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EDITORIAL: On Lists and Awards

A double photo collage of every show image from the 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival.

Some trivia: the decision to found the Twin Cities Arts Reader was made during the 2015 Minnesota Fringe Festival. It’s only natural, then, that the festival was very much on the core leadership team’s minds as we brainstormed about what we wanted this publication to be. Some of the ways that we decided to shape our coverage include emphasizing:

  • Documenting, reporting on, and critically assessing some of the wealth of local arts that aren’t being well-covered in mainstream/print media.
  • Giving voice to a wide and diverse spread of arts makers.
  • Emphasizing informed, critical discourse over opinion/reaction-writing and blogging.
  • Avoiding the temptation to create “Top X” lists (the clickbait of arts journalism).
Butts in seats: Important, but not the measure of everything.

We’ve bent on the “Top X” lists, somewhat: at the end of the year, some of our staff now put together their individual, non-ranked lists of favorite shows. In general, we try to avoid calling out favorites: we write reviews and cover interesting things, and most of the time we leave it up to our readers to determine their favorites.

The Minnesota Fringe Festival is a special (and in some ways problematic) case. One of the festival’s driving engines is its large mass of audience reviews, which give some insight into the collective zeitgeist of the people who choose to write these reviews. These reviews, however, evaporate each year as the website is wiped clean in preparation for the next festival run. If every show was systematically reviewed in print & online publications (as happens in, for example, the Orlando Fringe), this would not be such an issue – but for artists who depend on reviews and awards as part of their publicity mill and funding process, the ephemerality is problematic.

Audience members sitting on the floor during an oversold performance of The Memory Box of the Sisters Fox by The Winding Sheet Outfit – the sort of important but ephemeral detail not usually captured in festival coverage.

Consider this: if a show doesn’t get a review in a publication that shows up high in searches (note: blogs and other social media are increasingly de-emphasized in Google and other search results) – or doesn’t post online – the audience reviews are sometimes the only record of people validating your artistic product. In the space of a moment, you can go from having 89 audience reviews with an average 5-star rating (e.g., Broad Sex in the Twin Cities) to an Internet presence of nil, without so much as a show name in a program list somewhere on the Minnesota Fringe site. For some artists with a rougher first-time Fringe experience, this might be welcome – but for the many returning artists, and those trying to make a living by touring/presenting their art professionally – it’s problematic.

Did You Know…
…that the 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival included 43 first-time producers and 71 first-time MN Fringe producers?

There are many reasons why the Fringe website works the way it does, and why the festival itself doesn’t grant awards – the encores are mathematically calculated, and as such there is no curating or critical consideration. Getting an encore is certainly an honor, but the difference between being getting an encore one can be entirely external to the artistic product: one person being slightly delayed traffic and missing the start, a tie being broken by a coin toss, or even a box office mix-up leading to “held” seats for people who grabbed tokens but neglected to visit the reservation desk. Then there are shows that deserve special mention for reasons that don’t include their box office gross. (To my kids: Mommy is saying, “Size and numbers aren’t everything”.)

A double photo collage of all the show images from the 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival.

There are many reasons why the Arts Reader gives awards for a select number of shows in the Minnesota Fringe Festival. The most important ones are that we are providing a specific type of critical coverage not found in our peer publications, and that these awards acknowledge the voices of many artists in our community. Our voice is informed in part by providing the most extensive critical and journalistic coverage of the festival of any publication covering the Minnesota Fringe, and partly from hundreds of informal interactions that our staff have with audience members to learn and gauge how different shows have resonated with them.

Our awardees are not the be-all and end-all of Fringe, just like there is a great deal of spectacular art not encompassed in the list of Ivey Award-winning theatres – but we believe strongly that they are shows and ensembles that are very much worth acknowledging. Since this is Minnesota’s largest theatre festival – and one of the largest arts events in the Upper Midwest – that’s something worth celebrating.

The Twin Cities Arts Reader‘s awards for the 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival will be announced on Monday, August 14.

Hanne Appelbaum