Adventures of a First-time Fringe Technician

Article by Emmet Kowler

Welcome Emmet, first-time Fringe tech, to Spotlight and the Twin Cities theater community! This young man, fresh from UM-Morris, shares his experience as a new MN Fringe Festival technician. We all have start somewhere - remember what it was like as you stepped from the safety of your comfort zone into the hustle and bustle of a busy production schedule? Relive the excitement and chaos through the Emmet's Fringe virgin eyes. - Jen Rand

These aren’t my words, but I think they’re relevant:

“The Fringe is bullshit, and that’s awesome.”

They were spoken from one best friend of mine, Sulia Altenberg, to another, Cecilia Johnson, late at night in the house they share, and then published in Minnesota Playlist.

I can’t help but agree. After teching 11 different shows, sitting through all those performances, and going way over my beer budget at Fringe Central, it’s nice to know that yes, that experience was as ridiculous as it sounds when you describe it to outsiders. And yes, it’s awesome.

Intimidating, for sure. I’m 21 years old, fresh out of a marginal experience at the University of Minnesota, Morris. Fringe is an institution, and I’m green. I’m worried that the two wouldn’t mix. Fringe is where all the crazy vets around town congregate once a year to swap stories and blood and sweat, to catch up and make new inside jokes, to constantly introduce themselves to people they’re trying to impress. And this, for all intents and purposes, is my first professional theater gig. This town has a long memory. Pressure’s on.

The experience starts with a quasi-orientation at the Fringe office in Northeast Minneapolis. The techs introduce themselves, and I meet my partner, Ursula Bowden. We don’t talk, just say hi. I feel kind of bad about it. Overwhelmed.

Liz Neerland, spinning an extensive spiel. It’s stupid hard, she says. There will be lots of dumb things that happen. But it’s OK, because it’s also awesome.

(Awesome is a theme here.)

And the other techs interject techniques or strategies they’ve tried in the past, things to watch out for in certain buildings, certain artists. Be merciless, they say. Be forgiving, they say. Be accommodating, be strict, be empathetic, be rude, be kind, be mean, be nice. Oh, and do a good job.

I don’t think I can keep up. I’m confident in my abilities, but these people are out of my league. “We’re all here to support each other,” Liz says, and that puts my mind at ease. Then we go across the street to Dusty’s for what’ll be the first of a great many tech drinks.

This is the first big highlight: finally going to the bar after the theater gig. This has been a dream of mine for years. And in practice, it’s low-pressure and entertaining and relaxed — exactly what I need.

So then we have load-in. I’m at the Barbara Barker, the U’s dance building. It’s a beautifully maintained space, with a strong rep plot but no greenroom. Doable. I can make this work. I even get an ION, just like at school. And even though the day is filled with small agonies like seating and mold and awkward spaces and dust and dirt and how many times do I have to count chairs? It’s a fun day. This work is fun to me.

Load in slides into tech on Sunday morning, and the first three shows are off the bat, no big deal. Ursula and I have a great thing going: I press buttons and she takes notes. I hate to say synergy, but synergy. The days are long, but the time passes quickly. I can disappear into that headspace and satisfy a host of obsessive tendencies. I can click my brain into the mode where problem solving becomes de facto.

And it’s also incredibly hard. Four days of this process, of welcoming in the artists, giving them the spiel about Fringe protocol and the restrictions of our space. We sit down and muscle through cues. Some shows don’t get full dress rehearsals. With some groups, we keep having to go back and rectify errors due to poor preparation. (Please, Fringe artists, please please please bring a stage manager who keeps a good book.)

So many cues, so little time. Drinks afterward, sometimes too many. Y’all know the drill. I’m rambling.

We get to the actual festival. Ursula has graciously stepped up to work opening night so I can have a break. I take the day off and don’t see any shows. I go to a movie instead, and then pop in to Fringe Central afterward to exchange broken legs. Right away, I can tell these people are really, really pleased with themselves. For good reason.

Running shows in Fringe is a strange experience, because after you tech your first show, you may not actually run that show until their fourth performance in the second weekend of the festival. It’s disconnected, and time moves very erratically. Depending on the show, the hour-long slot can feel like forever or a hot minute. And the 15 minutes or so you might have between shows is a liminal space made of terror and relief.    

Managing the space can feel like turning a cruise ship full of unruly cats. I have to kick myself over and over again to get my head in the game and act in charge — to not let that age-related inferiority complex stop Fringe from running on time.    

And nearly every night, I go to Fringe Central, where the techs are gathered in the little balcony seating (the “booth”), and I get my beer and a snack. I’ll sometimes catch sight of some friends and run away, or play trivia, or talk to curious volunteers in pink shirts.

And eventually, by the end of the festival, I’ve settled into this comfortable little spot in the blackshirt army. Most of the time I’m listening, observing, asking for advice from the other techs. And they give it, enthusiastically. Just like that. None of the pushing or prying on my part that I had expected.

Exhausted, and after herding my very last cat out of my theater after the encore performance, I walk myself over to Triple Rock Social Club for the wrap party. And instead of a sea of strangers, I’m in a field of friends. The music blares, and the dancing is terrible. Drunk selfies forever.    

The next morning consists of an efficient strike and a fun lunch with all the other techs. Liz announces the inaugural Feral Tony Awards to techs who created outstanding design and who generally kicked ass, nominated by our peers. I win one. Feels great.

Awesome has been a theme this whole time, but it hits me that validation is a more important one. In just over two weeks, I’m given a tremendous opportunity, validated and supported at every turn, making meaningful connections with places and people and beer flavors, and slowly being stripped of all the imposter syndrome I’ve developed since leaving school.

So now here I am, ecstatic about the prospect of growing into this Emmet-shaped hole in Minneapolis theater. Gigs are lined up. New emails have been added to the address book. I can’t wait to run into so many of the people I met around town.

Thank you, Fringe, for this most incredible launch into young adulthood. I’ll see you next year.

Sightlines: What We Lose

Article by Roberta Carlson

Roberta Carlson has been composing music for theater for many years, doing an enormous body of work for the Children’s Theater and Illusion Theater, among many others.  This month, she offers perspective on what we’ve lost (and gained) in today’s world of theater and considers the importance of in person discussions and meetings as opposed to the very common long distance design meetings which are so prevalent today.  - Mike Wangen

It is easy to reminisce about the past and, looking through rose-colored glasses, be nostalgic about “the good old days”. That nostalgia is usually concerned more with the fact that our youth is receding in the rear view mirror than with old practices and philosophies. But there are some things that were accepted as the norm in the 70’s and 80’s theater world that are disappearing in today’s world. Some of them deservedly so; others regrettably being eliminated. One in particular I regret to see becoming “outdated” - design meetings.

I miss the practice of design meetings. The idea of the scene designer, the costume designer, the director, the composer, the sound designer, the lighting designer - and in the case of a new play, the playwright - gathering in the same place for a day of brainstorming is not and should not be a luxury. It is the process that fosters sharing ideas, bouncing design possibilities off each other, and even inspiring each other to develop new concepts. We all know the reasons and excuses: too expensive, too much trouble to get everyone together, the director is too busy, etc.. The first suggestions are always “ Can’t we do this online? “ “Just email everything ?“ “Use Goto Meeting ?” “Use Dropbox?” Sorry - but no.

There simply is no substitute for a group of artists gathered around a table, sharing ideas, sketches, possibilities - and that interchange strikes sparks that can infuse a production with coherent life. Exchanges on line simply lack the immediacy of the chemistry that lights those sparks. As to expense - there can be real savings sometimes. If a sound/music cue was recorded to be a normal transition suggesting change of location or time passing and you discover in techs that a particular piece of scenery or some mechanical function is disturbingly loud the first question is always to sound and music: “Can you cover that” Often the answer is “Yes, but it will mean first coming up with an idea and sounds that can cover it, and then we’ll have to go back into the studio and record it, then mix it, and then tech it in”. Which means rewriting the light cue, changing the timing of a costume change, which means some re-structuring of the costume in the shop - - - - all of which means further expenditure. And all of that could have been avoided with a thorough discussion between designers before construction and development began.

Some directors seem to think that it will all somehow come together, without all that time in design meetings. They apparently subscribe to the belief that mediocrity is good enough. And mediocrity is what they achieve.