Minnesota Fringe and Minnesota Nice
The Minnesota Fringe (MN Fringe) Festival is the largest nonjuried festival in the United States where this year an estimated 16,493 people were in attendance. Every applicant pays a non-refundable twenty five dollars application fee in exchange for a numbered ping-pong ball that might be plucked at a public lottery. This year the lottery was structured into two categories: a small venue category for a theater containing one hundred seats or fewer or a regular venue that could have over three hundred seats. I first attended the Fringe three years ago when I purchased a five show punch and painstakingly picked five shows. The second year I volunteered about twenty shifts and saw about twenty shows. This year, I had a press pass and saw forty two. Of the one hundred and seventy six shows performing at sixteen venues over the course of eleven days, it is only humanly possible to see fifty six. As I bicycled from venue to venue, and what seemed to be at the time a never-ending stream of performances, I began to wonder how would I cover the festival? I ruled out making a best of/worst article because that coverage is already present elsewhere and doesn’t address fundamental questions that emerged from the festival.
I started thinking about the festival as a whole and the kind of art produced for the MN Fringe by both new producing artists and fringe favorites who manage to produce every year despite the lottery. Some people are just lucky. Even though the festival is unjuried, there is a definite aesthetic for the festival. This aesthetic is partly defined by the strict perimeters imposed by the festival: shows will always start on time and end on time lasting no longer than an hour and every show has fifteen minutes to set up and fifteen minutes to tear down with little to no light specials depending on the venue. There is an egalitarian spirit to the Fringe; a spirit that says, “Let’s treat everyone the same and not indulge in favoritism,” perhaps patterned on the famed Minnesota nice codes of behavior. For example, the MN Fringe aids first-time producers by offering workshops in marketing among other topics to help even the playing field during the festival.
Even though the festival is unjuried, there is a definite aesthetic for the festival.
Occasionally, these preparatory efforts coupled with artistic ingenuity can lead to Fringe hits as was the case this year with Stuck in an Elevator with Patrick Stewart. Fist time Fringe producer Brandon Taitt attended his first Fringe show last year, The Complete Works of William Shatner. He enjoyed the show, saw a couple more Fringe offerings and thought to himself, "I could do this." Stuck in an Elevator sold out every performance and won the much sought after audience pick encore performance. Luckily, I got the very last available ticket to the encore show. The show itself wasn’t revolutionary in form or story but what it did well was entertain a niche audience of sci-fi fans, who normally wouldn’t see themselves represented in most shows. Elevator was so successful because it was entertaining and delivered on what it promised in the title, a fictional conversation with Patrick Stewart.
In the MN Fringe, success is gauged by the sold out shows and a feature in the encore performance slot even though “better” shows may be at the venue.
In the MN Fringe, success is gauged by the sold out shows and a feature in the encore performance slot even though “better” shows may be at the venue. This commercialism leads to inevitable comparisons and competition between shows. The encore winner, To Mars with Tesla or The Interplanetary Machinations of Evil THOMAS EDISON, was a charming and delightful comedy performed in the style of a silent movie, produced by Fringe veteran Joshua Scrimshaw along with his wife Adrienne English. The show’s success was aided by the Scrimshaw brand and, once again, by the niche fan base for anything Tesla related but was it the best in the Fringe? There were impressive shows such as Tamara Ober’s Standing on the Hollow and Sunset Gun’s Expiration Date. Hollow paired Ober’s incredible movement with the live musical performance of flautist Julie Johnson. Ober’s dance was entrancing and Johnson’s music was bewitching. Expiration Date was by far the best drama I saw at the fringe and follows a woman’s journey of acceptance of her impending death after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Candy Simmons’ one-woman show was a powerful performance and daring in subject matter. All three of these exceptional shows would have been worthy of a place in the highly coveted encore slot but were overlooked due to lower overall ticket sales. This begs the question: are ticket sales really the best way to judge the artistic merits of a show?
This begs the question: are ticket sales really the best way to judge the artistic merits of a show?
In the spirit of the state’s cultural values, the Fringe tries to give each show both premium and less desired time slots to make everything fair, but is there any way to off-set the advantage that veteran Fringe producers have with audience recognition over newer producers doing commendable work but playing to smaller audiences. There is a larger question here about how to sell new work to audiences that want a popular commodity for their hard earned dollars if success is measured by box office sales, are artists more intent on producing commercially viable art rather than using the Fringe as a low cost production opportunity to explore their craft? Does the Fringe model limit artistic creativity for fear of economic failure?
Fringe followers of the past four years will be quick to argue that the Fringe juggernaut Transatlantic Love Affair has been rewarded for its unique physical style and fairy tale form. In 2010, the group performed Ballad of the Pale Fisherman and it blew audiences out of the water. Artistic directors and husband/wife duo, Isabel Nelson and Diogo Lopes, have adopted a beautiful method of theater, where the actors never leave the stage and create the setting with their bodies and voices, an aesthetic influenced by their training at LISPA. TLA has devised a show each year since Ballad and while they continue to be a box office sensation I wonder how long audiences will enjoy their style without demanding more substantive storytelling. Their first two shows were smart, layered, and focused. The narrative of last year’s Ashland was muddled and predictable. This year’s These Old Shoes was a stronger show but lacked the originality I know TLA is capable of. I wonder if TLA is making theater that they know will sell to fringe audiences who enjoyed their previous work rather than creating stories that would expand their creative boundaries?
I’m not the only one with high expectations for TLA. When skimming the reviews on the Fringe web site, amidst the glowing five star reviews you’ll see glimmers of discontent. The online reviews and waiting-in-line conversations are by far my favorite aspect of Fringe. In between shows, people are quick to tell you what they loved and what they hated without a regard to see if you’re involved in the show they just said was “the worst thing ever.” The brutal honesty and forward conversation is so antithetical to the Minnesota nice way of life that for the duration of Fringe I almost forget where I live.