Talk about setting yourself up for a dopamine rush: Actor/writer/director Shanan Custer is involved in five shows in the 25th anniversary edition of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, the state’s biggest performing arts fest.
Is she an overachiever, insane or something else entirely?
“The jury’s out on that one,” she said, laughing. “The thing that makes it manageable is that I’m not in charge of any of them. I’m not the producer. I don’t have to set schedules, worry about halls — any of that stuff. All I have to do is show up.”
Showing up means being on time and in costume for the three shows she’s performing in during the next week and a half. That’s not as easy as it sounds. The good thing is that all the shows are on the West Bank: “The Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society Vs. the Nazis,” the perennially popular “Couple Fight: The Musical!” and “Our Best Life” with Los Angeles-based TV writer Emily Schmidt.
Custer also directs “Right, Wrong or Bomb! A Dating Musical.” And she co-wrote the #MeToo musical “Not Fair, My Lady!” sending up misogyny-soaked Broadway shows.
“You can feel it when Fringe is coming,” she said. “It becomes a marathon week. So, we soak up as much summer as we can in preparation for something we like to think of as work vacation.”
This year the Fringe is presenting 138 shows — including six at a brand-new Family Fringe at Celtic Junction in St. Paul. That’s about 30 fewer shows than last year.
Is it downsizing?
“We’re right-sizing,” said executive director Dawn Bentley. “Sometimes bigger is not better. But better — where we serve artists and audiences in a more focused way — is better.”
Custer, 48, is both a Fringe queen and an emblem of the festival that she’s essentially grown up with as an artist. Founded in 1994, it was one of the first Fringes in the United States. (The granddaddy of them all is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which started in 1947.)
By her reckoning, Custer has had 20 to 25 Fringe shows since her first year in the festival, 1996.
“I really didn’t have any idea what it was at first,” she said. She applied, got in and did something about Helen of Troy. “The only thing I remember is that we had a huge storm and there were like three people who made it for the show and we did it for them. That was weird and hysterical.”
In 2007, she teamed up with Joshua Scrimshaw for “From Here to Maternity.” Again, that show was twinned to an indelible event: “I was on my way to the theater when the 35W bridge collapsed.”
Coffee and wine
The shows themselves became more memorable in 2009, when Custer teamed up with actor/writer Carolyn Pool for “2 Sugars, Room for Cream.” A coffee-themed series of vignettes about female relationships, it won the duo an Ivey Award and has developed a life of its own.
Expanding on the sip-and-talk motif, she and Pool developed a wine-themed show, “Sometimes There’s Wine,” for the 2016 Fringe. That show will kick off Park Square Theatre’s new season in September. The collaborators are working on a whiskey-themed work.
For Custer, as for many other artists, the Fringe is a great place to try out an idea.
“You have a built-in support staff, and the audience is on board with you because they’re there to take risks,” she said. “They’re open to new work, so you have to do zero explaining. They get that the set will be small, production values minimal. We’re looking at written work, the physicality of what the actors do creatively. I get so inspired by this.”
But first she has to survive her self-described marathon. Her regimen includes lots of water. And by her own admission, she looks like she’s “living out of the car.”
“You have to embrace that it’s not ideal, that it might be a little chaotic,” she said. “When the lights go up on your show, do your job and don’t panic.
“It’s like theater sports. It’s going to happen whether you’re ready or not.”