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Let your freak flag fly at this weekend's inaugural New Orleans Fringe Festival

In July 2006, Dennis Monn and a troupe of ragtag New Orleans performers loaded up an old van and headed north on I-55. Their destination: Minneapolis and the 13th annual Minnesota Fringe Festival. Eventually, after a meandering and surprise-filled monthlong round trip, the cast of Corncobs, Hotdogs and Other Dirty Secrets returned to the Crescent City with a new perspective on DIY theater " and the kernels of

a plan.

"It took us a long time to get back," Monn says. "[The van] broke down, one of the performers got mugged. [Another] made friends with the mugger — he gave him a book of poetry. But the whole two weeks that it took us to get back, we were talking: "Oh, New Orleans would be a great place to do a Fringe festival.'"

The notion percolated throughout the next year, as Monn applied for general arts grants and worked on productions at area spaces that might themselves, in other cities, be labeled fringe: the Sidearm Gallery, the Marigny Theatre and, especially, the Backyard Ballroom, a Bywater venue co-founded by Kristen Evans last year. Collaborating over the summer of 2007 on The Palanquin Diaries: Confessions of a Mardi Gras Queen, the two producers saw in each other distinct, complementary strengths.

"I was familiar with what she did there, and I was impressed," Monn says. "I'm really good with organizing artists and getting press. But (as far as) being organized in any other way, I'm not. So we started chatting."

Within a matter of months, the idle chatter mushroomed into blueprints for a Fringe festival in New Orleans. The resulting event, set to premiere this Thursday-Sunday, Nov. 13-16, will feature some 40 companies from around the country staging more than 120 productions at 14 venues citywide in categories ranging from drama and comedy to dance, magic and multimedia.

But before any of those plans could come to fruition, Evans says, a few questions had to be asked and answered. "What's a Fringe festival versus a theater festival?" she recalls querying Monn in January, after a grant from the New Orleans Arts Council had accelerated their schedule. "What gives you the right to call something Fringe? There are some guidelines — requirements, actually — for what is Fringe in Canada that the Fringes in the U.S. don't adhere to."

The Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals (CAFF) oversees 19 annual events in North America: five in the United States and 14 in Canada, including the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, which got the country's Fringe ball rolling in 1982. Along with a Canadian trademark on the term "Fringe," the association established several rigid principles to be followed by any participating organization, including a nonjuried selection process, low barriers of entry and complete artistic freedom for performers.

Like most of their fellow American organizers, Monn and Evans' nonprofit New Orleans Fringe Inc., while adopting many of the general tenants that CAFF set out to define, is not a member.

"One of the requirements in Canada is that 100 percent of the ticket sales goes to artists," Monn says. "My reason for not going with that is that they may be giving the artists 100 percent, but it's costing them hundreds of dollars to get in. A poor, drunk artist myself, I would rather just give $25."

Instead of charging more just to pay more, Monn and Evans devised a system with a nominal registration fee and even splits between the performers and organizers. This, they believed, would lower the entry barriers even further. They also implemented a hybridized jury/lottery selection to ensure a wide variety of productions. Indeed, performances will range from local acts like Green Garden, an absinthe-inspired collaboration between Tsunami Dance Company and the cabaret band Morella and the Wheels of If, to national arts confabs such as The Porch, a collection of "dreamscapes" by the nascent Bricolage Theatre, whose members reside in New York City, Milwaukee and Pensacola, Fla.

The final number of applications — more than 80 in total — affirmed Monn and Evans' approach. But it wasn't always smooth sailing, the pair admits.

"[FringeNYC founder Elena Holy] said, "You'll get 95 percent of them on the last day,'" Evans recalls. "And we did! I made brownies for the mailman. He just kept coming up with boxes of stuff. There was the one group who wanted to set the stage on fire. But they just had a lousy application. If they had a great application and wanted to set the stage on fire, that's fine."

Monn, illustrating the singularly colorful vantage of a Fringe festival curator, flashes back to an early fret: "The time quickened, and we were like, "All we've got is this (one application)?"

"Remember that show?" he says to Evans, laughing. "Like, "Oh God — we're going to have to send this masturbator around to every venue.'"

The Minnesota Fringe Festival, Monn's original inspiration, is one of a number of alternative theater showcases in the United States that operates under the Fringe handle. With 874 performances of 162 shows over 11 days in August 2007, it's also among the country's largest, he says. The impressive stats pale, however, in comparison to the first Fringe: Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which turned 60 last year. The event hoisted 31,000 curtains on 2,000 productions at more than 250 venues throughout the Scottish capital in 2007.

"This is where it all started in 1947," Evans says. "They had their big froufrou Edinburgh (International) Festival, and some artists were just too weird and weren't allowed to be a part of it. They went to the fringes of the city and they performed in warehouses, or out on the street, or in coffee shops or bars."

Nari Tomassetti, an area performer whose Tally-Ho Daredevils will unveil I'm In Love With , something billed as "absurd comedy," at the New Orleans Fringe, first participated in the Edinburgh Fringe a decade ago. She has since been to Fringes in San Francisco and New York City and says that while each has its own allure, there is nothing quite like the original.

"It's just crazy fun," she beams. "It's madness. You bust in, you bust out. You exchange shows with everybody. I saw some of the best theater — or performance, I don't know what you'd call it — of my life. It changed the way I thought. Everybody should experience it. They used all the senses."

Tomassetti is impressed with what she has seen so far from Monn and Evans. "I've got to say, for the first one, this is pretty organized," she says. "[This Fringe] just mixes so many things. Other cities are definitely more theatrical; [they're] not very edgy."

"What distinguishes us from a lot of Fringes — and I don't want to talk smack about Minneapolis — but they were all in nice, cute theaters," Monn says. "It wasn't really on the fringe of anything. We have this multimedia thing. Projector screens. We bought a piano. We want people to do their show how they want. It was a really big deal to us to be able to provide these things and make it more interesting. You're not going to find aerials in Minneapolis."

Mysterious bookings like Green Garden and The Porch are emblematic of Monn's tack. Both piano and projector will be put to good use in Garden by Morella and the Wheels of If, whose haunting flourishes serve as musical narration to Tsunami's danced plotting of two young lovers at a 19th-century World's Fair.

"Fantastical cabaret is what we're billing it as," says Morella's Laura Laws, who previously collaborated with Tsunami at DramaRama in April. "It's like [a beer garden], but it's an absinthe garden. We wanted people to feel like they're entering the garden, and we're sort of like the performers there. Our songs are what take each piece from one (scene) to the next." She says the group plans to provide absinthe to audience members to complete the hallucinatory effect.

Regarding The Porch and I'm In Love With, Monn says he won't know much more than unsuspecting audiences will. "When I called [Tomassetti] for tech demands, she was even hesitating on giving me any details," he laughs. "But I'm going to say that I think people are in for a surprise. Professional clowns. I know there's large layers of cloth involved, and lots of sniffing and crawling. Lots of madness."

When asked if any visiting shows top his personal itinerary, however, Monn returns to The Porch. One of Bricolage's five collaborators, Raina Benoit, says the newborn troupe applied to perform with only a concept in mind. Its first Fringe experience, she says, will be the quintet's debut.

"We're bringing something different," says Benoit, an installation artist based in Pensacola, Fla. "It's not purely performance art; it's not purely a band in costume; it's not purely an art setup. It's a mixture of all of those. With all of our different personalities, I think it's going to be an element of humor and an element of, "What the hell is this?'"

A cocktail of amusement and bewilderment just might encapsulate the goal for the whole festival. "It's about doing theater in weird places where people haven't done it before," Evans says. "It pushes the artists, because it challenges them to do something in a very different place, and it challenges the audiences. Maybe they're coming to a place in the city where they haven't come before, in a location where they haven't seen theater before. And they see that that is what theater does — it can transform."

Rather than crowd size or door counts, Monn says the measure of success will be more subjective: "I want to make sure the artists enjoy themselves, because they're not going to make much money. We'd love to be able to cover the expenses for the out-of-towners, and for the in-towners to maybe have money to drink or buy a turkey for Thanksgiving.

"I'm going to be disappointed if I don't wake up Monday with a hangover in the middle of St. Claude (Avenue)," he adds. "Naked."

click to enlarge I'm In Love With ...  is an absurd comedy included in the Fringe Festival.
  • I'm In Love With ... is an absurd comedy included in the Fringe Festival.
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