FOR EVERY BROADWAY smash that originates with a Mel Brooks or Monty Python movie, there are dozens of others that hail from much humbler beginnings. The Drowsy Chaperone, a hammy and nostalgic musical inspired by the Cole Porter era, opened on Broadway in 2006, but it premiered in 1999 at the Toronto Fringe Festival. Urinetown, a comic musical about a town’s water shortage, has a similar pedigree: It earned its first raves at the New York International Fringe Festival nearly a decade ago.
In the theater world, these are the ultimate rags-to-riches stories—acclaimed productions that began at the fringe festivals created by theater artists who felt unwelcome in the mainstream. Such yarns sustain the starry-eyed artists who slave away every August at the Minnesota Fringe Festival, the country’s largest non-juried fringe festival, which this year features 156 different shows at 18 different venues.
The Minnesota Fringe Festival is commonly seen, by performers and observers, as a proving ground for emerging thespians, directors, and other theater artists hoping to find professional work. Yet how often does a Fringe performer really get to Broadway, or the Guthrie Theater, or even the Bryant-Lake Bowl? How many more remain, by choice or circumstance, on the fringe-festival circuit that winds from Minnesota to New York and across the world? Is the Fringe, in other words, a steppingstone—or a career cul-de-sac?
The first Fringe occurred 61 years ago in Edinburgh, Scotland, when a handful of uninvited artists crashed a mainstream theater festival. The success of their uncensored lark came to be known as Festival Fringe, which remains in Edinburgh and is the largest and most prestigious of such festivals.
Today, the globe is dotted with hundreds of imitators, united in their dedication to showcase low-tech, hour-long performances. The shows are unjuried: No one is previewing them for offensiveness or, for that matter, quality. The Minnesota Fringe Festival, founded in 1993, selects participants by lottery, such that this year’s festival, which runs July 31 to August 10, includes a mix of professional theater companies (Bedlam Theatre) and beloved local actors (the Brave New Workshop’s Mike Fotis), as well as complete unknowns (Hastings High School Drama Club).
With such a grab bag, it can be intimidating for any theater fan, much less the artistic directors of local theater companies, to wade into the fray in search of the next great show. Most casting and artistic directors simply wait for the cream to rise to the top, reading reviews and listening for buzz. Near the end of each year’s festival, it’s generally clear who and what the standouts are. Some shows sell out instantly, and others feature fewer patrons than performers on the stage.
Richard Cook, the artistic director of Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, says he discovered David Mann, one of his favorite new theater talents, via such buzz. Intrigued by reviews of Mann’s popular comedic monologues at the Minnesota Fringe Festival a couple years ago, Cook began attending shows that Mann was directing outside the Fringe. Then he asked Mann to direct Park Square’s Taking Steps, a riotous Alan Ayckbourn farce that was perfect for his comic sensibilities. Cook has asked Mann back to direct Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde this season, a clever adaptation by local playwright and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher featuring top actors Emily Gunyou Halaas, Steve Hendrickson, and Stephen D’Ambrose.
In 2003, Mann was also spotted at the Fringe by Ron Peluso, artistic director of the History Theatre in St. Paul. Peluso asked him to flesh out his one-man show Revelations, which played at the History Theatre as Revelations of Mann. And last year, a staff member of the History Theatre who saw the one-woman Fringe show by Michelle Myers Berg, Blue Collar Diaries, procured a script for Peluso to review. “We don’t actively pursue Fringe shows,” says Peluso. “But if we see something that strikes our fancy and fits our mission [we’ll pursue it].” Berg’s story is about growing up in South St. Paul with a father who had fought in the Korean War. Peluso says he asked Berg to make some changes and additions; a longer version is slated to open at the History Theatre next March.
But such discoveries are relatively rare. Though the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio did host the first-ever Fringe Encore, a staging of the four best-attended shows of the 2006 festival, no fringe show has ascended to such heights locally on its own, much less gone the way of Urinetown. Perhaps the most notable success has been Buckets and Tap Shoes, a popular troupe of contemporary tap-dancers who premiered their act at the festival in 2004 and have since gone on to tour nationally.
Robin Gillette, the Minnesota Fringe Festival’s executive director, says the organization wants to put a little more bounce in the festival springboard, finding upstart fringe performers more opportunities outside the August showcase: “We’ve talked about making a specific push to artistic directors of local theaters and also to casting and booking agents to say, ‘Hey, the Fringe is an awesome place to discover new talent.’”
Not every Fringe performer, however, is entering the festival with the hope of getting noticed by mainstream producers. Already established performers sometimes use the Fringe to explore new directions, as the dancer Penelope Freeh has with contemporary choreography in recent years. Other performers have less, well, professional goals. As frequent Fringe performer Amy Salloway observes, “Some artists are fringing mostly to have a great social life, drink beer, and get laid.”
“I think fringes are the Swiss Army knife of artistic development,” says Salloway, a Minneapolis-based solo artist. Put another way, different artists expect different things from their Fringe appearances. The runaway hit of the 2005 Minnesota Fringe Festival, Please Don’t Blow Up Mr. Boban, was created by the young local troupe Live Action Set and Jon Ferguson, an up-and-coming director who’d recently arrived from London. Since then, Ferguson has sought to create his own opportunities, currently developing an adaptation of Animal Farm for the Southern Theater stage this fall, while Live Action Set has established itself as a player in the local avant-garde theater scene.
“There’s an amount of instant exposure available at the Fringe … a lot of people saw my work,” says Ferguson. “And those breaks would never have come if [Boban] was performing at just another venue and not specifically at the Fringe.”
Salloway found instant success at the Minnesota Fringe in 2003 with her solo show Does This Monologue Make Me Look Fat? In subsequent years, she returned and eventually decided her work was well-suited to the Fringe circuit: “I had a one-woman show that required absolutely nothing except me and a bottle of water,” she says. “How could theater be more portable than that?” She now spends nearly a third of each year traveling to various festivals across North America.
Sure, the circuit can be a slog, Salloway admits, but along the way, she’s also managed to pick up other better-paying bookings. She’s no closer to the Great White Way, but Salloway is pleased with her progress. She has a smattering of fans all across the world—on the fringes perhaps, but appreciative audiences nonetheless.
Christy DeSmith is a freelance writer and former arts editor at The Rake.