When Dawn Bentley took over as executive director of the Minnesota Fringe Festival just four months ago, she stepped into a pressure cooker.
The Fringe, which begins its 11-day run on Thursday, had lost its senior leadership last fall. Both its executive and associate directors left after an actor sued the festival over not allowing him to proceed with a pedophile fantasy show.
But Bentley, 44, may be a good fit for the role. The second of two children born to a factory worker mother and a father who owned a gas station, she grew up in Mankato playing violin and reveling in academics. She moved to the Twin Cities on a presidential (full) scholarship to attend Hamline University in St. Paul, where she earned master’s degrees in business and nonprofit management.
The Fringe post completes a remarkable personal transformation for Bentley. She actually began her career in the laboratory as a research biologist before making the leap to the arts world in 2014 to run the Art Shanty Projects, that frozen festival of the arts held each winter on an icebound Twin Cities lake. She increased the organization’s budget by 250 percent during her 2½-year tenure as its first executive director.
Bentley plays violin in a punk band, Atomic Flea, and in assorted improv jazz groups. She also has run marathons and competed in bodybuilding contests.
Bodybuilding “is not something I even considered — a trainer at the gym suggested it,” she said. “I let it marinate for maybe six months. You have to understand, I live in the suburbs with three kids and I drive a minivan. But when I put my mind to it, it transformed me, and it’s something I didn’t even see coming.”
She talked recently about her shift to a job focused on the dog days of summer.
Q: How has the transition been?
A: It’s been a baptism-by-fire situation. I started halfway through the fiscal year, with only four months to plan and execute the largest performing arts festival in the Upper Midwest, a process that requires 10 months. It’s been a rapid ramp-up, but I’ve got my bearings under me now and we’ve got a great team.
Q: Planning a festival is one thing, but you came into a lawsuit as well.
A: The lawsuit is ongoing, so we can’t comment on that.
Q: How confident are you that you will pull it off?
A: There’s a matrix to festivals, any festival. It’s like an accordion, expanding and contracting, sometimes making great music. The Fringe is about five times larger than Art Shanty Projects — on the financial side, in terms of the number of artists and the audience. It’s a big leap for me, in those aspects. But in other ways, it’s the same rhythm. You need to grease the wheels and get it going. And we’ve hit our deadlines for the website and all the deep-in-the-weeds stuff. I think people are going to have a good time, and, on our end, we’re making sure that things run smoothly.
Q: What’s surprised you the most?
A: I knew the Fringe was beloved, but it really is so. In the 24 years that we’ve had the Fringe, it’s featured 24,000 to 25,000 artists. It’s touched so many lives and reached well over a million people. That’s a lot of memories and discoveries, by artists and audience alike.
Q: Why the affection?
A: We offer a laboratory for artistic experimentation. We invite people to try some new things that they may never have done before, or to try something different. We are all about the democratization of the arts, which aligns with my personal belief system that art is for everyone.
Q: And it draws theater devotees and people who have never been to shows.
A: When I was with the Art Shanty Projects, I would meet people who said they weren’t interested in architecture, per se, but there they were, trying to understand what a fish house is. And here, I think, there are people who may not normally attend theater but they feel comfortable coming to the Fringe because it’s interactive, fun, and the hourlong shows are digestible.
Q: I understand you have rearranged your offices.
A: My style is pretty democratic without hierarchy, so the office space has been rearranged to be more open. Everyone here has skill and expertise to contribute. If you’ve been here for 15 years or you just started, you have a voice to bring to the table. I’m interested in working with the people I work with, and not having them work for me. The more voices that thread that conversation, the more interesting the tapestry can be. And the better the outcome. That’s not just about staff, but about board members, community voices, artists.
Q: You also have ideas about the reach of the festival?
A: We’re called Minnesota Fringe — named for a state instead of just a city. We want to do a lot more reaching out to all corners of our state. We balloon in the summer, but the Fringe is a year-round organization. We’re asking about ways that we can offer more opportunities, see what we can do.
Q: Now that you’re settled in —
A: We’re already thinking about 2018, our 25th year. That’s a tremendous opportunity for us to celebrate our values and perhaps roll out new and different things.
Q: You’ve had an unusual career path.
A: Well, my first career was as a research microbiologist, analyzing data for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and, later, the University of Minnesota. We would find patterns in the science and make recommendations to policymakers. If you had a flock of turkeys, for example, and one died, we cultured the various organs of that animal to figure out the particular strain of bacteria so that we can save current and future flocks. With science in a lab, bacteria and vector transmissions could affect not just one farmer, but the region.
Q: That sounds like a far cry from wrangling tech people, volunteers and performers in the Fringe Festival.
A: Is it? When I look at how we select venues or artists, I have to think: What does that mean long-term? We have a lottery system that allows anyone to take a chance. If that were to change, what would be the long-term effects on artists and on the community? How would that change the whole vibe that makes the Fringe beloved and interesting?
In both pursuits, you ask questions, do tests and try to provide good answers that serve the well-being of a community. One was about health, broadly. This is about the souls of people and about the health of democracy. I know it sounds like being on a high horse, but theater was instrumental to the birth of democracy in ancient Greece. And it’s instrumental to safekeeping our democracy today.
Q: Speaking of Greece, you’ve also been a marathon runner, and you ran the first marathon course there.
A: It was a thrill of my life. But one of the things I used to do was pace-racing. If someone wanted to cross the finish line in two hours, I would help get you there. I love running that race not to finish my training but to help someone meet their goal. That’s what Fringe is about. If you have an idea or some story that you have to tell, we’re going to help you get that story up onstage. And we’ll be supporting you over 11 days as people come see you.