For the past decade, the Minnesota Fringe Festival has been one of the signature successes of the Twin Cities theater community.
From 1999 to 2010, attendance rose 325 percent and the number of shows more than doubled, to 163. Financially, the organization appears to be on solid ground. Numbers haven't been released for this year, but the 2011 tax return showed a surplus of $27,000 on a budget of $717,000.
However, overall attendance fell by about 2,200 this year, to 46,280. That's the second consecutive year with a slight decline.
With the festival hitting its 20th year in 2013, the Star Tribune's theater critics discuss the state of the Fringe.
Royce: After this year, I'd say the thrill is gone.
Preston: But there is an ardent tribe of Fringe-bingers who would disagree. There are still things that can capture the imagination and heart in the festival. This year, John Grady's "Fear Factor: Canine Edition" -- about a man's love for his dog -- left me teary-eyed and speechless. But I found the other shows I saw too predictable, amusing or run-of-the-mill. I want to feel inspired at the Fringe, not just tired.
Royce: I get tired looking at the schedule, trying to drive around town and standing in chaotic lines. But yes, there are the gems. "Ash Land" showed how inventive and intelligent theater artists can be when they put their muscle behind the work. Tamara Ober's "Sin Eater" was virtuosic, and even something as silly as "Ms. Luisa Eats" or "Mary Mack's Anti One-Woman Show" illustrate how we need the wacky/tacky stuff.
Preston: Most of the shows I saw tended to fall into several narrow traps, er, categories. There are those that are thrown up quickly, the theatrical equivalent of garage bands. Others were compressed or expanded ideas of things that you see at the Brave New Workshop or the Bryant-Lake Bowl. I like the eclecticism that you find there, but I want to see bold choices in the Fringe. It should be wild and woolly instead of often feeling smug and self-satisfied. At this point, the festival needs a reinvention.
Royce: Which brings me to my main point. The organization fiercely defends the non-juried character of the festival and many theater folk say it's that unpredictability that gives it charm. Charm? I say suffocating hours during which I'm checking my pulse. So, how about this: Since you have two bifurcated locations -- along the Mississippi River, and roughly Uptown -- why not allow for a higher-test juried festival, and then an unjuried affair? You would lose nothing, but you would provide an option that would attract the high-achievers. And for audiences, you would have something new to argue about: How the hell did that show get in?
Preston: I absolutely agree. That would breathe new life into the festival. Does that mean all the juried things would be good? That's doubtful, but there would at least be a minimum level of quality. Will the unjuried shows all be dreck? Not necessarily. I'm sure we could find gems in there as well, the way we do now with the whole Fringe, and not just because we have lower expectations. Democracy without some sort of order is just chaos.
Royce: For me, it creates the hope of greater aspirations and perhaps broader visibility and credibility. The Fringe has been good with its clubhouse atmosphere. But have really talented artists stepped away from it in the past several years because quality isn't a requisite? Director Bryan Bevell's commentary in last Sunday's Star Tribune about the local theater scene being insular and resistant to criticism set off a Facebook firestorm with people on both sides. On the one hand, I can hear Fringers screaming, "I love it just how it is!" That's why we need to preserve some of that. But fermentation is how things change and find new audiences. The Fringe was envisioned in its earliest days as a radical alternative. Bold ventures were made along its history. It's time again to peel off the old skin and do something new.