Sunday, April 18, 2004

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2004 - A Love Story

I go to the Fringe to fall in love.

It didn't start out that way.

I guess I have Bruce Abas to blame for exposing me to this.

The Fringe Festival wasn't even on my radar for the first few years of its existence, even though I had already been living in Minneapolis for two years by the time it began.

The reason I even crossed paths with the Fringe of 1998 was because of a play my friend Bruce had written called "Freak" that was being produced in the Loring Playhouse. I went because it was his play and because I wanted to support him, and his little dating psycho-drama - emphasis on the psycho - it wasn't called "Freak" for nothing.

The Fringe had 41 shows that year, its 5th, and the advertising slogan was "Theater as Big as Your Head." None of the other 40 shows got me in the door. I didn't get that "larger festival community" thing, went right over my head.

The next year, Bruce was back with another play, "Happy Meal," as well as an actor friend of mine, Jamison, so I was back to the Fringe yet again, at the Loring, yet again. Number 6, "Plays With Fire," 70 shows in all. This time, I had some other friends, Dash Productions, doing a Whitman compendium called, "Walt Whitman in the Great Supermarket Odyssey," at Red Eye. Walt's poetry and writing in general, plus a hunky supermarket bag boy type, what's not to like? For some reason I also crossed the threshold of the Phoenix Theater's black box space - remember the Phoenix? - for a new play double feature "Sure Thing/Making Love." Can't remember why. While I was thankful there seemed to be a lot of theater handy to my neighborhood, I still hadn't quite succumbed to the Fringe's charms. The other 67 shows went unsampled.

Then came year 7, "Theatre on a Stick," Fringe 2000, and, at the request of a playwright friend, I had auditioned for and somehow landed the part of Jimmy Olson, making out with a guy who wore those fabled Superman tights, all summer long. Nice blocking if you can get it. A strange little play, but the Artist's Fringe Pass gave me no more excuses not to root around and see what other theater I could find. The Fringe had me locked in for a week and a half, might as well see what was up. 100 shows, and as near as I can figure, aside from my own, I saw eight. And this is where the love started. I became intoxicated by the sheer scope and possibility of theater and live performance. I saw my friend Alex, first time out of the box, hit a home run with his first play, "DNA and the Dancing Fool" (which ended up getting an award as well as sell out crowds). I experienced severe playwriting envy and joy upon seeing my friend Todd's time-tripping, role-swapping delight of a script, "Love's Lines, Angles and Rhymes," brought to fabulous life by his partner Robert and what would become their own little ensemble of actor/friends over the next few years. Best show I saw that year, in the Fringe or out. I went back for repeat viewings and wouldn't shut up about it to my friends, insisting they had to see it. Learning after the fact that the whole thing was written in iambic pentameter and still felt like natural modern dialogue, well, floored me. The half-dozen other plays I saw, mostly involving friends in some aspect of the production - including a play written by now Executive Director of the Fringe Leah Cooper, were a mixed bag, some great, some good, some "eh." But I was hooked.

2001, The Fringe That 8 Minnesota, 120 shows, this time I was but a silent observer. Again, 8 shows seen, again mostly friends involved. My love affair that year was again a Todd Hughes script, the sequel to "Love's Lines..." entitled "Midnight Train to Georgia." To see one's reality reflected back at one from the stage, with affection and humor and unrepentant optimism, well, it gives one hope for one's own writing and the world in general. How could I not love something that inspired me so? The Ministry of Cultural Warfare finally drew me in (and has yet to let go). Most of all, I saw the Fringe as a haven for new plays in particular, something that the rest of the year most theaters couldn't afford to take a risk on. Before it was even over, I was already looking forward to the Fringe returning next year.

2002 was the year I realized how far gone I was because I was going through withdrawal pangs. The workshop phase of the production of a new musical I was collaborating on had me headed out of town shortly after the Fringe's opening weekend. I missed the vast majority of that year's 135-plus shows, barely having enough time to catch the five that were being put on by close friends. Since I was already in love with a lot of the writing on display in "Liability," "A Postcard from the Corn Palace," "No Smoking, No Pets, No Loud Sex, " and the latest from the Ministry, "Slaughterhouse Warming," it didn't seem like the rush of first love so much as it was a reaffirmation of all the things I valued in my relationships with those playwrights as a loyal audience member. But the larger "flurry of artistic adventures" was out of my reach that year, maddeningly so. Still, I took comfort in the fact that at least I witnessing plenty of creativity firsthand, just on a much smaller scale, in my workshop halfway across the country. That was a year I was very glad I could count on the Fringe to return.

The Fringe's 10th Birthday, I was lovestruck with a vengeance. Being asked to see and comment upon as much of the Fringe as possible, and also to arrange to share the best of it with my mother - the theater junkie apple didn't fall far from that tree - it was the best of all possible worlds. The 32 of the 162 shows I was able to see did not disappoint. And of course, I fell so deeply in love with "Gilgamesh, Iowa," I returned and saw nearly all their performances.

The Fringe renews my faith in the viability and creativity and community and necessity of theater. All of its best and worst concentrated in one 10 day stretch, much of it not far from my front door. It reminds me why I keep sitting down at my laptop and typing, "Lights up..." It's a shot of adrenalin directly into my creative heart that makes it beat a little faster, and then gives it the fuel and impulse to keep beating and creating the other 11 months of the year.

Staring down the gun barrel of over 175 shows - 2 of which I'm helping produce (at, of all things, the Loring), another of which I wrote (just around the corner on the MCTC Whitney Mainstage), all of which I'm gathering information on for blogging and TV hosting purposes - I couldn't be more delightfully overwhelmed this year.

And there's a show, out there somewhere, waiting for me. With luck, once more, I'll find it.

You'll see a lot of my best guesses as to where and what it might be over the coming weeks, but there's really no telling. Once the curtain goes up, all bets are off. My only nagging regret is that it's not humanly possible to see them all - or even half of them.

I go to the Fringe to fall in love.

Guess we'll see...

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