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Unraveling the Fringe

Intermedia Arts is the official Fringe concierge, with an info desk open every day. The Crooked Pint is the official Fringe hang; stop by after shows for beer and buzz.

'Someone Like Ewe' is one of the 165 shows being performed as part of the Fringe Festival.

Music festivals, I understand. Art fairs, no problem. But I’m as bewildered by the Minnesota Fringe Festival as I suspect many of you are. The largest non-juried performing arts festival in the U.S.? Eleven days, 165 shows, over 800 performances on 15 stages (14 in Minneapolis, one in St. Paul), over 1,000 artists? Fifty thousand tickets sold in 2010?

As James Lileks wrote in the Strib, “The Fringe Festival starts this week – 42,062 plays, more or less.”

Um, what’s on TV?

MN Fringe logoSeriously, we can do this. And if we enjoy the performing arts – comedy, drama, musicals, dance, storytelling, puppets, experimental whatever – it’s a crying shame to duck it because it’s just too much. So MinnPost sat down with Fringe publicist and data-brain Kate O’Reilly over granola pancakes at Hazel’s for tips on tackling the many-headed beast.

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“First,” she suggests, “figure out what days you can go.” Fringe starts Thursday, Aug. 2, and ends Sunday, Aug. 12. On weekdays, the first show is at 5:30 p.m., the last at 10 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays, the first show is at 1 p.m., the last at 10 p.m. No show lasts longer than an hour. All start and end promptly. There are 30 minutes between shows. Late seating is not allowed. And now you know how the schedule works.

Let’s say you have this Saturday free. Get thee to the Fringe website. Which, we note with reverence and awe, is fast, friendly, falling-over-itself helpful, and unlittered by sloppy writing and grammatical errors. 

(If you prefer having something to page through and scribble on, you can download and print a PDF of the program. Or pick up a printed copy at any of the venues. Only 5,000 programs were printed this year, compared to 110,000 in 2007.)

On the website, click on Saturday 4 August under “What’ll you see today?” Up comes a list of 104 shows.

But you don’t have to choose from among all 104.

“Know what categories you’ll eliminate,” O’Reilly says. Use “filter by genre” on the website to zero in on what you like. Click “Comedy” and everything else goes gray.

“Explore what you might want to see,” O’Reilly continues. Click titles to learn more. Hmmm. Who can resist “The Complete Works of William Shatner (abridged)”? As a word nerd, I’m drawn to “A Comedy of Edits.” 

“Look for shows happening in the same place or nearby,” adds O’Reilly. Note that shows are listed as “By the lakes” or “By the river.” You can walk between HUGE Improv Theater, the Bryant Lake Bowl and Intermedia Arts. Same for the Southern, Theatre in the Round, Mixed Blood and (a bit further) the four Fringe stages at the U of M’s Rarig Center. Lucky for me, both “Shatner” and “Edits” are at the Rarig. As are “The Gay Banditos,” “Candide,” and “Portrait of the Artist as a Yo-yo Man,” all comedies, all happening later that day.

The Gay Banditos promo shotCourtesy of Minnesota Fringe‘The Gay Banditos’ will be performed at the U of M’s Rarig center on Saturday, Aug. 4.

Create an account on the website — a refreshingly non-invasive procedure; you’ll give only your email address, first name, last name, and password — and you can keep a wishlist and schedule online. To order tickets, you’ll need to cough up the usual customer and payment information.

Worried about the rat’s nest of road construction on the West Bank? Fringe has arranged for $5 all-day parking in the Holiday Inn ramp. Click individual venues pages for advice on parking, bus routes, and bike rental kiosks.

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What about tickets? Buy in advance on the web, by phone (866-811-4111), or at the door starting 30 min. before each show. You’ll need a festival admission button ($4); get yours at the first Fringe venue you visit, then wear it to all the rest. Seating is general admission. Concerned that a popular show might sell out? Once the festival begins, you can go to any show page and check the schedule. A yellow bar over a date and time means 10 tickets or fewer remain. A red bar means that performance is sold out. No color means good to go.

Fearful you might catch Fringe fever, try to see everything, and collapse from exhaustion? “Because of how math works,” O’Reilly notes, “you can only see 56 shows at the most.”

Which shows should you see? That’s the question on the minds of most Fringe newbies. (Fun Fringe fact: roughly half of all attendees in any given year are first-timers.) For obvious reasons, O’Reilly can’t hand over her personal picks list. But she’s willing to point us toward “shows with interesting stories, or new people who have come out strong.”

Examples: “The Love Show! from ORL Productions. Big Thinkers, Serious Issues, Improv Comedy from The Theater of Public Policy, aka T2P2. Ivory Tower Burning by the Daily Planet‘s Jay Gabler. Broken Memories from the Eat Street Players. (“A serious story with a teen theme,” O’Reilly says. Those are few and far between.) You Smell Like Whiskey and Bad Choices from Raw Sugar, one of the best titles ever. Confession of a Drunk Mother from The Third Wave. (“Serious nonfiction,” says O’Reilly.) Evil Dicks from Mumble Mumble Productions. Walking Into Yes by Corey Walton, with blind and sighted cast members. Choose Your Own Adventure! from Zellyfish. (Suitable for kids.) Kafkaesque: A Musical Metamorphosis from Studio Alethea Productions. A Vaginal Home Companion from Riot Crrricket Productions. (Some Fringe shows are 18+.)Happy Hour by Sara Stevenson Scrimshaw. (Another 18+, this time for nudity.) Joe Dowling’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Julie on the Moon, featuring Kate Mulgrew as Lady Capulet from The Peanut Butter Factory (Dowling’s name is used with his permission). A Comedy of Edits by Callahan and Lingo. The Gay Banditos from The Mechanical Division. By the way, you can filter your Fringe website searches to return performances with GLBT content, political content, historical content, and other specifics. On each show page, look to the right of the brief description for a list of links. Click and find.

KafkaesqueCourtesy of Minnesota Fringe‘Kafkaesque: A Musical Metamorphosis’ from Studio Alethea Productions.

Intermedia Arts (2822 Lyndale Ave. S.) is the official Fringe concierge, with an info desk open every day of the festival. Buy multi-show passes, make reservations, ask questions, check the lost-and-found. The Crooked Pint (501 Washington Ave. S.) is the official Fringe hang; stop by after shows for beer and buzz.

You can, if you like, be a lone Fringe wolf, going to shows on your own, pondering them later in your room with the shades drawn. Or you can take advantage of the fact that Fringe is passionately and vigorously social. There’s the Crooked Pint. And a “Break the Ice Meetup – Fringe Style” on Sunday, Aug. 5: meet at the Republic at Seven Corners (the former Sgt. Preston’s) at 6 p.m., then head to one of the 8:30 shows at the Rarig. Here’s the Facebook invite. No surprise, Fringe is all over Facebook, YouTube and Twitter (follow the conversation with hashtag #mnfringe). BUT (<–big BUT) don’t think you’ll be tweeting or texting during performances. That’s against Fringe etiquette

A not-so-fun Fringe fact: for the first time in the festival’s 19-year history, there are no international shows. “Visa problems were the biggest barrier,” O’Reilly says. Thanks once more to Homeland Security for protecting us from terrorist artists. However, we will see shows from 15 states including our own. Twenty Fringe shows from out of town will present sneak peeks of their productions at a showcase on Wednesday, Aug. 1, at 7 p.m. at the Brave New Workshop Student Union.

And that’s Fringe in a nutshell, sort of. Turns out it’s not all that different from music festivals and art fairs. Pick something you think you’ll like, then go. Follow the shiny thing. Have fun. If you’re the cautious sort, you can wait until a week or so into the festival, then check the site for reviews. (Reviews will be posted, often and avidly. Last year’s count: 3,829. Expect more this year.)

O’Reilly promises “really big fails and amazing finds.” Some Fringe shows will go on to U.S. and world tours and extended runs at established theaters. “Trick Boxing,” which opens at the Guthrie on Aug. 17, had its premiere at the 2002 Minnesota Fringe. Buckets and Tap Shoes got its start at the Fringe in 2004.

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If you want, you can leave comments here about your Fringe experience.

On Friday, we’ll return to our regularly scheduled Artscape programming.