Minnesota Fringe Festival: it’s not curated for a reason

Editor’s note: this past weekend the Star Tribune published a piece suggesting its time for the Minnesota Fringe Festival to start curating its work… or at least some of it. The festival, now entering its 20th year, has long prided itself on being open to everyone, regardless of pedigree. I contacted Fringe Director Robin Gillette for her take on the idea; here’s her response:

RobinGillette1.jpgI’m just back from a trip to the original fringe – Edinburgh Festival Fringe, offering over 2,700 different shows in hundreds of venues across the city. My colleague Jeff Larson and I went out to see the festival and to take part in the inaugural World Fringe Congress- a gathering of 50 fringes from across the world to exchange experiences and build bridges.

We learned so much about the different operating models of fringes across the world. Some fringe festivals are curated while others are unjuried; some are open-access, meaning that absolutely everyone who wants to present a show can do so, while others, like Minnesota Fringe, have a cap on the number of participants. There’s also great variety in the styles of work that’s presented, the experience and professional aspirations of the participants, and the producing and/or educational support offered by the festival. For me, the takeaway is that every festival is a unique reflection of its culture, local arts scene, audience base, funding sources, geography (which determines venue proximity) and more, and there’s no one right “Fringe” way to do it.

Curation is one of the most interesting areas of discussion, and especially relevant in light of the recent Star Tribune article. Festivals choose to curate to serve a number of different goals – to ensure a high-quality program of established artists; to highlight new work or emerging artists that wouldn’t otherwise come to the attention of local audiences; to adhere to a particular theme or highlight a specific genre; to ensure a diversity of shows, i.e. a balance of local and national acts, or a certain number of kids shows; or, as is the case with FringeNYC in New York, to keep performance slots for Fringe-level artists rather than giving them over to become inexpensive commercial try-outs for professional producers. Even though the Edinburgh Fringe itself is open-access, some of the largest Fringe venues there are heavily curated.

Others, like Minnesota Fringe, have chosen not to curate because it reduces a barrier to performance opportunities for all. Our lottery system means that the longtime Fringe favorite has the same odds of getting in as a person who’s never done a show before but has always wanted to try; furthermore, once those two companies come into the festival, they both have access to the same level of support – each company gets the same allocation of performance times, they play in the same venues and get equal space in our program and on our website. We’re the only place in the region that offers equal access to fully-staged productions like this, and we’re mighty proud of that. Being uncurated is a huge part of what this Fringe is, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. But I don’t want to cast aspersions on festivals that choose another method of operation.

One notable difference between most U.S. fringes and their international counterparts is that most non-U.S. fringe festivals are presented alongside a more formal curated festival. The original fringe in Edinburgh started in this way in 1947 – a group of performers excluded from the Edinburgh Festival decided to set up their own festival on the “fringe” of the main event. Now, festivals run in tandem like this throughout the world, which naturally creates a counterpoint between the established artists on the mainstage and the emerging, more experimental shows on the fringe.

Minnesota Fringe is planning a public meeting later this fall to report back on what we learned at the World Fringe Congress. Stay tuned for all sorts of fascinating information, including discussions on how what we learned might get incorporated into our own operations.

  • Steve Hendrickson

    I see your point and on one level it’s great that the MN Fringe is open to all. But there is no denying there is a huge disparity in the quality of offerings and it’s not easy to get a reliable sense of what to see and to avoid. True, there were audience reviews but those were uniformly positive to the point of ridicule.

    For example, requiring every show to post a video on the Fringe website giving a taste of the full experience would have been useful and helped me steer clear of the 4 excruciating performances I saw on my 5-show pass. Some did, but the calamities I endured did not.

    I suspect the danger of splitting the Fringe into juried and open halves is that audiences would flock to the former and flee the latter. Jurying wouldn’t keep newcomers out, only (one hopes) the irredeemably untalented, inexpert and ill-prepared ones.

    The question I kept thinking while enduring most of the Fringe was “Didn’t anybody look at this before they said “Yes, come charge admission!”? If there was at least a portion of the Fringe that had been subject to review I’d be more comfortable returning.

    In advance: yes, I understand this. is. my. opinion. I name no names, disparage no one’s character. Those who want to dispute, at least be civil. Coraggio!

  • Daniel Pinkerton

    I have been to *what I considered* excruciating, time wasting performances at some of the most prestigious and expensive venues in town — shows that made me wonder how the theatre had the nerve to charge $25-$50 to come and see this dreck. I rarely see truly awful plays at the Fringe anymore. Not because they aren’t there, but because the Fringe’s website, preview nights, and video previews make it so easy to get a sense of what the piece is like. A little effort yields great rewards. Of course, I *have* seen some shows that, despite my research, have been disappointing, but that’s part of the risk. I’ve also seen stuff that’s breathtaking. True, there’s an amateurishness to a lot of the Fringe. That’s not always a bad thing.

    Having said that, I still feel that the MN Fringe is well established and runs smoothly, with the attendant pluses and minuses that maturity entails. I don’t know how one would freshen it up a bit — I suspect it’s up to the artists to do that. (I have suggested in other places that the Fringe bring back the 90-minute slot or venue, but that’s not the only idea worth considering.) I don’t think the shows should be juried. I cannot think of any way in which that would encourage experimentation and risk taking by professionals and amateurs. In fact, if the Fringe did as Ro and Graydon suggested, splitting the festival into a juried and a non-juried section, they’d actually be creating the MN Festival and the MN Fringe Festival. That would not be a step in the right direction.

  • Mindy Eschedor

    I can imagine the pros and cons of both a juried and non-juried festival, and can see the value of each formula. I feel fortunate to have seen primarily “quality” shows in the past several years, mostly because I choose to see those shows which are produced by or feature people I know or about which I have heard good feedback. I have also taken the chance on some unknowns, with mixed results. A few things truly wowed me, a few made me want to slink quietly out the door partway through. Still, though, I admired the moxie of these (usually) first-time producers and performers. They are some of the many Fringe producers (including myself) who are able to take advantage of the fantastic production resources that the Fringe provides – venue, tech crew, box office crew, publicity, website – which would not be available to a fledgling producer seeking to put on a show. I can round up top-notch talent, but I sure don’t have the means to obtain all the other elements of a production!

    I do feel there are other ways in which the Fringe might level the playing field a bit, though. While the lottery system is fair by design, it is possible to improve one’s odds by having multiple family or cast members submit applications, thereby increasing the chances of earning one or more performance slots. It would be a bit more equitable to have individuals or companies who have produced every year of the past 2-3 festivals to sit out a year so that others may have a better opportunity to get in.

    The musical offerings at the Fringe could benefit from some new parameters, too. I have produced musical works in the Fringe three times in the past 8 years. Each time was progressively more difficult than the previous, due to the Fringe’s increasing restrictions on musicals – you can’t use the venue’s piano…you can’t bring in a piano…you can only use a keyboard, but you can’t store it at your venue. Musicals are a big draw at the Fringe, and quality does suffer when using a digital instrument with unmiked voices. Perhaps it’s time for a Musical Fringe – a spin-off or concurrent festival held at 3-4 venues with acoustic pianos? Just a thought…one of many.