Setting the Scene

Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick: Dave Tufford plays Milton's Samson Agonistes in an upcoming Fringe Festival show

If the neighbors peek in the windows of Kathy Welch's south Minneapolis home this week, they might be reasonably curious about the two men doing a funny little stiff-legged dance around her living room. Welch herself might wonder what they're doing there: Her show Kabuki! is scheduled to play at the Fringe Festival in a mere two weeks, and half her cast is missing. And, as the dancers sashay around her living room in the highly stylized waddling of traditional Japanese theater, their orbiting arms and legs only narrowly miss the furniture. Welch stops the scene to work out a minor kink in the choreography and guide her actors away from a potentially hazardous chair. "Your intonation is good," she says. "Watch your heads."

Like most of the Fringe shows coming together in church basements, garages, and dingy rehearsal spaces around town, Kabuki! is the very definition of indie theater--little more than an idea, a few dedicated thespians, and a sprinkling of moxie. And although Welch knows that her show can sell tickets after a successful run at the Bryant-Lake Bowl's cabaret theater, she is in much the same position as the myriad other small theater companies competing for audiences and attention at this year's Fringe. "We're up from 38 shows to 68 this year," explains Dean J. Seal, who is now in his second year as executive producer of the festival. "The quality level is also going to be a step up."

While the 1999 Fringe is certainly the largest in the festival's six-year history, it remains to be seen whether theatergoers will respond in kind. Since Bob McFadden founded the low-budget theater fete in 1994, attendance has traditionally been rather unpredictable, and profit for participating companies has been, at best, a zero-sum game. After a 50 percent increase in attendance last year, however, Seal is forecasting that 10,000 people will attend this year's event--a figure that, albeit optimistic, would mark the arrival of the Minnesota Fringe as a major North American festival.

Though "fringing" may have the ring of recently minted nomenclature, Seal is hoping that the idea will catch on among that elusive segment of the theatergoing public for whom a biannual evening at the Guthrie constitutes patronage of the arts. "There's a lot of shows that would never see the light of day if not for the Fringe," Seal explains. "You only have artistic freedom when you don't have a huge financial burden. That's why I'm such a great believer in this."

Artistic independence and low budgets are, of course, the draw of Fringe festivals for both theater artists and audiences. At eight dollars a show, casual theatergoers can afford an adventurous sampling of material, and with a $300 entrance fee, artists can afford to offer said sampling. While some touring groups polish a production in a handful of similar festivals in the U.S. and Canada, many local performers use the Fringe to workshop or showcase original work--a trend that does not guarantee quality but does promote diversity.

Low budgets and high anxiety are natural corollaries, however. During last year's Fringe, one performer realized a few minutes before curtain that he needed a cocktail glass for his act. Seal, who in addition to his role as impresario acts as occasional gofer, went hurtling across the campus of Minneapolis Technical College to Joe's Garage, where a bartender lent him a glass on the condition that he let her open a one-woman show at the Bryant-Lake Bowl (where Seal was then artistic director). Seal, out of breath and time, agreed and raced back to hand the martini glass to the actor just as he was stepping onstage (shaken, we must assume).

Given the rough-and-ready ethos of the Fringe, things seem to be coming together remarkably well. In the sweltering heat of a church basement, director Mark Abel Garcia and his Peter Peter Pumpkin Theater cast busily work out the formidable logistics of staging Milton's epic poem, Samson Agonistes. Competing with the whirring of giant wall fans, Garcia talks a half-dozen actors through a scene in which Samson, languishing in prison after a bad hair day of Biblical proportions, receives a visit from his betrothed betrayer. "Let's think about this a bit," Garcia says. "What type of relationship did they have? What type of love or lust? All these wants, reactions, and things happening. It's a very busy scene."

Meanwhile, at the Loring Playhouse, Ebullient Theatre's Bruce Abas guides his cast through a somewhat lighter skirmish of the sexes. Abas, who makes a practice of testing original works at the festival, describes this year's entry, Happy Meal, as "sitcomish." From the looks of the situation, the comedy revolves around a trio of romantically entangled slackers (sample dialogue: "I just had a revelation." "Do you need an aspirin?")

For small companies like Ebullient Theatre, the Fringe represents a chance at exposure to theatergoers who would never otherwise hear of them. Matt Sciple, who has been involved in the Fringe in every year of its existence and who is directing Zach Curtis in Fifty Foot Penguin Theater's War Golems this year, remembers "walking around and listening to this elderly, suburban couple who were completely amazed that there were all these little companies out there. It's like they pulled up a rock and we were all crawling around beneath it."


The Fringe Theater Festival runs July 29 through August 8 at eight stages around Loring Park. Festival passes can be purchased at Dunn Bros. coffee shops or the Borders Book Shop--Uptown. Call (612) 823-6005 for festival info; (612) 343-3390 for tickets.

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