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The Minnesota Fringe Festival and the Popularity of New Plays

08.19.10 | 4 Comments


CATEGORIES playwrights, theatre festivals

The Minnesota Fringe Festival wrapped up this past weekend, so it’s a bit too soon to offer a really comprehensive postmortem. Instead, I’d like to offer some notes on the event.

Firstly, the Minnesota Fringe Festival is big — really big, and it’s growing. It’s been about for 16 years, and this year offered 169 shows in 15 or so venues around the Twin Cities, producing somewhere around 876 performances. Back in 2006, the show sold about 44,189 tickets; this year, they topped 50,000 tickets.

It’s evidence that there is an audience for new theater. It doesn’t hurt that the shows are part of a huge event, and that they are short (they must, necessarily, clock in at under an hour), and relatively cheap (Fringe shows cost $12, with discounts for seniors, students, children, and, this being the Twin Cities, listeners of Minnesota Public Radio). You’ll hear once in a while that new plays are a tough sell, and that audiences aren’t really interested in seeing work they are unfamiliar with; the Minnesota Fringe Festival has repeatedly demonstrated that, within the right structure, audiences are eager to see new plays.

Some of these shows will go on to have short runs in the Twin Cities, although few at established theaters; in the past, they have tended to set up shop in Bryant-Lake Bowl, a cabaret theater in a bowling alley. Increasingly, I have been of the opinion that theaters are especially bad at preparing for success — it used to be that if a play were successful in a limited run, it would quickly be moved into an unlimited run, and just allowed to play for as long as it could find an audience, which, if it was something like “A Chorus Line,” was 6,137 performances. But there aren’t many established Twin Cities theaters who watch the Fringe, prepared to swoop in and offer a run to a successful show, and there aren’t many Fringe producers who, upon enjoying a hit at the Fringe, then move it into another space and give it a proper run. This has always seemed like a pity to me; new plays should not have the lifespan of a Mayfly, especially when they’ve already proven they can find enthusiastic audiences.

And the new plays that appear at the Fringe are unusual, to say the least, especially as the Minnesota Fringe Festival is unjuried. There are a lot of one-person shows, and storytellers, and the like, which is nice, because those are the sorts of things that often have a hard time finding a performance space and an audience. Additionally, the Fringe is a place where producers feel free to let their nerd flags fly — the number of zombie and robot-themed plays this year was rather spectacular. I can’t speak to how good these shows were, as I did not attend any, but science fiction and horror themes aren’t often explored in mainstream theater, and the Fringe sometimes seems like a glimpse into an alternate universe, where these are the dominant themes of new playwrighting.

Interestingly, the biggest sellers of this year’s Fringe Festival were, for the most part, created by people who did not come up through the usual channels. The Pioneer Press published a list of the top-selling productions, and they are dominated by work produced by Twin Citians whose primary background is in comedy. “The Damn Audition” is the work of Joe Scrimshaw, who has been writing full-length plays for a half-decade or so now, but who started as part of a popular comedy team with his brother Josh; “Speech!” is the product of Mike Fotis and Joe Bozic, who collectively are known as the improv team Ferrari McSpeedy; “The Princeton Seventh” starred and was spearheaded by Ari Hoptman, a comedian, and costarred Alex Cole, also a comedian; “A Nice Guy’s Guide to Awkward Sex” was not only written, directed, and starred Ben San Del, a local stand-up comedian, but was set in the world of stand-up comedy and used stand-up comics to flesh out the cast. I saw all of these plays, and, from my perspective, every single one of them worked as theater. These were not comedy routines moved to the stage, but were works conceived of as plays; in fact, San Del’s play was the only one that felt somewhat immature theatrically (understandably; it’s the first script he’s ever written; even then, it didn’t feel all that clunky). The remainder displayed a great deal of theatrical sophistication, and “Speech!,” in particularly, is the sort of thing I can easily imagine taking over a theater space and running for years.

This is worth noting, especially considering that Todd London and Ben Pesner’s book “Outrageous Fortune” revealed that increasingly playwrighting has become something of a career track that is only open to writers who graduate from a handful of prestigious programs. In fact, I have started to wonder if people who might not have previously put their creative energies primarily into playwrighting aren’t instead gravitating toward comedy, thanks to the almost instantaneous opportunity to get their work in front off an audience. Stand-up comics, as an example, can get up at any of a dozen open mics in the Twin Cities, while improv comics have abbreviated training programs (the Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis offers a year-long course, as an example), and then it isn’t too hard to put together a troupe and find a stage. Compare this to the process of playwrighting, in which any single play can take years to find a production, and half of all plays written by mid-level playwrights never get produced at all. And we shouldn’t be surprised when these comics produce work that is at once well-made and crowd pleasing, as they have an advantage over other playwrights in that they constantly get to test their material before live audience, and refine it based on audience reactions.

It’s possible, based on the Fringe, that tomorrow’s world of theater will mostly be satires of science fiction themes created by stand-up and improv comics. And, truthfully, based on what I saw at this year’s festival, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Max "Bunny" Sparber

Max "Bunny" Sparber is a playwright and arts journalist from Minneapolis.

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  • http://phrasemongers.wordpress.com/ Aaron Andersen

    Good post–makes me want to go next year.

    I think the reason that promising, nascent shows don’t get picked up for longer and extended runs is that, outside of New York, the vast majority of theater is produced by nonprofit regional theaters, community theaters, DIY theaters, etc, and they all want to produce planned seasons with themes and artistic vision and all that. And that’s great, but there just isn’t much support for commercial theater except when the Broadway tours roll through town. And it is rare when a producing nonprofit theater mounts anything for an extended run, on the spur of the moment.

  • Maxsparber

    It’s true. I think it is something that theaters don’t even think about, though, and certainly don’t plan for or budget for. But I’m of the opinion that this is bad for new plays — most theaters that do new work are only interested in premieres, so a play’s entire life can be three weeks, and that gives the play no time to develop an audience, or get tweaked based on audience reactions.

    A Chorus Line was produced by the Public Theatre, and they didn’t have enough money to mount another run, so they borrowed to put it up. It wound up financing the company for many years. So I think it’s a good idea to plan for unexpected windfalls, and too few theaters do.

  • http://www.davidjloehr.com/ David J. Loehr

    One of the things I’m hoping to develop for my own community is a space that could host some Fringe shows on tour, bring these productions to town and show them off. Seems to me a nice and easy way to support them, to fill our space with activity and bring more people into the space (and even into the town itself).

  • http://www.davidjloehr.com/ David J. Loehr

    Funny you should mention that, because that’s exactly what my next post is all about, the “world premiere complex” and more…


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