Saturday, May 23, 2020

Strange Wor(l)ds: A Maximum Verbosity Restrospective and Minnesota Fringe Festival fundraising event

This is not so much a review as a reunion, a celebration, and a plea.

And you can join in the fun yet this evening, Saturday 5/23.  Read on.

If you’re wondering if we really need a Minnesota Fringe Festival, let Maximum Verbosity’s phillip andrew bennett low convince you.

Tonight is part 2 of his Fringe retrospective/fundraiser for the Minnesota Fringe, Strange Wor(l)ds, and damn, it reminded me quite vividly how much I miss theater and the Fringe brand of theater specifically.

You can watch it streaming live at: (9pm EST, 8pm CST, etc), tonight, Saturday, 5/23.

You can donate to the Fringe at - he’s asking $15, since that’s the price of a Fringe ticket - but no one will be turned away for lack of funds.  If you can give, please do, and if you can give more, definitely please do.

“I tend to chafe at genre restrictions.”

And the thing is, phillip personally doesn’t even need the Fringe anymore as an artist.  But that’s because, and he freely admits this throughout the evening, the Fringe taught him everything he needed to know - about telling a story, about collaboration, about how to advertise yourself, about a million different little details that make a theater producer successful in gaining and building an audience, about mixing genres, about making friends you might not otherwise meet because the Fringe gathers such a large cross-section of artists from all over the Twin Cities, the state, and the country, sometimes even the world.  So, as he says, “Not for my sake, but for every other artist in this community” - we need to keep the Minnesota Fringe going.

“I’m pretty sure I performed this in a brothel.”

Phillip understands that the next generation of artists needs a Fringe, too.  (And a Strike Theater, and a HUGE Theater, and a Crane Theater, and a Bryant Lake Bowl, and a Southern Theater - support all these places - the venues for smaller companies and artists year round as well as at Fringe time need to be here on the other side of the pandemic.)  Phillip made the point that, yes, theater will survive, in some form or other, because it always has.  But if the only thing that survives are the big companies, then the theater we have will be poorer.  It will be harder for developing artists to create new work and find an audience.  (Phillip is right when he says there aren’t a lot of places that teach you how to “usher a production from concept to curtain” like the Fringe does)  It will be harder for audiences to see themselves on stage.  We will be missing something if we don’t have the Minnesota Fringe Festival.

“Somehow his arrogance is so intense it bends reality to his will.”

And if you want proof of that, just watch Maximum Verbosity’s Fringe journey through time.  Last night (Friday 5/22), phillip took his online audience on a tour of his Fringe offerings starting back in 2004, and bringing us up through 2011 to conclude part 1.  He put each show and its year in context, both for his career and the Fringe in general.  And it was fascinating, and amusing, and brought back a lot of very fond memories.  All the things he learned, the mistakes he made, the people he met.  The man knows how to spin a tale, and also stay on message.  Once he’d teed up a show, he’d perform an excerpt.  He even sang a song (which, of course was based in the Norse mythology of Loki and Thor, but, it’s phillip, not Rodgers and Hammerstein, what were you expecting?)

“My partner he is thicker
than a copy of Jane Eyre.”

And it reminded me of all the shows I saw, all the shows of my own that had gone up on a Fringe stage, all the people I’d met, all the time with my Mom bingeing as many shows as she could cram into a week’s visit.  In her honor, I pitched in enough to get a ticket for each of us.  Messaging with Phillip after the show, he said, “I remember your mother fondly and flatter myself by thinking she'd get a kick out of this.”  Oh she would have, I assured him.  Particularly seeing bits from shows that for scheduling reasons, she didn’t get to see the first time around.  Phillip was always a priority with her, but the timing didn’t always work out.  I’d like to think she’s still watching, wherever she is now.

“In a room full of Chinese, I’m not half-Chinese anymore, I’m half-white.”

As each year and each show passed, he returned to his theme, none of this happens, if there isn’t a Fringe.  And if any of these names which arose in his narrative mean something to you, you should definitely be giving to the Fringe if you’re able because the Fringe brought them into my life as well, and I’m grateful: Matthew Foster, Walking Shadow Theater, Les Kurkendaal, Scott Pakudaitis, Alison Broeren, Allegra Lingo, the Rockstar Storytellers, Wobbles, Mike Fotis, Ben Sandell, John Munger, Sara Stevenson Scrimshaw, Danielle Robinson Prater, Tim Mooney, Zoe Benston, and more.

Part 1 (Growin’) of the Maximum Verbosity retrospective known as Strange Wor(l)ds included:
2004 - Lokasenna
2005 - Camelot Is Crumbling (Mordred and the Death of Merlin version)
2006 - no show of his own but the beginning of his blogging career and other Fringe insights
2007 - Descendant of Dragons
2008 - All Rights Reserved: A Libertarian Rage
2009 - The Rise of General Arthur
2010 - My Mother Told Me
2011 - Camelot is Crumbling (Mordred and Lancelot version)

Part 2 (Showin’ - because there’s always a dick joke) this evening will take us from 2012 to 2020.

And yes, theater on video isn’t really theater, but in the right hands, it’s still performance.  And that’s what we have here.  I knew I’d enjoy it on the basic level of “hey, I get to hang out with some friends, kinda - and see another human face for a while.”  But phillip isn’t doing this halfway, when he’s performing the excerpts, he’s all in.  It’s compelling viewing, just like it all was on stage when first performed at the Fringe.  And he’s not just rambling his way through a random set of recollections in between performance segments (and if he is, he’s a very cogent rambler). The visual elements are well plotted out, and each year brings to mind the next stage of his development as an artist, and a person, and how the supportive environment of the Fringe helped make that possible.

“No one is gonna catch that beast but me.  Me, or my children.”

Honestly, if every artist helped by the Fringe instigated some sort of fundraising event (and I know a number of them already have), we’d be a lot further along in shoring up the financial base of the Minnesota Fringe Festival.  I know there’s a FringeMiss event coming on Friday, July 31 (which would have been opening weekend of the Fringe) and I’m sure that’s going to help a lot, but I don’t think we can afford to wait that long.  If we could find a way to keep up a string of other events, however small between now and then, I think we should.  No one fundraising event can probably save the day on its own, but a multitude of them working together, that might do it and then some.  If I could get through the recording of a video without crying and being unable to continue, I’d turn in something for the FringeMiss/Adventurous Artists Friday video series they’re presenting (there’s two up already).

“Do you honestly believe that one of these monsters is gonna save you from the other one?”

Maximum Verbosity shows the power of this particular concept - it's a love letter to the idea of the Fringe.  In addition to the encore performances or screening of documentary production videos that have already taken place, if there are other artists able to gather together a sampler of all the things the Fringe helped them bring into being - and make the case not just in the subtext of presentation, but make it explicit in the text - “here is a sample of many things that would not exist, here is a why my life would be fundamentally different, if the Minnesota Fringe did not exist.”  If all of us who have those stories told those stories, that’s exactly the kind of material fundraisers dream of (I can say this because one of my day jobs is in fundraising). And not only do we have all this great material, many of the people who have these stories are themselves performers, so they know how to tell good stories.  That’s what we get here with Maximum Verbosity, and I hope a lot of other artists follow suit.

“Anything they don’t tell me is gonna be lost, forever.”

And I certainly don’t mean for anyone to bankrupt themselves by giving money they can’t afford, or if they don’t have the resources to stage something.  (I just got laid off from my second day job, and we’re not sure when exactly it’s coming back.  We’re hopeful, but no one can say, so, I get it.  Things are tough, and some people can’t give.). But you don’t have to do it alone.  We all know somebody, probably several somebodies, in this Fringe community who could continue to band together, both in this FringeMiss event but also in advance of it.  There’s two months between now and the end of July.  And assuming that most of us are still alive, of course, what would we normally be doing during those two months?  We’d be preparing for Fringe.  So let’s conjure up the ghosts of Fringes past, let’s keep entertaining and inspiring each other.  And let’s keep giving however we’re able.

“I know that this is sin but it is the only time I feel pure.”

(A quick caveat: I’m not willfully forgetting things that other people have already done.  Very likely the reason we’re already over halfway to the goal of $100,000 by June 30 is that everyone has been pitching in so zealously so far.  To be perfectly honest, I’ve been operating on about half a brain and half a heart since my Mom died from a brain tumor last July.  So I am VERY out of the loop.  Thank you to everyone whose efforts I have missed these last several weeks, or only noticed in passing.  I’m grateful for your efforts.  I’m just saying we need to keep doing it.  Because losing Mom, AND the Minnesota Fringe Festival, AND over 100,000 people (so far) that didn’t need to die if we had competent people in government who gave a sh*t about someone other than themselves, well, that might be too heavy a lift to ask my grief therapist to help me handle.  So that’s why I’m asking.  Let’s at least save what we can.)

“I am baptized again in her tears.”

Just like I don’t want the election to go the wrong way and wish I’d done something more, I also don’t want us to lose the Minnesota Fringe Festival - look up one day and find it gone - and miss it, and really wish we’d done more to save it while we had the chance.  They may well be over halfway to their goal, but that still means there’s about half left to do.  And we shouldn’t settle for that.  We should meet the goal and blow past it.  We need this foundation for creating the next generation of theater artists, and performance.  We need a place that’s worth gathering again, when we can gather again.  We need the Minnesota Fringe Festival.  But we’re going to have to fight for it.

“There’s no better place to try and reinvent yourself than the Fringe.”

One of the many nice things about the first part of Maximum Verbosity’s two-part retrospective was actually feeling like I was at the Minnesota Fringe again, just for an hour and a half or so.  And it made me feel hopeful - which I haven’t felt a lot lately.  Both were very welcome feelings.

So treat yourself, and help the Fringe, however you can.

Thanks, everybody.

Maybe I’ll see you online tonight.

Stay safe and be well, everyone.

Friday, May 08, 2020

Give to the Minnesota Fringe Festival

When we come out on the other side of all this, the Minnesota Fringe Festival still needs to exist.  It can’t be one of the many things we lose, just one more thing that slips beneath the waves of this storm.  It needs to be waiting for us to embrace it again in the summer of 2021.

The Minnesota Fringe Festival is one of the primary forces that drives theater in the Twin Cities to be better.  It’s where new artists find their footing.  It’s where established artists try something different.  It’s where new theater companies are born, and other theater companies grow and establish their mission.  It’s where audiences can see themselves onstage, no matter who they are.  It makes for better writers, better musicians, better actors, better dancers, better storytellers, better puppeteers, better clowns, and better spectators.  It provides an incubator for new forms of live performance.  It breaks down conventions in the art form, and breaks down walls between people.

The Minnesota Fringe Festival has made me a better playwright.  It also taught me how to be a producer.  It also turned me into a theater critic. 

In the very early years of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, I’d see a show here and there, depending on how good my artist friends were at promoting their work. It soon dawned on me that there were a ton of other performances going on all over the city at the same time, a whole buffet of strange and wonderful things from which to choose.  I quickly became addicted to that week and a half of theater in August, and started plotting the best way to cram in as many shows as possible each year. 

Then one day back in 2003, a couple of the Fringe staff asked me, “Hey, do you want to write a blog for us about the Fringe?  We’ll give you a festival pass so you can see anything you want, you just have to write about it after.”  “Sure, sounds great! What’s a blog?” 

A few years later when the Fringe shifted the blogs off their website, they got the Twin Cities Daily Planet to pick them up, and then the Planet asked, “Hey, do you want to maybe review theater the rest of the year, too?”  That crazy ride lasted another seven years, and now I’m still plugging along as a freelancer on the Fringe blog that started it all.

The same year I started blogging, my mother happened to visit from her home in Pennsylvania at just the right time that summer to overlap with a few days of the Fringe, and she was hooked.  For the next 15 years, Mom scheduled her summer around her visit to the Minnesota Fringe Festival.  She was just as enthusiastic a consumer of theater as I was.  Over the years Mom made a great many friends, both among the artists and fellow audience members.  And she’d pace herself so she could cram 30 shows into the seven days of her visit (which is easier at 65 than it is when you reach 80, but she was determined). 

Mom accumulated an impressive collection of Fringe buttons that she wore on a lanyard around her neck. She’d use it as a conversation starter. Everyone wanted to know what she’d seen that she liked (or she hated), and she wanted to know the same from them.  Audiences don’t really do this any other time of year, mingle with strangers, share their opinions, make new friends.  The festival atmosphere isn’t just for the artists, it’s for the spectators, too. 

It’s these conversations between shows that I’ve grown to enjoy the most.  When the show was great, it was fun to talk excitedly about it with Mom, and spread the word to everyone whose path we’d cross.  And when the show was awful (rarer, but every now and then it happens), we often had just as lively a conversation about what went wrong and how it might be salvaged.

If it weren’t for the Minnesota Fringe Festival, the late John Munger would never have introduced me to the joy of watching dance.  And then in struggling to put my reaction to dance into words for a blog, I would never have had the powerful connection with a young dancer/choreographer who tracked me down to say, “What you wrote made me so happy because you got exactly what I was going for! How did you put yourself in my head at the time of creation like that?”  Artists and audience members alike can feel seen at the Minnesota Fringe Festival.

If it weren’t for the Minnesota Fringe Festival, as a queer person I wouldn’t get to see myself on stage in such variety or such joy.  There are queer theater companies plugging away in the trenches year round, but if you’re lucky, you get a show maybe once a month.  At Fringe time every year, there’s so much opportunity, so many different stories going on all at once, it’s a challenge to see them all.  That’s what theater is like for straight people 12 months a year.  I get that feeling only once a year, at Fringe time. 

If it weren’t for the Minnesota Fringe Festival, I wouldn’t have had access to visiting artists and their work - the new plays of the Shelby Company, the stories of Les Kurkendaal Barrett, the absurdity of Cody Rivers, the music of the Irish poets from Scream Blue Murmur, the stand-up comedy of Gerard Harris or Tristan Miller, the self-aware comedy and dance of Casebolt & Smith - I could (and do) go on. 

If it weren’t for the Minnesota Fringe Festival, I wouldn’t have been introduced to a lot of my favorite local artists and theater companies who have grown to produce work the rest of the year (Sheep Theater, Walking Shadow, the multi-hyphenate creators of the Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society, Transatlantic Love Affair, and whatever Josh Carson or Tom Reed or Ben Sandel or Neal Skoy are calling their theater companies this year, just to name a few). 

If it weren’t for the Minnesota Fringe Festival, and both HUGE and Strike Theaters that grew up around it and served as venues for shows year-round, I would never have learned how amazing things like improv comedy, spoken word or storytelling could be.

Even when my Mom was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor last spring, she was constantly trying to negotiate with doctors to see if she could still somehow travel to Minnesota for the Fringe in August 2019.  She died unexpectedly from complications of her treatment on July 1.  A month later the Fringe community of artists and audience closed ranks around me and got me through my first Fringe without her.  We mourned her loss together, while still pushing on and presenting another dazzling variety of theater offerings (there’s a “show must go on” lesson in there somewhere). In a weird bit of audience participation, I walked up on stage and danced with a space alien while Louis Armstrong sang and an asteroid plummeted toward the earth, which seemed like an oddly fitting benediction. 

The Fringe staff created a new award for the end of the festival last year, to honor adventurous audience members the same way their other awards honor the artists.  They named the audience member award The Beverlee, after my Mom.  On a completely selfish note, I would like them to continue giving out The Beverlee until I myself am 80.  But don’t worry, that just means the Minnesota Fringe Festival needs to last at least another 25 years.

Right now, we just need to get the Minnesota Fringe Festival, and ourselves, through this one year.  Artists need the Fringe, audiences need the Fringe, theater needs the Fringe.  It’s made me a better writer, a better son, a better spectator, and a better person.  Things that make us better are rare.  We need to nurture and preserve them, so other people can benefit from them, too.

You can give to the Fringe here, here, or here (with a match from the Fringe board of directors).