Shutting it down
Friends, we have officially Fringed out 2016. The Minnesota Fringe Festival swooped in for its 11-day carpet-bombing of theater across Minneapolis and has flown off again to lay in wait for another year. After a week and a half of frantic running from venue to venue to catch all the beautiful weirdness that you beautiful weirdos put out there in the world, we shut this thing down the only way we know how: with a booze-fueled blowout at the Fringe after-party.
This year, the closing night festivities of the festival went down at the West Bank's Triple Rock Social Club, switching it up from the past closing night hotspot we had gotten used to at The Varsity Theater. (There's probably a good reason for that.) Though I'm sure that there were more than a few theater people who were initially disappointed that the relative opulence of the Varsity's huge theater marquee, dramatic lighting and whimsical brickwork was traded in for the low-fi grunge of Triple Rock's concrete dance floor, ancient back barroom, and a pinball machine in the corner, it didn't seem to stop the Fringe hordes from filling the place to the brim and dancing their butts off. Honestly, though, I think the spirit of the Fringe—with all its scrappy, DIY, little guy, hard-to-define strangeness—is probably better represented by a bar co-owned by a member of a punk band. Besides, I'm pretty sure we could hold this thing in an abandoned parking garage, and the Fringe folk would still find a way to have a good time.
The final night of the Fringe ended, as it has for the past few years, with a drunken mass of theater people descending upon a fast food restaurant after bar close at 2AM. In the past, the Dinkytown McDonald's had to put up with our crap. This year, the plan was for the Taco Bell at Cedar and Franklin to receive the full force of the horde (to be followed a few hours later by the horde's intestines receiving the full force of Taco Bell). Unfortunately, our late night mob was stopped short when the initial raiding party that went forth ahead of the main division reported back the terrible news: this Taco Bell doesn't stay open 24 hours on Sundays. Thus, the mob broke up and disappeared into the night. I heard that one major contingent sallied forth and besieged Hard Times Cafe for its supply of early-morning breakfast foods. I joined a group at a friend's house for an impromptu snack session. As we drove away, passing the darkened Taco Bell one last time, we observed one lonely man angrily throwing things from his backpack to the ground outside the locked doors, his anger at the lack of tortillas, beans and cheese palpable in the purple glow emanating from the sign overheard. Hey, man, I sympathize: when you need a chalupa, you need that chalupa.
So, my Fringe experience, which began with panic and beer, eventually ended with a 3AM selection of meats and cheeses doing battle with the double bourbons in my belly. Somewhere in between, I watched all of you go forth, perform with confidence, and bring something new into the world. I also lost several games of pinball. Let's do this again next year.
So, let's add it all up. In the end, I saw 34 of the shows (about one-fifth of the whole festival). That's not a bad number, I suppose, considering that I was also performing in a show. My girlfriend, however, managed to complete the entire 56-Show Challenge, seeing a show in every available timeslot from opening day to the encore on closing night (roughly one-third of all the shows). If you see her, congratulate her. Also, give her some coffee, because she desperately needs it right now.
The festival as a whole had an attendance of 47,882. As noted in that article I just linked to, this is about 5% less than last year's record attendance of 50,338; but when you factor in that this year's festival had about 5% fewer performances, the average per-performance attendance remained virtually the same, at about 55 patrons. The wristband scheme may not have raised overall attendance, but it certainly made the lines at Fringe easier, so we can still probably chalk this change up to a win.
As the Fringe staff sifts through the numbers with a finer-toothed comb in the weeks to come, we may get some better information on how the new all-day wristbands have affected audience behavior; but this year's Fringe did yield an extraordinary number of sold-out performances (certainly more than I've ever seen). I overheard many, many audience members talking about just how good many of the shows were this year. As Todd O'Dowd at l'etoile magazine put it: "In all of the years I have attended the Fringe (as either a performer, volunteer, or critic), this was one of the strongest Fringe Festivals I’ve been to." Based on my own viewings of 20% of the shows on tap, I tend to agree.
Fringe Technical Director Liz Neerland also rolled out a new addition to the Fringe that I hope sticks around. On her Facebook page, Neerland announced what she called "the First Annual Minnesota Fringe Feral Tony Awards" in which the blackshirted techs of the Fringe voted on awards for their peers for "design, engineering/programming, and general Fringe shenanigans." This year, they gave recognition for lighting design to Brittany Pooladian, Tony Stoeri, Courtney Schmitz, Merritt Jane, Jenny Moeller, Karin Olson, Ursula K Bowden and Emmet Kowler. Recognition for engineering went to Jon Kirchhofer and Jesse Cogswell. In the category of Fringe shenanigans, Jake Pomeroy was noted for being the "booth food pic winner" and Mitchell Frazier received honors for bat catching. (A bat made an unscheduled appearance during a performance at the Playwrights Center, and it was dealt with.)
What did I miss?
For most of the past two weeks, we here at Minnesota Playlist been obsessively focused on the Fringe festival—following it, writing about it, taking pictures of it from a distance through an open window while it sleeps—so it's probably about time that we looked around to see what else has been going on in the theater world.
It turns out that it's not that much. With the world obsessing over the Rio Olympics and the world's longest, most grueling and embarrassing horse race (also known as the U.S. presidential election), there hasn't been a ton of of reporting on what those wacky theater people have been up to; but there are a few things. Here they are:
The Hennepin Theatre Trust recently announced that they are purchasing the old Solera building in Minneapolis. What they're planning on doing with the building's 28,000 square feet is anyone's guess at this point, but it's part of their continuing plan to turn downtown Minneapolis into an entertainment hub. It's also part of their plan to convince us to call the area "WeDo", which is apparently short for "West Downtown", and which apparently makes me urp up in the back of my throat just a little. I thought perhaps the Twin Cities could avoid this hollow marketing trend (as 99% Invisible calls it, "the Soho effect") in which real estate developers gin up a new neighborhood out of thin air by bestowing a silly name that locals would never in a million years use.
In other local news, it's time to say goodbye to Graydon Royce. The head of theater coverage at the Star Tribune has announced his retirement from the paper after 36 years. Royce has been working the theater desk since 2000, and he's seen a lot of things change around here. He was also named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in America by American Theatre magazine. Royce's departure will be a big change for theater coverage in the Twin Cities, but there's always the chance that it won't exactly stick. Remember when Dominic Papatola retired from the Pioneer Press back in 2010?. Yeah, apparently neither does he.
Out in the wider world, the arguing over LA's 99 Seat Plan is continuing apace. The LA Stage Alliance will be holding a town hall forum on the subject, which I'm sure will go really well, considering that how level-headed the rhetoric so far has been.
Oh, and you should know that Cats is doing really well in its Broadway return. I just like to keep you up to date on all the signs of the impending apocalypse.