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Jeff Larson on the Fringe's new day passes — and how to pick shows

Executive Director Jeff D. Larson is about to start winding down.

The Minnesota Fringe Festival, our state’s annual spree of uncurated, uncensored, anything-goes theater, is winding up to begin next Thursday, Aug. 4. The numbers are staggering: 11 days, 168 shows, 869 performances, 15 stages, over 1,000 actors, and thousands of people out and about, lining up to see shows, yakking about shows, reviewing shows … bingeing on Fringe.

Meanwhile, Executive Director Jeff D. Larson is about to start winding down. “I’m reaching the end of my usefulness,” he said by phone Thursday morning. “There’s a point, usually on the Tuesday before the festival, when nobody will need anything from me anymore. The machine takes over.”

New to the Fringe this year (besides every show in it, and two new venues) is a radical pricing structure. Before, you bought a ticket to every show you wanted to see, or a multi-pass for several shows. This year it’s all about day passes. A weekday pass ($16) gets you into up to four shows on that particular day, a weekend day pass ($22) up to seven. Wearing your day pass wristband, you breeze into theaters, bypassing the box office and the sometimes long lines that have frustrated Fringers (and volunteers) in the past. If you’re worried about a show selling out, you can make a reservation for $3.75 and guarantee you’ll have a seat.

Minnesota is the first Fringe to try day-pass pricing. We spoke with Larson about that and more.

MinnPost: The day pass is a huge change. Why are you doing it?

Jeff D. Larson: We’re doing it for two big reasons. First and most important is a thing I discovered when I started going to other Fringes. My whole time at this Fringe, I’ve been working for it, and experiencing it with a festival live pass, and it’s been easy for me to take chances on shows because they don’t cost me anything extra. But when I started going to other Fringes, I realized that when you’re buying tickets à la carte, you’re never adventurous. You’re never going to take a chance on anything.

We’re preaching this message of “go be adventurous, go take chances on new work,” but the pricing structure was in the way. The day pass is an incentive. You’re out already, you’ve already paid; go see something nuts. Go see something you’ve never heard of. Our mission is connecting adventurous artists with adventurous audiences, so I feel that now the whole operation fits the mission so much better. 

The other reason is as we’ve grown, it’s gotten harder and harder to get so many people through the lobbies in 30 minutes. By simplifying operations and making everything easier for newcomers to understand, and with everything moving much quicker through the lobbies, we can get more people in to see the work. And once you’re out, you can go to whatever you want without pulling your wallet out again.

MP: This also makes Fringe super affordable. If you buy a weekday pass and you go to four shows, you’re paying $4 a show. Last year’s tickets were $14 a show. That’s a big price disparity. Are you worried about that?

JDL: I’m not. We ran a trial of this last year, a really small-scale experiment, and it is a huge discount if everybody sees all of the shows they can. Chances are that’s not going to happen. There will absolutely have to be some adjustments after the first year; we’ll learn a lot from this. But I’m actually feeling good about how the revenue plays out. The artists will end up making more money than they did last year, and in a more fair and transparent way, because we’ve also changed how the artist payout works.

MP: What advice would you give somebody coming to Fringe for the first time, to make it really easy and fun?

JDL: I would say pick a neighborhood, stay there and only plan your first show of the night. Once you’re out, talk to the people in line with you or sitting next to you in the theater, because that’s where you’ll get the best advice. That’s how I find out about shows. I sit in the theater and talk to people, and I go to Fringe Central and ask, “What have you seen?” That’s the hobby of the Fringe audience, to ask, “What have you found? What’s good? What should I see next?” Once you plug into that, you might very well be going to a show at 8:30 that you hadn’t heard of at 6.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Fringe Festival
“PENELOPE”

MP: And read the reviews on the Fringe site.

JDL: Oh, yeah. The traffic on reviews is huge. People wrote over 4,000 reviews last year. I think we’re all getting really good at decoding online reviews now, and you can kind of tell if somebody is like you and has similar tastes, based on what they did and didn’t like. Once you start following specific reviewers, or find the people who are like you on the website, it’s easy to parse out “if they liked it, I’ll probably like it, too." 

MP: Any advice for expert Fringers who already know it all?

JDL: I think a lot of people who’ve been coming for a long time might still be intimated by talking to the artists. Because that’s so not a part of going to any other form of entertainment in the Twin Cities or anywhere. If you go to the Guthrie or big music festivals, you’re not talking to those same people at the bar that night that you just saw on stage. That’s something I would encourage everyone to do at the Fringe. If you see somebody with an artist’s pass, walk up and ask them about their show. They would like nothing more than to tell you about it.

MP: How do you decide personally which Fringe shows you’re going to see?

JDL: A couple things. I shoot a few shows for the festival. I’m a photographer as a hobby, so I look for the pretty ones. I also look for weird. I love the strange work. The Fringe is full of comedies and standup and pop culture mashups, and those are all great, but what I really want to see is somebody, especially earlier in their career, who’s trying something that wouldn’t work anywhere else. I’ll see as many of those as I can.

MP: Any thoughts about what might be this year’s must-see breakout show?

JDL: Yes, but I’m not going to tell you. … The real answer is every time I’ve tried to predict that in the past – and I’ve been working on this festival for 17 years now – I’ve been wrong. But I always know by the second day. If by the second day you’re hearing people talk about a particular show in the lobbies, you know it’s going to blow up.

MP: There’s already some buzz about “Gilligan: A Tropical Musical.”

JDL: Yeah. That company [Literally Entertainment Productions] had last year’s breakout show, “Oregon Trail: A Musical.” They weren’t on anybody’s radar before the festival opened, and they did extraordinarily well.

MP: Will there always be a Bollywood show in the Fringe?

JDL: I hope so! What’s great about Bollywood Dance Scene is now that they’ve been so successful in the Fringe, I hear from a lot of other Bollywood and South Asian and worldwide ethnic styles of dance. They’re like, “Wow, I never thought the Fringe could be for the kind of work I do, but now I see this, and I want to be a part of it.” So we’ve been getting a lot more applications.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Fringe Festival
"The Lost Anklet - Therukkoothu"

MP: Which is diversifying the Fringe as well.

JDL: This is how we get diversity. You have to convince the first company to take a chance, and then their audience comes along, and other performers in that style come along, and all of a sudden you have so many more communities participating.

MP: Is there anything else you want to say about this year’s Fringe?

JDL: What I want everybody to know is that Fringe is so much simpler and easier this year. By its very nature, the Fringe is huge and intimidating. The day passes will make everything so much easier for everyone to come out and take a chance. You don’t have to know everything or spend hours on the website planning. It’s like – come out and take a flyer on something.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The picks

Tonight (Friday, July 29) at Studio Z: All Originals Jazz Series: Music of Will Kjeer. Two world premieres, a Twin Cities premiere, and more original music from young pianist/composer Kjeer and his band: Graydon Peterson on bass, Rodney Ruckus on drums, Stephanie Wieseler on saxophone, Jake Baldwin on trumpet. In the listening room on the second floor of the Northwestern Building in Lowertown. 8 p.m. FMI and tickets ($10).

Saturday at the Film Society’s St. Anthony Main Theatre: National Theatre Live: “The Audience.” Helen Mirren, who was born to play Queen Elizabeth II (see “The Queen,” the 2006 film for which she won an Oscar), is back again as HRM in the Tony-winning West End production about the Queen’s private weekly meetings with her prime ministers, from Winston Churchill to Margaret Thatcher and, up until Brexit, David Cameron. Stay after for a recorded Q&A with Mirren and Oscar-nominated director Stephen Daldry. Just one showing, at 1 p.m. FMI, including tickets ($20) and trailer.

Courtesy of the Loring Park Art Festival
Loring Park Art Festival

Saturday and Sunday in Loring Park: Loring Park Art Festival. Wait – isn’t Loring Park next weekend? The same as Uptown and Powderhorn? Not anymore. After 17 years as one of three art festivals happening simultaneously, testing the stamina of even the hardest-core art-fair devotee, Loring Park broke away and jumped ahead a week. A record number of artists applied. New this year: a “Paint the Park” plein-air competition (watch artists work, vote for your favorite, and make your own creation in the Wine and Canvas booth), more activities for kids (paint and play a piano, learn letterpress, make dragonflies with artists from Mia), and two days of Open Eye Figure Theatre performing “A Parade of Oddities” from noon-4 p.m. But it’s mainly about the art: 140 artists, all juried in, working in 12 mediums and a vast range of styles. Plus food and entertainment. In beautiful Loring Park. This year, more than ever, you’ll want that free Metro Transit Art Pass so you won’t have to deal with road construction and parking in Loring Park, where there isn’t any. Or, if you must drive, park free at the MCTC ramp at 1420 Hennepin, walk one block on 16th St. into the park, and continue down to the pond. Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sunday 10-5. FMI here and here.

Sunday at Tornstrom Auditorium in Brainerd: Community Concert. The Lakes Area Music Festival begins with music by Beethoven, Doppler, Mendelssohn, David Dickau, John Hummel, Stephen Paulus’s “Pilgrim’s Hymn,” Phil Mattson’s “I Hear Music,” a suite of English folk songs and more. Doors at 1 p.m., music at 2. 804 Oak St. in Brainerd. Free and open to the public. FMI. The festival continues through Aug. 21. View the rest of the season here.

Courtesy of Richard Parker
The Mouldy Figs have played at the Mainstreet Bar & Grill in Hopkins for about 15 years.

Sunday at Casper & Runyon’s Shamrocks: Mouldy Figs Tribute. Anyone who knows or cares about trad jazz knows the Mouldy Figs. Named indirectly by Studs Terkel, the Figs have been a Minnesota institution for 40-plus years, playing countless parties, corporate events, church services, political fundraisers, riverboat cruises, the State Fair, Twins, Vikings and Saints games, and the Mall of America pre-opening party in 1992 (headlined by Ray Charles), and gigging regularly at Shamrocks, the Mainstreet Bar & Grill in Hopkins and the Bungalow in Lakeland. Founder and longtime director Jim Field has often said, “We always have fun and family in mind.” Field is stepping down from the top spot, though he’ll stay active in music, keeping up the rhythm of the Figs on drums, washboard and tuba. The celebration is set for 5:30-8:30 p.m. and musicians are encouraged to bring their axes. 995 7th St. West, St. Paul.

Monday in Loring Park: Grant Hart Associated, DJ Jake Rudh and “A Hard Day’s Night.” Walker’s annual Summer Music & Movies series begins with a rare appearance by the Hüsker Dü founder and co-songwriter Hart, backed by a full band, followed by a showing of the classic Beatles’ jukebox musical. Music at 7 p.m., movie at dusk. In case of rain, events will move to the Walker’s McGuire Theater.

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