The Fringe’s next adventure

New ticketing system could mean big changes for annual theatre festival

Bollywood Dance Scene electrified the audience at this year's first Minnesota Fringe Festival preview.
Bollywood Dance Scene electrified the audience at this year's first Minnesota Fringe Festival preview.

This year, the Minnesota Fringe Festival is changing the way it sells tickets. Big deal, right?

Well, it might turn out to be a very big deal.

Executive Director Jeff Larson said this year’s switch to day passes just might change the whole flavor of the annual performing arts festival, returning Aug. 4–14 for its 23rd year. Gone are the single tickets and multi-show passes, and gone, too, is the mandatory one-time purchase of a Fringe button.

A Fringe day pass is good for up to four shows on a weekday and up to seven on Saturday or Sunday, and Larson said he hopes that will shift the Fringe experience to something more like a music festival. At Pitchfork or Coachella, a pass buys you a day’s worth of music from bands you know you like, bands you know you don’t like and bands you’ve never heard of, and you’re free to wander from stage to stage.

It’s a completely different experience buying tickets à la carte, Larson said. It feels like a waste of money when a show is disappointing or outright bad, and that financial sting makes audiences more conservative.

Minnesota Fringe Festival Executive Director Jeff Larson on stage at the July 18 preview event.
Minnesota Fringe Festival Executive Director Jeff Larson on stage at the July 18 preview event.

“I think (switching to day passes) will drive the audience to take more chances, which will drive the artists to take more chances because they’ll know that they’re more likely to get an audience for it,” Larson said. “… Everyone will experience this as a festival instead of just one or two shows that they’re going to.”

Larson predicted day passes would also help to ease the frantic crush some venues experience during the 30-minute changeover between performances, when ticket holders and ticket buyers can overwhelm Fringe staffers. It’s a major part of the logistical challenge for a festival that this year includes more than 850 performances of about 170 different shows at 15 venues spread across the city.

That’s not the end of the changes Larson has in store for this year’s Fringe.

He’s also raising the payout for performers to a flat 70 percent of ticket sales. The cut used to be lower for Fringe acts that didn’t fill enough seats.

It adds an extra element of risk to this year’s festival, when the Fringe is already heading into the unknown. Larson said Minnesota Fringe is the first fringe theater festival in the world to give day passes a shot.

“I really think this fits our mission so well, and if it doesn’t work perfectly this year, if we lose some money on it, we can afford that for one year and then make the changes we need,” he said. “The important thing is if somebody loses money on this, it’s going to be the Fringe, not the artists.”

One of Larson’s duties as executive director is to emcee the annual Fringe preview events, when thirty productions get three minutes apiece to preview their show in front of an audience of Fringe fanatics. Here are some of the shows that caught our eye at the first preview, held July 18 at the University of Minnesota’s Rarig Center:

 

“Bezubaan: The Voiceless,” by Bollywood Dance Scene

A Bollywood Dance Scene production is no small thing. Divya Maiya, the nonprofit theater company’s founder and choreographer, said there are 90-some actors and dancers involved in this flashy, Bollywood muscial-style “dance-dramedy” set in an international market.

“The theme of the show this year is xenophobia and Islamophobia, in particular, and it just kind of rings a bell with what’s going on right now,” Maiya said.

Their crowds aren’t small either. Bollywood Dance Scene had the best-selling show in the 2015 Fringe, so reserve tickets early to get a seat.

 

Fringe2016_Ball web

“Ball: A Musical Tribute to My Lost Testicle,” by The Catalysts

Max Wojtanowicz was diagnosed with stage 3 testicular cancer Jan. 5, and he was still undergoing chemotherapy when he entered the annual Fringe lottery. Entries in the un-juried festival selected at random, using a hopper filled with numbered ping pong balls.

At the time, Wojtanowicz was thinking, “If our ball gets chosen, so to speak, we’ll take it as a sign and do a show.”

Wojtanowicz (now in remission) relates his tale with the song and punning humor that got him through treatment. And he’s hoping other cancer survivors and their loved ones will want to join him for a laugh.

 

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“Itch,” by Three Knives

How do you bring horror to the Fringe stage? If you’re the crew behind “Itch,” you do it with buckets of sloppy, sticky blood effects.

With just a 30-minute break between Fringe performances, they’ll be racing against the clock to get those special effects ready. That’s one of the bigger challenges in presenting this tale of a mysterious outbreak that causes members of a research lab to unravel, one by one, said Mercedes Plendl, a member of the creative team.

“It slowly becomes more interactive,” Plendl said. “We’re really trying to get into people’s heads.”

 

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“SmashHammer,” by SMASH HAMMER

This heavy metal musical set in a fantasy world of kings, princesses and at least one evil orc lord actually goes by a much longer, dumber, tongued-in-cheek title that didn’t fit in this space — but that should be your clue that this is the type of metal that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

A diverse, mostly gender-swapped cast accompanied by live electric guitar brings to life a rock opera first written and recorded about 12 years ago by a bunch of “bored recording engineers,” including first-time Fringe director Joe Johnson (who, full disclosure, used to work in the Southwest Journal offices).

 

Fringe2016_GoTMusical web

“Game of Thrones: The Musical,” by Really Spicy Opera

Sense a theme? Yes, both geeky fantasy concepts and musicals are perennially popular at the Fringe. This one stood out for adapting the fantastically popular (and bloody) HBO series into a comedic stage play with puppets.

Imagine, suggested director Basil Considine, that HBO decided fuse “Game of Thrones” with “Sesame Street” — not a huge stretch, considering HBO lured the venerable children’s show away from PBS last year.

“Of course, they have to take out all the sex and all the nudity, but the violence, the kids love that,” Considine said.

 

Fringe2016_PieDuckShoe web

“A Pie. A Duck. And a Shoe.” by Sparkle Theatricals

Here’s a variety show with true variety: a tap dancer, a beatboxer, City Pages’ “Best R&B Artist” for 2016, shadow puppets, a magician and not one but two animal acts.

“Everybody is curious about the animal acts because you’re not supposed to have animals at the Fringe,” said Alejandra Iannone, who co-created the vaudeville-inspired show with Rick Ausland (the guy in the tap shoes).

If you’ve geeked-out on the geeky stuff, sated your appetite for musicals and giggled through enough comedic monologues for one festival, a variety show featuring a mix of Fringe veterans and first-timers may be the respite you’re looking for.

“It’s different for the Fringe,” Iannone said. “It’s different for us, too.”

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