Busking Around the World - Introducing the Minnesota Fringe Festival

Gene: Hi everybody. I'm Gene Carr and I'm joined today by Evyn Lundy and Leo Hidy. Both are Oberlin students who are joining us to interview Dawn Bentley who is the executive director of the Minnesota Fringe Festival. Welcome Dawn!

Dawn: Thank you for having me.

Gene: We are delighted to learn more about the Minnesota Fringe festival. So, why don't we start from the beginning? If you could give us a minute of background about the festival: How did it get started? How long has it been running, and all that background stuff? 

Dawn: Sure. Well, the Minnesota Fringe Festival is part of the fringe movement that originally started in Scotland in 1947.

The idea behind it was that artists who wanted to be a part of the Edinburgh festival weren't invited - their art wasn't deemed good enough. So, they started performing on the outskirts of town and pretty soon, those performances garnered more attention on the fringe of town than the festival itself.
That is how the fringe movement began, and the Minnesota Fringe Festival is part of that movement. We began here in 1993. So this is going to be our 28th year of having festivals. We've grown from a very small cadre of artists to this year; We're going to be online, but normally we draw about 35,000 people and have well over a hundred different producers in our festival and more than 700 shows throughout the 11 days.

Gene: All these are folks in how many performing venues, and what kinds of places are they performing in? 

Dawn:  All of our venues are theater venues. So, we are lucky enough in Minneapolis to have a real cluster of beautiful theater spaces of all different sizes and configurations. So we typically use theaters in what we call the Cedar Riverside neighborhood, Northeast Uptown, and we cluster them together and it could be anywhere from 10 to 15 different theaters. And each of those theaters have 55 separate performances. And they're all going on at the same time in an 11-day period, usually at the end of July or beginning of August. 

Gene:So this has to be a massive organization, because I assume they're all volunteers and they're coming from all over?

Dawn: Well, it is a massive ordeal to undertake, but we only have two and a half staff. Yeah, Minnesota Fringe! And then we, I call it, “accordion out”. So our staff gets bigger during the summer. We hire professional technicians, sound, and light technicians. We hire people to run the front of the house, but then we deeply rely on over 300 volunteers to help us.

One, the festival itself and the artists are actually all paid. They are paid a portion of the box office anywhere between 60% and 75%, depending upon the year and the type and the online or  in-person (it's always kind of a moving target) but they get the vast majority of ticket sales right back in their pocket. And that's based exactly on who entered the theater and what was paid for each person. So, you can imagine that our data collection is pretty high because we can tell every artist, you know, “X number of people went to your theater, this many were paid, and this many of them were free. And then, you get a percentage of that. Somewhere around $1,500 for an act is the average, but I've written checks as large as $15,000. 

Gene: Wow. Now, since you brought up COVID I think Ev has a question about this. 

Evyn: I was wondering how has COVID-19 impacted the operations of your festival? And do you see any of these changes being long term?

Dawn: Yes. And yes, it deeply affected us. Over 50% of our budget comes from the festival itself. We have a few other small year-round programs, but our primary program is the festival. So having to shut down the festival [due to] the inability to perform on stages and gather people in theaters last year was devastating to us.

And for a while, we were really concerned if the organization after 27 years was going to shut down, but we had a great fundraising campaign. People really came out and supported us and we ended up pivoting to an online festival last year. We're going to pivot that just slightly, and have a better online festival this year.

But the thing that we learned last year is that new artists engage with us who wouldn't normally engage. People saw more shows because they didn't have to worry about mobility issues or traveling between theaters or finding parking spots. And we got some customers back that either artists or audience members that maybe left Minnesota and aren't able to enjoy the festival when they're not here and they got to participate again.

So we are going to keep an online component moving forward because there's so many benefits. And everything that we learned last year and everything we're doing to prepare for this year's festival, I think it's going to be a great component. 

Gene: So your festival is morphing and expanding at the same time.

Dawn: Yeah, I think, we can't just look at this time of COVID and say, “Well, that was really terrible. Let's hope that never happens again.” We have to take the lessons that were learned and try to apply them to make art more accessible. I mean, our job at Minnesota fringe is really to connect artists and audiences and it really is that connection of people that we've all lost in mourning over the past year. And that is our job. So we found a way to do it, and we are going to continue doing that moving forward in whatever medium is available to us. 

Gene: That is very inspiring, I have to say. Now, you speak passionately about this. Why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background? How did you get involved? How long have you been involved? 

Dawn: I started working here in April of 2017, just four months before my first festival. It was not the first festival I've ever run. I ran a different festival called art shanty projects. That was an artistic festival that happened on a frozen lake in the middle of winter in Minnesota.

So I had some festival experience, but I definitely hit the ground running. And it has been quite a journey ever since, because it seems like every year there has been something new for us and some new challenge for us to get over. But prior to that I didn't work in the arts at all. I was just an arts aficionado.

I play the violin. And I've played in many bands, but you know, nothing professional. I worked in marketing, I was a microbiologist. I've done all kinds of different things. But, when I was about 40 years old, I decided that I wanted to have more meaning in my life and when it comes to my career, not just show up for a job, but do something that I was passionate about. So I went to graduate school and got a master's in nonprofit management specifically because I wanted to work in the arts and help make arts accessible for everyone. 

Gene: That is, that is truly amazing. Now, tell us a little bit about how you solicit and select the shows for the festival.

Dawn: Well, the one thing about the fringe movement (that is common for every Fringe festival in the world) is that it is not an invitation and it is not a selection that is based on your previous history as an artist - anyone can be an artist. So, you can be a professional that does this for a living, or you could just have a story that you want to tell and how we do it at the fringe.

And this is how a lot of fringes do it. It's a lottery. So you submit for the lottery; you get entered. And we actually have a physical lottery with a bingo cage and a bunch of balls. And everybody that has submitted to be a part of the lottery can show up or watch it online, and we select who is going to be in the festival based on the number of venues that we have procured for that year. So, it's completely by chance. 

Gene: Unbelievable. And so the audience chose to go to your website and they go to whatever shows look interesting to them?

Dawn: Yes. We have a pretty robust website where an audience member can go and select based on their location. Maybe they live near some theaters and they want to see what's in their neighborhood, or they can select by genre or by content, or maybe they want to support a touring artist, or maybe they want to see something different or unusual.

There are various ways that you can select the shows because you can't see them all in a normal festival year. You can only see 55 shows. And that’s if you went [to a theater] and just sat through every single performance. So, when you have hundreds to choose from, you really need to narrow it down.
And of course we have people who come back every year, local and touring artists. So there gets to be some fringe favorites, but I have to say, our audience is so supportive and so adventurous and so willing to try something that they are really out there seeking something different and something experiential - something they can really sink their teeth into.

Gene: Amazing. I think you mentioned this earlier, but in a given year pre-COVID, how many attendees across all of your shows do you generally get? 

Dawn: It's anywhere between 35 and 40,000 on average. And you know, some of them are artists that are also participating. That's the one thing I really like about fringe is that the artists go and see each other shows they're supportive of each other, but they're also getting ideas from one another.
But you know, the vast majority of people are paid audience members. Who, by the way, aren't necessarily normally going to the theater in the off season; they may not be [regular] theater-goers. They may be only going to the fringe because it's a certain type of theater. It's very sparse and broken down.

Really, it's all about the story on the stage and not the glitz and costuming and everything like that. It's just all a bunch of stuff.

Gene: Leo, I think you have a question?

Leo: Yes. Year after year, is there one specific act or section of the performances that you look forward to most throughout that entire week?

Dawn: Oh, that week is always a blur for me. But what I think I love the best is that every single night after the performances are over, we gather somewhere, we call it Fringe Central - it's a mobile location. It may move every year, but when we've selected something, then that's where everyone goes. And I love to walk into Fringe Central at 11 o'clock at night and see artists who have just finished a performance, audience members who have just binged all day on performances, volunteers, staff members all exchanging the news, you know: “What did you see? What should I see? I've got an open slot tomorrow. What should I go to?” And it's just really fun to see that comradery because that fourth wall is completely broken down and people - especially the artists - get really direct feedback from their audiences. 

Gene: I'm ready to come. I don't know about Leo and Ev, but I'm ready to go. I'm willing. Is there anything that we haven't asked you about that for people that aren't perhaps as familiar with either your fringe festival or other things that we haven't asked that you, that you'd like to let us know about?

Dawn:Well, I think an important thing to think about the fringe being as large as it is, is the benefits that it has for our community. We did an economic impact study, and although some people consider this to be a whimsical theater thing that happens once a year, it really does have a major impact. And the economic impact study demonstrated that our festival alone has a $1.2 million impact on our city.
And it also cross-pollinates artists and it gets people into the theater that, like I said before, maybe they're not regular theater-goers, but it's a really casual setting. You can show up in shorts and bring a cooler of food and spend all day with your friends and family. And I just want to get more people involved and interested in the arts as a medium for connection.

Gene: That resonates deeply with what we're doing here in Great Barrington, because it is in fact all about the arts and it's about connectivity and connection. It's also about economic impact. All of this is a small town thing, and part of our goal is to get people back into the stores and back into the restaurants; get the economic engine going through the arts. 

So what you're doing really is a mirror of what our expectations [are] and our hope is for the project that we're working on. It's been delightful to talk to you. I've learned a lot about fringe festivals and about what you're doing. So, best of luck, we will all be watching. We'll link below to your festival. If people want to log in online, when is it taking place this year? 

Dawn: It will be August 5th through the 15th. 

Gene: Okay. Well, if you're not on the street of Great Barrington, you should be watching the Minnesota Fringe Festival Dawn. Thank you so much for joining us. Yes.
 
Dawn:  Thank you. And good luck with your project.