Hello, world! I'm back from my eclipse vacation. Instead of performing obscure rituals to ensure the reemergence of the sun, I was treated to a thunderstorm that blotted out the light before the moon ever got a chance, and then I had to cut my trip a day short to visit my grandmother in the hospital. It's almost as if some dark forces were plotting to stop me. Fortunately, someone else's rituals must have worked, because the sun continues to rise in the east. That's what we call "necessary redundancy"! Eat it, forces of evil!

So, in celebration of the continuation of the light, let's start off this week's edition of News and Notes with some happy news, because it just gets darker from here on out. I mean, Chuck E. Cheese just killed off their animatronic animal band, so there must be darker forces at work here.

To that end, let me give a hearty congratulations to this year's Sally Award winners! Playwright Rihanna Yazzie, spoken word artist J. Otis Powell, Guthrie accessibility manager Hunter Gullickson, Hmong performer Bee Yang, and puppetry company Z Puppets Rosenschnoz are all recognized this year for their contributions to the arts and to their fellow man. Keep of the good work, folks. You're fighting the good fight, and you're winning!

The future of Fringe

Now that Minnesota Fringe Festival is wrapped up for this year, it's time to release the numbers on the whole shebang, and Twin Cities Arts Reader is there to parse those numbers within an inch of their lives. Overall, attendance was down at MN Fringe for the second year in a row, with revenue falling to its lowest point since 2008.

Out on the social media circuit, there's been a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking about why attendance has fallen at our Fringe, with electronic fingers pointing in every direction; but the sad fact is that attendance at American Fringe festivals was depressed pretty much across the board this year. The long-established Orlando Fringe (slightly older and larger than ours) experienced a noticeable dip in attendance, as did the younger and smaller, but up-and-coming Cincinnati Fringe. The New York Fringe actually canceled this year's festival and recently announced that they will return next year with a vastly scaled-down enterprise.

This could all be coincidence; but I will say, in my experience with nonprofit theater organizations, whenever there is major political turmoil, spending on the arts takes a hit. The worst years for fundraising and selling tickets have always been those years divisible by four, when we're all obsessing over who ought to do the Presidenting for the next four years. Since our current President is already running for his next term, despite only being 7 months into his "tremendous" first term in office, I don't see this as especially surprising.

Look at our neighbors to the north. Canada, whose government is looking awfully good these days by comparison (partially by way of their leader looking awfully good), doesn't seem to be having these troubles. The Toronto and Edmonton Fringe festivals set attendance records this year, while Winnipeg clocked their 2nd-biggest attendance with a 21% increase in income over last year. I can't help but wonder if their lack of concern about a thin-skinned "leader" blustering his way into pointless, petty bullshit day after day might have something to do with it.

But, success can be its own downfall. Over in Scotland, the Mother of All Fringes is facing criticism that it is too popular. Despite the fact that the local newspaper has slashed its coverage of the festival, the original Fringe has basically consumed all of Edinburgh, so I guess it was inevitable that the hipper-than-thou set would start complaining, "it used to be cool, but then it got popular." (Though, when the festival has grown large enough that there is a "best joke of the Fringe" award, they may have a point.)

As that great sage, Yogi Berra, said (or rather, borrowed, since that's what great sages do): "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

Then they came for the directors

I'm sure there's bound to be somebody out there screaming at their glowing rectangle right now ""Why do you have to make everything political?!"; but I will always remember the very wise thing that the playwright Mac Wellman told me: "All theater is political." The Greek word from which "politics" derives, polis, literally meant "city", but was also used to describe the body of citizens that made up that city. Politics is people. Since our goal should be to tell stories about people, I believe Wellman is right. All theater is political.

Look no further than Russia. Under the leadership of our current president's dreamboat, Vladimir Putin, that nation has been increasingly clamping down on the arts as a way of controlling the public's perception of the government. In the past week, acclaimed film and theater director Kirill Serebrennikov, the Artistic Director of Moscow's Gogol Center, was arrested by Russian investigators on charges of embezzlement. Many of the claims against him hang on accusations that Serebrennikov billed the Russian government for plays that never occurred. Despite the fact that one of the plays in question actually ran for 15 performances, the Russian investigators have insisted on this fiction.

Why would they do such a thing? Obviously, they are cleaning up waste, fraud and abuse, citizen! There's nothing to see here. Move along. I said move along!

Except, it's hard to ignore the fact that the Gogol Center was Russia's premiere avant-garde theater, and that Serebrennikov was famous for championing gay content and for inserting criticism of the Putin regime into his work. Those who do not buy into the wild accusations that a theater company could somehow fake the public performance of multiple works of theater that many people clearly remember occurring see this as fitting right in with Putin's long-running campaign to clamp down on any dissent and to control any contrarians through fear. Charging political dissenters with embezzlement is is a much-loved practice of the current regime in Russia. It shouldn't come as a surprise that a nation run by a former KGB agent would target artists. It was a favorite pastime of Stalin. If you had a good theater history class, you might remember that the famed Russian theater maker Vsevolod Meyerhold died at the hands of the Soviet government, because they didn't like his plays. That's exactly the kind of society that Putin is nakedly trying to reproduce; and Putin is exactly the kind of guy that our own dear leader looks up to. Isn't that comforting?

Fortunately for Serebrennikov, he hasn't met an untimely death (yet). For now, he is under house arrest, while the investigators take their sweet time putting together a case that makes even a lick of sense. In the meantime, a group of German theater makers has been petitioning for Serebrennikov's release, and a growing number of artists from around the world have joined them. In Russia, hundreds of artists showed up to protest the arrest.

I don't envy Serebrennikov. Even if Putin's government can't get away with having him executed by the state, they can and will find ways to destroy everything else in his life. This is what authoritarians have to do. Such "strong" men are too thin-skinned to survive criticism.

Think about that the next time you go to the polls, my fellow polis.

Who's afraid of a black Virginia Woolf?

Remember when everyone was mad that the Edward Albee estate knocked down a production of Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf? for casting one of the characters as a black man? (Of course not! That was months ago.) Did you know that it's perfectly OK to do an all-black production of the show? As it happens, Albee's thoughts about the casting of his famous play were far more nuanced and thoughtful than anyone screaming about it on either side of the debate ever imagined.