This is a recurring theme with the Minnesota Fringe Festival: how to help potential patrons hack through the mountain of shows, times, dates, venues and genres to find gold at the nation's largest unjuried fringe festival.

This year, the folks at Fringe central are using digital tools made famous by Netflix, Amazon and e-Harmony. Pick a category, check out a show and then poke into "other shows that are similar to this show." Do you want comedy, drama, music, dance, GLBT, first-time Fringers or Something Different?

Jeff Larson, Fringe associate director, acknowledges that the Fringe can't guarantee it will match people to their perfect show. One caveat is that they must work with information provided by producers. And of course, not all comedies are born equal, and the label "first-time Minnesota Fringe Festival producer" doesn't tell you much about the nature of the show.

This is, Larson said, a stab at using the website to help theatergoers identify potential winners and losers among the 165 shows and more than 800 performances. The 11-day festival opens Thursday at 14 venues in Minneapolis and one in St. Paul.

"What we're doing is trying to get the right people to the right show quicker, because your brain just gets paralyzed if it's presented with too many choices," said Larson.

Lesson from the road

Larson said this notion evolved out of experiences that Fringe staffers have had at other festivals nationwide.

"I've been to three in the past few years. You look at a festival with 30 shows and you say, 'Oh, this is too many choices, I just want to go to a movie instead,'" he said. "For a long time, we've been talking about the festival and looking at how huge it is and how it scares people away."

Larson said the theory is that if you can make the Fringe seem smaller, more manageable, then you might find something you like.

Once the festival starts, of course, potential viewers can consider the reviews. The website becomes so burdened that Larson said they fear it might crash under the constant hits. Especially in the opening weekend, traffic is huge.

"Four of us on staff read every review that gets posted," he said. "If you see a Fringe staffer standing in line looking at their phone, they're probably reading and approving reviews."

They aren't necessarily looking to get rid of bad reviews, he said, or to disqualify writers who use "their, there and they're" improperly.

"It's mostly ad hominem attacks," he said. "A review that says, 'That actor is really fat,' or 'That actor is stupid.' Stuff where you can tell it's obvious someone is reviewing their ex-boyfriend. There are also creepy ones, but 98 percent of the reviews get through."

Social media

The Fringe is also fully engaged in social media, Larson said. The festival's Facebook page ( has regular updates, information, tidbits, suggestions. Twitter is more for the sort of cocktail-party chatter that has made it somehow indispensable to enthusiasts. The conversation is valuable (@mnfringe), Larson said, throughout the year as festival staffers test out ideas on the court of public opinion.

"One idea I thought was fantastic, we put out there and found that people hated it," he said.

His idea was a Fringe Final Four in March, following the lottery that chooses the shows for that year's festival. Larson's idea was to hold open the last four slots and have an event in which shows on the waiting list could compete with three-minute previews for those spots. The audience would then choose the final four positions.

It was hated, Larson explained, because the Fringe is unjuried and any competition goes against that ethic. Also, it would handicap out-of-town contestants, and favor local groups that were more established. Depending on your point of view, that's either a good thing or a bad thing.

"They were all valid points," Larson said. "It would have been a fun event, if nothing else."

Yes. And that really is what the Fringe is supposed to be, because it's not always great theater. It's 10 days in which you hope to find a gem. But how to find it? Perhaps the Fringe Google analytics nerds can help.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299