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Minnesota Fringe theater fest to kick off Thursday

The 17th annual Minnesota Fringe Festival will kick off Thursday and run through Aug. 15. Over that time, 876 total performances of 169 unique shows will be presented at 19 venues across the Twin Cities.

It’s a dizzying two weeks for theater lovers, and at the center of it all is the Fringe’s staff, led by Executive Director Robin Gillette, who is preparing for her fourth season in charge of the festival.

MinnPost: Who is your audience?

Robin Gillette: They are people who are interested in taking a risk. The fact that we are uncurated and uncensored scares some people, but there are others who embrace that. They may or may not have heard of the show or seen the artist before, and it may or may not be to their liking. But for them, it is part of the adventure and part of the fun. Our goal is to find ways to lure our audience deeper into the experience.

MP: So how do you reach those who aren’t regular Fringe-goers?

RG: I will never say publicly that this is the best show, so we’ve always been in a bind for recommendations, so this year we’ve gone to people outside of us and gotten recommendations on what they are interested in seeing. For these Fringe Tracks, we’ve asked people like Bill Corbett (of Mystery Science Theater 3000 fame) for their recommendations. These people don’t know any more about the shows than anyone else, but based on their gut instincts, these are interesting shows. So, you can say to yourself, “I like Bill Corbett, he’s funny. I’ll see what he is interested in.”

We’ve made it easier to search the site for performances. There has always been a kids Fringe, but now we’ve added a special page for that. There is a segment of the audience who used to go to the theater all the time. Now they’ve settled down and partnered up and made babies — adding children to your world completely changes your life. We would like to use Fringe as a re-entry point. Here’s an easy way for you go to see theater. It’s short. It’s cheap and it’s fun.

MP: What’s new for 2010?

RG: We’ve taken the plunge and added a  venue. We had so many applications it seemed criminal to turn away so many. There’s a lovely studio theater behind the Ritz. It has a seating capacity of 60. (Fringe has also moved into the Jungle Theater and Theater in the Round for 2010.)

We’ve gotten smarter every year about what are the right questions to ask. We don’t care if you are doing Shakespeare or your own original work, but if there is tap dancing, we only have one venue. If there are really complicated lighting effects that limits what venue you can be in. The goal is to find the right venue for you.

If you have a big-cast musical, we want it on a big stage, but if it is a personal story, than the intimacy of that kind of show belongs in a small space. There are other considerations also. If you have a puppet show, for example, it doesn’t work in an in-the-round theater.

A lot of the artists are in panic stage right now. It’s really fabulous that the Fringe has the services to offer them to get through that stage. It’s important to offer guidance and connect them to the solutions to their problems — and to remind that this is fun. That’s the most important thing of all.

MP: How do you experience the actual festival?

RG: Before July, I have seen nothing of any of the shows. There is something really fabulous about sitting down next to a random audience member and both of us are having the same experience of seeing something that we have not seen before.

People should dive in full tilt. If you dip in and see just one show, then you are not really part of the experience that makes Fringe. Pick an evening or an afternoon, choose a venue, park the car or lock up the bike and come in and talk to people. There is something about Fringe that breaks down our Minnesota inhibition in talking to strangers. There’s an urgency to share information that breaks down the conversation barriers.

The Minnesota Fringe Festival runs Thursday-Aug. 15. Tickets are $12 for adults (plus $4 Fringe button) and $5 for children (no button required). Tickets are available at (866) 811-4111, at each venue’s box office 30 minutes before a performance and online.

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