Fringe Festival 2013: Critic's Picks
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.
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.
"The sense of camaraderie among the performers was something I hadn't experienced before," Scrimshaw says. "It is still part of Fringe today, but it was more intense in those early days, because audiences were dinky. Fellow performers were all you had."
Seat of the pants
Robin Gillette's introduction to the Minnesota Fringe Festival was certainly atypical. The week of the executive director's first festival, the 35-W bridge collapsed. Beyond the toll the collapse took emotionally on the Twin Cities, it provided a logistical nightmare for the festival when travel around the area suddenly became all the more difficult.
"It was a really valuable lesson to learn," Gillette recalls. "With the festival in one condensed time, the best-laid plans can go haywire. You just keep going. I couldn't un-fall it down. We did the festival anyway."
Gillette is leaving in September after seven years at the helm of the festival, giving her one last go-around in charge. Longtime Fringer Jeff Larson steps into the role this fall. He's been the festival's associate director since 2009.
"It was a lot more loose," Larson recalls of the early years. "Everything was by the seat of our pants. It was not disorganized, but it was a bunch of people figuring it out as they went along." Larson spent his first festival, in 1999, working at one of the theaters. "I had very little sense of the festival around me," he says.
"I still look forward to it as much now as I did then," he adds. "I get to see awesome shows, I still have friends that I met that first year, and a disproportionate number of people in that first year are still doing Fringe shows."
Sometimes, these producers are content to return to the festival year after year. Over the past two decades, a network of like-minded festivals has sprung up around the country. Careful planning allows some productions to tour throughout the summer. (Though financially, these tours can be as "lucrative" as your average unknown band barnstorming across the country.)
For Gillette, the challenge has always been serving the dual needs of the Fringe: the artists who make it happen and the audiences who come to see the shows. The size of the festival adds to that. For 2013, each production will get five performances spread over 11 days. Beyond the logistics of arranging all of the performances (especially as some actors may be in two or more shows a year), there is the task of getting audiences in and out of the theaters in time so the next performance can go on as scheduled.
Next year, that will be Larson's problem, not hers. "I look forward to coming back next year as an audience member," Gillette says.
Springboard — or train wreck
Things do remain in flux up to — and sometimes during — the festival. The bridge collapsing was an extreme situation, but producers selected in the lottery sometimes find that they can't get their shows together. The long waiting list comes into play, sometimes leaving artists scrambling. Some of these can be cringe-worthy train wrecks — every edition of the festival has its share; it's part of the charm — but sometimes it can be a springboard to greater things.
Dancer Tamara Ober had already crafted shows for the Fringe in the past when she found herself taken off the waiting list and thrust into the festival a few years ago. The show she'd been working on, Sin Eater, was nowhere near ready to be brought to the stage.
She did have a solo piece she could use. A few phone calls to some dancer friends brought together enough pieces for a Fringe-length performance piece. Flesh was a success, which buoyed the Zenon Company member's solo career even more. The innovative modern dancer's intense and personal vision found a home at the Fringe, which in turn led to tours, a trip to Vienna, and, just recently, a McKnight grant.
As an independent producer, she says the Fringe "gave me the opportunity, financially, to put on an affordable show. In a grant, the money is upfront. In the Fringe, it is in the back end. If you fail, there is an honesty to that. It just felt like it was going to tell me if I wanted to keep going as an artist or not. It gives you immediate feedback financially."
It took plenty of work by Ober to get her shows to break even financially, usually via touring beyond the Twin Cities. But the Fringe helped Ober get her work out there. "The Fringe is about creating the rough draft. It gives you the bare bones," she says.
It's also connected Ober to a wider world of creators. For this year's show, Standing on the Hollow, she's working with local musician Julie Johnson and New York-based director D.J. Mendel — someone she's long admired but could never hire to direct without the large grant fueled in part by work first produced at the Fringe.
Here's a moment Arneson remembers from performing in one of her one-woman shows, Sex Secrets:
"Alone in the dark at People's Center, doing a series of vignettes about a person whose sexuality can't be pigeon-holed. In this scene, I play a woman who is passing as a man, who is posing as a drag queen at an annual Drag Ball, when a single feather dislodges from my boa and dances into the light. Unplanned moment. The slow-whirling feather upstages me. The audience is with it. I stop speaking. Stop moving. Only my eyes move, following the feather as it wafts to the floor. I give the feather all my focus. Only when the feather stops its lazy flight, lands, and becomes still, do I return to the scripted lines, but not before the audience applauds the feather. That is what live theater is about — making space for the unexpected. Even just a single feather falling in silence."
Annie Scott Riley, author of I Make No Promises, But Someone's Probably Going to Die, sees the Fringe buffet as a place to dine on new experiences — and to find new companies. "It's a unique opportunity for new companies to get their work seen, really seen, by more than just the social circles of their cast and crew," she says. "No matter how good your show is, if you put it up in the wild with a company name no one has heard of, you are almost guaranteed to fail in today's market.... It's the best opportunity there is to find new work to love in Minnesota."
Matthew Everett's memories are largely connected with firsts. This could be building an appreciation for dance or discovering innovative groups such as the Twin Cities-based Savage Umbrella or the New York-based Shelby Company. It can even be something like "David Darrow and Kara Davidson putting Rip in front of me and making me realize I could like musicals. It's cracking my mind open a little bit more about what live performance can be — those are the Fringe memories that always give me a jolt."
Josh Carson first produced at the Fringe in 2002 — egged on by one of his University of Minnesota professors. After Carson wrote several scenes for a play, the professor suggested that the whole piece needed to be completed — and put in front of an audience. "With no lottery in those days, I applied and was instantly 'in' the Fringe Festival and suddenly faced with the same problem that plagues every Fringe producer: 'Oh crap. Now I have to do an entire show,'" he says.
This year, he's back as one of the creators of One Hit Thunder, having built a reputation for fast-paced, pop culture-driven shows. "Seven Fringes later, it's my absolute favorite time of year. It isn't summer unless I'm stressed for three solid months, untouchable for a week, only to crash down that mid-August Monday, wondering what the hell to do with myself now," Carson says.
A recent success story at the Fringe is that of Transatlantic Love Affair. The company has presented a string of hits at the festival (2012's Ash Land was the top-selling show) and has seen two of the shows — The Ballad of the Pale Fisherman and Red Resurrected — see life beyond the confines of the festival. This year's offering, These Old Shoes, continues the movement-based style that sees the actors not just providing characters but contorting themselves to make up the settings for each scene.
Isabel Nelson, co-artistic director of the company with husband Diogo Lopes, looks back to 2005 for a key Fringe moment. It's when she saw Please Don't Blow Up Mr. Boban, created by the always innovative Jon Ferguson and Live Action Set. That inspired Nelson to pursue more training in England. "It was there, at the London International School of Performing Arts, that Diogo and I met and fell in love, and the rest, as they say, is history."
The cost of success
For Arneson, the growth of the Fringe has lessened the sense of anarchy and freedom of the early days. Back then, "The Fringe was less constrained. You had elbow room. And time and space to spread out, to get messy. Now you are given a number. We are show number so and so. It's a nice number, but still, it's a number," she says.
Storage space is scarce, and the time to get on and off the stage with props, costumes, and sets in tow is extremely short.
"At my last Fringe, I was covered in sweat after a show, trying to gather all my scattered clothing, wigs, shoes, and set from the stage in the few minutes, while people who saw the show were trying to chat with me," Arneson says. All this regimentation may be necessary for organizing so large an event as the Fringe. But it can be disconcerting for a seasoned artist.
Then again, many of those changes have been fueled by the growing size and attendance at the Fringe. More venues and performances mean there need to be tighter controls so the audience is able to get in and out — and off to the next show. (Important if you're one of the hardy, or foolish, theatergoers who take in a show at each of the 50-some slots in the festival.) Increased attendance is also good for the artists, who get a share of the gate from each performance.
All of this feeds back to the theater community. "The lottery-driven, non-juried guts of the thing is what keeps theater in this town vibrant and alive," Everett says. "Work like this gets done throughout the year, but more of it gets done now because the Fringe has primed an audience to desire it and has taught artists how to get out there and do it."
When Olson first came back to the Fringe in 2007 after years in public relations, things were quite a bit different. "I remember looking at the guidebook and seeing that there was no more than 30 minutes between shows. They were cycling a lot more through," she says. This year, Olson will be back as a performer in the show On the Line. It's written by her daughter Abilene — the one she was pregnant with back in 1996, when she was taking meetings with future mayors and scrounging to get the community on board with the new festival.
In the end, the central purpose of the festival hasn't changed.
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