Welcome to the Fringe
This is it, kids! The moment you've all been waiting for! It's the first day of the Fringe!
Since I don't open my own show until three days into this thing, I get to enjoy the first day entirely free of worry. As it is every year, it's just like going back to summer camp. All those friends you made last year are back, and in the meantime, there's some fun activities to sign up for and some crazy nighttime shenanigans that you're not going to tell your parents about later on. It's a good day. The weather is perfect. Everyone is excited at the potential of these 11 days. Even the most jaded among us are looking forward to the future, knowing that we've got what it takes to win this Fringe!
Not that it's a competition, of course.
After my first day of Fringing around, I wind up at the new Fringe central, the downtown Grumpy's. I've heard a bit of grumbling from Fringe artists about the new afterparty location. Last year, we got to be feted at the Republic in Seven Corners, dining on an array of meticulously-crafted plates replete with vegan options. The majority of Grumpy's menu appears to be deep-fried.
But I gotta be honest with you guys. A weathered barroom with a pinball machine in the corner is really more to my personal tastes. It's where the regulars are, and the regulars know what's what. You should listen to them, because they were here long before you, and they'll be here long after you leave. You know where I was at the Fringe closing night party at Triple Rock last year? In the weathered barroom with a pinball machine in the corner and a couple of regulars bellied up to the bar. It's how I do. I ain't never been too fancy.
Besides, the ambience of a back alley lounge is vastly improved when a table full of friendly faces greets you. And you know what tastes goddamn amazing at 1 in the morning? A basket of tater tots.
My mom and sister arrive on Friday for their very first, full Fringe experience. They have seen me in previous Fringe shows, but never have they dived in to watch show after show. Let's get them educated, folks! Let's show them what Minnesotans can do!
Which I accomplish by taking to see a bunch of shows from companies that are not from Minnesota. At Bryant-Lake Bowl, Hannah Starr drops a cassette tape into a 1979 boombox and spins the sounds coming out into comedy gold. Over at the Crane, Willi Carlisle picks and bows, stomps and strums, squeezes his accordion until your heart bleeds. In the Ritz Studio, Nichole Hamilton conjures the whackadoo Dame daDA, commanding you via megaphoneto to decorate Baby and enter her absurd world.
Hannah is from Chicago. Willi's from Arkansas. According to her bio, Nichole is from, well, everywhere. There were 20 different artists performing at the out of town showcase the day before the Fringe opened, and they have come from all over the country just to be here and share what they have with us. Hannah Starr got into the festival literally three days before it began after another show dropped out at the last minute. Within 48 hours, she was stepping off a bus from Chicago, newly-printed postcards in hand, and walking into her tech rehearsal. She left a job behind to be here. Willi Carlisle has been grinding through the US Fringe circuit for the past four months, living out of a van with his tour manager/director. Nichole Hamilton has bounced her act around the nation after developing it under the hot sun at Burning Man. Somewhere out there at Fringe there's a singer/songwriter from Ireland, a shadow puppet show from New York City, a Chicago-based dance group, a a transgender storyteller from Rochester, NY. You don't just have to come from out of state. We also have Minnesotan brethren from further-flung places than the outer-ring suburbs, from Rochester and Duluth.
Being a transplant to this state myself, I have always been appreciative of how welcoming the Twin Cities theater community can be. You're a big bunch of beautiful nerds, and I love you guys.
But that sense of welcoming is put to a severe test later on at Fringe Central. Out on the back patio of Grumpy's, a wedding party materializes out of thin air. White dress, bridesmaids, groomsmen, the whole nine yards. The ceremony was in an event space next door. They were looking to continue the celebration, and they arrived here. At first, we do the neighborly thing of congratulating them, wishing the happy couple well; but very quickly things begin to turn. It starts when some of us are off in the smoking area, respectfully away from the crowd (I assumed). One of the wedding party approaches us with a basket of little soaps, shampoos and other assorted accoutrements that you would find upon checking into a nice hotel room.
"Would you like a mint? How about some hand sanitizer? Deodorizing spray?" he asks. It feels quirky and amusing. I imagine his joy at his buddy getting hitched, wanting to spread that joy to others. Then I find out that this offer may have been sarcastic.
He says, "Would you guys move away? The girls are bothered by your cigarette smoke." I look over. They are literally standing next to an ashtray in the smoking area. Several of their buddies are vaping right in their faces. But, hey, we're practicing being welcoming, right?
Then they step it up a notch. They turn their attention to the table next to them, full of Fringe artists: "Could you move to another table? We're a wedding party." Then the guys start talking loudly about suits and cars and sports and cigars, and I realize that this is either someone's elaborate prank on the theater kids, or the broiest bunch of bros that ever broed has just crashed our party. One of them comes up to me to ask if I know where he can score some cocaine. It's the moment that they start talking about ordering shots (or, rather, "SHOTS, DUDE, SHOOOOOOTS!") that I realize that I hate these people and their smug celebration of this impending divorce. What the hell is wrong with you? We were here before you.
But, hey, we're practicing being welcoming, right? After all, there were plenty of people in the bar before we got there, too.
Somewhere in the evening's festivities, I realize that the wedding party has disappeared en masse. Small miracles, right? As I make a run to the bathroom, I see them hailing Ubers out in front. I hear someone sitting at the bar, by all appearances a regular at Grumpy's, mutter, "Who were those assholes?" I pray that they're talking about the wedding party and not us.
Last night after the shows were done, I asked my mom and sister what they thought of the Fringe show far. My mom says, "I love it! We should make plans to do this again! Everything has just been so good!" Those of you familiar with dramatic irony will know what happens next.
The very first show that we see today is terrible. My mom and my sister have no training in theater, but they quickly identify all of the serious flaws in this piece. I'm concerned that this might sour their mood on Fringe (I assure them that, "It's not a real Fringe until you see one show that you hate."); but the rest of the day is spent seeing all those smart, talented, funny, engaging, above-average people that we're always bragging about here in Minnesota. Thanks, guys. You did me a solid there.
While we're running around, we run into Willi Carlisle, who's out handing out cards, trying to drum up business for his show. This is the hardest part for the out-of-towners, trying to win over the crowds of seasoned theater goers who have already loaded up their schedules with the homegrown talent that they readily recognize. Unless you can come right out of the gates with a smash surprise success (like the Fruit Flies Like A Banana folks did a few years back), it usually takes coming back to the Fringe a few times to win the audiences over. We stop and tell him how much we liked his show. He has the charming, "aw shucks" quality of an Arkansas farm boy, and I can tell that he's not too thrilled at this part of the job. "I'd like to be watching more shows," he says, "But I don't think my manager will be too happy if I don't get rid of all these flyers." After my mom hears that he'll be doing his show down in St. Louis later on, not far from where she lives, she says, "When you go down there, I'll make sure people show up."
I think she has a little crush on him. She's an Illinois farm girl, after all.
As I approach Grumpy's tonight for the after party, I hear a faint, booming sound that grows in intensity the closer I get to the door. Inside, Grumpy's is a cacophony of noise. At first I think that they have just turned their sound system up too high and blown out the speakers in the process. But then the door opens to the side room off the bar, and the loud, razor snarl of overdriven guitars cuts across the room. There is a hardcore punk band playing the side room tonight. Through the windows I see a small sea of black leather and metal studs, bodies banging into each other as the band belts through blistering, distorted, primal chords.
You can see the looks on the faces of the Fringe artists as they walk in the door. It's that universal look of, "Oh, shit." I learn from the Fringe staff that the bar had not told the Fringe that this was happening here tonight. Even with the door to the stage room closed, I have to shout to get my order in at the bar. I can see the Fringe artists immediately heading for the back patio to escape the noise.
But, you know what? The punks that come spilling out of that door from the stage room are a hell of a lot more respectable than the pressed-suit cocaine seekers from the night before. And I hope we are all respectable to them. We don't have to enjoy each other's tastes in entertainment, but I, for one, like people who find the thing that they're into it and embrace it wholly and without irony. That is definitely the crowd for this concert. So are we, for the most part. There's no reason why we can't occupy space next to each other without pissing each other off, and we manage that.
Much later in the night than I had planned on being out, I end up talking to one of the out-of-town artists. He had already been having a conversation with a staff member about changes the Fringe could consider making in the future to make it more enticing for touring artists to come through. In the past, there had been a hard, fast ban on artists selling merchandise after their performances, and veteran touring artists hate it. "At other festivals, we make 10-20% of our income off merch," he says. "We need to make at least $3,000 off a festival to make it worthwhile for us."
As some of us local artists chat with him, we start talking about average income per ticket. When he finds out what we made last year, he pulls up a calculator app on his phone. "I can't believe I didn't run this number," he says. After a few taps on his phone, he realizes that, at last year's payout per ticket, his show could pull in a maximum of $1,600 in ticket sales. And that's if they sell out every performance. They haven't done that yet, and they have already lost money on a previous Fringe festival this year.
"I understand the socialist model," he says, referring to the new wristband system at our Fringe and the way that it has made payouts more equitable for companies, "But if you're local, that means you've got a job to support you. This is our job right now, and it costs money for us to come here." At the very least, the Fringe has relaxed the ban on merch this time around. They'll be able to sell some product to make up for the loss; but when the bartender comes to kick everyone out at closing time, I see that "1600" figure still glowing on his phone.
Today is the last day my mom and sister are joining me for Fringe. We're waiting in line at the Southern, underneath big paintings of voluminous breasts. There is a visual arts organization in residence here, and they rotate different artists' exhibits through. This time, it's a series of nude torsos of large women. As art goes, they're perfectly respectable. It's certainly not what I would call pornographic; but we're here to see a kids' show, so there is a noticeable bit of tension in the line as liberal, theater-going mothers try to square their conscious decision to love and embrace all sorts of things with their knee-jerk instinct to keep their little tots from peeking at tits. "It's not that there's anything wrong with it," one mother says to another as they nod to a pendulous pair painted in blue, "I just would have liked to know." They try not to look again. But they do.
(It turns out that the Fringe would have liked to have known, too, especially about the opening reception that the art organization held in the lobby for this new exhibit, right in the middle of all the other Fringe happenings.)
According to my mother: "There's no faces showing, and they're abstracted enough that I bet kids don't even know what they're looking at." It's true. The little tykes running around don't seem to care that there are huge areolas staring at them from the walls. Like usual, kids don't know enough to know that they're supposed to be shocked and outraged by such things.
Waiting in line at another venue, we happen to see Dawn Bentley, the new Executive Director of the Fringe, and I realize that she is not there supervising or checking up on the staff and volunteers. She is handing out programs. From her resume, Bentley looks eminently qualified to steer this ship, but she doesn't come to us from the theater world, so it's nice to see that she's down here below the waterline seeing firsthand how the boards are all nailed together. So far, the Fringe artists seem to be welcoming her. (Actual quote heard at Fringe Central: "Oh my god, I am so in love with her right now.")
But when I sit down in the darkened theater, I realize that I am already beat after one weekend. I was up too late last night, and my dog experienced a violent seizure early in the morning. It was a little tough to keep my eyes shut after that. I'm running on three hours of sleep, and I still need to perform my own show tonight. I'm counting on a cocktail of caffeine and nicotine to help me red-eye through this.
As the audience comes in, I switch to producer mode and start counting butts in seats. It's a little disappointing; fewer people than at my opening night. I call up the calculator app in my head, trying to figure out the magical number of seats I need to fill in order to cover what I've spent on the show. But I have to shut that down before I arrive at a conclusion. I don't have the energy right now to run that calculation while dealing with the crowd. I am here to welcome them into this thing that I created, and that's all that matters now.
Of course, I screw up several things. I manage to skip over one of my favorite chunks of the script. I don't think they notice, but I'm pissed at myself, getting more and more fatigued, hoping to crawl across the finish line without anyone noticing that I'm about to crash. And what sums up Fringe better than that?
Tonight I skip Grumpy's in favor of eight solid hours of sleep; but I want to thank everyone who came here to applaud me tonight. You've all been so welcoming.