A former Minnesota actor is in the spotlight — for a show he didn’t do.
Sean Neely, who now lives in Phoenix, has sued the Minnesota Fringe Festival for refusing to let him perform a one-man piece called “Having Sex With Children in My Brain,” in which Neely was to portray a convicted pedophile.
Regarded by some as a daring artist and free-speech hero and by others as a publicity-seeking provocateur, Neely specializes in self-crafted plays that make audiences squirm. In past shows, he has played a mentally ill person who yells racial slurs and a drug abuser who appears to commit suicide onstage by overdosing.
At last year’s Fringe, Neely caused a stir by presenting a confessional from a rapist who reads entries from his journal and expresses a desire to rape again. Some audience members thought Neely was confessing to real crimes and notified the police. Officers from Roseville paid him a backstage visit.
The festival is unjuried, which means that shows are selected by a random lottery, rather than by a panel that evaluates the work and makes recommendations. This year, 168 shows were accepted for the Aug. 4-14 event, out of a record 524 applications.
According to the suit, Neely’s application was initially accepted after his number was drawn, but then rejected after he sent in a description of the show.
“The Fringe prides itself on being uncurated and uncensored,” said his attorney, Ochen Kaylan. “It’s not. That’s false advertising.”
Fringe Executive Director Jeff Larson declined to say why Neely’s work was rejected.
“We’ll be dealing with this case in the court, instead of in the press,” Larson said. But he said shows may be disqualified on three grounds: if they engage in illegal acts, if they pose a safety hazard, or if they involve “other people without their consent.”
Neely’s attorney said that the third stipulation is vague and that it was written to target Neely and keep controversial and possibly noxious works out of the fest.
Larson denies that. “We’ve actually defended [Neely’s] work in the past, because people have complained a lot about him,” he said.
Neely, 33, often markets his shows as true, which is what he proposed to do with “Having Sex With Children in My Brain.” In an e-mail, he said he chooses his topics to challenge theatergoers’ default belief that what they see on stage is unreal. He also chooses jarring subjects as a way to hold audience attention “while a guy reads from a paper on stage.”
Twin Cities actor Jane Froiland, a friend of Neely’s, did not see his latest work. But she defended Neely’s theatrical approach: “What’s upsetting to some people is that he makes them think things that are uncomfortable,” Froiland said. “But he’s a sweet guy, and he doesn’t harm anyone.”
Kaylan, Neely’s attorney, said a hearing is scheduled for Sept. 13. He stressed that the suit is not targeting the Fringe on First Amendment grounds, even though the case has triggered online debates about censorship and free speech. Instead, it invokes the Consumer Protection Act and the Deceptive Trade Practices Act, accusing the Fringe of being “fraudulent and misleading” by using the terms “uncurated” and “uncensored” in its marketing.
Minnesota’s largest theater festival, the Fringe had attendance of nearly 48,000 this year.