Visiting the Fringes

Fringe Waste Not
“I’ve actually, um…never been to a Fringe show.” In the past month, I’ve had to confess this truth with increasing, head-hanging shame to friends and colleagues–shame because the Minnesota Fringe Festival, which started August 2 and runs through the 12th, is one of the most popular and intriguing cultural events Minneapolis has. This town is often praised for its active arts scene and support for creativity, and Fringe is one of the biggest annual reminders that Minneapolitans will turn out by the Bryant Lake Bowlful to watch their friends and neighbors–many with little or no theater experience–present passion projects.
At least now I can say that I’m no longer Fringe-ignorant: This weekend, I attended my first of the festival’s shows, Jay Gabler’s “Ivory Tower Burning,” and later this week I’ll head to “Waste Not,” written and directed by Sarah Steadland. My reasons for choosing and now writing about these two shows are admittedly selfish–Jay and Sarah are friends of mine–but I like to think that they’re the perfect introduction to Fringe. To me, the most compelling thing about the festival is that the participants are chosen by lottery, with no higher-ups vetting scripts or giving preference to well-connected producers. While many of the offerings are by experienced theater companies, the classic Fringe show has to be one by someone like Jay or Sarah, neither of whom had mounted a stage production before.
The festival’s organizers make that lack of experience less daunting, Sarah told me, providing a guide that covers both the technical and business basics of creating a show. “Mainly they tell you to keep it simple and keep it fun.”
The hard part, then, was coming up with a story that could fit into the Fringe format. “I was writing a story about some friends who move to a cabin and declare it a micronation,” Sarah said. “The story I wanted to tell was too long to fit into a one-act play, though. Then I realized the dumpster diver screenplay I’d written a year earlier and never used was kind of perfect for the Fringe Festival. It has a lot more action and an interesting subtext. It was way more stage-able.” Her resurrected screenplay became “Waste Not,” about a young woman who falls in with a dumpster-diving crusader and starts to suspect his freegan lifestyle may be too extreme.
Jay already had his idea in place when he applied for this year’s Fringe. “I had been thinking for a couple of years about creating a Fringe show, and I decided to enter this year’s lottery when I came up with an idea that I knew I could pull off,” he said. His subject came from his time in grad school for sociology, where he became fascinated by Talcott Parsons and C. Wright Mills; he decided to imagine these two major figures of their field meeting and discussing their theories in person. The duelling sociologists are played by Jay himself and his younger brother Joe, who surprised Jay by volunteering for a role. “Since he’s nine years younger than I am, we were never very close growing up, and it’s very gratifying on a personal level to be able to work with Joe on this project,” Jay said.
So will this be the first of many shows? “My main goal is to keep pushing myself creatively and to interact with new collaborators, not to make money or build a company or to make it to the Guthrie,” Jay said. “I’m very happy with my decision to set myself to this challenge, and I’ll definitely be looking to take more creative risks in the future.”

Sarah feels the same way: “I’m not set on being a playwright, or a comedic writer, or anything that specific at this point. I like trying new things, and right now I’m excited to jump back into prose,” she said.

That dismissal of straightforward commercial goals makes plays like Jay’s and Sarah’s some of Fringe’s most appealing. The festival’s relative openness to anyone who wants to give staging a play a shot (relative because participants are expected to chip in a production fee of over $400) makes going to a show something of a gamble, sure. But dropping cash on Fringe means providing an audience for people who are trying something new, scraping together their resources to throw something personal and unique onto the stage. With no obligation to cater to official judges or sponsors–besides wooing people to, you know, see the show–Fringe participants have the chance to experiment, explore obscure ideas or pet obsessions, and challenge themselves to create something of value just for, ultimately, the fun of it. That’s exhilarating, and it’s worth supporting.

For Fringe coverage from people who know what they’re talking about (more than I do, anyway), watch the site throughout the week for reviews from contributors Nick Decker and Kevin Albertson. To learn about another anything-goes Minneapolis venture, catch up with Christiaan “Bacon” Tarbox’s story on Northeast Minneapolis’ The Rabbit Hole.


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