In a lower-level rehearsal space of the West BankâÄôs 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, âÄúPrimadonnasâÄù is in a do-or-die phase.
âÄúEarlier, I kind of let the actors have the space, but now I have to really limit them,âÄù Day said in regard to their spacious rehearsal room. âÄúBryant Lake BowlâÄôs stage is like 5 feet wide.âÄù
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 âÄî 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. SheâÄôs been on the creative end of the festival before with her 2009 play, âÄúApplesauce Fiction.âÄù 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.
âÄúDoing Fringe in 2009, everyone that I was working with was in my year and my program,âÄù Williams said. âÄúThat was a major learning experience because it was just us working among peers. That was like the quintessential youth Fringe experience.âÄù
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 âÄî 26 from out of state âÄî 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.
âÄúWe totally suck the acting community dry,âÄù Fringe Festival executive director Robin Gillette said. âÄúItâÄôs on actors and technicians and house managers, so a lot of theaters are happy to say, âÄòYou all just go ahead and have that chunk of time in August.âÄô âÄù
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. ItâÄôs the efforts organizers take toward nurturing the promotional and technical skills for both young and old participants.
âÄúItâÄôs good because it teaches you what youâÄôre doing for the festival,âÄù Gillette said, âÄúbut thatâÄôs also the kind of stuff that youâÄôll take away with you. If you do another show God-knows-where, itâÄôs all transferable knowledge.âÄù
These realities have been a conscious part of Day and WilliamsâÄô development of âÄúPrimadonnas,âÄù 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. ItâÄôs a bold blend of drama, comedy and political musings. While the bare idea and title grew from a previous piece Williams wrote for MinneapolisâÄô 24 Hour Theatre, PrimadonnasâÄù now serves as a greater testament to both her creative and personal interests.
âÄú[Our team is] all queer, so I wanted to do something that specifically dealt with queer issues,âÄù she said. âÄúIâÄôve never done anything that specifically political before and I feel like my skills as a playwright now are strong enough to do that.âÄù
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 WilliamsâÄô one-woman script, âÄúV for Victory over CubaâÄú âÄî also showing this year âÄî easily endure such burdens. For others, costume flourishes and lavish set design take a backseat to performance during Fringe.
âÄúI think a lot of the showâÄôs character comes from the actors and the way they carry themselves,âÄù Day said. âÄúWhile theyâÄôre holding these identities, theyâÄôre still in prison uniforms. Well, the best-I-could-do prison uniforms.âÄù
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.
âÄúThe [theater arts] BA program at the [University] is a great program and gives students a lot of opportunities to create self-generated work,âÄù Williams said, âÄúbut itâÄôs always under the watchful eye of faculty.âÄù
While the event is regularly stocked with a menu of local pros âÄî Joking Envelope and Box Wine Theatre to name a couple âÄî the performances that benefit the greatest seem to also be the smallest. ThatâÄôs not just what Fringe Festival does best. It seems to be what itâÄôs all about.