Today the Minnesota Fringe announced that it was cancelling the 2020 festival. I’ve spent the weeks leading up to this announcement thinking about all of the implications of this news, for my staff and the artists and our theater community at large. I’ve been looking back on my years with the Fringe, and an abrupt end to a 20-year career. What a ride it’s been.
In June of 2000, I graduated from college and came back home with a degree in Anthropology and ideas of making a career as a Stage Manager. I had some interviews and looked around for a summer job. I saw an ad in the Star Tribune 550s about a theater festival looking for box office help. I applied.
Not long after I wound up in an office above the old Acadia Cafe on Nicollet and Franklin. This thing called the Fringe Festival was about to start, and I found myself not just selling tickets, but with the title of “Assistant Box Office Manager.” Suddenly, I was in charge of making sure shows started on time and fixing flooded toilets at the old Phoenix Theater down the street. I dove in, and met a ton of amazing people and saw some of the most amazing theater I’ve ever seen (seriously, one of my all time favorite shows happened at the festival that year,) and somehow got through it all not just intact, but wanting to do it again.
The next year there was a new Director of the festival, and I applied to be the Box Office Manager. She didn’t hire me. However, they still needed some technicians to run the lights and sound at the venues. I had a middling knowledge in such things, so I switched to that department instead.
I got assigned to the Wesley Church. We were using a sort of sub-lobby off the main sanctuary as the performance space. There wasn’t enough power, so we ran feeder cable up to the belfry and shooed away pigeons and tromped through bird shit to make the electrical connection. The floor was red carpet and there wasn’t really a backstage to speak of. That summer was brutally hot. Some artists elected to perform in the parking lot instead, and we ran mic cables out through the back door. There was a ballet show with about 60 dancers that brought in chests of ice and fans to keep the performers from passing out during the show.
That was the year that Kevin Kling got hit on his motorcycle on his way to our space for his first revival performance of 21A in years. That was the year I learned how to be a technician, and how to function under fire.
That was also the year I met my theater company.
Driving around one day, I heard a story on MPR about a show that sounded interesting to me – something about Jesus and Satan fighting for a woman’s soul using standard NFL rules of play. So I went to see the show. I settled into the middle of the house at the Women’s Club, and opened the program. I saw the name of a guy I went to college with listed. Wondered what he had to do with it all. Then the lights went down, and I watched this wonderful, silly, young, smart, stupid group of people on stage for an hour. An old man walked around playing God. There were girls in black mini-skirts playing Satan’s cheerleaders. And when it was all over and I walked outside, I saw a cute long-haired guy loading out set pieces next to the guy I went to college with.
That long-haired guy and I were introduced by our mutual friends not long after. We started dating. He told me about this theater company he and his friend had started. I expressed surprise one night when I wanted to go see a movie and he demurred, having to get up early for work the next day. Who has to get up early to work on a play? I thought the theater company was his job. I was still so young.
The next year, 2002, I was back as a Fringe technician at the MCTC mainstage. We wrestled with a sound system that played tape and a grid that flew up and down on chain winches. I saw more amazing theater that I will never forget.
Every year I went back. Every year I felt more at home.
In 2005, I teched a long day at the Loring Playhouse and headed home. I needed to feed my cat before heading to meet the other technicians at the bar. Instead, leaving my place at the Belmont Apartments to head to Rudolph’s, I got hit by a car crossing Hennepin. I called our Technical Director from the hospital before I called my mom. The next morning I woke up in the hospital and was told I needed surgery. I turned on the TV, and saw a news report about a shooting at a payday lender. The image showed the Theater Garage surrounded with crime scene tape. I knew my boss was not having a good day. I didn’t get to work the festival that year, but the rest of the technicians scheduled drinks at the bar across the street from my place so I could hobble over on my crutches and join in each night’s unwinding.
In 2007, we were running a tech rehearsal at the Theater Garage when everyone’s phones started ringing. The 35W highway bridge over the river had just collapsed. We stopped the rehearsal, and everyone lined up in the back of the room to use that old rotary-dial phone on the wall to call their people, because the cell signals were jammed. It’s the only time that silly phone at the Theater Garage has come in useful. Then we had a moment to gather ourselves, and went back to rehearsal. The show went on. The festival went on.
In 2009 I had a stupid day job that wouldn’t let me take time off for the Fringe. We won’t talk about that year.
In 2014, I was at Intermedia Arts. That was a tough venue, because it had video. Unfortunately my partner came down with some serious medical issues, and I ended up having to solo the venue. Soloing a venue is a crazy thing to ask of a person. One person is in charge of running every aspect of every show. They must be there from an hour before the first show of the day until the last person leaves. There are no breaks. You need to remember the cues for 11 different shows, in a different order each day, and also manage everything else about keeping a venue humming during the festival. I powered through and reveled in the challenge, despite my fatigue. Soloing Intermedia was a badge of honor.
2015 was the year I became Technical Director. I wasn’t running shows any more, but was now in charge of those that did. I quickly learned that it was less about being a shepherd and more about being a cheerleader. Fringe technicians are some of the most talented people out there. They can create Art out of nothing, and they do it 11 times in a row. My job was to give them the tools they needed and get out of their way.
I gained the joy of working with this incredible crew of technicians, but also helping the artists figure out what they needed, and what they thought they needed that they really didn’t. I started anticipating the time of year when I would get to look through the Tech Questionnaires the producers filled out, looking for “bowling balls.”
By then that theater company, the one the long-haired guy started, was mine too. We had opened our own space on Central Ave over Northeast, and we were actually a Fringe Venue. But that year, an artist assigned to my venue said on their form, “We will have a bowling ball that we plan to drop on the stage.” I quickly put an end to that notion, saving my stage floor, and a shorthand was born.
I became adept at telling artists that they really didn’t need to use glitter. I enjoyed talking to seasoned professionals, and helping adjust their expectations of how Fringe is different from Normal theater. I loved working with new producers, and easing their fears. Making sure they understood they didn’t need to worry about the lights and sound, my folks would handle it. That they didn’t need to wrap themselves in fancy sets and extensive scenic changes, that if they told a good story with passion, people would respond.
I haven’t even touched on a fraction of the things that happened in my life at Fringe. The art created, friends met, ideas spawned, drinks shared, the laughter and tears and long hours and triumphs and failures. The grueling tech weeks and crazy closing night parties. The Blackshirt Army that grew to take over a corner of my heart. The piece of spike tape at the top of the stairs at Republic that’s still there to this day (I think.)
20 years later, I look back on that young woman fresh out of college. My life since then has been inextricably linked with the Fringe. There is no part of who I am now that can’t somehow be tied to my years with the festival. The long-haired guy is now my husband. The old man who played God in 2001 is my second father. Our company, nimbus, which got its start at the Fringe, is producing our 50th show this year.
I had already decided it was time for me to step aside and pass the spike stick to someone else. 20 wonderful years is still a long time, and every year I’m a little fuzzier on the technology I need to know, a little slower to recover from the late night tech drinks. I would round out two decades, and train my successor as I went through one last festival.
That has now been taken from me, from us, and I’m left with an empty summer and a drawer full of black shirts heavy with memory. It’s not how this was supposed to happen. Our collective community of artists and patrons is mourning the news that, this year, our beloved festival is another victim of the virus ravaging our world. We arm ourselves with buttons and turn to face our adversary, determined to weather the storm and live to fringe another year.
I won’t be there next time, at least not like I have. I don’t know what’s going to happen to any of us, or our beloved theaters and festivals, our restaurants and dives and coffee shops and galleries. But if Fringe has taught me anything in the last 20 years, it’s that you roll with the punches. You don’t waste energy on things you can’t change.
You look adversity in the eye, wait ‘till it blinks, then go call places.