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The Fringe’s Dawn Bentley: ‘I’m not willing to experiment with all the folks it takes to make this festival happen’

The largest performing arts festival in the Upper Midwest won’t happen this year.

Fringe audience
A Fringe audience gathering for a performance at the Rarig Center on the University of Minnesota campus.
MN Fringe Archive

Almost eight weeks into a lockdown that closed everywhere people gather for the arts, the bad, sad news keeps coming. Every day brings more cancellations, postponements and closures. Last Friday brought a big one, wiping out 11 days of theater, music and dance, hundreds of performances, work by more than 1,000 artists, 40,000 people in lines and lobbies and theater seats.

In its 27-year history, the Minnesota Fringe Festival has never been canceled. That changed with a one-page press release from Dawn Bentley, the Fringe’s executive director. The 2020 Fringe was scheduled for July 30-Aug. 9. The largest performing arts festival in the Upper Midwest won’t happen this year. Audiences won’t applaud, performers won’t get paid, and Minnesota won’t feel the Fringe’s more than $1.9 million economic impact, including $214,000 in state and local government revenues.

Fringe has offered to refund more than $40,000 in deposits to artists who signed up for this year’s festival. (Some artists have said no, keep our money, we’ll be back next year. Others don’t have that luxury.) Fringe also faces the loss of the $160,000 or so it nets from the festival. It is asking the public for $100,000 in emergency funding. This will keep it alive. Meanwhile, all Fringe staff, a surprisingly small group, will be furloughed or laid off.

Including Bentley. Not your typical arts leader, if there is such a thing, she’s a scientist by trade, a musician and a former professional bodybuilder. Before coming to the Fringe, she led Art Shanty Projects.

We spoke by phone on Tuesday. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: The 2020 Fringe was scheduled for early August. What made you decide to cancel now?

Dawn Bentley: I’ve been grappling since mid-February with the issue of whether or not to have the festival. I used to work for the Food and Drug Administration, where I was a research microbiologist that looked at transmission vectors of diseases. I became alarmed in early February and started talking to my board.

Dawn Bentley
Dawn Bentley
At first, they were like, “Are we being alarmist?” I have this history of work experience and interactions with famous epidemiologists like Michael Osterholm. Those are the voices I was listening to. I was thinking, “If this is a novel virus, and it is, and it takes so long to get researched appropriately and scientifically proven, I just don’t know if the festival can happen this year.”

Even if miracles ensued and the stay-at-home order was lifted entirely, without any caveats, on May 4, I didn’t think 90 days would be enough for people to feel comfortable. I think we’ve lost consumer confidence for this year. I wasn’t under the impression that we’ll go back to quote-unquote normal on that day anyway.

The unfortunate part is, Minnesota Fringe, along with a lot of other arts organizations – because of how the arts are funded, because of how society views the arts as being superfluous or extra, or something you do for entertainment only if you have extra cash – was already on the edge, precariously funded, and at the tipping point constantly of whether or not we’re going to survive. To take away the program that generates half of our income is devastating to us.

But I would not want to be the first organization to convene large groups of people, because I’m not willing to experiment with all the folks it takes to make this festival happen, whether it’s the artists or the volunteers or my seasonal staff or the audiences, even if they would come. I would not want to be the person running that experiment. That is not safe.

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MP: What else informed your decision to cancel?

DB: Starting in February, I was watching what WHO said, and the Department of Health and the CDC. I was watching what the scientists and experts were saying about disease, transmission vectors and public contamination.

I was also watching other festivals that are similar to us. Particularly the ones on the touring circuit that happen right before and after ours, Winnipeg [which canceled April 16] and Edmonton [April 13]. I was keeping in contact with their executive directors. I participated in World Fringe Congress.

I’m in a weekly meeting with other USA fringes. Some are going online. I’ve been in many meetings about what it’s like to put on a digital festival. Some people have offered up the idea of doing things virtually. But I just don’t feel that is the nature of our festival. A theatrical performance online is not the same as a festival where you gather people and you feed off the energy of those around you.

Looking at how compliant Minnesotans are with our governor – and I think that’s a fantastic thing, we look to our current leadership and it doesn’t matter what the rest of the nation is doing – I didn’t think people would come out. And I wouldn’t expect theater companies and actors to come together and rehearse against a stay-at-home order.

There was this whole cascading effect of things being closed. Beaches, parks, other festivals. I teach at the University of Minnesota and watched them shut down noncurricular activities in their buildings. We work with Augsburg University, and they shut down. Dates for when things would open again kept being extended.

Soon, it was not going to be our option.

Winding Sheet Outfit, “Blood Nocturne,” 2018
Photo by Alex Wohlhueter
Winding Sheet Outfit, “Blood Nocturne,” 2018
MP: You went to a place that was kind of shocking. Most arts organizations have avoided going there.

DB: We were having executive committee meetings with the board, and I was very transparent with my staff about what was going on. I’ve done so many cash projections because everything was changing so rapidly. Oh, now we can’t have the fundraiser, and that’s a month of payroll we would have netted. Then it’s like, we can’t have that program, so we’re going to run out of money in June. And if we can’t have the festival, we’ll run out of money in July. We couldn’t get PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] money because that was flooded.

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We just have to stop, put ourselves in a financial coma and reach out to the public, because this festival is not going to be successful even if we have it. Artists will drop out. Audiences won’t come. Venues will pull out. We’re setting ourselves up for catastrophic failure if we don’t put ourselves in stasis right now.

And we have to get really transparent with everybody about this organization. Some people think the Fringe is a giant machine. We convene a lot of people, but we’re a tiny organization with two full-time people and one part-time person, not a big budget, and we don’t net very much from the festival itself. It’s not the great god Fringe. It’s a couple of people, a board of directors and a true belief that art is for everyone.

We’re caught in the middle of being too big for some funding, too small or too specific for others. We felt we needed to take this moment, put ourselves into stasis, get real with the people who care about this organization and this kind of art, and ask for help, because we can’t do it otherwise. We are truly in jeopardy of not coming back.

"Super Drag Story Time," 2019
Photo by Dan Norman
"Super Drag Story Time," 2019
MP: What kind of response are you getting to your announcement and call for donations?

DB: The emotional response has been incredibly supportive. So many people have reached out asking, “What can I do to help?” They’re offering words of support, offering to volunteer and saying, “Thank you for not trying to bring a bunch of people together right now.” Many have said, “I knew this was going to happen, but I didn’t want it to happen.” We feel the same way.

In the first three days of our public appeal, we’ve raised 12 percent of our goal, so the immediate response is really good. We had planned to bring back the Fringe buttons, and we had already designed the buttons for this year. A lot of people are suffering financially, and it’s hard to ask for great big dollar donations from everyone, so we decided – let’s put the buttons on sale and ask people to buy a button for the Fringe that never was. If all you can do is $5, that makes a difference.

We sold well over 500 buttons in the first couple of days. There are collectors who have buttons from just about every year. So why not have one from the year that wasn’t? Long before I ever worked for the Fringe, I had a collection of buttons from the years I’d gone.

MP: If the coronavirus hadn’t happened, what do you think 2020 would have looked like for the Fringe?

DB: We had decided to bring back the Fringe button, examine our ticket prices, consolidate the festival in one hub [Cedar-Riverside] and try to re-create the magic that was there when the Fringe originally started. To go back to our roots. I think a lot of organizations now, because of this pandemic, are making similar decisions. They’re going to look at their mission, return to their roots, simplify and get that straight.

We were examining our source of earned income – the festival – and we were getting that right. I feel we would have been in a great spot at the end of this year. All of my projections were very conservative. Up until March, we had met and exceeded every single revenue goal. I was confident we would continue to do that.

MP: What do you think your chances are now?

DB: I’m hopeful we’re going to make our goal [$100,000 in donations]. I think we can position ourselves as being important to people who enjoy going to the Fringe, artists who put stories on stage, volunteers who like serving the community, and the community itself, that we make an economic impact on. I hope we can speak to all of those people so they will help. As I said in my press release, we do good work. The community needs to show up for us now.


Buy your Fringe button(s) here. You can use them year-round for discounts to other shows, once there are other shows to go to. Donate directly here. Or become a Fringe with Benefits member.