A scene from Lions and Peacocks and Snakes – OH MY! by CAAM Chinese Dance Theater, one of several shows at the inaugural Family Fringe festival. Photo by Dan Norman.
The numbers are in for the 2018 Minnesota Fringe festivals: this year’s Fringe fests were a heck of a lot smaller than any in recent memory. The annual theatre smorgasbord produced an artist payout of about $165,000, out of an estimated box office gross of $235,700. (In one of several breaks from previous years, the Minnesota Fringe did not release its normal breakdown of box office figures.)
For many years, the Minnesota Fringe described itself as the largest unjuried theatre festival in the United States. Take a look at the Minnesota Fringe website today, though, and the site now reads something different: “the largest performing arts festival in the Midwest”. That’s a key difference: although the more than 38,600 people who attended this year’s festivals in August are nothing to sneer at, they’re a far cry from the more than 50,000 butts in seats that the festival flirted with in the early 2010s. In terms of attendance, this year’s festival continued a multi-year decline, dipping to levels not seen since 2007, when the I-35W bridge plunged into the Mississippi River shortly before the festival opened.
That this would be a smaller festival was clear from the Fringe staff’s first announcement that the festival would not be performing in its longstanding Uptown Minneapolis hub. With the demise of the Theatre Garage to development, the shuttering of Intermedia Arts to financial woes, and the Jungle Theater programming a mainstage play, the Minnesota Fringe planned a smaller main festival with only 12 operating venues (70% of 2017’s venue count). The remaining venues were clustered in Northeast Minneapolis and the Cedar-Riverside area, with Fringe Central moving out to Red Stag Supperclub.
This restricted physical geography and venue selection inevitably required a contraction. At the same time, the festival also eliminated two performing slots: the second Friday’s 4:30 PM slot and the final encore performance. Some 138 shows were programmed, about 83% of the previous year’s 167 total. The Family Fringe was added this year, bringing in several additional shows at the Celtic Arts Junction in St. Paul, but overall things were bound to be smaller with only 694 performances scheduled vs. 860 in 2017.
Unsurprisingly, this year’s box office totals were significantly smaller than 2017’s. In addition to the raw number of shows and venues, there were also several hit shows at area theatres to pull potential audiences away. Just minutes away from Cedar-Riverside, West Side Story at the Guthrie was playing to sold-out performances. Across the river The Korean Drama Addict’s Guide to Losing Your Virginity at Park Square was packing houses with a different sort of something different. Road and highway construction certainly didn’t help, with I-35W closures on weekends. Several performances were also cancelled due to various reasons, including The Breakfast Club: A Musical receiving a cease-and-desist order halfway through its run. The ripples of these factors took a notice bite out of producers’ box office apple: the average payout this year was about $1,196, versus $1,270 in 2017.
Minnesotans are famously modest but inwardly proud. As far as boasting goes, however, the Minnesota Fringe Festival in recent years has been overtaken by the Orlando Fringe Festival and Washington, DC’s Capital Fringe, both of which run over longer periods. The Orlando Fringe also cut its show and venue count this year, as a strategic (and successful) measure to improve per-artist earnings. So far, anyway, the Minnesota Fringe Festival’s reign over the Midwest is still secure: the 2018 Chicago Fringe and its 4-day, 24-show run (kicking off Friday, August 31) is no threat to our state’s icy crown.