Fueling the Fringe

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August 2, 2004 // UPDATED 2:48 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Anna Pratt
Anna Pratt

In exchange for free tix and camaraderie, ber-volunteers keep the nation's largest fringe fest up and running

From tearing tickets to setting up stages, the 176-show Minnesota Fringe Festival -- the largest nonjuried performance series in the nation -- relies on the wide-scale efforts of nearly 400 volunteers.

This unpaid community of behind-the-scenes Fringers will keep the 10-day festival going Friday, Aug. 6-Sunday, Aug. 15 at theaters throughout the city, and is as diverse as the festival's renowned experimental offerings.

On a sticky mid-July afternoon, 50 Fringe volunteers-in-training filled a room at the Loring Playhouse, 1633 Harmon Pl. There were teenagers and seniors, dreadlock-wearers and clean-cuts. Bandannas and camouflage Capri pants coexisted peacefully with floral print dresses and straw hats.

Yet, all had one thing in common: an insatiable appetite for fresh theater.

"Our volunteers are amazing," said Volunteer Coordinator Max Gries from the Fringe's Hennepin Center for the Arts headquarters, 528 Hennepin Ave. S., Ste 503, who also noted that the group is also more diverse in terms of ethnicity than the new coordinator had anticipated.

And while a first-timer can sign up to work just two 50-minute shows (about three hours of work), Gries said there are plenty of ber-volunteers who work up to 30 shows and attend at least as many -- that's approximately 90 hours of work/play in 10 days. With 900 show-times and two volunteers needed per show, these hard-core volunteers go a long way in helping the Fringe fulfill its 1,800 volunteer show-shifts.

The unpaid thespian troops greet customers; sell, take and tear tickets; seat patrons, answer questions, snap photos and reflect on shows for online reviews/chats. They also pour beer, host gallery spaces and guide panel discussions at the 24 participating Minneapolis venues, including six Downtown (see end of article for locations). Plus, prior to the fest, many help move props or even take an out-of-town Fringe performer into their home.

While such miscellaneous responsibilities may seem far from glamorous, Gries said Fringe bennies are bountiful. Volunteers earn tickets to shows, get coupons to local restaurants, have the chance to mingle with artists and gain entry into the, um, lively Fringe volunteer appreciation party at festival's end. "They love doing it. They get to feel like part of the crew, and they have fun," Gries said.

Such positive reinforcement breeds retention. Gries estimates that at least half are returning from previous summers with the festival, now in its 11th year. Many go as far as to take vacation days from their regular jobs to work up to three or four shows a day (and then attend three or four the next).

Indeed, as the trainees fanned themselves with their fluorescent orange guides in the stuffy room, briefing policies and procedures, punch cards, passes and troubleshooting, one would have to assume some kind of spell has been cast to keep them coming back.

Fringe magic

"They make it happen. Just from a technical standpoint, it's phenomenal," said Nick Heille, last summer's "Volunteer of the Year," a title he shared with his wife, Rosie Heille. "There's all this magic behind the scene. There's an awful lot of detail but no management structure. I think some people thrive on it."

The Heilles were on hand when the power went out for a Fringe performance at a church in Southwest Minneapolis last year. "We got flashlights, sat people in the dark and filled up that theater. The guy who was performing, an acoustic guitarist, went on. There was this vitality that things will take place. That's part of the joy and excitement," Nick said.

North Loop residents Kathleen and Rachel Culhane also work the Fringe as a couple; Kathleen works the box office while Rachel ushers. The Culhanes said the Fringe has been an excellent way to meet like-minded people and get to know the local theater scene while they're at it. First-year Fringe volunteer Becki Small of Loring Park said a friend connected her with the fest for similar reasons, "I'm doing it to get acquainted with the neighborhood. And I love theater."

Many of this year's volunteers were last year's audience members. After attending festival shows, Tera Jenson, who works at Wells Fargo, 90 S. 7th St., said she felt she could get more out of it. Now she's in her second year as a volunteer and is good friends with Amy Salloway of "Does This Monologue Make Me Look Fat?" (Jenson approached Salloway and said, "I don't want to sound like a stalker or anything, but I just loved your show and I need to be your friend." Such is the way of the Fringe.)

Others are previous performers. Fringe workaholic Eben Cooper starred in the 2003 Fringe show, "Voice in Head." (He's also the brother of Fringe Executive Director Leah Cooper.) Eben has purposefully bulked up on shifts, "I'll see as many shows as I can. It's a good way to get out of the house, be social and talk to people. I feel like I'm part of something special."

Initially, Southwest Minneapolis resident Paula Allen starred in the Fringe show "Thousand Fires of Darkness" about the works of the great Spanish poet Federico Lorca. Now, she and her boyfriend John Fox of South Minneapolis are four-year festival volunteer veterans. When Allen first made the performer-to-volunteer jump, volunteers were only quasi-volunteers -- they were paid $7 an hour and carried walkie-talkies. "Things were very different. We had to go back to the office at the end of the night to count the money," she said. Now, things are "highly organized" -- leaving volunteers free to be true volunteers and let festival management orchestrate the overall flow.

Allen and Fox said they volunteer mainly for the camaraderie, instant access to informal performance reviews and the free tickets. During the rest of the year, Allen and Fox also volunteer at the Guthrie Lab, 700 N. 1st St., and the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Ave. S.

"We enjoy spending time with the Fringe crowd; they're urban bohemians. There's a lot of art in the volunteers ... everyone there is some kind of an artist," said Fox. Plus, since people in lines for a show are often talking about other shows they've seen, Allen and Fox overhear off-the-cuff reviews that help them pick which shows they'd like to catch/volunteer for.

Like the Heilles, Allen and Fox share plenty of fond Fringe moments, from meeting noted local performer Kevin Kling (a Fringe and mainstage favorite) to relishing an out-of-town production that combined the movies "Psycho" and "Jaws." The couple also brings their kids to the children's Fringe shows, such as last year's Theatrix home-school student production of "Alice in Wonderland." (This year, the children's Fringe series will be at the Howard Conn Fine Arts Center, 1900 Nicollet Ave. The shows are geared towards children, but true to the spirit of the Fringe, they're typically offbeat.)

This variety is the point, the couple agreed -- both on and off the stage. "To me, that's what the Fringe is. And the plays are so short [usually 50 minutes], which means that so many people who come to the Fringe don't normally go to theater," said Allen.

"If you want to get outside of yourself, I can't think of a better opportunity to meet a wider variety of people," said Dave Erickson, who'll probably work 10-15 shows this year.

Still, this shared appreciation for new faces, new shows and new-ness in general binds the volunteers to one another in an almost ritualistic, tradition-building way.

"Every year is a kind of a homecoming with the same volunteers coming back again and again. We don't see each other the rest of the year," said Bruce Glasrud, who ushered at the preview showcase/gallery opening in late July at Interact Center for the Performing Arts, 212 3rd Ave. N., Ste. 140. "We get to swap stories about volunteering, actors and audiences. ... Everybody has little stories."