The Minnesota Fringe Festival is, in short, 167 plays, storytelling, dance, and variety shows that are an hour long or less stretched out over 13 days across multiple venues in the Twin Cities. It’s a crucial time for networking if you are an artist. It’s about art. It’s an experience. It is theatre kid heaven, but it’s also incredibly overwhelming. So how does one navigate it to ensure maximum enjoyment and minimal stress? This is an art in and of itself that has taken me a few years to master, especially as a proud and loud member of the LGBTQ+ community who insists that art should be as inclusive and accessible as it is technically good, and that neither end of that should be sacrificed. Fringe is particularly hard to navigate when you are avoiding the “-isms” so prevalent in privileged comedians, storytellers, and playwrights. Here’s the system that’s worked best for me to find quirky and queer work that is also well done and artful during this intense Festival.
Step One: Planning Well
The Fringe Festival website is an amazing resource that allows you to look at synopses, cast, venue, and other info about all 167 shows. It also has a well of other features, including the option to schedule the ones you want to see. This feature is my number one sanity saver. I’m incredibly socially anxious as well as diagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder so having the Fringe website itself tell me exactly where to go based on what I said I wanted to see is a miracle. Having it all mapped out saves me so much time and energy on a Fringe day, even if it took me awhile to get everything pulled together beforehand. The website also features keywords you can search like “comedy,” “storytelling,” and “LGBT”.
Obviously the first thing I do is scan the “LGBT” section of the website. You can find this section at Fringefestival.org by hitting “Full Show List” and pulling up the drop down menu below. There you’ll find lots of options. (If you can’t find it, scroll down. This year “LGBT” is near the bottom.) Once you click on that you can see a list of every producer who lists their show as being queer-oriented. It is worth mentioning that some of these are stretches. Many producers will list their show under this heading because there are a couple of LGBTQ+ artists involved, or because the show has themes or sensibilities popular in queer culture even if nothing is explicitly LGBTQ+. This is honestly frustrating to me, and I won’t call out any producers by name, but I do think labeling your show “LGBT” without explicit queer content or an entire production and creative team of queer people is bad practice and exploitative to the community. Even so, this header is the best place to get started in your search for shows as you’re scheduling your Fringe, and this year my favorite show was queer-created and rife with queer sensibility though not explicit. (It is worth noting though that the queer producer still did not list the show as “LGBT”, which makes me think those stretching the intent of this category are not queer arts community members themselves.)
Word of mouth, like in the non-Fringe arts scene, is really the best way to find out about shows though. This year I put up a Facebook call asking what I should see based on what I wanted to do with this article and got a lot of great ideas. If you’ve been hanging around queer circles in Minneapolis, you probably know someone who knows someone who’s involved in a show you’d probably like. If you’re like me, you also have a list of artists who’s work you always try to see. For me this year, that list includes Javier Morillo-Alicea, Sami Pfeffer, and Jason Schommer. That says nothing of the slew of close friends involved in work that also quickly moved to the top of my priority list. To plan your Fringe and reduce your stress day of, you can also search for the names of companies or people that you want to see on the Fringe website to see when the shows are. After a couple of weeks of talking to people, looking up the artists I love, and scanning the Fringe website, my Fringe started to take shape.
I don’t only hit the LGBT circuit, and I recommend that you leave room for variation as well. I won’t see artists that are known to make queerphobic, sexist, or racist jokes or content, but Fringe is a great time to explore your larger arts community. This is why I recommend talking to those involved with shows or asking people close to you what they’re excited about. I’d also leave at least a couple of gaps for surprises, or allow your schedule to change shape as you learn more. By the time you’re reading this for 2017 Fringe, you probably have a good idea of what your Fringe schedule will look like, but this is an important note for future years (or if you’re still sitting on the fence).
It’s so important to remember pricing when you plan your Fringe. Unless you’re going to spring for a VIP pass for $200, you’ll want to see as many shows as possible with your Day Pass which means venues should be close together. There is NO late seating in Fringe and a great number of shows are a high sell out risk, which means getting there as close to house open (which is thirty minutes before a show) is crucial. Day passes are $16 on weekdays and $22 on weekends. If you want to reserve for a high risk sellout show, that’s an additional $3.75 and can be done online. You can pick up day passes at any Fringe box office, which is basically at any Fringe venue, at any time on a Fringe day.
Later on I’ll review some of the stellar shows I’ve seen already, but I wanted to highlight some other work. These are shows I haven’t see, but have been on my priority list since day one. Most of them are also pulling pretty stellar reviews, which only ups my desire to see them to “urgent.”
As mentioned, I’m a huge fan of storyteller Javier Morillo-Alicea. This year he’s presenting A Resister’s Handbook (for holding onto optimism in shitty times), a storytelling show who’s title is pretty straightforward. Javier is a long-time union leader and shares parts of his own life and story to inspire the audience to stay strong and optimistic as we enter tumultuous political times. This one is a high sellout risk for all remaining performances, so get those reservations in or plan to come early.
Kory LaQuess Pullam is a queer-allied and radical playwright that I’ve been keeping an eye on for awhile. His Odd Man Out, a rare Fringe drama, sounds like a standard family drama. The show centers around a black family in South Texas dealing with the death of the family patriarch. Pullam’s stellar writing and a slew of incredible acting performances is garnering the expected rave reviews, and everything I have seen or read of Pullam’s so far in his career has been exceptional.
Gravitational Collapse by Cole Sarar is a queer sci-fi thriller set to music, and honestly I needed to hear very little else to be sold on this show.
Twin Cities comedian Jason Schommer has a hit or miss history with Fringe shows, but this year he’s teaming up with storytelling superstar Allison Broeren to perform a storytelling show about the seemingly mundane choices that led them to some of their best adventures and misadventures. Schommer’s comedy is amazing, and Debacle: Stories of Life’s Ultimate Fiascos is sure to make 2017 a hit year for Schommer at Fringe.
Mnemosyne by Sunday Driver is an artsier choice by all accounts, as it’s marketed primarily as a movement or dance piece about memory and technology. I’m a fan of several of the artists involved, so while this wasn’t isn’t listed as being queer-specific, I think it’s a good fit for those looking for a queer Fringe experience.
Step Two: Fringe!
Once you have your schedule and a rough idea of how you might want to fill any flexible slots you’ve built in, it’s time for Fringe. (Well, if you’re like me, it’s about two weeks before Fringe and you have to sit and wait and watch rehearsal shots fill up your instagram feed, which just serve to make you even more excited. However, that’s likely not your situation at this stage of the game.) In spite of my anxiety-fueled introversion, to find out more about Fringe itself and shows you maybe haven’t thought about yet, talking to people while you’re standing in line for your show is actually incredibly beneficial. I try to keep those conversations to close friends or people I’ve worked with artistically, but I have met very friendly strangers with similar tastes. This is a part of the Fringe experience, and it is an important one. In addition to this social strategy of processing your own Fringe experience and hearing about other people’s, it’s also recommended that you get to your Fringe show as close to that half hour before mark as possible. This year almost every show I went to was relatively full, so even if a show isn’t listed as a high sellout risk, I wouldn’t take a lot of big chances.
One incredibly stressful part of Fringe for me comes in navigating the Festival not as a queer person, but as a chronically ill person. Standing in line for twenty minutes or more every hour, all day is unbearable to me as someone with severe rheumatoid arthritis. Most venues are accessible, and many have seats for your wait. Not all venues are created equal though. Even if you opt of line and kiss your dream seat in the show good-bye, waiting for a show at the Bryant Lake Bowl is is torturous. There is nowhere to sit short of taking a table or bowling seat from a non-Fringe patron who may need it for it’s intended purpose. Intermedia Arts however, is a dream. Even if a line gets really long, there is seating close enough to the line that you can hop up and squish in somewhere decent once they start seating. Most venues fall somewhere in the middle—you have places to sit, but if a show is full you give up a decent seat to move out of line and preserve some energy. I’m honestly not sure there’s a solution to this, but it is something to prep for and think about if you too have invisible accessibility concerns.
Now that you have your basic information, Fringe works like this: you make your schedule, and if you’re worried about sellout, you reserve online. Your first show of a Fringe day you go to the box office to purchase a day pass, and check your name off of a list if you have reservations. Then you get in line. Seating is usually only ten minutes before a show, but at an event where so many great shows sell out, it’s key to be there when box office opens (one half hour before the show) anyway. You’ll receive a token that they use to check house numbers while you’re in line. It feels silly when you just give it back to the usher on your way in, but I promise this helps guarantee you a seat and helps producers know how their show is selling. Once this show is over, I recommend a pretty quick hustle to your next venue, as tempting as it is to wait for artists or chat with friends in line for the next show.
This year I saw fourteen shows in three days. It was a whirlwind and for a Twin Cities arts fanatic like myself it was mostly a blast. Navigating Fringe as a queer person is much easier once you’ve done the festival a few times before. I mentioned earlier skipping shows with artists that I know to be oppressive, but even with that attitude over the years I have definitely ended up in shows with all male, all straight casts where homophobic jokes were rampant or the casual sexism made me want to stab my eyes out. I’ve seen so-called edgy humor that is actually just racist. I’ve seen countless shows with a token minority who ends up being a minor character who just exists to be the butt of jokes. This year though I managed not to run into any of that. A lot of that is because I’ve become well versed in what makes a Fringe show a trap for the content or humor I despise. I caution you though if this is your first Fringe to trust your gut and listen to what your LGBTQ+ friends are finding challenging. Stick to the LGBT circuit and recommendations until you get a feel for the rest. In spending a couple of years to get the hang of Fringe, I created a year where I’ve seen almost nothing but beautifully challenging, incredibly thoughtful, and often outright hilarious work. Based on the fourteen shows I saw, here’s a great starting point to making your schedule.
Definitely Do Not Miss
These are this year’s Fringe shows that I think the majority of thecolu.mn readers will absolutely love, even if they aren’t LGBTQ+ specific. There’s either a progressive politic or undeniably queer sensibility to each of them, and most importantly: they are very, very good.
“_________” by Sami Pfeffer, Kai Greiner, Beckett and Suzi Love. This show also stars Beckett and Suzi Love and is part performance art, part play. The show brilliantly compares emotional abuse to experiences with ghosts or hauntings and climaxes in a possession of sorts. There is audience participation which is off-putting to a lot of audience and probably could have been explained better to the audience beforehand. Nonetheless, this show is moving in parts, terrifying in parts, and oddly humorous on occasion. Pfeffer is a playwright and filmmaker who’s work always blows me away, and this was no exception. This is a HARD show to get through if you’ve dealt with emotional abuse in your life, and the shows asks a lot of it’s audience. This show is Fringe at it’s Fringiest, and hits the notes it should to tell this story. It is riveting, perfectly performed, and executed so well it will, ahem, haunt you long after.
First Year Queer by Lyssa Sparrow. Sparrow has been working on this show for so long, and I’ve seen pieces at Patrick’s Cabaret, Raw Sugar’s The Funny, and at a Gadfly event. None of that prepared me for the humor and heart pouring through every piece of the full storytelling show that also features puppets, an impact play demonstration, and stories from polyamorous families making it all work just fine. Sparrow has a bright future in storytelling—her demeanor is disarming and she makes even everyday notions seem hysterically funny. This show is definitely not fluff though. First Year Queer features a short video where Sparrow talks to survivors of sexual assault and features a little bit of Sparrow’s own experience being assaulted. The discussion of polyamory is honest about the oppression that those families face. Sparrow does not shy away from being honest about her anxiety and depression. A true test of skill though is that the show crams all of that into an hour yet never feels overbearing or like too much. The show ends with something that surprised even me: door prizes! Even if you don’t love the show as much as I did, you might walk away with a 1st edition copy of a re-release of The Ethical Slut, a sexy time kit, or another fun prize. You will definitely walk away with a couple of Starbursts and a list of resources for your mental health or bi, poly, or kink education needs.
Blackout Improv has been making waves for all the right reasons since their inception. It’s an all black cast talking about black issues that is also absolutely hilarious. Their Fringe show is unique in that it adds guests from various mediums to the standard improv format, so I got treated to some musical humor the night I went. Blackout doesn’t shy away from hard topics, but also consistently brings smart humor. The format of the Fringe show is a short performance by the guest artist first. Then the MC for the night (it was the ever-enjoyable Joy Dolo the night I saw the show) brings out the Swag Hat, which is full of audience suggestions. The suggestions are garnered before the show and are meant to be issues important to the black community. The cast members then have a conversation about that topic, and then perform an improv set based on that conversation. There is a deep, necessary need for a powerhouse team of black performers to have these discussions before the laughter. Even those of us who are not black but consider ourselves solid allies will have preconceived notions challenged. I can’t imagine the power and importance that this show holds for black audience members. From a comedy or improv standpoint, you won’t find a more solid show in the Fringe that makes you laugh this much. The Blackout cast rotates for each performance, but hopefully you’ll catch Dolo, Theo Langason, or Duck Washington when you go. These three staples of the Twin Cities theatre community do some of their finest work as part of this ensemble. The incomparable Khary Jackson will be playing instruments throughout no matter what.
Collective Unconscious Performance’s Skins is probably my favorite thing I saw this year. That doesn’t mean it’s the best show I saw, though it is very, very good. It’s also certainly not the most important show I saw this year, though it is important and does have a lot of weight to it. However, I love fairy tales more than almost anything in the world, and Skins is based on darker versions of Cinderella (such as Deerskin or Donkeyskin) where she runs away from a would-be forced marriage to a relative and disguises herself as a creature until she falls in love with the prince and tries to woo him with some magic gowns she acquires earlier in the story. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but this play does not end how you think it will, but does end up telling a story of self-love that made me swoon just as hard as a well-done romance. Emily Zimmer’s performance is electric, and Sara Dewhirst and Logan Verdoorn are such natural actors that you’ll forget you are watching a play and get completely sucked in. This show has some puppets, some humor, and gives a fierce feminist take on a somewhat familiar story.
Take A Chance On
These are shows that ardent readers of thecolu.mn might have skipped due to lack of queer content or sensibility or because the shows aren’t one hundred percent ready and perfect and some of the reviews reflect that. They are also shows that I think are completely worth your time and energy especially in the setting of Fringe Festival where the point is for artists to explore, experiment, and create work we may not go out of our way to see otherwise.
Pope Joan by Featherstone Creative starts Kjertina Whiting, a rising star in the Twin Cities theater community, as the title character in a rarely-told story of the “female” pope. The storyteller Christy Marie Kent is behind Featherstone, and she and the cast approach the story as though “Joan” was not female at all, but a trans man instead. The cast is slightly uneven in terms of experience and skill, but the actors who are good are so good, especially Whiting. There are some pacing issues in the show that may be worked out by the time you read this. (First couple of times with Fringe audiences are weird even to seasoned vets sometimes.) Even so, this story is fascinating, Kent’s writing of this character is so full of love and emotion, and it’s a stark reminder of the history and politic of the Catholic church that shapes so much of who we are as a society today still. Go with an open mind, as much of the point of Fringe is for writers and producers to try new styles and conventions, and some of Kent’s experiments pay off big time in Pope Joan. You will be fascinated by Joan and super impressed by Whiting’s performance regardless.
Mayor Lear of Townsville by Play-Dot was the second most enjoyable thing I’ve seen so far at Fringe. This play is sheer fun—a retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear set in the world of The Powerpuff Girls with an incredibly charming cast. This show is probably only appropriate for fans of The Powerpuff Girls but your Shakespeare knowledge can be minimal. If you are a fan, Natalie Rae Wass’ performance as Mojo Jojo and The Mayor is worth the price of a whole day pass alone. The all-female cast is unexpected and perfect. Shalee Coleman is one of the most gifted directors working the Twin Cities small theatre seen, so if you love nostalgia, hilarity, and well-done art, add this to your schedule ASAP.
The Shrieking Harpies, a musical improv trio, weren’t on my original list in spite of the fact that I’m a huge fan of Hannah Wydeven and Taj Ruler both. I hadn’t seen Lizzie Gardner, the third Harpie, before but she was an equally gifted improviser. The Shrieking Harpies’ Songs of Summer MN kicked off my Saturday in part because of weird planning on my end, but it ended up being the exact right choice to put me in a Fringe mindset for the day. The show’s hilarity got my energy up, and the sheer talent of the improv artists got me amped up for a performance art festival. The Harpies’ chemistry and vibe is just right when you want to celebrate comedy, friendship, or Fringe itself.
Wait, Didn’t Patrick’s Cabaret Close? is on this list for an entirely different reason; I almost skipped this show because I see Patrick’s Cabaret all the time, and I suspect this is the case for many queer art fans in Minneapolis. However, Artistic Director Scott Artley has a different line-up scheduled for every night and has been really excited about doing a Fringe show, so I decided to swing by their opening night show after all and was treated to three incredible Patrick’s Cabaret alums in completely different mediums. The show is only an hour, so even if you think you’re pretty well-versed on what Patrick’s has to offer, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the diverse roster of unbelievable artists. I’ve seen Patrick’s Cabaret before, and I’ve seen two of the three artists before—but not like this. The Cabaret continues to surprise even during Fringe when we expect the unexpected.
Spy in the House of Men: A One-Woman Show With Balls by Penny Stirling is what Fringe Festivals are for. This is a simple, sweet transgender coming-out-and-coming-to-terms-with-yourself storytelling show that could use a little more polish. It’s incredibly engaging though, and Stirling’s story features some brave aspects you’re unlikely to see elsewhere, including pictures of her former self and taking a moment in her story to wonder if she made the right decisions on when and how to come out. Stirling is incredibly endearing just standing up there being herself, and this show is definitely worth the noticeable line flubs and slightly cliché storytelling show framework. What makes storytelling at any level work is the genuine care and pieces of your own soul that you put into it, and on this front Stirling delivers big time.
Raw Sugar’s Synchronicity is not a sure bet for all The Column readers. It’s purposely geared towards WTF audience members that had a pretty typical experience growing up and falling in and out of social graces as a teenager. If you fit that bill even a little bit though, you’ll be delighted by this comedy about a community ed synchronized swim team that features a hilariously choreographed sychronized swim routine and everything. Sarah Parker shines as Marley, the snack-driven member of the squad, and genderqueer actor Ally Rae’s return to traditional theatre is long overdue. I loved this play. It’s simple, but it’s fun, feminine, and accessible. If it sounds up your alley, definitely swing by Mixed Blood to check it out.
Step Three: Curtain Call
Before and after your Fringe shows, you’ll likely be asked to go online and review the show if you enjoyed it. I strongly recommend doing this as a service to the artists who work so hard for so little money, but also as a service to fellow Fringe goers. The Fringe review system is pretty indiscriminate. Anyone can go online and say anything. Even shows that I thought were undeniably strong had some pretty harsh, nonsensical critics. So if you have a valid critique, found something challenging in the wrong way, or felt belittled or degraded because of a show, you absolutely have an appropriate outlet for that. Many directors and producers take intelligent feedback from audience reviews to heart, so this is a time where your voice matters. Certainly if you left raving about how genius a show was or how hard you laughed, let the cast know in a review, and help inspire other Fringe audience to stop in for that show too. In past years audience reviews have connected me to lifelong collaborators as well as inspired producers to contact me about making the show less problematic. Certainly I have been thanked often for kind words. It is well worth the time to go to the website and leave a few words. More importantly, if possible, take time in between Fringe days to decompress, jot some notes about things that meant a lot to you or hurt you, and breathe. Art is better when it has time to rest in you, so I recommend not overloading yourself unless you don’t have a choice. Grumpy’s Downtown serves as Fringe Central this year, a place to mingle with the artists and friends you’ve been seeing shows with. This is a great way to feel like you’re a part of it yourself, even if you’re not an artist. Most importantly, this year’s Festival has been seriously wonderful so far according to almost everyone I’ve talked too. So head over to a venue near you, and support Fringe work!
The Fringe Festival is going on through this Sunday (August 13th). You can reserve tickets, schedule your shows, and learn more about the shows listed here or anything else you’re into at Fringe’s website.