Fringe 2010: What’s wrong with a lottery system?


During the theater conference I just attended a couple of weeks back, I was singing the praises of the Minnesota theater community, as I tend to do whenever anyone asks, and sometimes when they don’t.  The subject of the Minnesota Fringe Festival came up.  Things were going well, people seemed excited at the prospect of such a big eclectic festival, when I mentioned the lottery system.  And one of the women I was speaking to made a face as if I had just taken a dump in her hand.  “A lottery?  That’s terrible.”

I resisted the urge to punch her in the face.

Or call her an elitist bitch.

Or both.

A few months back, some theater people I quite like were talking about the lottery results and someone said, “Does anyone else think it’s an abomination that (so and so who shall remain nameless) got a slot in the Fringe and we’re stuck down well below 100 on the wait list?”  When I started piping up in defense of the lottery system, someone else thought there really should be some kind of way to ensure that certain companies had a better shot of getting in.

An abomination?  Quality control? 

It’s theater.  Not cancer research.

What is it about the phrase “unjuried” that’s so repugnant to some people?

Do some artists really think they’re so important or so popular that the Fringe just simply wouldn’t be the same without them?

Honestly, I love you all, but get over yourselves.

I mean, a healthy dose of self-esteem is lovely, and important to functioning in the world, I’ll grant you.

But the Fringe is the one time of year when you don’t have to wait to be invited, because everyone’s invited. 

(Yes, your ping pong ball has to be drawn, but don’t you think it improves the odds of a better festival – completely at random – if we’ve got so many applicants we could have another Fringe and a half from the number of artists on the wait list?  19 acts so far have gotten in off the wait list anyway.)

You don’t even need to know what you’re doing.  You just need to commit to doing *something*

You don’t need an extensive resume.  You don’t need to have done anything at all before in the theater.

Does this mean some turkeys get through?

Sure.  But established artists can stink just as badly, if not worse, than newbies.  Personally, I’d rather accidentally see “well-intentioned but inept” over “hopelessly pretentious” any day of the week, any week of the year. 

Good art can be created by procrastinators who run in to the Fringe office at the last minute to hand deliver their application on the day of the cutoff just as easily as bad art can come from people who make sure their application lands in the Fringe mailbox the first day applications are accepted. 

I saw 54 different shows in last year’s Fringe.  Only one of them was painful (and that was from artists I normally love, and even it had its redeeming moments, just far too few of them).  Most of the things I saw were great.  Some were just good.  A few were wonderful.  Two I liked so much I went back and saw them again.

This is coming from the blog of someone who has seen a LOT of Fringe over the past 8 years, and studied it in detail – The Fringe is getting better, not worse.  It’s getting more popular, not less.  And the artists are getting better, because they’re getting practice, because the Fringe gives them the support structure to learn as they go, get new work in front of audiences, and understand what works and what doesn’t – from marketing to performance.  The Fringe seeds the ground for new writers, new performers, new directors and designers, new theater companies.  It raises audience expectations and expands their horizons.  It waters the ground for the rest of the year.

And it does this because everyone is welcome, whether you’ve heard of them, or consider them worthy, or not.

I don’t want someone else deciding what I get to see for 11 days out of the year.  The other 354 I’m at the mercy of programmers from the Guthrie and Park Square on one end, to Red Eye and the Bryant Lake Bowl on the other.  They all have good intentions.  They’re all devoted to theater.  Some may share my aesthetic.  Some may not.  But I don’t get to decide.  They do.

And I don’t want my aesthetic to shrivel up and atrophy from lack of exercise.

11 days out of the year, I get a chance to pick from a ridiculous number of wildly different offerings.  A lot of them end up being fantastic.  And nobody had to program anything.

A group of artists whose work I really enjoy resisted submitting themselves for the lottery for several years, as if it was some kind of indignity.  Some of them had come from elsewhere, where the festivals were juried, and their work had been chosen a few times.  They felt since their work was judged to be of high quality, they shouldn’t have to put themselves at the mercy of a random lottery.  Well, they finally did enter the lottery last year, got in (first try), had a very successful show and even got picked up for a remount elsewhere.  See, that wasn’t so bad was it?  You got in via a random lottery, and someone later still picked you out of a lineup – non-juried and juried all in the same year.  It happens.

No one’s entitled to a Fringe slot, because everyone’s entitled to a Fringe slot.  That’s the beauty of it. 

Theater should be open, not closed.  And the Fringe is one of the few times of the year when that actually happens.  Embrace chaos, people.

I get my own work judged and rejected enough the rest of the year, thank you very much.

In the Fringe lottery, I stand just as good a chance of getting in as anybody else.  Because no one’s judging.  They’re just turning a chicken wire cage, grabbing ping pong balls, and calling out numbers. 

(For the record, the company I’m working with didn’t get in.  Fine by me.  Makes the logistics of the Fringe with Mom less tricky.  I get to relax and just watch other people make theater, and I get to see more shows.  Nothing’s keeping me from writing anyway.  Nothing’s keeping me from collaborating with people who are going to produce my work.  For a couple of weeks this summer, I get a break.  And after some grumbling, everyone else in the company admitted to being pretty happy they had the summer off, too.  If their number suddenly came up off the wait list at this point, I don’t think they’d do it.  Which just means there’s room for someone else below us on the list who *is* wishing the call would come.)

Those who got themselves a slot, I’m looking forward to seeing what you have to offer. 

[Sneak peeks are coming up with the two part Fringe-For-All, Monday July 12 and 19, and the Out of Towner showcase on Wednesday August 4, the night before the festival begins!  And of course, before all that, the Fringe site goes live with all the show descriptions and schedule info in just a couple of weeks!]

Those, like me, who didn’t get in?  There’s always next year, or, you know, there’s nothing stopping you from self-producing the other 11 months of the year between Augusts.  (Harder than during Fringe season, sure, but not impossible.  People do it all the time.)

Relax.  Unclench your sphincters.  You’ll live longer.

Long may the ping pong balls spin!