The Center of the Fringe

By Erin Peterson

Gillette and McFadden

From its promising beginnings in 1994 to an 11-day extravaganza in 2008, the Minnesota Fringe Festival owes some of its success to entrepreneurial Carls

Bob McFadden ’66 just wanted to get his work on stage. He had six full-length plays written and stashed in a drawer, and he dutifully went to Monday-night readings at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis each week. Still, he couldn’t find an opportunity to bring those pages to life on stage. He was visiting his aunt in Winnipeg in the summer of 1992, researching and writing his seventh play, when he discovered the city’s Fringe Festival—a multiday event during which anyone who had the interest (and a few bucks) could stage a show. (The idea for an open arts festival originated in Edinburgh in 1947; that city’s Fringe—now the world’s largest arts festival—has spawned more than 40 similar festivals around the world.)

McFadden was taken by the idea. It seemed perfectly suited to people like him, who had the work but needed a stage. Instead of taking his plays to Winnipeg, he brought the Fringe to Minnesota. “I thought, ‘This is something I could do. I could put my talents to work immediately,’ ” he recalls.

After talking with the Winnipeg Fringe staffers, he came back to the Twin Cities with a plan to organize the state’s first Fringe Festival. He tacked posters to telephone poles and bulletin boards in the Uptown neighborhood and around the University of Minnesota, called newspapers and asked them to print meeting notices, and gathered his pals from the theater community.

The rules were simple: Interested groups would pay a small fee and get about an hour’s worth of stage time for a show. There were no juries selecting which shows were in, so even work that was outside the mainstream—like McFadden’s own writing—could be performed.

He assembled a group of board members, did a bit of fund-raising, and secured five venues around the Twin Cities for a summer weekend in 1994. The 50 shows (and 300 performances) garnered about 4,500 audience members. It was a success—if not particularly profitable.

“I think we made $70 that year,” he jokes. “But the festival didn’t lose money, and the press [coverage] was fantastic.”

In subsequent years, the Fringe garnered more publicity, included more shows, and added more venues. McFadden left his post as founding producer after four years, but continued to serve on the board and to recruit performers.

By 2006 the Fringe had grown from a single weekend of productions to an 11-day whirlwind of more than 150 shows. Two executive directors had taken the helm since McFadden had left the role, and the organization was seeking a third. A part of the Twin Cities theater scene for years, Robin Gillette ’90 was prepared for the job by her experience working in theater at Carleton. “I come from a background as a stage manager—the person who’s in charge of holding together all the pieces, like schedules and personalities, so I knew I could do something like this on a small scale,” she says. “It’s kind of chaotic. But it’s also perfect.”

Last year, audiences settled in for shows that included a quirky, humorous children’s show (An Inconvenient Squirrel) and a burlesque production (The Underpants Show). Anything goes—musicals, monologues, and a whole lot more. Pros and novices alike showcase their talents, and the results range from transcendent to cringe-worthy.

Gillette, who acknowledges that the 11 days of the event are “pure madness” for the 100 or so paid staff members and 400 volunteers, also says the Fringe has been a huge boon for the Twin Cities theater scene. Not only does it give eager playwrights, directors, and performers an outlet for their craft, it’s also the perfect event for novice and experienced theatergoers alike.


Orange

Orange You Glad

Two recent grads take on the Fringe with Orange

When Ben Egerman ’08 and Rachel Teagle ’08 entered the lottery for a spot at the 2008 Fringe Festival, they didn’t consider that they might actually win one. “It took a little while for the shock to wear off,” Teagle says, “but then we knew we had to get our butts in gear and do something.”

Egerman and Teagle got word in mid-January, giving them just over six months to put together a one-hour production from scratch. And while the two had plenty of theater experience—Teagle majored in theater at Carleton and Egerman had directed shows as part of the College’s Experimental Theater Board—they knew they’d be busy trying to juggle writing a show with finishing up their senior year.

The two created Orange, a show they describe as “a farce about terrorism.” Adds Egerman: “It’s about two guys who walk in for a job interview and wind up in the middle of a hostage crisis.”

They tapped into their Carleton connections to cast actors—all were recent graduates or students. “Since it was entirely Carleton-made, it has a certain kind of quirky Carleton [sensibility] that we’re really proud of,” says Teagle.

To promote the show, the pair started a blog and talked up the show to friends and strangers. It worked. They had the second-highest-selling show for their venue, a significant accomplishment for Fringe rookies.

While the curtain has fallen on Orange, the two expect to remain immersed in Twin Cities theater. Both completed internships at the Playwrights’ Center, and Teagle has since taken an internship in the literary department at the Guthrie Theater. And they are working on ideas for next year’s festival.

“I had imagined theater in the real world would be a lot different from theater at Carleton, but we were definitely better prepared than I realized,” says Teagle. “There’s not some magical formula that we had to solve. That was encouraging.”

Web Extra: Learn more about the Minnesota Fringe Festival and Teagle and Egerman’s Questionable Company Theatre.

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