If you can get corn dogs and cheese curds on a stick in August in Minnesota, why not song and dance?
"On a Stick: A Minnesota State Fair Musical" is among the 119 shows at the 2022 Minnesota Fringe Festival, which returns fully to in-person performances this year with an eclectic smorgasbord.
As a pop-punk band tries to win the State Fair talent show, band members discover that a big, bad New York mogul is trying to buy the fairgrounds to build luxury apartments. The band amps up the tunes as it tries to save the Great Minnesota Get-Together.
"We want people to walk away smiling after all we've all gone through," said Kyle DeGoey, who wrote the music alongside lyricist Travis Carpenter. "It's a little ambitious for the Fringe but we're having a great time doing it."
After being canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic, Fringe came back in hybrid format last year. With its built-in support systems and shows generally running an hour, the festival offers unique occasions for artists and audiences to connect. And it attracts all levels and types of artists, from dilettantes to veterans.
"Our platform gives artists opportunities they won't get anywhere else," said executive director Dawn Bentley. "We think we're a valuable part of the community."
The numbers bear her out. Before the pandemic, the Fringe was drawing nearly 50,000 patrons to its shows over 11 days in August. Festgoers have said that they like the variety and the fact that the investment is not so steep.
Artists, similarly, are happy to get back on the festival's 11 stages.
"The Fringe means a lot — it's like summer camp for adults," said Brave New Workshop alumnus Tom Reed, who has been presenting shows for the festival since 2008. "For a couple of months, a slew of professional artists get to obsess over their quirks or dive into something they might not do otherwise."
'Erotica for Houseplants'
Reed nods to his childhood growing up on a garlic farm with his Fringe entry.
"Obviously, I'm chasing some whimsy here," Reed said. "It's a plant-based — very plant-based — sexy collage of short stories, poems and songs."
"Houseplants" was meant to be a pandemic-proof work. For one, Reed is the only performer in the show. And it doesn't involve a lot of heavy activity that would mean breathing on the audience.
"When I first started thinking about it, I didn't know what the world or theater would look like," Reed said. "We were herking and jerking back and forth and I wanted something that would be logistically achievable and straightforward. What are some dumb, absurd ideas that would make me giggle?"
Nissa Nordland Morgan and collaborators were thinking in a similar vein. They describe their show, "Finger Lickin' Good," as "a sex-fueled horror and comedy about fast-food giant Colonel Sanders. There will be blood (plus 11 herbs and spices)."
If plants get in for free for "Erotica," are we getting a 10-piece bucket with the show?
"No, but there will an onstage fact-checker to tell you what's real and what's fantasy," Morgan said. The fact checker is played by longtime Fringe artist Shanan Custer, while Sam Landman plays a blues-singing Colonel Sanders.
Historically, some of the bestselling shows in the Fringe have been Bollywood dance dramas — plucky, witty productions with large casts using movement to tell fanciful stories.
This year, the South Asian Arts & Theater House, formerly Bollywood Dance Scene, is presenting "Desi Heart Crust," a show that will have 63 performers onstage. A Blindian (Black and Indian) love story, "Desi Heart" shows how race and colorism affects a cross-cultural couple.
"Our shows usually are lighthearted with some social issues but after the killing of George Floyd, there was a lot of talk around the issue of colorism in the South Asian community," said SAATH artistic and executive director Divya Maiya. "We wanted to tackle that head on, Bollywood-style."
The pause caused by the pandemic and post-George Floyd social justice movement also gave the Fringe an opportunity to rethink how it operates, Bentley said. Internally, the model used to be one of run red and hot.
"Staff burnout was a serious issue for the festival," Bentley said. The Fringe has now changed some internal processes that may not be apparent to everyone but that will "honor the mental and physical health of the staff."
That's one part of a bigger, more caring approach that the Fringe has taken to honor its stakeholders. During the pandemic, the theater launched a campaign to support behind-the-scenes workers such as stage managers and theater technicians. That haul was $200,000, which the Fringe disbursed in $1,200 grants to 150 of these gig workers.
Fringe also has lowered barriers to entry for artists. It instituted an equity lottery and increased festival grants that allow artists to participate cost-free.
Diversity is a strength of the festival, whose lineup includes "The Real Black Swann: Confessions of America's First Black Drag Queen," about William Dorsey Swann, the former slave who mesmerized Washington, D.C., parlors in the late 19th century; "A Play on Words," Avi Aharoni's solo spoken word show for Wandering Jew Productions; and "Årsgång: What You Follow Follows You," drawn from the ancient Swedish practice of a yearlong supernatural pilgrimage.
Quiet or rowdy, polite or ugly, the Fringe will have something for many an appetite.
"We really want this festival to be successful and safe and that people will come out of it with a renewed sense of joy," Bentley said.
Minnesota Fringe Festival
When: Aug. 4-14.
Tickets: $5 button to the festival and $15-$18 for each show. $7 for children. Five- and 10-show passes available. 612-872-1212, ext. 3, or minnesotafringe.org.