New and veteran theater producers look to strike it big at annual Fringe Festival

"Oregon Trail: A Musical" presented by Literally Entertainment at Mixed Blood Theatre. Photo: Alex Wohlhueter.

“Oregon Trail: A Musical” presented by Literally Entertainment at Mixed Blood Theatre as part of the Fringe Festival // Photo by Alex Wohlhueter

Natalie Rae Wass enjoys the special energy surrounding the Minnesota Fringe Festival. “It’s almost a small-town culture,” she says. “It’s like a commune of people that have found a thing that they enjoy and enjoy talking about it.”

Wass, who performs in professional productions throughout the year, has been a fixture at the Fringe since 2000. She’s only missed two years, and has more than once done multiple shows. “I love living in the Midwest because I would never want to be famous for real,” Wass says. “I’m not by any means a big deal in the world, but I’m somewhat Fringe famous, and it’s fun to feel like that for a week-and-a-half per year.”

For over 20 years, the Minnesota Fringe Festival has offered an un-curated theater and performance festival where seasoned professionals and complete newbies put on shows side by side. Participants are chosen through a lottery system, pay a fee (which is usually quite a bit cheaper than renting a local venue on their own), and receive publicity, box office, and technical support from festival organizers. Last year, the Fringe sold 50,338 tickets for 887 performances, resulting in $411,714 in revenue and $285,770 in payout for artists, according to their website.

"Best Bollywood Inn" presented by RGK Modern India Dance Acdemy at Rarig Center Proscenium

“Best Bollywood Inn” presented by RGK Modern India Dance Acdemy at Rarig Center Proscenium as part of the Fringe Festival // Photo by Mathieu Lindquist

This year, Wass will perform in “Apple Picking,” by Ben San Del, which features a number of other Fringe celebrities. Mo Perry, Christopher Kehoe, Jason Ballweber, Joshua English Scrimshaw, and Rachel Petrie have all found success at the Fringe in past years, and it says something about the vitality of the festival that such a talented group of folks—some of whom have performed at the Guthrie and other professional stages in Minnesota and elsewhere—come back to their Fringe roots.

Jon Ferguson is another example—having directed “Please Don’t Blow up Mr. Boban” as his first show in Minnesota, Ferguson has since grown into a highly respected artist in the community. Other companies, like Four Humors, Live Action Set, and Walking Shadow Theatre Company, cut their teeth at the Fringe, or have used the Fringe as a place to debut shows that later became full-scale productions in larger venues.

Isabel Nelson, artistic director of Transatlantic Love Affair, says the company performed for the first time at the Fringe, in 2010. The play, “Ballad of a Pale Fisherman,” turned out to be sleeper hit, with rave reviews in the press and with audiences, ultimately winning the Encore slot, where each venue’s top seller gets an added show on the last day of the festival. With that success, the company approached Illusion Theatre about presenting the show as part of their Lights Up series, featuring emerging artists.

L'Heure de Minuit

“L’Heure de Minuit” // Photo by Jeff D. Larson

“They were on board and they actually extended it from what would normally be a one-week rental to a three-week because we already had something developed,” Nelson says. “We remounted ‘Ballad’ as a full show in winter of 2012, and so that was our introduction to the non-Fringe theater community and that production was recognized with an Ivey that year.” Since then, Transatlantic has used the Fringe as a kind of incubator for other shows, which they’ve later realized at the Illusion.

For Bruce Abas, who this year is producing a play based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald story, success stories like that of Transatlantic Love Affair are the dream of many Fringe producers. Abas is a professional actor who formerly ran a theater company called Ebullient Theater, but didn’t like all the administrative work that came with it. “I missed the artistry of it after a while,” he says.

But as an actor who wants to move into directing, the Fringe offers an affordable way for Abas to build credits for his resume. “I think of it as a springboard for more permanent work,” he says.

There are limitations, of course, because the Fringe is so streamlined. You have to be able to set up and strike your set quickly, you can’t have a huge set or a million costumes, and while you get technical assistance, your lighting and sound requirements generally need to be minimal.

Jeff Larson, the Minnesota Fringe Festival’s executive director, sees the limitations of a festival setting as a positive. “Whenever you’ve got some boundaries to push against, that friction is really great for creativity,” he says. He likens it to Instagram. “It’s such a compromised platform and so small, but those limits force you to think in a certain way,” he says.

Next page: Fringe is “its own monster”

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