Some of them sound like refugees who, after wandering lost and adrift, are finally returning to something vaguely familiar, even if it doesn’t quite jibe with memories of home.
Artists from across the region and even the nation are gathering again for the Minnesota Fringe Festival, which, since 1994, has offered venues for their smorgasbord of creative ferment. But the 2020 edition is nothing like what came before.
For starters, it’s all virtual, with more than 100 shows taking place on Zoom, YouTube, Facebook and Twitch July 30-Aug. 9. Some are live. Others are prerecorded, and can be streamed whenever. And much of it is free, with organizers hoping viewers will find it in their hearts to offer financial support for a 10-day festival that normally draws as many as 50,000 people.
Whether it works has implications for a field that traditionally has depended on people gathering in tight spaces, sharing the same air as the performers onstage.
“The Fringe asked: How are people making shows now? And it makes sense that it’s virtual, because we’re doing it on our computers now,” said writer/performer Shanan Custer, a Fringe mainstay who is involved in one and perhaps two of this year’s shows. “We need to have some sort of festival that embraces that. For me, the virtual Fringe is about adapting.”
This year’s Fringe was going to be challenging anyway, what with declining audiences and numbers of shows in recent years as the unjuried festival tried to infuse itself with new energy and light. Then the pandemic hit, forcing the organization to cancel the festival and lay off its entire staff May 1, including executive director Dawn Bentley.
But she continued working, unpaid.
Bentley and her board set about raising $100,000, the minimum needed to plan for next year. But then artists and staff started asking: What if the festival went online? The Fringe, after all, is a theatrical lab.
Those questions coincided with the government offering lifelines to small businesses. Bentley put in an application for a federal PPP loan, then let out a huge sigh when $39,300 was approved.
“My most important driving thought is that I don’t want the Fringe to die,” Bentley said. “Creatively, culturally, financially — it’s valuable to this state with a large economic impact and as a gateway to professional and citizen artists.”
Offering a glimmer of hope
Divya Maiya is one of those citizen artists.
A product manager at Best Buy, she and her friends have been bringing Bollywood dance dramas to the Minnesota Fringe since 2014. Their shows, including “Spicy Masala Chai,” are perennial bestsellers. And they have branched off, starting their own festival under a new company, South Asian Arts & Theater House (SAATH), of which Maiya is artistic and executive director.
“We love the Fringe so we still go back and experiment there,” Maiya said. “We are an amateur theater company so there’s a lot that we continue to learn, and our goal is to provide underrepresented immigrant communities with opportunities for self-expression.”
Their Fringe ambitions have been scaled down to a computer screen this year. SAATH is behind “My Kahaani,” a show at 7 p.m. Saturday that features storytellers Darshan Maiya and Bharadh Kumar talking about immigrant experiences in works called “Crushed” and “Home.” There are some small-scale dance numbers, a far cry from the huge synchronized corps of Bollywood dancers that lit up the Rarig Thrust stage in years past.
“But it’s still something,” Divya Maiya said.
Taj Ruler, a regular at Brave New Workshop who has performed on and off in the Fringe for the past seven years, will be on Zoom this year. She and her musical improv group, the Shrieking Harpies, are performing “OMG!” In the show, performers read from their actual middle- and high-school diaries, then riff on the excerpts.
“We hold up these adolescent versions of ourselves and thank them for getting us through to the other side as adults,” Ruler said. “The ultimate goal of the show is to reinforce that there are lot of universal themes growing up.”
Patrons are asked to donate and Ruler’s company, in turn, will donate all the proceeds to nonprofits that serve marginalized groups.
The virtual Fringe is not just a bunch of shows, artists insist. Just the fact that it’s happening gives inspiration to performers and playhouses devastated by the pandemic.
“The fact of the matter is that some theaters will not make it to the other side,” said Custer, who lost 10 theater jobs when things shut down. She’s performing in the Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society’s Fringe show “Frankenstein: Two Centuries” and also currently appears in Park Square Theatre’s Zoom-based mystery serial “Riddle Puzzle Plot.”
“There’s been such difficulty, and continues to be, but there’s hope there,” she said. “In this town, I’ve been listening a lot and trying to stay healthy so when the gates open, I can hit the ground running.”
And by being virtual, the Fringe presents the artists with new difficulties, er, opportunities to grow. Ever adaptable, they are becoming experts in working in new forms and technological spaces. Rehearsals happen over Zoom. How do you do that?
“Regular theaters are looking at us to see how we do,” Bentley said. “We’re the first one out. Experimentation is our nature. There’s a lot that the field can learn.”
The artists are fully leaning into this concept. They don’t have stages, seats or lobbies anymore. Instead, it’s computers and phones.
How does it work?
This year’s festival has two nodes. One, the nightly Fringe, offers links to live shows on artist-hosted platforms.
“No account is required, no downloads or apps,” Bentley said. “It’s all free if you have a computer.”
The other node is the Fringe digital hub, which patrons can access by buying a $5 button. The digital hub has live and prerecorded shows that are available almost anytime. Many are free, or pay-what-you-wish. (Artists suggest nominal donation amounts.)
“This could be the cheapest Fringe binge that anyone has experienced,” Bentley said.
That may be true for audiences, but it’s something of a problem for artists. After all, they have to make a living. And if they’re creating shows, rehearsing them and performing them for dirt or next to nothing, well, how are they going to eat and pay for shelter?
Martin Dockery, a New York-based fringe-famous performer who travels to festivals across North America, Europe and Australia, said the Minnesota Fringe has trained audiences to expect work for free.
“It’s hard to make money in Minnesota,” Dockery said. On the other hand, “Minnesota audiences are among the most open and adventurous. And as someone who goes to a lot of fringes in cities that I would never otherwise visit, I really enjoy Minneapolis.”
Dockery has two shows in the virtual Fringe: “Forbidden City,” recorded last year at the Vancouver Fringe Festival; and “Right Now,” a live work he’s doing on Facebook.
Dockery normally does up to 10 two-week fringes each year. But his livelihood has dried up. The festival gives him a chance to grapple with what it means to be alive — “Right Now.”
“This pandemic has shown that we have to be able to let some things go,” Dockery said. “My identity is someone who tours and performs his own theater. When that aspect of me is taken away, is there something there? Are we just these external stories that we use to describe ourselves?
“Who are we when you take away all of our jobs and our sense of control and security? When we’re isolated and afraid, even of our friends and family, where we do find grace?”