Since I only moved back to the Twin Cities in 2007, and my family typically goes away on vacation in early August, this was my first year of serious Fringing. As I made my way from show to show, I thought about a piece written by my friend Carl Atiya Swanson of CakeIn15, in which he questions whether the Minnesota Fringe Festival is really all that and a bag of chips (my words, not his). Is the Fringe overrated? Overhyped? Over-stressed-out-about?
It’s hard to argue with the latter, but by the Fringe’s conclusion on Sunday, I’d fallen in love with the festival—or at least, I’d become infatuated. Here’s why:
The Fringe is a big deal. I agree with Carl that for something to be a big deal does not necessarily make it all that great. (I will say Miss Saigon, and say no more.) Still, after a few years of seeing excellent, poorly-attended productions in Minneapolis and St. Paul, it was incredibly refreshing to see long lines for quirky little pieces of theater. When I saw Lacey Piotter, John T. Zeiler, and Carl Atiya Swanson in the superb Awakening staged this spring by 3AM and Savage Umbrella, there were almost more people in the cast than in the audience. At the Fringe, Piotter and Zeiler’s also-superb An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein sold out—every performance. Joseph Scrimshaw’s shows sell pretty well at the BLB or the Theatre Garage, but they don’t sell the thousands of tickets Scrimshaw sells at the Fringe. The Fringe is clearly an important venue (if you want to be like Batmama, pronounce that word ven-OOO) for the exposure and promotion of local theater artists, and for Minnesotans to see top-notch out-of-town acts like casebolt and smith.
Quantity discounts at the Fringe encourage people to see several shows, and while Carl notes that people tend to gravitate towards the lowest common denominator, it seems to me that’s true of everything, year-round. The Fringe sells plenty of tickets to audience-friendly shows that aren’t pushing any boundaries, but it also encourages people to take some chances. That brings me to my next point…
The Fringe encourages critical thinking about theater. I don’t mean thinking bad things about theater, I mean thinking about what it is that you look for in theater. Because the Fringe is non-juried, there’s no pretense of a guarantee that any given show is actually any good. This means that audience members turn to show descriptions, to performers’ histories, to one another, and to critics to learn about the shows. In the non-Fringe world, an evening at the theater becomes, for many people, “an evening at the theater.” You went out, right? You saw theater, right? Then it must have been good.
I was asked recently why movie criticism is more in evidence, at more publications, than theater criticism. One answer for that is simply that more people see movies than see plays, and another is that movie criticism can be nationally syndicated, but it’s also true that people are more likely to decide to “see a movie” and then figure out which movie to see than they are to decide to “see a play” and then figure out which play to see. At the Fringe, you had 19 different shows taking place, for the same cost and at the same length, in each time slot. Which show were you going to see? You had to really think about it, and that’s why so many conversations around the Fringe start with, “What have you seen? What have you liked?” What is it that makes one show good, and another bad? What is it about theater that matters? Fringe performers can fill a stage with anything…what do you want them to fill it with? Why? The Fringe begs those questions, and begs people to take shows seriously for their content, not just for the fact of their existence.
The Fringe brings people together. Whether you’re partying at Bedlam or just hanging out in line, you almost can’t avoid meeting new people and, if you’re a regular on the theater scene, seeing old friends at the Fringe. At most shows, you see actors only on the stage and maybe at an awkward meet-and-greet in the lobby; at the Fringe, you’re likely to end up in the audience of one show sitting near the cast of the previous show. The Fringe sparks conversations, collaborations, and, doubtless, even love affairs. There’s a year-round creative stew in Minnesota; the Fringe puts that in a blender and turns it on high. Sometimes you get a delicious milkshake, and sometimes you just get nasty stew-in-a-blender, but you always get things that you wouldn’t have without the Fringe. We’re lucky to have it.