Fringe benefits

Minneapolis’ annual Fringe Festival gives a guiding hand to theater geeks.
Senior Garret Vollmer rehearses Monday for Primadonnas at Rarig Center.
August 03, 2011


In a lower-level rehearsal space of the West Bank’s Rarig Hall, University of Minnesota theater senior Mel Day is enduring the final hellish throes of rehearsal for her Fringe Festival directorial debut. Since the constant turning of a creative mind often yields some streaks of procrastination, the small-scale dramedy, “Primadonnas” is in a do-or-die phase.

“Earlier, I kind of let the actors have the space, but now I have to really limit them,” Day said in regard to their spacious rehearsal room. “Bryant Lake Bowl’s stage is like 5 feet wide.”

The weeks leading to the 11-day theater festival can be inherently maddening. The annual celebration of performance art constructs its roster purely through a lottery system — a method that promises exposure for less-experienced theater hands. So it can be inferred that Day and her peers are ultimately benefiting from this thread of pressure.

Playwright Maggie Williams received the final script July 13. A Fringe Festival veteran, Williams may be a bit more calm and collected. She’s been on the creative end of the festival before with her 2009 play, “Applesauce Fiction.”  Because of this, the 2011 theater grad is well aware that bolstering the platforms for young artists is what the Minnesota Fringe Festival does best.

“Doing Fringe in 2009, everyone that I was working with was in my year and my program,” Williams said. “That was a major learning experience because it was just us working among peers. That was like the quintessential youth Fringe experience.”

Amid the national network of Fringe festivities, the Twin Cities event has recently commanded a laudable growth. Ticket sales have increased by 22 percent over the past three years. The 2011 festival will see 168 productions — 26  from out of state — play out across 18 local venues. For the bigger company names, the annual 11-day schedule has started to function as a holiday of sorts for local theater actors, directors and stagehands.

“We totally suck the acting community dry,” Fringe Festival executive director Robin Gillette said. “It’s on actors and technicians and house managers, so a lot of theaters are happy to say, ‘You all just go ahead and have that chunk of time in August.’ ”

The result is a tightly knit marathon of performances. However, the uniqueness of Fringe Festival is not simply the web of infrastructure that allows such a massive theater roster. It’s the efforts organizers take toward nurturing the promotional and technical skills for both young and old participants.

“It’s good because it teaches you what you’re doing for the festival,” Gillette said, “but that’s also the kind of stuff that you’ll take away with you. If you do another show God-knows-where, it’s all transferable knowledge.”

These realities have been a conscious part of Day and Williams’ development of “Primadonnas,” a scenically limited story with weaved with fantastical digressions toward grandeur. The narrative follows two incarcerated women who escape their day-to-day drudgery through romance and Victorian guises. It’s a bold blend of drama, comedy and political musings. While the bare idea and title grew from a previous piece Williams wrote for Minneapolis’ 24 Hour Theatre,  Primadonnas” now serves as a greater testament to both her creative and personal interests.

“[Our team is] all queer, so I wanted to do something that specifically dealt with queer issues,” she said. “I’ve never done anything that specifically political before and I feel like my skills as a playwright now are strong enough to do that.”

Even with creative ambition, the festival still carries a set of inevitable restrictions. Budgets, much like stage space, can be tight. The quick turnaround between time slots also means that set changes need to occur within 15-minute windows.

Shows like Williams’ one-woman script, “V for Victory over Cuba“ — also showing this year — easily endure such burdens. For others, costume flourishes and lavish set design take a backseat to performance during Fringe.

“I think a lot of the show’s character comes from the actors and the way they carry themselves,” Day said. “While they’re holding these identities, they’re still in prison uniforms. Well, the best-I-could-do prison uniforms.”

Prop and costume nuances aside, the festival offers something much more alluring to young artists than space and promotion itself. The opportunity to speak through an unfiltered vehicle is one of the biggest draws.

“The [theater arts] BA program at the [University] is a great program and gives students a lot of opportunities to create self-generated work,” Williams said, “but it’s always under the watchful eye of faculty.”

While the event is regularly stocked with a menu of local pros — Joking Envelope and Box Wine Theatre to name a couple — the performances that benefit the greatest seem to also be the smallest. That’s not just what Fringe Festival does best. It seems to be what it’s all about.

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