Minn. Fringe Festival’s Robin Gillette exits with an eye on the future

Robin Gillette has nothing on her plate, and that feels fantastic.

The now former executive director of the Minnesota Fringe Festival stepped down from her position after a seven year tenure at the head of what may be one of the most complex and elaborate events of the year.

Robin Gillette

She left the position, she said, because it was a good time to do so: The performance festival is financially healthy and she wanted to make an exit before burnout inevitably set in.

“I just feel so proud and so excited for the organization and me to move onward,”  Gillette said over coffee on a recent fall afternoon.

Asked to reflect on the health of the Twin Cities theater scene, Gillette quipped in her best presidential voice that “the state of theater is strong.”

The Minnesota theater scene is doing everything right. They just need to keep doing it. It’s never finished.

What I love is that there’s such an extraordinary range of work being done – small and big, new and old, deep and meaningful, light and entertaining.

I get frustrated with people who complain about what’s not being done – fine then, go do it! And stop worrying about what other people are or are not doing.

The Fringe Festival serves as a wide open proving ground for both aspiring and established artists. While Gillette is adamant that everyone deserves an opportunity to try their hand at theater, she says that doesn’t extend to funding, or even audiences.

Not everybody deserves or is entitled to funding to do their work. There is a lot of funding here, and that’s fantastic, but not everybody deserves to get it.

I think there’s sometimes a sense that if no one came to see my show, then the audience failed — not the show, or the marketing of the show.  But it’s not the audience’s fault. There is a point where the theater directors have to look at what their audiences really want to see in order to sell tickets – they can’t ignore the almighty dollar.

Theater has the potential to change the world and change lives, but it’s also a business. And if you fold, you’re not doing anybody any good.

Gillette points to Bedlam Theatre as an example of an organization that’s been smart about finding a source of income (its food and drink sales) to help balance the financial risks of its performances.

The Fringe Festival takes place in 16 different venues across Minneapolis. Because of this, Gillette has come to know intimately the quality and variety of performance spaces available to theater companies.

“There are certainly spaces in town, but it would be great if more of them were better maintained,” Gillette said. “Nimbus (Theatre) is a success story in that arena.  They went out, created the space they wanted, and now they’re making it available to others to use as well.”

Even after seven years at the helm of one of the largest non-juried festivals in North America, Gillette still feels that theater is a luxury.

It’s a luxury that everyone should have … but realistically that might not be possible. The real value of the Fringe is creating a place where people can define themselves as something different or they can do something different in a safe space …  either as an artist, or as an audience member.

If the Fringe can just continue to find ways to support artists and develop audiences … that’s what it does best.

Speaking of trying something new, what’s up next for Gillette?

“I’m trying to sort that out. I’m taking a little while to clear my head since I’ve had an all-consuming job for several years,” she said.

“What appeals to me now is project management – I know I do it well, and I know a lot of people don’t like to do it. It would probably start in the land of arts, since that’s the world I know, but it certainly wouldn’t end there.”