If you build it...

Bruce Abas and Ebullient Theatre's freak show

"THERE'S ALWAYS THE potential to lose our shirts in these things. Which is a little frightening, because all we have is our shirts." So says Craig Johnson of Upstart Theatre, getting quite to the crux of matters for this town's young and upstart theater companies. "These things" refers specifically to the Minnesota Fringe Festival, which begins its fifth annual incarnation July 30 on seven stages around Loring Park. While just about everyone who's heard of the Fringe thinks it's a good idea, this hasn't necessarily translated into ticket sales for the two-week series; as a result, for many of the independent theater companies that participate, the Fringe has yet to prove financially viable.

When Bob McFadden began the Fringe in 1994--basing the event on a long-standing festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, and other imitators in Canada and the States--he hoped to draw 10,000 people. That year saw 4,600 tickets sold--an average of 15 people per performance. The next year, attendance grew closer to his goal, reaching 6,500. But then it retreated back to 4,500 in 1996 and then 4,200 in '97. Still, the festival itself tended to break even (the first year, McFadden reportedly cleared $46), though many individual performance troupes who invested a lot of money in their shows were not so lucky. Even those groups that did draw reasonably sized audiences had frustrations with the Fringe's organization, citing user-unfriendly venues, poor scheduling (who's going to go see a play on Tuesday at 2:30?), and mismanagement of the box offices: Audiences could, and did, walk into performances without paying a thing.

But local groups are optimistic about this year's festival. Dean J. Seal, the mastermind of the Bryant-Lake Bowl Cabaret Theater, has taken over as executive producer. "Seal produces essentially a mini-fringe at B-LB every month," says Fringe veteran Erica Christ of Cheap Theatre. "He's got the marketing skills to do this." Bryant-Lake Bowl has become a crossover hit--that is, people outside the theater community attend and pay money, a distant dream for many performance groups here, and a necessary development if the Fringe is to continue.

In order to insure their shirts against the whims of the attendance gods, many companies this year are choosing to perform works with shoestring budgets--that is, original scripts with no rights to pay, and spare production outlays. "The benefits can be great," says Bruce Abas, whose Ebullient Theatre will be mounting his own script, freak. Abas looks at the Fringe as a time to workshop a play and test audience response. "I'm willing to lose $500 to get my name out there. Some people spend $500 and go to Florida. What better way for me to spend that money than on my own career?"

Upstart Theatre used last year's Fringe to workshop a production of The Diary of Samuel Pepys, which enjoyed relative Fringe success ("We are so excited to report that last year The Diary of Samuel Pepys made $36.58," Johnson laughs) then went on to perform the play again in successful runs at Loring Playhouse and Bryant-Lake Bowl's one-person-play festival. This year, Upstart will use the Fringe to test the waters for their Four Stories, adaptations of 19th-century tales of obsession, including Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper."

Upstart will join 28 other local groups and 11 out-of-town acts in Fringe '98, and many would probably be delighted to clear $36.58. For out-of-town acts, travel costs make the financial risk that much greater, and it is considerably more difficult to generate the word-of-mouth to lure local audiences to their shows. Most of the out-of-town groups, then, are established "fringe-circuit" favorites, and old pros at marketing themselves. Not coincidentally, the bent on most visiting productions is decidedly humorous, from the political (as in New York's chu young works's Why she Wears a Suit, a performance based on playwright Kate Roberts's experiences as a bartender in a gay diner, which promises to examine sexual politics, Armani suits, and feather boas) to the unabashedly wacky (as in The Mrs. Potatohead Show, a two-woman "celebration of Irish-American Woman being" from Boston).

Although many performers will still play to a congregation of empty seats, Dean Seal argues that the Fringe is useful in compelling performers to address the artistically burdensome task of marketing their productions. "It's healthy for artists to have to work for their audience," Seal says. "And it's good for theater. If we can tempt people to come in and try a couple of shows, we give them a chance to get hooked on the idea of fringing.... Then they might keep going to performances throughout the year."

It's an attractive prospect for local companies who have long been trying to get the Twin Cities to realize they are present, legitimate, and accessible, and who are actively seeking ways to develop their audiences. Of course, as Erica Christ puts it, "we're talking growth from nano to micro--but at least it's a start."

The Fringe Theater Festival runs from July 30 through August 9 at seven stages around Loring Park; call 823-6005. Advance discount passes are available at the Uptown Borders Book Shop (3001 Hennepin Ave.) through August 3.

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