You never forget your first time.

"The first Fringe show I did was the first play I ever wrote," remembers James Vculek. "It was a musical with eight or nine roles, and an orchestra of ten. It was crazy, but I'd told people I would pay them, so expenses mounted, and I lost a lot of money. I've since learned that simpler is better."

Vculek, who's returning this week for his fourth year of participation in the Minnesota Fringe Festival, is one of three veteran producers sharing his wisdom with first-time Fringe producers. He's doing it as part of First Steps/Next Steps, a new program designed to help keep Fringe virgins from losing their minds -- or their shirts.

With 169 shows being presented this year on 19 different stages, the Minnesota Fringe is the country's largest non-juried Fringe festival -- that is, the largest for which participation is determined by random lottery rather than by curatorial selection. It's a deep pool to jump into, and when your ping-pong ball is plucked for the first time, it can be both exhilarating and terrifying.

"What if you throw a party and no one comes?" asks Alison Bergblom Johnson, who's making her Fringe debut with "Other Than Tragedy," a one-woman show about her family's history with mental illness. "I'm trying to focus on what I can control."

Johnson has been receiving guidance from Joseph Scrimshaw, who staged his first Fringe show in 1995 and has become one of the most successful producers in Fringe history. The most important lesson she's learned from Scrimshaw, says Johnson, "is to be really intentional about what I want to achieve, and to not be afraid to put numbers on things. As artists, sometimes we're afraid to think about things like how many tickets we need to sell to break even. That's not a very romantic way to think about art, but that's reality."

Writer/director/actor Marcus Anthony is also a Fringe virgin, joining the theater orgy this year with his play "Medea Ex Machina," a riff on the classic legend. "The biggest production I've done before," says Anthony, "was a one-time show with an audience of about 30." He's been calling on his mentor, Vculek, to find out what to do if any of a range of disasters occurs. "What happens if you have an actor flake out and not show up? Step one: Remain calm. Step two: Hire another actor."

Amy Rummenie, one of three artistic directors for Walking Shadow Theatre Company -- which staged its first production as a Fringe show in 2004 and now stages full seasons of acclaimed productions -- says that she and her colleagues are pleased to be part of a program that encourages first-time Fringers to ask for help without feeling sheepish about it. "Unofficially," she says, "we help anyone who needs it -- it's what people did for us when we were starting out. This way we can be a resource to others without them feeling weirdness about it."

Scrimshaw acknowledges the uneasiness that can exist between Fringe veterans and virgins. "There's a lot of tension about people's idea of who should be in the Fringe," says Scrimshaw. "Should the Fringe be for new producers, or for people with experience? This is a really positive way to address strong feelings on either side, and to make it something helpful and friendly."

Participation in the First Steps and Next Steps programs was determined by sub-lotteries. The requirement for entering the First Steps sub-lottery was that a producer be staging his or her first or second Fringe show, and the requirement for Next Steps companies was that they have mounted at least three Fringe shows, with at least one of them being among the year's top 10 best-attended shows.

Robin Gillette, executive director of the Fringe, emphasizes that the program was designed to foster mentoring that's logistic rather than artistic. "This isn't about trying to shape someone's show into a Scrimshaw show," she says. "It's about helping with panic control."

Matthew Kelly is the only First Steps participant who's had a previous Fringe show. This year he's offering "The Destroyer of Dreams (The Requiem Part 2)," a sequel to a horror-based show he produced last year. Horror? In the Fringe? "I wanted to do something new," he says, "to frighten people on stage through psychological horror, without the blood." Did it work? "Well, I hope it did."

This year, Kelly has been meeting regularly with Walking Shadow's three directors, soliciting their strategic guidance on everything from how to write a press release to where to drop postcards. Their advice, says Rummenie, has been to "get your friends behind you from the outset. Get the people you know and love to see the show first, so they can tell people about it. Don't play the shy card at the Fringe."

Battling shyness is not a problem for Jeremiah Liend: He's a veteran actor who has performed in shows from Bemidji to Thailand. He's never produced a show in the Fringe, though -- his debut offering is "Grimaldi's Chicken," which grew out of a 24-hour play project. Given only 12 hours to write a script that involved four characters and a rubber chicken and began with the line, "I want a divorce -- again," Liend whipped up a fictional story inspired by the real-life inventor of the rubber chicken.

"It's about America," says Liend, "and how someone can skyrocket from anonymity to lasting longevity." It happened to Grimaldi -- could it happen to Liend? "I believe in destiny," says Liend. "I believe in fate." And when Fate comes knocking, Liend will be ready and waiting with a pile of advertising cards and a rubber chicken.

Minnesota Fringe Festival

  • What: 11-day festival of theater, dance and performance.
  • When: 8/05-8/15
  • Where: Fifteen venues in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
  • Tickets: $5-$12 per show. Multi-show passes, $50-$225. 866-811-4111, or at the venue.