Life on the Fringe: Minneapolis Fringe Fest 2019

I was in a Fringe Fest show. Add that to the list of things I thought I’d never do but did.

I’m still not sure how I got roped into it. I was talking to Ed (who I met at Track Thursdays before I knew he was one of those creative types), ranting about a frustrating work situation. I enjoy a good rant. A little yelling, a touch of hyperbole, and a good dose of sarcasm is a soothing balm on frayed nerves after a stressful day. Ed doesn’t mind my rants, and on this spring day he was starting to chuckle. “I think we might have to use that in my Fringe Fest show,” he said.

The show was to be called “Canary in a Cubicle.” A collection of embellished real-life monologues interspersed with frivolous short sketches, it playfully examined work life as we try to understand it. Our ad read: “Confounding co-workers, bad (or sad) bosses, interview insanity, and more! This spoken-word show features multiple monologues about workplace truisms, highlighting generational grief.” (We had a too-long discussion about whether we were better categorized as “storytelling” than “spoken word,” but this describes what we did pretty well.)

Some other stuff happened and before I knew it, I was at Minnehaha Pavilion on Saturday, July 13, rehearsing a short monologue based on that day’s rant.

Everyone said I looked tired, and I felt worse than tired. Many of my days were like that – trying to put on a smile that must have come out lopsided, telling people I was only tired because I’d run too much, trying to get some solid food down but tasting nothing, falling into bed feeling nothing, waking up in the middle of the night feeling terrible. By the third rehearsal, I’d explained to Ed that I was struggling with depression. I don’t remember what he said. I remember he didn’t say what I’d feared: He didn’t say anything about not having to go through with the show. So I stuck with it, and it kept me afloat, in a weird way. No one else was counting on me to be anywhere or do anything on weekends, but Saturdays were rehearsal and I dragged myself there to rehearse.

And then I listened. The other “canaries” delivered monologues of their own, interspersed with short sketches. Some were funny, some were sad and also a little funny, some were touching, some were ironic, all were true. There’s something deeply authentic about a good story, told in the author’s own voice. Listening soothed my heavy heart a little.

With some of my fellow canaries, hanging out at Rarig

One of our monologues poked fun at “participation awards” such as we receive at races. This made me laugh because it comes so close to the truth. My inner child wants a medal just for doing a thing, free from judgment on how well I’ve done it. Running gave me that. I wasn’t any good when I started running, and I kept at it. I fretted when I started writing again that I wasn’t any good. When I confided in Ed, he replied promptly, “Never stopped me.”

Why should you ever let anything stop you?

Again before I knew it, I found myself at the final rehearsal in the Nolte Xperimental theater, trying to remember the lines I’d written myself, not quite making it. Some of the others were faltering a bit too, because the lights were so bright it took some getting used to. What am I doing? I asked myself again and again, but never aloud. The others offered some helpful hints, since most of them had been on stage before. Sound carries well in the theater, but you have to project, enunciate, intonate and almost exaggerate. Same with movement; you have the stage, so why not use it. Mostly, they offered constant breezy cheerful encouragement. I started to laugh a bit. And then, the show was on, and I was doing it, really doing it. Then stepping off stage to applause and Ed giving me a friendly thumbs-up.

Wait – This is great!

It struck me that Fringe Fest, or putting anything creative out for consumption, is a beautifully brave thing to do. I used to consider myself a creative type, but never really grew a thick skin for the criticism that inevitably comes with it. The Fringe encourages online reviews; I told myself I wouldn’t read them.

Of course, the others were going to read them and then I was going to read them. This happened sooner than I thought, when one of my fellow players posted a link to one, saying, “My first negative review! I feel like such a professional now!” The cast’s reactions, again, exuded cheer, courage and sharp humor. Of course, they were right. You’re not really good until someone sneers; you’re never really funny until some humorless prig sniffs that you’re not; you haven’t made an impression until some Simon Powell wannabe gives you a haughty “So what?”

The best part: Seeing all the Fringe Fest shows for free, wearing a badge that says “Artist”

Once I got to reading them, I could see that almost all the reviews for ours or any show were 5 out of 5 stars, but almost no show in the entire fest escaped the one stinkweed of a negative review put forth by someone who simply lacked clarity on the concept. A play called “Buttslasher” drew criticism for having too many butt jokes. An absurdist improv dance performance confused someone because it didn’t tell a clear story. One reviewer admitted to having walked out on a show after seven minutes. In general, the critics expressed disappointment that these amateur performances were amateurish. And here I am criticizing the critics! That’s what comes from reading so many reviews. There’s a style to them that sticks in your head. I can’t begrudge the critics their contribution, especially if they’re clear and constructive on what they’d like more or less of, but I think they’re missing out on the real fun. It would be no fun if all I wrote were reviews, so I have this category called “ramblings.” And it would have been no fun to only see the best-reviewed shows and view them with a critical eye, so I went to whatever I had time for and opened my mind to the bizarre tossed salad of shows that is Fringe Fest.

I saw as many shows as I could: The above-mentioned Buttslasher, a spoof on classic murder mysteries; a one-man comedy called Game of Toms, which explained Game of Thrones to me better than anyone else has; At Ladders, Inc., the fun improv dance performance; Ladybrain, a series of short comedy sketches, and Stand Up Eight, my favorite. At Stand Up Eight, I sat next to one of the performers from Buttslasher. We were both on the edges of our seats; this collection of monologues and sketches was my favorite.

Somewhere in all of this, my mind opened a bit and some light shone in. A combination of things helped me break through the clouds, not the least of which is the fact that I’m fortunate enough to not be especially prone to depression. I kept up with healthy habits as much as possible, including running. But the Fringe helped me fill the gap that I can’t fill with 50-mile weeks anymore. With these artists giving me a boost, I felt brave enough to get on stage without worrying about the outcome. It didn’t matter; what mattered was that I was interested. Finally, after weeks of not wanting to do anything, I was interested in something. And being interested and creative means being alive in the world again. Or at least it’s a great start.

After the final performance, a cast party on Republic’s patio

My fellow Canaries, thank you so much. You are brave. You are awesome. Your stories matter more than you know. You’re not just artists, you’re wonderful human beings. This is what the world needs more of. The light of shining stars.