A healthy feeling Fringe is growing

By several measures, this will be the biggest Minnesota Fringe Festival ever

Minnesota Fringe Festival Executive Director Jeff Larson introduced acts at an annual Fringe preview event held June 20. Credit: Donner Humenberger

By popular demand, the 2015 Minnesota Fringe Festival will be — by several measures — the largest ever.

This winter, a record 477 shows applied to the lottery for a slot in the festival. From opening night on July 30 to the final encore performance Aug. 9, this year’s edition of the sprawling performing arts festival will feature 174 individual productions and a grand total 909 performances, if all goes according to plan.

“We’ve had more individual shows but not more performances, and this is the most venues we’ve ever had,” Executive Director Jeff Larson said. “We don’t want to outgrow our audience demand, but we’re seeing attendance grow, so we’re cautiously growing the festival to keep up.”

Larson was speaking in mid-July, during the hectic final weeks before the 22nd-annual Fringe. He described a festival in a healthy place — healthy enough to raise ticket prices for the first time in more than a decade — thanks to the passion and drive of the artists behind the shows.

“A lot of what the Fringe does is teach shows how to promote themselves better,” Larson said. “We want them to reach out to their communities, their friends and family to get them in — and every year we get a little better at training them, and they learn some more tricks.

“And I think more people are hearing about the Fringe and having their friends be a part of it. They come once and they get hooked on it.”

Looking up

Although there were a smaller number of shows and individual performances last year compared to some recent editions of the festival, ticket sales, attendance and other key Fringe metrics all ticked up 2014. The festival sold a record 50,265 tickets, earning $380,880 at the box office and paying out $258,738 to artists.

Artists take home 65 percent of box office revenues for their shows — 70 percent if they sell at least half their seats — and the average payout topped $1,500 per show last year, up from about $1,370 in 2014. Earnings could go up a little more this year because ticket prices are rising for the first time since 2004, to $14 from $12 — just to keep up with inflation, Larson said.

(Fringe pins, a one-time purchase required for admission, are still $4, and the price of multi-show passes hasn’t gone up — so they’re an even better deal this year than last year, Larson noted.)

What’s new

For the first time in several years, this year’s Fringe expands into Northeast, with three stages in two different venues. That’s in addition to other nodes of Fringe activity downtown, on the University of Minnesota’s West Bank and in Uptown (where, for the first time in recent memory, Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater is not among the Fringe host sites).

“We build our venues out in pods so you can go and walk between shows,” Larson said. “…You can get to any of our venues and park within the 30 minutes between shows, but it’s so much easier to just park somewhere and just stay in a neighborhood for the day.”

After several years without them, the Fringe scheduled four site-specific performances last year. They did so well, the list of site-specific shows grows to nine this year and includes venues like the Lyndale Farmstead Recreation Center and Weisman Art Museum.

Larson said the site-specific shows keep the festival “a little unexpected and a little strange” — just the way he likes it. But the Fringe produces surprises with regularity; like last year, when a Bollywood-style dance drama produced by a group few Fringe regulars had heard of surprised everyone by becoming the best-selling show. (Curiosity piqued? Bollywood Dance Scene is back this year with “Spicy Masala Chai.”)

Two dairy princesses from “Confessions of a Butter Princess or Why the Cow Jumped Over the Moon.” Photo by Donner Humenberger

A Fringe sampler

“My favorite part about Fringe is every year there is a new success story that comes out,” Josh Carson, who’s been appearing in Fringe shows for more than a decade, said. Carson counts himself among those pleasantly gob-smacked by last year’s Bollywood breakout.

“It didn’t have any heavy hitters; it wasn’t on anybody’s can’t miss list,” he said.

This year, the writer-director-performer offers up to the Fringe masses “Backlash,” the story of a teen’s breakout success in the comedy world creating tensions with his high school teacher and comedy mentor. Carson said it was inspired by last year’s Academy Award-nominated jazz-school drama “Whiplash,” as well as his own experiences of a mentor-mentee relationship starting to go topsy-turvy.

A snippet of “Breakout” earned big laughs at the second of two Fringe preview events held July 20 at the University of Minnesota’s Rarig Center. A mix of nerves and adrenaline charged the air in the lobby, where performers gathered before going onstage in front of a crowd of Fringe fanatics — a boisterous group who ate up the laugh lines and weren’t afraid to talk back to the actors.

The three minutes each company gets to sell its show in a preview night can be “a little nerve-wracking,” said director Chris Garza, who watched his cast perform a scene from “Confessions of a Butter Princess or Why the Cow Jumped Over the Moon.”

Inspired by our quirky State Fair dairy princess tradition, the play is a cocktail of Minnesota kitsch spiked with sci-fi tropes, a seemingly can’t-miss Fringe combo.

“It’s a little bit of an outsider’s love letter to Minnesota,” Garza, a native Texan, said. “… I love you Minnesota. You’re so quirky with your bikes and your co-ops.”

Fringe veteran Rick Ausland — who this year is the producer and technical director of “Parent Observation Day,” an all-ages, movement-based comedy that depicts the cute chaos of a children’s dance class — said the preview is a valuable bit of early feedback.

“You think something’s funny, but until you put it in front of a live audience,” you don’t know how people are going to react, Ausland said. Inside the Rarig, they tittered at the toddling dancers.

Drama didn’t seem to fare as well as comedy in the quick-hitting preview format, but a glimpse of Tom LaBlanc’s performance as the Ojibwe wolf spirit Maingun in “Bring the Children Home?” momentarily stilled the audience.

Playwright Marcie Rendon’s play — written in the Phillips neighborhood during the 1990s, in the midst of the city’s traumatic “Murderapolis” years — is set largely on a spiritual plane that can be difficult to distinguish from a real world filled with panhandlers and Super America gas stations. One of this years’ site-specific shows, it will be performed at the Minneapolis American Indian Center on East Franklin Avenue.

“This story could be happening right at the Indian center,” Rendon said. “It could be happening any place along Franklin Avenue.”

Left: Tom LaBlanc plays the Ojibwe wolf spirit Maingun in “Bring the Children Home?” Photo by Donner Humenberger

Below: The cast of “Parent Observation Day.” Photo by Donner Humenberger 

The Minnesota Fringe Festival runs July 30–Aug. 9 at various locations around Minneapolis. For performance, ticket and venue information, go to fringefestival.org.


CORRECTION: This story originally stated Fringe was expanding to Northeast for the first time ever. In fact, Northeast venues have been a part of the festival, but not for several years.