Living on the Fringe

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August 1, 2005 // UPDATED 1:56 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Anna Pratt
Anna Pratt

Minnesota Fringe addicts ready for annual theater overdose

The Web site and printed promotional materials for the Minnesota Fringe Festival resemble the inky notebook doodles of a high school student. Meandering squiggles say things like, "You'll love to watch," next to a girl with a Mohawk haircut skipping rope.

The sketches symbolize the free spirit of the Fringe, with its eclectic theatrical roster and audience. Many shows are planned at the last minute. Even those carefully rehearsed or prepared take place in a tight squeeze.

Living it

The Fringe Festival, now in its 12th year, is a grassroots performing arts extravaganza attracting amateur and professional thespians yearly, with experimental new plays.

Running Aug. 4-14 at theaters across Minneapolis, the Fringe encourages wanderlust and lingering. Fringers are of all ages and backgrounds; their common denominator is a hunger for theater stripped of its bling-bling. That means things normally taken for granted on big stages, such as amplified sound, stage lights and other effects, are set aside in an effort to bond audiences and artists (and in an effort to make play production affordable).

Some people attend up to 10 shows a day. When the Fringe is in session, people spend hours and hours consuming theater. They watch it, talk it, read it and write about it.

One moment a theatergoer may be intrigued by a favored actor's performance, while two hours later, he or she may be seated next to the same actor in an audience for another show. Fringe Festival Executive Director Leah Cooper said that the composition of the Fringe's audience defies stereotypes.

Plays at this year's Fringe deal with heavy topics such as politics, terrorism and war, lightened by more clowning and mime than usual.

The festival spans 11 days (up one from its usual 10), filling 20 venues scattered across Downtown, Loring Park, Uptown and Lyn-Lake.

The giant theatrical scavenger hunt has built a cult-like following. Last year generated 23 percent more attendees than the year before; 50,000 people attended in 2004. Projections for this year are for numbers in that same ballpark.

The Fringe thrives because "Minneapolis is the kind of town that supports adventurous artists and audiences. It's all about seeing tons of shows and discovering your own gems. We let the audience decide," said Cooper, from the conference room around the corner from the Fringe office, 528 Hennepin Ave. S.

A drink of Thirst

Within the 800-plus performances of 160 shows, there's a cross-section of local to international theater, including drama, comedy, dance, aerial work, musicals, kids and teen programs, spoken word, improvisation and more.

The Teen Fringe has doubled in size, while the Visible Fringe, usually a showcase of visual art hung within theater lobbies, has been completely re-envisioned. The Visible artists aren't limited to a certain medium or style, but introduce new media, performance art, outdoor sculpture, dance and visual art.

There are other additions. Since Fringe performances were selected by lottery this year, there's also a do-it-yourself option called "Bring Your Own Venue (BYOV)" wherein thespians are invited to take the initiative to pool together the resources they need to produce their shows.

Impromptu titles will then be added to the overall roster and Fringe promotions. For example, "Thirst Theater," a barebones brand of drama which has been running a grassroots campaign at Joe's Garage, 1610 Harmon Pl., is an example of a BYOV production that wasn't officially selected in the lottery used to select Fringe shows.

With its broad exposure and willing audiences, the Fringe benefits artists of all levels, said Matthew Everett, Loring Park resident, a Fringe blogger and a playwright whose shows have appeared in previous festivals.

"It's such an open festival, it embraces so many different types of performance. Brand new people can be thrown in with veterans. They're welcomed equally. It creates this great atmosphere where people are doing what they love and sharing with each other," he said.

Comparing the festival to a summer camp for the performing arts. "It's a great way to bring people together who wouldn't otherwise come into contact with each other," he added.

Talent emerges locally, nationally and even internationally. Everett's mom flies in from Pennsylvania each summer to attend Fringe shows with Everett. In fact, Everett attributes his Fringe addiction to her in the first place since she's a theater regular.

The Fringe plays a major role in the community. He said that the festival is a "great starter kit" for artists since it provides them with a venue for their shows, but it also advises them on acquiring publicity and enables risks for both the rookie and professional that might not be feasible otherwise.

In the Visible

The Visible Fringe is more visible this year, featuring site-specific work that's bound by the temporal and by place. It's a gallery without walls called F-Stops. Some of the exhibited works are live and are literally set where they take place (the real and imaginary setting coincide).

Spectators might experience art in the workplace, in the food court or on the street. Some events unfold seemingly randomly. There's a predicted and an incidental, arbitrary audience. The discreet acts will be staggered throughout the festival.

While Fringe patrons may anticipate the off-kilter occurrences, passersby may not understand for instance, why a bathroom's paper towels are covered with online chat-room conversations or why a gumball machine suddenly turned into a fortune-telling machine (depending on the color you get, for instance, will prescribe the likeliness of acquiring a house).

The bathroom installation was created by college students in a demonstration of the Visible Fringe's spectrum that spans to high-profile artists such as those in the Live Action Set.

The paper towels, which aren't meant to be a commentary on the chats alone, present an interesting dilemma to its witnesses. Those who use the bathroom must decide whether or not they'll wipe their hands on the paper towels and discard, or keep the paper towel as a souvenir and a piece of artwork.

Because there's a performance element to many of the Visible projects, some may question how the Visible Fringe differs from the Performance Fringe. The issue is complicated and subjective, but on a practical level, the Visible events are nonticketed.

Some of the pieces are strictly visual but are posed in native settings. Joe Nixon's expressive self-portraits offer a different perspective of African American males in Gaviidae Common, 60 S. 6th St.

Also, Mickey Smith has volumes to say with her rich snapshots of bound periodicals lining walls of the Old Federal Reserve Building, Marquette Plaza, 250 Marquette Ave.

In a vast factory space, an audience will be faced by the image and audible bark of a cute yappy dog in tectonic industries' video projection that questions how objects become meaningful.

Sadly, the nature of conceptual artist Marcus Young's act that'll take place on Nicollet Mall can't be disclosed because, "My project is meant to be encountered without knowing that it's art, as opposed to something expected and advertised.

"It's not art that you're meant to see purposefully. It's more within the nature of art itself. It makes them aware of what the issues are and how to view art but not the typical," he said.

"Most of the artists in the Visible Fringe lie outside of art systems but not because they don't want to be noticed. The fringe gives us a platform that is nontraditional and nonestablishment but we do want to be taken seriously," Young said.

For more information: If you want to know more on the Minnesota Fringe Festival, go to www.fringefestival.org.