in the middle of it."
Larson became executive director in 2013, when his predecessor Robin Gillette stepped down — but he's been with the festival since 1999, five years after the festival was founded. Now 41, Larson was fresh out of the University of Minnesota when he joined the Fringe as a technician. He later became technical director (2001), director of production and sponsorship (2007), and associate director (2009) before rising to lead the organization.
"It's so bizarre and so unlikely, and it's been so fun," Larson says. "I think I've been able to last here so long because I've had so many different jobs inside the organization." He says he'll miss his coworkers, as well as "the feeling of discovery" in a festival where acts are chosen by random selection. "We learn about what's in this festival at the same time the audience does, and that's fun."
Though Larson was only in the job for a few years, his impact was significant. Under Larson, this past summer the Fringe moved to a day-pass wristband system, abandoning its former practice of selling individual tickets. The new system, which was intended to encourage audiences to take chances on a wider range of shows, was generally well-received.
Larson's legacy, he says, may be in "wristbands, and general front-of-house. I think that we've gotten much better at communicating to the audience just how the festival works, and making it simpler and easier for people to understand. The other thing I'm really proud of is expansion of services to artists, especially unified auditions."
The Fringe continues to face a lawsuit from Sean Neely, an artist who was denied permission to perform a controversial show about pedophilia despite having been selected in the Fringe's random lottery. The festival cited concerns about the legality of Neely's material in deciding to bar it, and Larson says he has no regrets about the decision.
"In the grand scheme of how big of a festival it is," he says, "that's a really small distraction."
Larson intends to remain with the festival long enough to participate in the transition process, after what he says he expects will be a national search for a replacement. "Fringe jobs don't become available very often," he says, "especially at the top. I think there's going to be a lot of interest in this. I think they'll get a lot of great candidates."
For his part, Larson plans to initially work with his former coworker Gillette in her burgeoning arts consulting business, then start a business of his own — though he doesn't yet have any concrete plans that "I wouldn't be embarrassed to share right now."
The challenge facing Larson's successor, he says, will be finding the next level to take a festival that's exploded in size from its modest origins. "Does it make sense to expand, and what does expansion look like? Is there a second festival? Is there more artist training? Is it just making this thing bigger, or is this just what it is? These are the questions we've been grappling with, and people have strong feelings on all sides."