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The Growing Fringe
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Volunteers keep the chaos under control at the Minnesota Fringe Festival headquarters in Loring Park. (MPR photo/Marianne Combs)
The 10th Annual Minnesota Fringe Festival is well underway. Word on the street says it's bigger and better than ever. But financial problems and continued growth have led to new challenges for the arts festival.

St. Paul, Minn. — On a Monday night the lobby of the Hey City Theater is packed to overflowing with people waiting to see Kevin Kling's latest show. Veteran Fringer Stacy Meshbesher has seen 22 Fringe shows so far. She reels off a list of what she recommends.

"Right now I'd say 'Industrials' is excellent and 'Sabotage' is really good," says Meshbesher. "I liked 'Helen Gurley Brown's Sex in the Office', 'Punk Rock Omaha'. 'Marlene Dietrich and Edith Piaf' is good, and 'Soul-less Bloodsucking Lawyers: A Musical' is well done." Meshbesher shows her Fringe button to the usher as she hands over her ticket. The Fringe button was introduced this year as an additional fundraising measure. It costs three dollars and audience members must have one in addition to their ticket in order to get in the door of Fringe shows. An informal poll of ticket holders finds them more than willing to pay the extra fee to show their support for the Fringe, although many said they wished they'd been warned about it ahead of time.

One of the side effects of having ten days to choose from 162 shows is that Minnesotans start talking to each other.

Once at her seat, Meshbesher recognizes a woman she met at last year's festival, and they exchange notes on what they've seen. Soon the lights fade and Kevin Kling takes to the stage, back after two years recovery from a nearly fatal motorcycle accident. Kling says he loves the spirit of the Fringe.

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Image Kevin Kling

"Anybody and everybody can get involved and so you have this wide variety of material," he says. "It's really exciting because you don't have somebody telling you you're good or you're not good and you're there on your own merit and your show succeeds or fails on it's own merit and thats just incredible when you hit the heights - it's just amazing."

By the looks of it Kling will have no trouble hitting the heights this year - his opening performance sold out, and drew effusive reviews.

Even Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and his family are making time to see a few shows. Rybak says he loves the new Fringe button; he wore it all day in meetings. He says he's thrilled to see so many packed houses for Fringe performances.

"I would say the Fringe is a little like a very pleasant fungus; it keeps on growing and we're happy it is," says Rybak.

Rybak's right. The Fringe is physically spreading to reach more of the city. This year In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater and Pillsbury House Theater were both added to the list of venues, even though they're more than a mile away from the core Fringe campus.

At Mercado Central on Lake Street David Mann, Craig Johnson and Sara Gioia take a break from "Fringing" for lunch.

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Image The Worst Show in the Fringe

David Mann has just finished a performance of his show Sex with David Mann; he and Craig Johnson will perform side by side in The Worst Show in the Fringe later in the evening.

Both shows have been in the Minnesota Fringe Festival before; The Worst Show in the Fringe was last year's top seller at the box office.

Director Sara Gioia says she's upset to hear people criticize the notion of bringing back a previous show, as if it were a form of cheating, or showed a lack of ingenuity. She says it's hard for a performer to put in the work to create an entire show and then only see it run 5 nights.

"I think that if you have a good show that you enjoy, that that's really okay to bring that back," she says. "It's just such a rare opportunity really to have a show that you really liked, that audiences really liked, and that you think is strong enough to come back again - that really doesn't happen very often. So I think it's just fine to take advantage of that."

Gioia says she's noticed a change in tone amongst performers this year. People seem worried they have to fight for attention from the media and the audiences.

But when asked if he thinks the Fringe Festival is getting too big, David Mann laughs and asks simply, "Is the State Fair too big?"

The performers admit they were at first nervous about getting audiences to show up at Heart of the Beast since it's so far from other venues, but now that their shows have opened they've found it's not a problem.

Joseph Scrimshaw's in three shows this year, two of which are at the Heart of the Beast. He says in past years he's always worried the Fringe was getting too big, but the audiences still came. He says this year is the same.

"I think it's good that it's changing, that there are remounts and that there's a lot of equity actors starting to get involved," he says. "And I think it's good that there's a balance between plenty of room for new people to come up and also a place still for people who are professional actors to come and play."

At the Fringe Festival Headquarters in Loring Park things have actually quieted down now that the festival is underway. Director Leah Cooper says she couldn't be happier with how things are going. Opening weekend ticket sales were up 21 percent over last year's, and many shows sold out on their first night. Cooper says there's a lot more serious content this year.

"Of course there's the wacky zany musicals and the crazy improv and all of that," says Cooper. "But even within those there are some thoughtful topics being brought up and there's just an amazing number of shows that are taking risks and asking difficult questions."

In it's 10-year history the Fringe Festival has never balanced its books, and it has always relied on the kindness of others through grants and foundation support.

In order to make the Fringe a financially viable cultural institution, Cooper is working hard to finish this year in the black. But with the downturn in the economy many funders which have been regular Fringe supporters failed to come through, and the Festival was left with a very large financial hole.

Cooper says the most obvious solution would have been to drop a venue, thereby eliminating a large rental fee, but that would mean cancelling 10 shows from the festival. Instead the administration took salary cuts, added the required buttons, and reduced the box office payout to performers from 70 percent to 65 percent of ticket sales.

"So the idea is rather than making a few artists suffer because of a funding climate, to try to spread it evenly among everybody and get the festival on stable footing for the first time ever so that next we don't have to break any promises to anybody," says Cooper.

Cooper says she's looking at keeping the Fringe Festival a manageable size in future years, while still encouraging new ideas.

At the Red Eye performance space, Niki McCretton of Somerset, England is performing "Heretic," a story of a woman banished to the moon for believing in God.

The piece incorporates theater, dance, video and sound. As she travels the world from one Fringe Festival to the next McCretton has to go on a treasure hunt for props like buckets of fine sand and a salvaged toilet- things she can't carry with her on an airplane. This is her second year at the Minnesota Fringe, and she loves it.

"It's the best fringe," says McCretton. "I'm not just saying that, it really is. It's so edgy, it's about art it's about artists, it's about people seeing lots of different types of theater -- it's so diverse and it's so well supported. And I mean this year they've got the visual fringe as well -- it's just fantastic -- you lucky lucky people of Minneapolis. I want to live here."

McCretton says she knows performers who were planning on attending the New York Fringe Festival this summer, but changed their plans and headed to Minneapolis after hearing the Minnesota Fringe Festival was better.

McCretton herself has spent thousands of dollars on airfare, food and lodging in order to make this trip work; there's no possibility of her making a profit off of the show. Then a few weeks before the Fringe got underway, she was told that, due to funding problems, Fringe management would be taking an extra 5 percent of ticket sales. Some local artists questioned the decision, but McCretton says she understands.

"Although it's hard to take a drop in a box office fee when it costs so much to get here, if it takes that to make the Fringe happen again next year then it's well well worth it," says McCretton. "You know we've worked out the cut and the cut's about 78 dollars per company and I'm happy to give that to see it happen next year. I'm broke though so if anybody would like to feed me dinner I'd be really grateful!"

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