Fringe for the clueless: an expert guide to doing it, loving it, and living to tell about it

No wonder they call the Fringe Festival “Minnesota’s Theater Invasion.” For 11 days starting next Thursday, July 31, Minneapolis will be overrun by hordes of actors, dancers, singers, storytellers, musicians, improvisers, puppeteers and clowns. Nearly 170 different productions involving more than 1,000 artists will take over 15 stages in Uptown, downtown, and on the West Bank for 878 performances, each lasting an hour or less.

More than 50,000 tickets will be sold. Lines will form. Heated discussions will spring up between strangers. Faces will fall as shows sell out. People will lie about being sick so they can take time off work. Some have already planned their vacations around this year’s Fringe, the 21st, which makes perfect sense if you love the performing arts and have the time.

Let’s say you’ve never done the Fringe, or you want to do it better. Who are you going to call? Jeff D. Larson is in his first year as executive director but has been involved with the Fringe for 15 years. We called him.

Jeff D. Larson

MinnPost: What exactly is the Fringe?

Jeff D. Larson: The Fringe is an uncurated performing arts festival that runs for 11 days every August in Minneapolis. It’s in multiple venues and the important thing to know is that all the shows were selected by lottery, which means anybody can be in it, from professionals to first-timers.

MP: Who should go?

JDL: Everyone should go. People have this impression of the performing arts that it’s something you need to dress up for, that it’s serious, and that it’s something you should do. This is just fun. It should be as much of a staple as the State Fair.

MP: Say I’m brand-new to the Fringe and I don’t know a thing about it. What’s the first thing I should do?

JDL: You should check the website and bounce around in the show listings and look for stuff that looks interesting. Read the press, which does a great job of advance notice on the shows. The most you can possibly see in the festival is 55 shows. Finding the right one to start with is essential.

MP: And how would I find the right show?

JDL: Start by looking at the Fringe’s Facebook page. We’ve been listing the shows that are selling the most in advance, and that’s a good early barometer of what the experienced Fringe-goers think is going to be good.

MP: How important are Facebook and Twitter to the Fringe experience? Should people check them frequently?

JDL: Yes, but what’s more important, once they get to the festival, is talking to other people in line. The Fringe is one place where Minnesotans will talk to people they don’t know. Those conversations in line – “What have you seen that’s good?” “What should I avoid?” – are more valuable than social media once the thing starts.

MP: The Fringe can be overwhelming. There’s so much going on in so many places. What’s one way to make it more manageable and enjoyable?

JDL: Camp out in one neighborhood or venue and see a couple of shows there, instead of trying to move between venues or drive to a different part of the city. All of the venues are in clusters. There’s downtown, there’s the West Bank, and there’s Uptown, so you can stay in one place and see a lot of shows.

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Once reviews start coming in — both in the press, and audience reviews on our website — it gets clear quickly what people are recommending. That can make the festival feel smaller, when you have people to guide you through it. The community springs up around the Fringe to help you find shows.

MP: Tell us about the new website. It seems very easy to navigate, and it’s smartphone-friendly.

JDL: It’s not just smartphone-friendly. It was designed on phone screens. It’s primarily designed to work best on smartphones, because we know that people want to pick out shows and post reviews while they’re out and about at the festival. It scales itself up for computer screens, but every bit of functionality is there on any screen size.

The website is an outgrowth of that struggle that you talked about, of the Fringe being overwhelming. The last thing we want to do is scare people away. The first page of the website has only three buttons — Shows, Tickets, Venues. They’re kind of a guide for how to move around the Fringe. Pick shows, get tickets, get there. It couldn’t be any simpler.

MP: As you’re looking through shows on the website, you can sort them by genres, or categories. Most are self-explanatory — Comedy, Drama, Improv, Shakespeare. But there’s one that seems very Minnesotan: Something Different. What does that mean?

JDL: Simply that something that doesn’t fit into the other categories or is mixed. There is the Minnesotan reading of that, but in this case, a combination of dance and drama would go into Something Different.

MP: Is a printed program available?

JDL: There will be a printed schedule grid that acts as a supplement to the website. You can pick it up at any of the venues, and there will be a downloadable version on the website a couple of days before the festival opens.

Kafka Nuts

MP: Are there any returning favorites this year?

JDL: There are. A lot of people do the Fringe every year, lottery permitting. Mike Fotis is doing a show called “Fotis Canyon.” Live Action Set has done the Fringe a bunch of times; they’re doing a site-specific show [“Crime and Punishment”] at the Soap Factory. Joshua Scrimshaw has been doing the Fringe longer than I have. He and Levi Weinhagen are doing a show this year called “Kafka Nuts.” The other returning favorite that comes to mind is a Milwaukee dance duet, Monica Rodero and Dan Schuchart. They’re doing a show called “Duetted.”

MP: Any not-to-miss newcomers?

JDL: I’ve heard great things about a show called “Lazerjuice” [by The Live Instructional Video]. [A group called] theater simple is doing “The Death of Brian: A Zombie Odyssey.” Catalog Models is doing one of the site-specific shows [“Into the Unreal City”].

Lazerjuice

MP: Are the site-specific shows new this year?

JDL: Yes. There used to be a program in the Fringe where you could bring your own venue. If you ran or rented a theater, you could make it part of the festival. We got rid of that because we wanted to be a pure lottery. But we also wanted to open the Fringe up to shows that don’t fit into a regular theater. So this year we have an outdoor walking tour and an immersive show and a metaphysical travel agency, all of which would not have fit into the Fringe in prior years. I’m excited to see what they do.

MP: What kind of Fringe advice would you give your best friend?

JDL: I would give two pieces of advice to my best friend. First, go to more than one show. The biggest mistake people make when they come to the Fringe is they see one thing – maybe they know someone involved in a show – and then they go home. You’re really shorting yourself on the experience if you do that. And seek out things that give you something to talk about afterwards. You want to go to the bar and have something to discuss. That is my other piece of advice: go to the bar afterwards. The Fringe is not just a performing arts event. It’s the best party in town.

MP: Any particular bar?

JDL: The opening night is at the Republic in Seven Corners. Closing night is at the Varsity. Every night during the Fringe, we’re at Fringe Central, which is the Crooked Pint. That’s for audience members, artists and volunteers. Everyone involved in the Fringe goes to the same place.

MP: What advice would you give your mother?

JDL: I would tell my mom to pay attention to the content warnings on the show pages. Fringe artists are responsible for and very good at telling you what kind of experience you’re going to have when you go to their show.

MP: We heard a few F-bombs at a Fringe Previews event last week.

JDL: Unusually, none of them came from me.

MP: Are there any basic rules of Fringe behavior?

JDL: Don’t show up late. That’s about it. We don’t do late seating. Other than that, you can do whatever you want. Just come and enjoy the show.

MP: Are there any other expert tips you’d care to share?

JDL: You can stay in a cluster of venues, as I said before, but don’t get stuck. Definitely move between venues, because this is a great way to see a bunch of spaces in town you might never have gone to. And get a multishow pass. The Fringe is so much more fun if you’re not pulling your wallet out every time you go to a show.

MP: Final words?

JDL: The Fringe is low-stakes, it really is fun, and it’s not difficult.

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Sign up on the Fringe site and you can start planning your schedule and buying tickets now. You must have a Fringe button ($4, available online or at all venues) to get into any Fringe show. Buy one and remember to wear it or bring it; when Fringe ends, hold onto it, because it’s good for discounts year-round at theaters throughout the Twin Cities. Single tickets to all Fringe shows are $12 for adults, $5 for kids age 12 and under. (Those prices have not gone up since 2008.) If you plan to see a lot of shows, save money with a multi-show pass. 

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