Lessons from the Fringe Festival

MinnPost photo by Max Sparber

Last night,  from 9:30 p.m. to closing at the Varsity Theater in Dinkytown, the 18th Fringe Festival celebrated it’s ending with a party. I don’t know what sort of a year the Fringe had — it seems unlikely that it was a year that smashed all previous records, based on audiences at shows I attended. The turnout was healthy, but not overwhelming. But it doesn’t really matter if Fringe smashed it previous records. Not every year can be a record-breaker, and as long as audiences were big enough to support the Fringe, it justified its existence for another year.

Even without knowing how many tickets were sold, there are still lessons that can be taken from the Fringe Festival. I’d like to offer the following:

1. There is an audience for new theater. This is the same lesson the festival offers every single year, and it is one that seems lost on professional or semi-professional theaters, locally and nationally. American theaters are loath to present new plays, which typically have lower attendance than classics or recent Broadway and Off-Broadway hits. But a vast majority of the work in the Fringe is new, even counting the amount of Shakespeare that was offered this year. Of the 15 shows that sold the best at each venue in this year’s Fringe, all but one had its debut at the festival. Five were based on previous work, but reimagined them so dramatically that they must be considered new pieces — “Hamluke,” as an example, mashed up “Hamlet” and “Star Wars,” while “7 (X1) Samurai” revisited Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” as a one-hour, one-man show. The problem with finding audiences for new theater in America is not that the audience doesn’t exist, but that they aren’t being marketed to properly. More on that later.

2. You can’t go wrong with comedy. At least 11 of the 15 most popular shows were primarily comedies, and were created by or heavily featured performers with close ties to the Twin Cities’ stand-up and improv comedy scenes. But there is one caveat here: If you are going to do a funny show, make sure it is actually funny. The only shows I was warned away from this year were comedies that fell flat.

3. Fringe is not a very good launch pad for new work. Perhaps it will be this year; we shall see. In the past, however, shows have appeared at the Fringe, done very well, and then disappeared, as their creators had no further plans once the show ended. There have been exceptions — last year’s popular “An Adult Evening With Shel Silverstein” went on to another run later that year at Bryant-Lake Bowl and, I believe, the Sabes Jewish Community Center. But, for the most part, producers treat Fringe shows as one-offs. And that’s not especially surprising, as we’re in a time of  one-off theater in America. The nonprofit model of theater tends to prefer to have a season of shows, each running for three or four weeks, and that’s it — however successful or unsuccessful a show may be, once it’s had its run, it’s done. 

There’s another model of theater, generally preferred by for-profit companies: Find a show that’s a smash and run it until it loses its audiences, months or years or, in some cases, decades later. But most Minnesota theaters are ill-prepared to make that sort of commitment, and Fringe productions, which are often bootstrapped into existence, don’t have the resources to expand their play, find a space, and market it indefinitely, no matter how popular it may have been at the Fringe. Additionally, for the most part professional and semi-professional theater in the Twin Cities has so thoroughly given up on prioritizing locally scripted original theater that it’s extremely rare for a show will appear at the Fringe and then get picked up for a run at a more mainstream theater. And it certainly doesn’t help that:

4. Producers at the Fringe tend to be terrible at marketing themselves. Sure, they’ll line up outside the festival and press postcards into your hands in an attempt to get you to their Fringe show. But I’m sitting here with a stack of Fringe programs in front of me — the only take-away most audiences got from any individual Fringe show. Almost none of them sends audiences to websites, or Facebook pages, or even Twitter accounts. At the end of shows, cast members would take a moment to promote other shows in the Fringe, but very rarely told audiences where they could go to find out more information about the company that produced the show. Of the 15 most popular shows at the Fringe, seven of them don’t even have proper websites — or any website at all. There were a number of actors in the Fringe who I know to have their own web pages, but these were often not listed in the programs. I did not see a single show where producers collected email addresses, or encouraged audience members to sign up for an email list, or like a Facebook page. Almost nobody suggested to their audience that they tweet their reactions to the show, or suggested a hashtag. The Fringe should be a audience-building bonanza for upstart companies; instead, this was often forgotten. Audiences who want to learn anything more about specific companies or actors are going to have to do their own work. More often than not, they won’t.

If a theater company, or a performer, wishes to develop an audience for their work, this is especially a missed opportunity. And there is a very important reason for this:

5. Minnesota audiences tend to be more interested in events than individual shows. Anybody who produced any work at this town knows the frustration of trying to get an audience interested in your work. Artists with solo shows enjoy a nice crowd at a gallery opening, when there is wine and a deejay, and then must content themselves with a handful of walk-ins for the rest of the showing. Bands play to crowds of a dozen or less. Plays often find themselves with more people onstage than in the audience, despite their best efforts at attracting an crowd.

Minnesotans are skittish about individual shows. But you throw an event, they show up in the hundreds and the thousands. An art crawl? You’ll find people who ordinarily recoil at contemporary art suddenly sipping cheap Chardonnay and discussing Damien Hirst. Have a David Bowie night, where a dozen bands each offer their own interpretation of the music of the Thin White Duke, and the same crowds who begged off when you headlined at 7th Street Entry will show up in droves. And mount a Fringe show? The same audiences who would have steered clear of your play if it opened at the Jungle will now be lined up outside your door, wearing a Fringe button and eagerly studying the schedule for the next new play they will see.

To an extent, this is understandable. The larger an audience gets, the more risk adverse it will be, and a festival like the Fringe mitigates risk. Shows are only $10 or thereabouts, only last an hour, and there are a lot of them. If you see one you don’t like — well, you haven’t blown $35 and an entire evening. This isn’t a phenomenon that is unique to the Twin Cities either — think of the number of bands that stream to South by Southwest every year, looking for a chance at exposure that playing in their local bar won’t afford them. 

Of course, there are a maximum number of big events that anybody can attend at any one time, and, with the number of art fairs and community festivals we have going on, I suspect we’re at saturation. But the Fringe is fortunate in that it has been around long enough to have a firm foothold and a built-in audience; newer festivals will probably not do as well, as they must compete with so many other events. Fringe could be a terrific opportunity for individual companies and artists to find an audience that will follow them throughout the year. Instead, accidentally, it’s too often a dead end.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Mary Hirsch on 08/15/2011 - 12:31 pm.

    As a Fringe producer/performer I would say this is an excellent story. I have always had a successful show (if you measure success by attendance) but when I’ve approached some local venues they haven’t been interested in having the show there. So it’s not from a lack of trying. I think it has more to do with the fact that my audiences are usually asleep by the time central Fringe is just getting started. Perhaps I can start the “Early Bird Special Theater” that caters to boomers like me who really would rather be home by 10 at the latest.

    As a side note — I would also add a number 6: Have your last name legally changed to Scrimshaw. That will help immensely.

  2. Submitted by James Blum on 08/15/2011 - 11:26 pm.

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes (and yes to number 6, also). I attend lots of Fringe shows (and my wife hits an amazing 45+ every year) and we see 2-3 productions per month of local theater – almost always “small” theater (i.e., not Guthrie or Ordway). We’re surprised each year when Fringe rolls around that we haven’t seen any shows during the year that were remounts or expansions of Fringe shows from the prior year. For some of the good, popular 60-minute shows, it would be great to see them remounted in one of the many traditional or nontraditional theater spaces around town, or perhaps expand them to 90-120 minutes for the more traditional length show.

    For example, Brain Fighters and Smothers Brothers Grimm could be remounted together somewhere for a quality evening of family theater – plus they have the added benefit of coming from the Scrimshaw Bros, thereby ensuring a pretty decent audience and review attention from the local news outlets. Several other shows could possibly be expanded to 90+ minutes and run as stand-alones. It would be great to see some of the best shows live on rather than be consigned to the dustbin the minute the Fringe Festival ends.

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