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).

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