For many years, I’ve been involved in a performing arts festival called The Minnesota Fringe Festival. There are many Fringe Festivals across the globe and while my plays have been produced at other festivals many times, I’ve never personally experienced another festival.
On twitter, I recently described the Minnesota Fringe Festival as a mash-up of vaudeville and an all you can eat buffet, but better.
The vaudeville aspect is easy to define. There’s comedy, dance, music, drama, storytelling, stand-up, and strange hybrids. Some year, I will attempt to combine every possible style of performing arts with a show called Mein Kampf: The Musical. It will have singing, dancing, storytelling, probably some mime, and it will be a comedy with moments of dramatic relief.*
The all you can eat buffet is a more bizarre comparison, but more accurate. The festival embodies all that I think is good, and a few necessary evils, in live performing arts.
There are something like 800 performances of over 100 shows. It’s impossible to devour it all. But that whole buffet is spread out in front of you, so you feel like you should keep loading up your plate. Some of the shows will be the best thing you ever tasted, others will be amazing delicacies that are not for you, and just a few will be food poisoning covered in a light Hollandaise sauce.
The sickness inducing plays are one of the absolute best things about the festival. Because the festival is non-juried, anyone can put up a show. A lot of the shows that are difficult to sit through are by young, inexperienced performers. The Fringe offers them a place to learn so the world can later have more awesome, experienced performers.
The first show I did at the festival was far from polished. I got cut in the face with a plastic battle axe while wearing a propeller beanie. I got blood on my hand and when I went to toss a fellow performer a rubber chicken, it stuck to my hand because of the band-aid I had sloppily slapped on my fingers backstage. It was not as entertaining as that makes it sound.
Early on, it was also not the most organized festival. One year, I got my cut of the box office directly from the festival producer. He handed me cash in Loring Park. If you are not from Minnesota know this: At the time, it was not unusual for an older man to hand a younger man cash in Loring Park. It was just not usually for doing a comedy show.
The festival is a well organized buffet now. Audiences stand in line for the beef stroganoff, passionately debating whether or not the macaroni n’ cheese needed sausage or if the meat just made the dish too flamboyant.
The performers and the audiences mingle as they rush from show to show and hang out at bars and restaurants. There is a sense of community, energy, and even urgency. After most theater performances, audiences shuffle quickly out of the theater to go hug their televisions and tell them they were missed. The direct connection between artist and audience at the festival is a powerful experience of the “live” part of “live performance.”
The festival has also had great success getting audience members to write online reviews. The vast majority of them are full of passion and excitement to share new discoveries and old favorites. Some are bitter debates. “It’s called MACARONI N’ CHEESE why is there f**king SAUSAGE in it?” A few are posted by straight-up internet trolls. Artists will find themselves chastised by people who don’t use their real names. We thank you for your incredibly strong, often factually inaccurate, and safely anonymous opinions, Butthead 27 and Theatre Luber.**
Again, the reviews are like a buffet. Some of them are delicious. Others are hard to digest but there’s no way for an artist to learn to stomach a coleslaw stuffed turkey dog without the practice.
The festival has been a big part of my life as a writer, performer, and comedian. It’s given me a place to experiment, succeed, fail, and succeed again. I’ve had a chance to interact directly with the audience, both onstage and off. I’ve met hundreds of other artists. I’ve drank thousands of beers with them. And a huge amount of my name recognition and success in Minnesota (and nationally as a playwright) is because of my performances at the Fringe Festival.
My show this year is a comedy about fear called Nightmare Without Pants. Over the years of doing the festival, I’ve learned what dishes I like to create as a writer and performer. It’s a comedy, but there is meat to it. It’s chocolate with chunks of bacon in it.
If you live in or near Minnesota, and that sounds intriguing to your palate, come check it out. And see as many shows as you can before the festival ends on Sunday, August 12th.
Gorge yourself until you are stuffed full of art, entertainment, and opinions about all of it.
Stay out so late drinking beer and/or pepto-bismol that your television starts to wonder where the hell you are.
*This is a joke. I will never do this. Hitler doesn’t deserve the press.
**These are not, to my knowledge, real reviewer names. I changed the fake names of people to other fake names to protect the probably not very innocent.