Before the curtain opens

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August 4, 2008
By: Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas

Behind-the-scenes with a few of the Minnesota Fringe Festival shows


You may not have realized it, but back in mid-July, on those sweltering evenings when you came home from the office and collapsed in front of the air conditioner or went out back to light up the barbeque, dozens of Minneapolis actors were just going to work.

They gathered in spaces large and small to refine their dialogues and dance steps, their punch lines and lyrics during the final countdown to the 2008 Minnesota Fringe Festival, running through Aug. 10 at 18 venues.

The young and energetic members of Live Action Set explored the decayed, industrial interior of The Soap Factory, where they will stage "Deviants," while their mentor, Theatre de la Jeune Lune co-founder Robert Rosen, worked out the details of audience seating.

When the women behind "The Mistress Cycle" gathered, the setting was a basement chapel in Lyndale United Church of Christ. They pushed aside folding chairs, gathered around an upright piano and sang while a box fan pushed around the stuffy air.

The dog days of summer, when some ease into a heat-induced torpor, were a time for frantic activity for Fringe players. Without further ado, here's a brief look at a few Fringe shows:



First-time Fringers

A church basement was also the rehearsal space of choice for a group of Southwest High School students, most of them preparing their first-ever Fringe show.

Henry Epp, director of "My Hovercraft is Full of Eels!," said he and his cast were busy in July paring down their manic Monty Python tribute to under an hour, so that it fit within Fringe guidelines. It's not exactly how Epp imagined spending his summer vacation back in January, when they staged a longer version of the sketch comedy show in Southwest's black box theater.

"Getting into the Fringe is a lottery system, so I just kind of put my name in and didn't know what to expect," he said.

For their show at Intermedia Arts, the "Hovercraft" crew will have to leave out some of the inventive props that brought to life Python Terry Gilliam's zany animations. Per Fringe rules, they only get 10 minutes to set up and take down their show.

On the other hand, performing the work off-campus means the teens won't have to be quite so careful with the racier Python sketches (not that they were in the first place).

"We're not intending to, like, try to bust out on the Minneapolis theater scene, really," Epp said. "But that's the great thing about the Fringe: you get exposure to the entire metro area, which is a big step."

 

Not clowning around

Lyndale resident Galen Treuer may have been busier than most Fringe performers in July.

Treuer's performance ensemble, Live Action Set, was meeting five days a week to rehearse "Deviants," their first Fringe show since the raved-about "Please Don't Blow Up Mr. Boban" in 2005. In between rehearsals, he and fellow troupe member Noah Bremer were working with a group of Hopkins high school students on their Fringe entry, a clowning take on Kafka's metamorphosis showing at Minneapolis Theater Garage.

Live Action Set is renowned for its deeply felt and highly physical performances. For this year's Fringe, they will re-title and revisit "Desiderare: Desire the Undesirable," a 2007 show exploring taboo desires.

Live Action Set uses clown techniques to instill performances with humor and energy. Treuer and Bremer introduced their high school students a specific clowning form, the buffoon, to enliven their "Kafka's Disgusting Tale of Transformation, A Buffoon's Metamorphosis."

"It's not a subtle form," Bremer acknowledged, "but I think when you're in high school, you don't need such subtle forms."

Treuer said they learned an important lesson: A self-conscious teen actor will break out of his shell if you allow him to act like a fool.


Another round with Fotis

Mike Fotis is no fool; he's one of the sharp minds behind Brave New Workshop's (BNW) biting social and political satire. This year, Fotis returns to the Fringe with "An
Intimate Evening with Fotis: Part Two" at Minneapolis Theater Garage.

The comedian behind several past Fringe shows — including those with Joe Bozic, another Workshop actor and the other half of comedy duo Ferrari McSpeedy — Fotis this year wrote a sequel of sorts to the part-storytelling, part-standup show he performed for last year's Fringe.

He said while "An Intimate Evening" was definitely funny — how can it not be? — this was once case where "it's more important to me that I tell a story more than a joke." Postings on his blog in July indicated Fotis was doing some last-minute rewriting of the show, but don't worry: this BNW vet is a pro.



Uneasy love songs

The Fringe makes room for a bit of everything: comedy, serious drama, dance, musicals and even the unclassifiable.

The women behind "The Mistress Cycle" had a bit of trouble classifying their show, but producer Mindy Eschedor placed it somewhere on that "fine line between a musical and a song cycle."

Directed by CARAG resident Perrin Post of Buffalo Girl Productions, "The Mistress Cycle" explores one woman's debate about whether or not to help a married man stray. Tess Walker's decision is put in a historical context when famous mistresses from the past tell their stories, including author Anaïs Nin, famous for her affairs with Henry Miller and others, and the mistress of the 16th Century King of France Henri II, Diane de Poitiers.

The Walker character (Jen Burleigh-Bentz) sings in a modern Broadway style, but the tone changes to reflect the time and place her counterparts live in.

Eschedor said "The Mistress Cycle," playing at Bryant-Lake Bowl, had only been performed twice and was still unpublished when she learned about it.

"I was really struck by the writing," she said. "It was just characters you were immediately interested in."

Relatively unknown and untested — why, that's just what the Fringe is for.


A guided tour up Mt. Fringe

Minnesota Fringe Festival veterans spend the weeks leading up to opening day scouring the festival schedule for returning favorites, promising newcomers and anything else that looks like a good way to spend $12 and an hour of their time.

But what if you've never been before? For the first-time Fringer, the list of more than 155 shows can seem like a mountain of information with no clear path to the summit.

Enter the Sherpa.

Like the native Tibetan guides who lead foreigners up Mount Everest, the Fringe this year has a team of experienced festivalgoers ready to lead newbies through a typical evening of venue-hopping.

Now, getting around to a few Fringe shows isn't that hard, and just about anyone can assemble a day of theater with the help of a few tips (see below). The festival website also has advice for newcomers and a searchable festival guide to sort through the shows.

If you'd prefer a guided tour, Roy Close is there to help. The originator of the Fringe Sherpa program acknowledged the festival could be overwhelming the first time around.

"It's a little bit like jumping into a large swimming pool full of people," Close said. "You want to make sure that you're doing it right."

Close piloted the Sherpa program last year, when it wasn't as well publicized. After connecting with a couple who had never been to the Fringe, Close quizzed them about their theater preferences, picked out a few shows and, accompanied by his wife, led them on their first festival night.

"We went to three different shows and had dinner between the second and third [shows], and it was really a lot of fun," he said.

This year, there are about 20 Sherpas set to lead expeditions. The package includes:

• Five-show punch card;

• An experienced guide for your first three shows, plus reservations;

• 2008 Fringe button (required for admission); and

• Dinner at Bedlam Theater, this year's Fringe Central.


Buying tickets

A $3 Fringe button is required for everyone over 12 years old.

Tickets are $12 for adults and go on sale 30 minutes before a show. Seniors and Minnesota Public Radio members pay $10. Children under 12 pay $5.

Multiple-show passes and punch cards are sold on the Fringe website. Pass and punch card holders are eligible for advance ticket sales and reservations.


How to attend Fringe

If you don't want to use the Sherpa program, Roy Close offeres this advice for going it alone:

1. Find a show

The Fringe website (www.fringefestival.org) includes a schedule that is searchable by genre, venue, date and artist. The schedule also highlights shows suitable for kids or teens.

All of that information also appears in the print program, available at any Fringe venue.

2. Make a plan

This year's 18 Fringe venues are spread out across town, but they are generally clumped in three areas: Southwest, the University of Minnesota area and the Warehouse District/Northeast.

If you're trying to hit back-to-back shows, factor in travel time. Alternately, plan to spend a day seeing theater in just one of the three areas.

3. Judge your appetite

This year's Fringe offers a menu of over 150 shows, which means there's something for every appetite. There may be some danger of overindulging; a full day of running from show to show can be physically and mentally exhausting.

Then again, it's a festival. Two or three shows in a day isn't too much.

"Very few people I know only go to one [show]," Close said. "They're like miniburgers; one isn't enough."

4. Socialize

For Fringe fanatics, a large part of the fun is rubbing shoulders with other people who are just as passionate about theater.

Arrive early and chat with people in line. It's often the best place to find out about the festival's hot shows. (Everybody says this, so it must be true.)