Hello, News and Notes readers. This week, the powers that be at Playlist asked me to do something that resembles actual journalism by writing about the ongoing Minnesota Fringe Festival. I didn't want to get into reviewing shows, since we already seem to have that covered around here.
Instead, I just hung out in a bar and wrote about that. Luckily, that bar happened to be Red Stag Supper Club, the home of this year's Fringe Central.
Please indulge me in this flight of fancy. Next week we'll get back to the business of saying smarmy things about random theater news stories.
I have one last rehearsal tonight, so I miss out on the opening night of Fringe shows. Instead, we wrap up rehearsal early and bounce on over to Fringe Central to await the coming flood. Immediately upon entering, one of my castmates and I are accosted by a fan. Actually, my castmate is accosted by a fan. She loves our work, has seen all our shows. My fellow cast member points to me and says, "This is Derek. He's in all our shows, too." The fan looks at me, blinks, and says "Sorry, I don't recognize you," and goes back to gushing to my castmate. I'm definitely flying under the radar.
The first thing you notice in the Red Stag tonight is the DJ. He's up there spinning vinyl, checking his headphones for future playback, mixing and losing himself in the music; but he's not some hipster in tight pants playing with his toys. This DJ looks like your dad on the weekend. I half expect some sixteen-year-old girl to march up to the DJ booth and scream, "Dad! Stop being a DJ! You're embarrassing me! God! Mom, tell him to stop being a DJ! He's ruining my life!"
However, his mix is actually really good. Vintage vinyl dance cuts culled from the 70s and 80s; and we're not talking the typical crowd pleasers played at weddings, sung at karaoke bars or ironically dropped in indie darling movies. These are some deep cuts, and he's weaving them together almost seamlessly. No one will be dancing to "Heart of Glass" tonight, my friends. Raise your glasses to that!
It is loud, though. I know, I know: "If it's too loud, you're too old", and, yes, I am; but I had planned on recording conversations with other patrons tonight so that I didn't have to try to remember all the drunken hearsay that floats my way. I play back some test recording, but all I hear is an incoherent mass of gibbering voices wailing in the dark, set to the incessant thud of a kick drum pounding out the tempo of dance floors long forgotten but now resurrecting themselves. While that may be an apt metaphor for the Fringe, it certainly doesn't make for good listening.
But, you know what they say: "Whatever doesn't kill you isn't trying hard enough."
So, I turn to my brain and make a deal: "You remember all this shit until I get home, and we'll pickle you with bourbon later." The deal was made, and I searched for my hearsay and rumor.
The hearsay is that there's not much to report. Last year on day one, the tech staff dealt with a light board that died ten minutes before the first show. The year before that there was a big dumpster fire near Rarig. This year the biggest snag seems to be a wasp nest above the door to the Ritz Theater. And they're not even particularly aggressive wasps. I offer to arrange another dumpster fire, just to keep Executive Director Jeff Larson on his toes, but my offer is rejected.
There's the usual scuttle about Fringe producers pulling stupid hijinks. The winner for the night is a producer who sat in the audience during his show and took flash photography, which is definitely a bootable offense.
A cast member from Tony 'N' Cleo's Wedding told me that the shows housed at Nimbus are nervous that no one will make the trip up to Northeast to see them. He said his show did all right, but he heard that the shows before his had tiny audiences. There's some grumbling out among some of the Fringe artists that it's not fair to be put "so far away". I live in Northeast, so I know that Nimbus is actually ridiculously easy to get to from the "main" hub on the West Bank (35W to Johnson street exit, left on 18th, left on Central). I can tell you 100% honestly that I have made it from the U of M to Nimbus in 15 minutes on a bike (take the 10th St bridge across the river and work your way over to Central). But none of this matters. In the end, if a show at Nimbus bombs, at least they will be able to blame it on "audiences not wanting to come to Northeast."
Aside from the throbbing bass, the Red Stag is relatively subdued. The guy behind the bar looks a little bored. The people walking around handing out free samples of Schell's beer (a new sponsor for Fringe this year) are actually having trouble moving all their product. (I help out as much as possible.) At our table, our server arrives and says, "Sorry for the wait, guys, but I'm the only server on the floor tonight."
Oh, god. It happened again. Every time Fringe Central moves to a new location, the management of that establishment always fails to take into account both how many theater people will be descending on them and how much said theater people can drink. I ask a Fringe staff person, "Didn't you tell them how many people are going to be showing up?"
"Uh, yeah," comes the response. "They never believe us."
I guess I can't blame them. Here it is, nearly 11:00pm, and the dance floor is currently competing for the title of "Saddest Dance Floor in the City" (slightly behind a VFW lodge that just bought a used fog machine). The Schell's rep looks a little nervous. Red Stag is about to learn an important lesson about Fringe. At 11:15, the crowd from the 10:00 shows hits the doors, and the trickle of patrons turns into a flood. When the Bollywood Dance Scene crew shows up, the dance floor explodes. The noise and chaos increases exponentially as all that nervous energy of the opening night pours itself all over the amped up bass. "Tables" of people become meaningless as the night bursts open into one giant orgy of boozy networking. Tim Mooney is slinging coffee mugs with his show image emblazoned on them. Zoe Daniels appears at our table long enough to plug her show and get a little flustered when I tell her, "I've been to Toronto, and it's a damn fine city!"
The place is swamped. The bartender is certainly no longer slightly bored. At a certain point, I realize that it's been two hours since I ate my fish and chips and our server has not returned. I wonder aloud if she had quit. I mean, I would if I was in her situation. Red Stag had dispatched someone else to the serving floor just to try to keep up with processing payments. The volume of the room increases exponentially as everyone attempts to yell over the top of everyone else. Alcohol flows. A cloud of cigarette smoke forms around the entrance. The Schell's rep no longer looks nervous. Eventually, everyone gets their bills, and I hope they tipped that poor server well.
My voice hoarse from yelling across the table, I step out into the night, cutting through the smokers and the pockets of theater people greeting each other from half a block away and coalescing into hugs like soulmates who have been separated from each other by oceans of time. I haven't even seen a show yet, but this Fringe is already on.
I walk into Red Stag, my nervous system still buzzing from the jolt of adrenaline generated deep in the center of my ancient lizard brain during my show's opening night performance. As we were waiting to go on earlier, one of my castmates said, "Isn't it funny how your body is telling you this is something scary?" I think it's pretty funny that our brain comes hardwired with all these addictive chemical receptors that we spend our lives poking at. After all, what are actors but adrenaline junkies who are too afraid to bungee jump?
I'm coming from phillip andrew bennett low's show, my animal energy topped off with some heady thoughts about godhood and power. The adrenaline rush is subsiding, and I'm on the downward swing after my first full day of Fringing. Already, there's an edge of fatigue in my body, and I ponder the fact that I've been doing this Fringe thing for eleven years. Earlier today I happened upon some more of phil low's writing in an article on MN Artists about his love-hate relationship with Fringe. Thanks, phillip, for contributing to my post-show comedown.
I open the doors to the restaurant expecting another blast of dance-your-face-off bass, but your dad isn't DJing anymore, and the music is more subdued this time. There are multiple servers flitting about the place while a small platoon of bartenders stand by. Looks like Red Stag learned their lesson.
Immediately as I enter, a woman offers me a small glass of wine that she's pushing. She goes on about it's floweriness and finish, and I can't help but think, "Come on, it's just a merlot," but, you know what they say about gift horses and mouths. The wine is hardly gone before a tray of Schell's samples comes around. It's a hefeweizen, and while I am normally opposed to beer that tastes like bananas, I think that thing about horses and the fact that I'm already on my way to getting pleasantly toasted within ten steps of the door. Damn, Fringe. Whenever I think I might be getting tired, you get me drunk again. This may not be a healthy relationship, but, what the hell, I guess this party is on.
There's the usual frantic chit-chat around the floor, the postcard trading, the eternal question of "How's your show going?" You actually don't need to listen to the words that answer that question. Your answer is always in how long of a pause the answerer takes before speaking. But, at this point, the worry about selling tickets is low, and everyone's just happy to see everyone. There's a reason why long-time Fringe artists refer to these 11 days as "theater summer camp".
As the 10:00 show goers funnel in, the volume and energy of the place increases exponentially again. Still, there are some obsessive types pulling out their smart phones to check the reviews as they come in (myself sometimes guiltily included). In the past, every single audience review submitted to the Fringe site had to be eyeballed and OK'd by a Fringe staff person before it could be posted, which meant that reviews would usually not start showing up until the day after your show. This year, they rolled out an algorithm that checks for naughty words and posts them more or less immediately. (Actual humans do some spot-checking, though. I have seen some audience reviews disappear from the site.) An audience review of your show could now literally be up on the site before you've even changed out of your costume.
The Fringe office now has the time to field the small stream of complaints that they no longer provide a paper schedule of all the Fringe shows. Despite the fact that the Fringe always ended up recycling huge numbers of unused schedules in the past (and that lost schedules used to make up a significant portion of the trash blowing around Rarig), there are still calls for the Fringe to make concessions like this to those without computers or smartphones. "For shame!" I tell the Fringe staff, "And you haven't installed hitching posts at all the venues, either!"
I hear that the Star Tribune put out a paper schedule grid; but, in the eloquent words of one person at Red Stag tonight, "It sucks." In the meantime, some enterprising superusers have created their own schedule grids, and various home-brewed versions have been slowly multiplying and worming their way through those in the know.
As usual, I check Fringe Central for rumors. I hear that an out-of-town artist called in sick to their show tonight. The Star Tribune was supposed to be reviewing it. In the realm of good news, I hear that we already have our first sold-out show of the festival. It's those crazy Bollywood Dance Scene kids. They managed to sell out the ground floor of the Rarig Proscenium stage on their opening night.
I'm at a table that is near the impromptu dance floor that has sprung up in the space where the DJ used to be. It's the Bollywood group again. They break into dance almost anywhere. I guess they have reason to. They're on their way to being the best-selling show at the festival for a second year in a row. Although, they seem pretty happy just to be in Fringe at all. They're dead set on having a good time in this festival, and I have yet to see one of them checking their reviews on a smartphone.
At some point, I look up from my beer and find my table surrounded by their smiling faces. I'm being introduced. "I just wanted to tell you," one of them says, "that seeing [name of Fringe show I was in three years ago] is what made me want to do a Fringe show of my own." Then there's a pregnant pause, followed up by an apologetic "But, you know, we're just amateurs."
As I race to the bottom of my beer, I think about last week's News and Notes, and how much I really hate the use of "amateur" as derogatory or apologetic. Last year, Bollywood Dance Scene came out of nowhere and provided the Fringe with its big surprise hit. This year, they're a powerhouse, on track to completely sell out, balcony and floor, one of the biggest houses in Fringe. That's no small feat. I didn't even know that there was a sizeable enough Indian community in the Twin Cities to put on one giant Bollywood dance show, and now there's actually a competing one. These kids have got nothing to be sheepish about.
And I remember again what I love about Fringe. This is the theater world's Saturnalia. All the norms are out the window. A ragtag group of amateur Bollywood dancers grabbed the kind of attention the Guthrie would kill for.
Amateur. Professional. It doesn't matter here. The question is: are you having a good time?
"Yes," I think as I order another beer, "as a matter of fact, I am."
And the impromptu dance floor continues into the night.
Tonight, Red Stag is a blurry sea of theater folks. The free samples of Schell's barely make it out from behind the bar before they are downed. There are four bartenders now, and they can barely keep up with the crowd. The drinkers (and occasional theater artists) gather around the bar like flies on an old cantaloupe, three deep, waiting patiently without complaint in that way that only Minnesotans do. I eventually work my way to the front and decide to make this one count: double bourbon on the rocks. Now we're flying high.
In the corner, one large table has been taken over by a sea of black t-shirts. No matter where Fringe Central is, you will find this group cloistered away somewhere. It's the Tech table. While the performers are whirling around, mingling and promoting, the techs (or Blackshirts, as Fringe Tech Director Liz Neerland has come to call them) see all and know all. If you want to get the inside scoop on what shows to see, befriend some techs. But god help you if you were ever bitchy to one of them. They will all know you.
This is one of those nights where I don't seem to recognize anyone in the room. Who are all these people? Where did they come from? Every time I think I know who's who in this place, it all changes. I think maybe I'll give interviewing random people another try. I downloaded a new voice recorder app to my smartphone. Maybe it's better at picking up voices in loud areas. But there's someone wandering around with a big camera and a bright light doing on-the-spot video interviews, and I figure maybe that's enough for one room.
Red Stag is filling up to the brim. At some point, I meet a Haydell Sister. There's a rumor floating around that Bollywood Dane Scene topped their previous "sellout" performance by selling out both the balcony and floor at the Proscenium. But I also hear rumors that a musical parody of Star Wars is on the fast track to becoming the sleeper hit of the Fringe. There's also a show that is at the top of the leaderboards in terms of number of audience reviews, but I have yet to hear anyone talk about it. Literally no one at Fringe Central I have talked to knows anything about it. Fringe is a strange, strange beast.
The Fringe staff looks tired tonight. If this opening weekend of Fringe was like one big party, then we're at the 1:00am point where the hosts have realized that these people are not going to be leaving their house at a respectable hour, and the enormity of the hours between now and dawn, when the cleanup will have to begin looms long.
I don't stay at Fringe Central long tonight. Eventually, the sound and the fury is too much for me. I leave it for the party people.
I had another performance today, and spent the remainder of the day biking from venue to venue. At some point in the day, my blood sugar level dropped precipitously, and I was nearly hit by a car as I was sprinting across the street to get some food in my belly before the shaking and the eventual grayout of consciousness began. In line to order my food, a random person suddenly asks me about my vitiligo, which most Minnesotans politely ignore. It's been a weird day. When I finally roll into Red Stag, I'm just about beat.
There was some sort of block party today in the parking lot next to the restaurant. I was worried about the two events stacking up, but it's actually a quiet night at Fringe Central. The block party has already gone to bed, and the majority of Fringers have partied themselves out after three nights of getting dreadfully little sleep. Instead of the drowning crush of excited voices, the place has an almost peaceful calm. All the nine-to-fivers in the Fringe know that 9am will be coming tomorrow.
I settle in to a table with a small group of people that I know. Red Stag's menu tonight consists of whatever is left over from what they were serving at the block party next door. Instead of the hoity-toity lobster mac 'n' cheese, I was expecting tonight, I settle for a brat. Instead of shouting and frantically promoting our shows, we fall into a conversation about The Picture of Dorian Gray. Across the way from us, the cast of Edgar Allan chats with the cast of Fruit Flies Like a Banana, but no one seems to be in a hurry to talk about their own shows tonight.
I'm sitting here remembering a night back in college that started with a house party during summerstock and ended with me and a few other students going to Steak 'n' Shake at three in the morning with a couple of our professors and the head of the theater department. It was a random weekday in the middle of the summer, so the restaurant was mostly empty, except for us. Halfway through my sober-up pancakes, I realize that the best part of the night wasn't the cavorting and drinking, but the part where I found myself sharing food and conversation with people who were ostensibly part of my life, but with whom I would never have imagined I would be sitting across the table from at a Steak 'n' Shake at three in the morning.
So, thanks, Fringe, for a great opening weekend. The big theater party will continue all week, but I'll be back to doing the regular old News and Notes the next time we meet, at which time I assume we will all be just horribly hung over from the Fringe closing night party and subsequent after-party run to the Dinkytown McDonald's.
In the meantime, on with the shows!