The Fringe from the insideby Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio
Each year the Minnesota Fringe Festival brings together thousands of Minnesotans to see new theater, dance and art. The 11-day event is a complex logistical feat; it requires a leader who can balance creative artistry and good business sense, all while keeping calm amid sometimes-chaotic activity. Executive Director Leah Cooper will be stepping down after this year's festival. We spent a day seeing the Fringe through her eyes.
Minneapolis, Minn. — It's 10 a.m. on the opening day of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, and the festival's Hennepin Ave. offices are quiet. A little too quiet for Executive Director Leah Cooper.
"It's kind of scaring me," says Cooper. "I'm sure it will pick up eventually. Something must be wrong somewhere!"
To understand Cooper's anxiety, you first need to understand the nature of her work. For 11 months out of the year she is the director of a small nonprofit with a staff of four.
But then, in the month of August, Cooper's suddenly in charge of a staff of 95, plus 400 volunteers and more than 1,000 artists. She oversees 23 different box offices, close to 900 performances and, by the end of the 11-day festival, will sell somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 tickets.
Cooper says in the face of such overwhelming statistics, she's had to learn to let go of her perfectionist tendencies.
"It's like having a tiger by the tail," says Cooper. "There's no point in telling the tiger to march! That's been a lesson I've had to learn at a really deep level."
If anything goes wrong, Cooper will get a call. But on this morning, everything is apparently going smoothly. Cooper checks her e-mail, but finds only messages from other fringe festival organizers around the world wishing her luck. She checks her voice mail. No urgent calls. Finally she checks in next door at Fringe Central, where staff are prepping box office kits for each of the venues, and taking care of last-minute details.
Fringe Central is filled with walkie-talkies, computers, snacks and plastic buckets loaded with everything a Fringe box office needs. Volunteers trickle in to pick up their materials and head out to their designated theaters.
There are also nine site-specific shows, being put on in non-traditional theater spaces. One, "The Depth of the Sea," is being staged in a swimming pool at the Downtown YWCA, which has Leah Cooper a little concerned. They decide to make the audience take off their shoes for the show to prevent them from slipping at the edge of the pool.
Cooper is the third executive director of the Fringe. Her two predecessors each served four years, she's just now completing her fifth. And she's decided it's time to step down. She says while she loves the job, it's taken its toll.
"It's not just a job where you can sort of come in, and fake your way through it some days. Every single day you've got to show up with your entire heart and your entire brain in it," says Cooper. "It's a lot of juggling details. It's a lot of juggling people. It's a lot of rapid decision-making when the decisions affect a lot of people."
A new director for the Fringe has already been chosen. Robin Gillette, who currently works with Mixed Blood Theater, will take over for Cooper at the beginning of October.
Gillette will have big shoes to fill. Over the past five years under Cooper's direction, Fringe attendance has soared by 72 percent. Cooper has also managed to balance the budget, something the Fringe never quite accomplished before. There's now a Visible Fringe for visual artists, a Teen Fringe and a Kids Fringe.
"I feel like I've sort of thrown every unique idea I've got into the Fringe," says Cooper. "And I think the Fringe needs to be dynamic. It shouldn't be a place where people make a nest and stay, and get all comfy and cozy. The Fringe is all about change, it's all about exciting new ideas, it's about freshness. So if the person at the helm isn't bringing dynamic, fresh energy, I don't see how the rest of the team is going to be inspired to."
Finally, evening rolls in and the first plays are opening to the public. This is Cooper's favorite moment. After 11 months of planning, she now gets to go out and see the shows.
She knocks back three in a row -- "Phyrogiants" at the Acadia Cafe, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being American" at Intermedia Arts, and "1926 Pleasant," which takes place in an unfinished condo, at 1926 Pleasant.
Cooper files in with an audience of 15 as they find clues and solve puzzles in order to trigger certain dramatic events.
After the show, Cooper couldn't be happier. She says this is what the Fringe Festival is all about.
"It was like the funnest thing ever," says Cooper. "I loved how the audience just jumped in and started participating, and I loved the way the story tied into the site; it was truly site-specific. I didn't know anything about 1926 Pleasant except where the bathrooms were -- the details we have to work out ahead of time."
The evening continues with one more show, and trading reviews with other people in the audience. Then Cooper heads to the Bryant-Lake Bowl, that night's designated Fringe hangout. The place is crammed, and many of the customers are wearing Fringe buttons.
"Everybody I've talked to totally gets the spirit of the Fringe," says Cooper. "Everybody's excited about what they've seen. And even if it wasn't the most brilliant thing they've seen ever, they were excited that artists took risks and put something up there. Yeah, I'm just so proud of the Fringe and Minneapolis!"
It's 11 p.m., and Cooper hasn't had to put out any fires all day. In bemused disbelief, Cooper heads back to the office one last time to make sure everything's OK.
- All Things Considered, 08/04/2006, 5:42 p.m.