“I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the androgyny of the genital puppetry.”
That sentence — overheard on the lower level of the University of Minnesota Rarig Center as I walked from one performance to the next — might capture the essence of the 2014 Minnesota Fringe Festival.
I don’t mean that this year’s festival was exclusively dedicated to radical, semi-erotic marionette performances. Rather, my point is that the Minnesota Fringe Festival is, at its core, an opportunity to be caught off guard, for artists and audiences alike.
The annual festival is presented by Minnesota Fringe, a non-profit organization that has been “connecting adventurous artists with adventurous audiences” since 1993. This year, I joined in and navigated my way through a smorgasbord of performance offerings.
“Fringe” often refers to the outer, marginal, unconventional, or extreme part of an area, group, or sphere of activity. In 1948, Scottish playwright Robert Kemp used it to described the creative activity popping up around the edges of the recent Edinburgh International Festival, in effect coining the phrase “Fringe Festival.”
The United States Association of Fringe Festivals reports that fringe festivals in the U.S. meet similar, basic criteria to that of Edinburgh’s.
These multi-arts focused events, which can last from days to weeks, are chances for artists to present uncensored, original work lasting around 60 minutes.
Depending on the festival, creators will have to go through different processes to participate. In some cases, there is a juried selection process for programming. In others, participation is first come first serve.
Performances take place at multiple, usually neighboring venues. U.S. fringe shows often involve simple, even minimal, technical requirements.
Perhaps because there was no mainstream festival running concurrent to the Minnesota Fringe Festival, the event felt like a central, rather than marginal, part of Minneapolis’ cultural landscape.
Popular restaurants and bars ran specials and gave discounts to Fringe attendees. None of the performances took place in mainstream venues like the Guthrie Theater or Goodale Theater, but the venues that were used were well-known and relatively easy to get to. Similarly, few of the Twin Cities’ larger dance companies and performance groups were represented at this year’s Fringe. Still, many of the participating performers were locally-known, established artists.
The festival uses a lottery system to select its programming. Interested artists submit applications, which are drawn at random to compile the participant pool. Those that do not win the lottery are placed on a waiting list, and may still have the opportunity to participate should someone drop out.
Creators pay fees totaling $275 to $475, and in return are granted venue rent for five performances, technical and box office staff, a listing in the printed program, a customizable show page on the Minnesota Fringe website, production training, and at least 65 percent of the box office receipts — this is on par with other fringe festivals in the States.
The Minnesota Fringe process sets a exciting and risky and tone for the event. Participants have the opportunity to participate without pre-judgment, which makes room for a high-level of experimentation and self-expression. But, all of this comes with the potential for a very successful run — or an unfortunate flop.
This year, the festival ran for 11 days with 169 productions on the lineup.
Twin Cities actor and director Neal Beckman is no exception. In 2009, he co-wrote and directed Second Skin — a drama about two women competing for the same job as the world collapses around them — for the Minnesota Fringe Festival.
Beckman says the experience of directing showed him “how the emotions run on the other side of the audition table” and revealed “obstacles in creating live theater that exist outside of the world of the actor.”
“Now, I have very clear sense of where [the actor] fits into the process and how to best fill that role,” Beckman says.
This year, Minnesota native Helen Hatch, a current member of Minnesota Dance Theatre and an independent choreographer, presented her There is no Myth at the Southern Theater in west Minneapolis to rave audience reviews.
Hatch, who was recently described in Minnesota Monthly as an artist that “embod[ies] ballet’s tension between technique and emotion,” thinks that Fringe provides an incredible platform for emerging choreographers like her.
“There is no way I would have been able to self-produce this show without the fringe,” Hatch says. “They provided an incredible venue, a lighting designer who understood my vision, press, and much more.”
According to Hatch, one of the most valuable aspects of her choreographic experience at the festival was the luxury of a five-performance run.
“To have more than one performance of something you put so much time and effort into is special and rewarding,” she says.
United States native and New Zealand-based Dancer Maresa D’Amore Morrison has had the opportunity to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe twice — first with Adira Amram and The Experience in 2011 and with New Zealand’s Black Grace Dance Company in 2014. She describes the experience of being in an environment where the performing arts reign supreme as invigorating.
“You get to meet amazing artists from all over the world and contribute to a beautiful artistic whirlwind,” D’Amore-Morrison says.
Audiences face risk and reward as well.
Sometimes you leave the theater with a smile on your face or a question in your mind. But, other times, you leave concerned, confused, or wishing you could have those 60 minutes back.
Despite mixed reviews, Minnesota Fringe’s executive director, Jeff Larson, sees this year’s festival as a great success. It hit a new record of 50,226 tickets sold across 878 performances of 169 productions compared to 2013’s 50,007 tickets to 895 performances of 176 productions.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Larson says. “It’s always great when we break through that 50,000 ticket mark, but it’s even better to have a new record.”
In 2013 ticket revenue was $365,101, with $245,223 paid out to participating artists — the festival is still in the process of calculating this year’s ticket revenue.
“Of course I’m happy about our numbers this year, but what I really love is the community that springs up around the festival during these 11 days,” Larson says. “I’m really proud of how artists and audiences turn up by the thousands to be a part of it and make it a staple in our community.”
Much of what I saw at the 2014 Minnesota Fringe Festival seemed to be recently completed or still in formative stages. While aspects still needed ironing out, it was exciting to witness a moment in these artists’ creative processes.
And this is all part of the adventure of fringe festivals. Just think of it like a giant performance laboratory or an open rehearsal and you won’t be disappointed.
Taking part is a chance to surprise yourself and others — for better or for worse.