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?

Two actors on stage
Transatlantic Love Affair’s “These Old Shoes” at the Illusion Theater in Minneapolis.
Photo credit by Meredith Westin

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.

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Reading this review, or perhaps its just a long list of thoughts on what is fringe, I come up with two word to review this review. Subjectivity & Contradiction. The words of "Brand" is thrown about with the connection to success and perhaps the idea that if one has a "brand" they get into a fair, nice and nonjuried somehow because of their brand. Here is what lies in that... The Brand's alluded on were made in huge part because of the fringe, which leads into the thoughts on art that is made popular because of and out of the fringe such as TLA (only stating this production because it was called out on in the article) and critized because they continue to produce alike art each time, this thought is contradictory and subjective mostly because.... would anyone who is seeing a ballet dancer think they might break out in stand up comedy just because they have last been seen doing exactly what their art entails which is dance? Audience is made of both returning and new members, the ones returning are the ones that make the decisions on seeing an art form that they have once seen, is it the artists fault if they are bored because they have already seen the art form?

Fringe is nonjuried here because of history of what is fringe, which is to be non censored and keep what will be contradictory to my own words here and the very core of all what art is, fringe or not fringe, which is subjective. Not because of anything Minnesota Nice. The part I will give credit to, in regards to Minnesota Nice and the Fringe (at least in our community in MPLS) is actually in the alluded idea that an artist can some how always get into the nonjurried fringe even if their ping pong ball isn't picked. After following the art scene now for almost its entire history here in Minneapolis, I have seen how the culture and community of artists work on and which each other, sometimes to their own detriments, in either being outshined by brand names but at the same time, have been lifted into their sort of brand and self indentity because that brand helped pull in some returning fans of the brand in question.

TLA is certainly not the only example of a group that has been made to shine and given its local spring board for success, as I have mentioned in earlier in the success it has made for local artists. In light I would say some extraordinary production groups might have even chosen NOT to participate, as to not want to be known as a sort of art medium but of a more ranging art form? I have tons of questions leading out of this article that I believe that were not faced on in thought, such as the comments on commercialism and art and success and the use of the word brand. Is art, if it becomes successful because it has a fan base commercial? Is it a "Brand" because an artist has a certain medium they use? It is "nice" because its nonjuried? I think the answers all lie within the subjective and in the history of what is Fringe. Which is a festival to express without censorship and in hopes to get a response. For if it was all in the success of most ticket sales than some of the most active artists in the fringe would not participate as often or as much in any given festival. Ask anyone of the artists that often do 1-half a dozen or more shows all in one festival! The biggest factor is reporting, the papers need to gauge the success on something, the artists do need to make a living, and the festival needs to be able to fund itself to produce for the next year.......

This all said and done, I hope the new reign of power of the fringe continues to keep the core nonjuried and "nice" effect in the future, To continue what is known as venue to learn, shine and have artists sit in an audience one year and say I can do that! Then do it the next year, to have opportunities to help and guide new and non experienced festival fringe artists shine. there is always room for improvement. All of it will be contradictory and subjective, as is my own opinion.