The Minnesota Fringe Festival is arguably the Twin Cities' largest theater company.
In its 23rd year, it has no resident theater space, an extremely short season and no artistic director and relies heavily on new work and democratic principles, yet it will stuff 850 performances into 11 days beginning Thursday.
By contrast, the Guthrie counted 671 performances in its last fiscal year, while Chanhassen Dinner Theatres offers about 500. And judged by tickets — more than 50,000 last year — the Fringe fills more seats than many Twin Cities midsize companies do all year.
The Fringe is a perfect metaphor for a 21st century that has moved away from big mainframe models and toward individualized satisfaction in many realms. It is like a theatrical Airbnb or Uber service — a low-infrastructure operation that allows others (in this case performers and writers) a chance to be creative, and for audiences to pick and choose from a smorgasbord of shows.
Nationally, there has been an explosion of theatrical fringe fests, reflecting a patron affinity for the county-fair experience and informal performances. Tickets can be had fairly cheaply, and the attire is more shorts and T-shirts than suits and cocktail dresses.
“We’re trying to get away from all the trappings of capital ‘C’ culture,” said Jeff Larson, Minnesota Fringe’s executive director. “Art wasn’t always this serious. If we’re making art accessible and fun again, I’m all over that.”
The festival format allows for maximum effort directed at performance and away from fixed costs. The Minnesota Fringe is the nation’s third largest after New York and Orlando. (More on that later.)
The Fringe reflects another trend in the culture world — the informal performance. You see this with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Minnesota Orchestra, whose musicians sometimes play in bars; in the growth of Accordo, a kind of pickup band of top Twin Cities classical players, and in the surfeit of small theater companies that use an itinerant model to shave costs and stay nimble.
Nationally, the festival format flourishes in many of the performing arts. The Aspen Music Festival is one example of a classical event that invites musicians and patrons to come by, engage in some culture, enjoy the scenery and not worry about next winter.
The Minnesota Beethoven Festival and the Great River Shakespeare Festival have established themselves as key parts of Winona’s summer attractions.
The festival has forever appealed to artistic expression and crowd enjoyment. Everyone loves an occasion, a swirling diversion. Curious villagers flocked to traveling troupes performing the Miracle Plays in medieval towns. Chautauquas were popular through much of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Shakespeare festivals have become institutions. Angus Bowmer staged shows with students from Southern Oregon University in 1935, and today the Oregon Shakespeare Festival draws more than 400,000 people annually to Ashland. Tyrone Guthrie inaugurated the Stratford Festival in Ontario in 1953 and in the next decade launched his signature theater in Minneapolis on the idea of a summer festival that would get New York actors out of the sweltering city and into the cool Midwest. (Hadn’t he read the weather forecasts?)
In 1947, a small group of theater artists performed in venues on the fringes of the Edinburgh International Festival. This Festival Fringe has continued for nearly 70 years and is the world’s largest. Edmonton brought the concept to North America in 1982; several cities in Canada have long established fests.
The Minnesota Fringe was started in 1994 and struggled to find an audience its first few years. Founder Bob McFadden got tired of pushing the rock uphill, and in 1998, Dean Seal took over. He made Minnesota the largest nonjuried festival in the U.S., boosting attendance from 4,400 his first year to 28,000 four years later.
Seal expanded the number of shows in the Fringe, introduced an “ultrapass” that allowed patrons unlimited tickets to shows and moved the festival from springtime to late summer.
“With the ultrapass, people could see more shows,” Seal said. “We didn’t expand the audience base, but we sold more tickets.”
Seal was also a tireless promoter, introducing pre-Fringe showcases and codifying best practices for performers.
Leah Cooper took over in 2001. She continued Seal’s expansion and retired long-standing debt. She also brought critical software expertise — “Leah put it on the internet,” said Seal — and pushed more partnerships.
Larson has been with the Fringe more than a decade. He assumed leadership when Robin Gillette stepped down after seven years at the helm. Ticket sales have plateaued at about 50,000, but revenue continues to rise, and the festival’s annual budget is now $780,000, about 75 percent of that earned income.
Orlando has surpassed Minnesota for second place, though. “Imagine all the fringe venues were surrounding Loring Park, and you had food and drink vendors in the park,” Larson said. “That’s what Orlando has, and geographically we can’t match that. Orlando also has plugged into a huge LGBTQ community. It almost feels like another Pride event.”
Stubbornly what it is
If you want to start a fight, suggest loudly that the Fringe should be a juried festival — as it is in New York. The Fringe is religious about avoiding any kind of quality control.
“I hired Jeff Larson as a tech director, and I remember him saying, ‘We start on time, and after that it’s anybody’s guess,’ ” Seal said. “And that’s a good summary. I don’t want anyone to tell me what to put on stage.”
More significant than a jury is the court of public opinion. The Fringe, for all its egalitarian and democratic impulses, is a wonderful study in survival-of-the-fittest economics. With teeming crowds sharing likes and dislikes out in the lobbies (and on social media), a show’s fortunes can rise or fall faster than a penny stock.
Often, those crowds have been stuck in long lines waiting for tickets — a process that is perhaps the festival’s biggest frustration. This year, the ultrapass and individual show tickets are gone. In their place are day passes, involving wristbands and — Larson suggests — less of a chance you might get stuck in the wrong line at a busy venue and not find out until you reach the ticketing table. It happens.
Ticket sales and sidewalk anecdotes will tell whether the new policies ease the chaos of getting people into and out of shows. “We’re the first to try this,” Larson said.
So that much is new. What is the same? The barrage of 850 performances that guarantees you only one thing: In one hour or less, you will be ushered into the sunlight, blinking and wondering what’s next. In an age of YouTube, Netflix binge watching, Instagram and however many channels can fit on a satellite dish, the Fringe Festival has led and continues to ride the wave of a fracturing arts and entertainment world.
“People like bite-sized versions of things,” Larson said.
Lots of them.