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

"Bartleby" presented by The Windmill Company at Mixed Blood Theatre

“Bartleby” presented by The Windmill Company at Mixed Blood Theatre as part of the Fringe Festival // Photo courtesy of the Fringe Festival

While it may lack in the spectacle of big-budget shows, the Fringe holds its own in other ways. Filled with brand new plays by living playwrights and out-of-the-box performances, the Fringe is a hotbed for fresh voices. In some ways, the Fringe reflects a certain appetite for new work in the state, supported by numerous organizations. With programs like the Red Eye’s Works in Progress initiative, the Naked Stages program at Pillsbury House, the Illusion’s Lights Up series, and the History Theatre’s Raw Stages program, not to mention the Playwrights’ Center programs that nurture and develop playwrights, the Twin Cities are rife with opportunities for artists looking to develop performances that reach beyond the standard fare.

“I think that having a strong festival like this here convinces bigger theater that new work sells,” says Larson. “I don’t know how a lot of small companies would have launched themselves into mid-size or bigger theaters without having something like the Fringe.”

While the Fringe reflects some elements of the broader Twin Cities community as a whole, it’s also bigger than the regular theater scene. “I feel like it’s its own monster,” says Randy Reyes, who, before becoming artistic director of Mu Performing Arts, acted and directed in numerous Fringe shows. “The Twin Cities’ theater scene has an ecosystem that is about development and theaters and artists who are growing. It’s about professionalism, but the Fringe opens it up to a different level of people who have never produced.”

"School of Rhythm" presented by Elephant Games Productions at Rarig Center Proscenium

“School of Rhythm” presented by Elephant Games Productions at Rarig Center Proscenium

First-time writers, individual artists, even people who have never done a play in their lives but feel they have something to say, all show up for the Fringe. “It might be even more inclusive,” says Reyes. “It’s all ages, all races, all levels of experience in terms of theater and questioning what theater even is.”

Indeed, in 2015, 24 percent of artists at the Fringe had never produced a show before, and 46 percent had never before produced at the Fringe. That inclusivity doesn’t always translate into audience diversity, however. In 2015, the Fringe audience was 97 percent white, according to their annual report.

In the past, the Fringe had a special lottery for companies that included artists of color, but Larson says it proved counterproductive. “There’s strange political parsing and strange curating that you get into with that,” he says. “We got into situations where, what if you have a director of color with an all-white cast? It’s hard to come up with a way to explain this that makes sense. So we went to ‘free for all’ that’s just one lottery.”

"Too Punk to Care" presented by Theatre Novi Most at Intermedia Arts. Photo: Alex Wohlhueter.

“Too Punk to Care” presented by Theatre Novi Most at Intermedia Arts as part of the Fringe Festival // Photo by Alex Wohlhueter.

Larson says he’d like to see more foreign language and recent immigrant shows in the festival, so they’ve been working on recruiting in those communities, both locally and nationally, with some success. “Over the last couple of years we’ve had a lot of Bollywood and South Asian work in the festival,” Larson says. “I think that’s a direct result of what we’ve been doing to get more different kinds of people here.”

At the same time, the Fringe brings in new audiences who might later see plays throughout the year. According to Larson, the Fringe draws two different kinds of people. The first is theater lovers who are interested in discovering something new. “Our crowd looks a lot like the Beer Dabbler crowd,” he says. “Or smaller music festivals. ‘Show me something I haven’t heard before.’”

The second crowd stems from the un-curated nature of the festival, where a good number of producers have never put on a show before, and consists mostly of the friends and families of artists. “Maybe they would have never stepped foot in a theater otherwise, but they are following these people now,” Larson says. And sometimes, their interest carries beyond just the shows featuring their loved ones. “I hear a lot of stories from people about how they walk into the Fringe and they get hooked on this, and they end up seeing shows year round. We are building up the local theater audience. We’re the gateway drug.”

Larson hopes the gateway effect will increase this year due to the new ticket system. In the past, the Fringe offered single tickets, multi-show passes, and an “ultra pass” for unlimited viewing. In addition to tickets, everyone had to buy a button, and show it in order to get into a performance. This summer, the festival is doing away with the buttons and shifting to day passes. “We really wanted to simplify everything, both for our sake and for the audience’s sake,” Larson says. The day passes, he hopes, will encourage audiences to be more adventurous, as opposed to the a la carte system of the past. “This is how rock festivals work, and I think we’re much closer to that then to a traditional performing arts event.”

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