A life on the Fringes

The Brigand
David Gaines plays a character n "7(x1) Samurai" which is a one hour presentation of the classic Seven Samurai story with Gaines playing all the characters. He tours the show to Fringe Festivals around the US and Canada.
Image courtesy David Gaines

The Minnesota Fringe launches Thursday, bringing a slough of plays, performances, and events to venues in Minneapolis and St. Paul. It also brings in a special breed of artist - performers who travel from city to city on the Fringe circuit. Faithful festival-goers say they play a vital role in Fringes everywhere.

David Gaines works hard in the show he's bringing to the Minnesota Fringe this year.

Not only does he have to play dozens of roles, there are also horses, and sound effects culminating with the Washington, D.C.-based actor recreating a full-scale battle with samurai swords.

He calls his piece "7(x1) Samurai"

"And it is one performer running around on-stage like a chicken with his head cut off, doing the whole of the three-and-a-half hour epic samurai Kurosawa movie called "Seven Samurai," Gaines said.

Gaines first began working on the piece as a class assignment decades ago in acting school in Paris. His teacher told him he had something really good, and he toured the piece as a three person show in Europe for 10 years. On returning to the US. he set it aside.

Once upon a time in the suburbs
Courtney McLean in "Once Upon a Time in the Suburbs" at this years Minnesota Fringe. Once based in New York McLean moved to the Twin Cities after visiting Minneapolis on the Fringe circuit.
Image courtesy Minnesota Fringe

Then in 2008, he brought it back as a solo performance at the Capital Fringe Festival in Washington, D.C.

"And I got an award for it, " Gaines said. "And somebody said 'You should take this to other Fringe festivals,' And I went 'There are other Fringe Festivals?'"

As Gaines discovered, there are many Fringe festivals. In 2009 he took "7(x1) Samurai" to five U.S. cities. In 2010, he went to five Canadian Fringes. This summer, he travels to even more festivals, including Minnesota. And he's even making a little money.

"You meet people from all over the world. It's so cool."

"There's a living in it if you have a solo show, or maybe you are a two-person act," he says. "Beyond that it's hard to make a living at it."

The real attraction, Gains said, is the people he meets on the Fringe circuit. He's become part of a loose-knit community whose members are all engaged in similar travels. Their shows have to be good enough to attract audiences, and nimble enough to leap-frog between cities.

Courtney McLean traveled the circuit for a couple of years with her one-woman show. The fringe travelers find each other and trade tips on the best places to stay and tricks of the fringe trade, McLean said.

"You kind of have this sense of 'Oh we don't belong,' and so you glom on to each other," she said. "And you meet people from all over the world. It's so cool."

And that's how she learned about other fringes.

Robin Gillette
Fringe Festival executive director Robin Gillette.
MPR Photo/Jim Bickal

"I have friends that have been to the New Zealand Fringe, I have friends that do the Canadian circuit all the time. People who have been to Edinburgh, the Amsterdam Fringe..."

The Fringe circuit changed MacLean's life. She upped stakes and moved to Minneapolis from New York after performing here twice.

For Minnesota Fringe director Robin Gillette the traveling fringers bring a double bonus.

"I think the performing community it builds strengthens them, and I think it strengthens the Fringes that they are part of," Gillette said.

Part of that strength is the exposure Minnesota performers bring by being on the travel circuit. The more Minnesotans perform elsewhere, the more people want to come to Minnesota, Gillette said.

"I can talk until I am blue in my face about how great my Fringe is," she said, "And it's like 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, of course she thinks that.' But if our artists can go out and speak on our behalf, its a much more compelling pitch.

Traveling the fringe circuit is not an easy life, but there are rewards, Gillette said. Appearing at the Minnesota Fringe is a good way to attract the attention of local theaters, and can be a source of work.

There is also the Minnesota audience, which has a reputation for being more open than most, Gaines said.

And possibly a perfect spot for a one-man samurai show.

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