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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Minnesota Fringe Festival nourishes Twin Cities year-round theater

Part incubator, part showcase, but mostly sheer creative explosion, the 10-day 2004 Minnesota Fringe Festival promises to draw some 45,000 people to Minneapolis for a feast of theatrical ingenuity in 175 different shows, from August 6 to 15. Some dishes at this brief banquet won't taste so good, many will be appetizing and a few might be so lip-smackingly scrumptious that they cross over to the menus of mainstage theater. The once-in-a-lifetime Cinderella of fringe shows has to be Urinetown. It came out of the New York Fringe and became a Tony Award-winning Broadway hit. Regardless of success, fringe festivals invite nascent producers, actors, playwrights, directors and choreographers to try out their creativity in an environment that is low risk for them and for audiences, and their very originality informs the work of permanent theater.

"Theater festivals bring an outside perspectives to a table where artists can see and discuss the work of other artists," said Theatre de la Jeune Lune co-founder and director Dominique Serrand, who is an avid advocate of the cross-pollination of ideas that occur at theater festivals. "They create encounters for artists and an open dialogue. It's the only place this happens. And festivals are a formidable way to develop new audiences. Audiences see a culmination of work in one place at one time, and they become walking spokespersons for the shows they've seen."

He sees festivals as incubators for new companies. "Theatre de la Jeune Lune" said Serrand, "was born out of festivals."

Leah Cooper, Executive Director of the Minnesota Fringe, also sees the Fringe as a low-risk incubator of new talent, new work and new audiences that can hatch into more permanent theater. "It's low-risk for artists because all they need is a $200 application fee. We provide a venue, teach them how to market their show and give them deadlines to meet. We give the technical support and help them with one, three-hour tech-in. The process forces companies to keep production values simple and to concentrate on performance. It's all a bit Darwinian, but if performers don't do it properly, no one will see their show." A door-split of the ticket sales gives each show an incentive to produce a polished performance that encourages audiences to plunk down their $12.

The Fringe process essentially teaches artists how to form and run a company. "After their third Fringe," said Cooper, "they are ready to become a company."

"Fringe audiences expect experimentation," she continued, "and, with shows just 50 minutes long and $12 a ticket, it's low risk for them. Kids are $5. Price is a big draw. If people buy a commemorative Fringe button for $3, the rest of their tickets cost $10. An Ultrapass gives you unlimited access to all shows, and a Punch card gets you into five shows for $45. It's an incentive to see multiple shows."

When successful Fringe shows like Look Ma, No Pants and Soulless, Bloodsucking Lawyers cross over to become part of Bryant Lake Bowl's monthly season, Cooper said that their Fringe audiences follow them. The Bowl is not unlike a permanent Fringe. Its seats sell for $8 to $15, and the venue provides the tech support and agrees to a door split on ticket sales with the performers.

Airline attendant and performer Rene Foss and her one-woman show, Around the World in a Bad Mood, went from the Minnesota Fringe on to the Edinburgh Fringe in Scotland. Minneapolis promoter Larry Berle of SRO Productions liked Bad Mood so well that he arranged what became a nine-week, sell-out run at the Minneapolis Theater Garage and an upcoming tour in Los Angeles. Berle loves the buzz of the Fringe. This year, he is producing the The Best of the Fringe, a four-week run at the Loring Playhouse of the two top ticket selling shows in the Fringe. "It's risky - a sort of American Idol of the Fringe," he said, laughing. "I have a passion for theater and a knack for promotion. By combining the two, I can help upcoming artists and feed commercial theater."

Kevin Kling
Actor and playwright Kevin Kling straddles the wing-it Fringe and established theaters, like the Guthrie. "The Fringe invites material with more risk," he said. "In hard economic times, permanent theaters cut back to producing safer work that generates income. But you never achieve great things, unless your risk is great."

Kling performed his Baseball, Dogs and Motorcycles last year, a hilarious, one-man piece about being disabled after his motorcycle accident during a previous Fringe. "I thought, 'No one is going to be interested in this,' but it went like gangbusters." The piece was a risk, but his financial investment was low. "I thought, 'If I fail, I'll lose my shirt, but it's not my good shirt." Motorcycles took him to Edinburgh and earned him a British Arts Council tour of his new work in Britain. Kling's Fringe offering this year is Whoppers.

Michael Bigelow Dixon, literary manager of the Guthrie Theater, described the Fringe as a lively ecology of new work that spills over into more permanent organizations. "And it broadens audiences," he said. "New work is an acquired taste." He sees the Fringe as an opportunity for established artists, like playwrights Bill Corbett and Jeffrey Hatcher, to stretch their wings.

He saw the two playwrights perform their own 25-minute playlets The Murderer (Hatcher) and The Martian (Corbett) in 2001. The Guthrie has commissions both to write new plays, and Bill Corbett's The Stuff of Dreams became a successful touring Guthrie show. "It wasn't a direct cause and effect connection," he said, "but [seeing the work] helped to make that happen. The Guthrie would suffer a lot, if this creativity were not bubbling away."

In a direct cause and effect, Hatcher's Murderers grew out of that 2001 Fringe and will be a three-story, fully produced play in Illusion Theater's upcoming season.

Illusion Theater's co-producing director, Bonnie Morris, believes new work is vital to the well-being of theater. Illusion has extended its summer Fresh Ink series to combine with the Fringe in what is called The Fresh Fringe. "We help cast seeds in the ground and see what comes up," she said. What has come up and blossomed into successful Illusion Theater mainstage productions are plays, like the Miss Ritchfield shows, Jeffrey Hatcher's Good and Plenty and Mercy of a Storm, and Amy Bryant and Amy Anderson's How Come There Ain't No White People in This Show?

"The Fringe is a big theater campus," said director Sarah Gioia, "that's given me a chance to direct hit shows and to network with a lot of people." Those connections have translated into positions for Gioia as casting director at the Playwrights Center and as new works associate at The Great American History Theater, and to many directing gigs.

All seemed to agree that the Minnesota Fringe Festival is the grassroots base that feeds the Twin Cities' theater system. So aware of this is Serrand that Theater de la Jeune Lune plans to create an intimate space within its great warehouse theater to become a venue for the Fringe next year. "We must open up to the Fringe," he said. "It's vital to our own existence as a theater. Quick extinction of the race comes when theater lives by itself."

The Minnesota 2004 Fringe Festival August 6 - 15, 2004. See web site or printed schedule for times and venues. $5 (kids) -$12, with $2.00 reduction on each ticket, if $3.00 Fringe button purchased. Ultrapass for entry to all shows $125. Punch Card for 5 shows, $45. At 19 different venues throughout downtown Minneapolis, Loring Park, Powderhorn, Uptown/Lyn-Lakes. Advance tickets: 612-604-4466. For more information, visit

Be sure to check the current schedule for theatre in the Twin Cities area

Elizabeth Weir

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