Two decades on the fringe

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July 30, 2013
By: Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas
The Minnesota Fringe Festival marks 20 years

Courtney McLean, who has acted in or produced shows for eight Minnesota Fringe Festivals, recently described the annual, 11-day theater extravaganza as “Minnesota theater-nerd Burning Man.”

If you consider the fanatical devotion Fringe inspires among its regular performers and audience members, the way its elaborate infrastructure is built and deconstructed in less than two weeks and the amount of sheer, giddy weirdness readily available to anyone who goes in for that kind of thing, then, yes, it does resemble that infamous annual gathering out in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert quite a bit.

This year’s Fringe, which kicks off Thursday night, is the 20th installment of what has grown into one of the largest non-juried theater festivals in the country. Over that time, it’s had a tremendous impact on the Twin Cities theater scene, “nourishing,” as Fringe Associate Director Jeff Larson put it, a thriving ecosystem of small theater companies.

“I don’t want to go to far with this, but the city would look a lot different — at least the theater community would look a lot different — without the Fringe,” said Larson, who next year will take over from Robin Gillette as the festival’s fifth executive director since its founding in 1994.

As much as it helps to feed and sustain that community, the festival has also developed its own audience. Some Fringe-goers see more theater while venue hopping during first two weeks of August than they do the entire rest of the year.

The festival’s past five years were among the best in its history, with individual ticket sales breaking the 40,000 mark in 2008 and the 50,000 mark in 2010. To put things in perspective: The inaugural Fringe Festival sold 4,360 tickets, and the 2012 edition sold almost 10 times that amount.

Performance slots are drawn at random, and applications to the annual lottery now routinely top 400, according to organizers. Fewer than half the applicants win a spot on a Fringe stage. There are 16 performance venues this year, one more than in recent years, in part to accommodate the intense interest.

The Minnesota Fringe Festival is just one of dozens that take place around the world, all more or less modeled after the massive Edinburgh Festival Fringe, now well into its sixth decade. But it has developed its own particular identity over the years.

“Our festival has become known as the kind of sci-fi and geeky fringe among the U.S. [fringe festivals],” Larson said.

His explanation? When they’re competing against Minnesota’s lakes or a family’s cabin vacation, producers do best when they keep theater light, accessible and fun.

McLean credited the influence of Fringe heavyweight Joseph Scrimshaw, known for mixing comedy with geeky references to pop-culture touchstones. That said, Fringe offerings are diverse enough that most attendees can make it through all 11 days without hearing one “Star Wars” reference.

The Minnesota Fringe Festival stands out in another way that doesn’t really ever show up on stage. From its incredibly useful and user-friendly website to its well-staffed venues to the behind-the-scenes production assistance it offers theater companies, the festival exudes competence.

“It’s definitely one of the most well-organized and well-oiled machines as far as a theater festival that I’ve experienced,” McLean said.

Larson described the prospect of taking over that well-oiled machine next year as “half exciting and half terrifying,”

“It’s a big thing,” he said. “It has such a large community of people invested in it that you feel this large responsibility not to screw it up.”

The 2013 Minnesota Fringe Festival runs Aug. 1–11, featuring 176 shows in 16 venues. Admission for adults is $12 (plus the one-time purchase of a $4 Fringe button) and $5 for children 12 and under (no button required). Multi-show passes are available. For location and show details, go to fringefestival.org.