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Milwaukee Welcomes the Fringe

New festival brings dance, theater, music and the visual arts to downtown Milwaukee

Aug. 16, 2016
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In 1947 several Scottish performing arts groups started their own festival around the perimeters of the officially sanctioned Edinburgh International Festival. Dubbed the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for its location on the margins, it became an international event within a few years, eventually dwarfing the “official” festival. Since then fringe festivals dedicated to promoting venturesome creativity have sprung up in many places, including major American cities.

Next weekend, the Milwaukee Fringe Festival brings the concept to our city for the first time. The two-day event at Pere Marquette Park and the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts will bring together more than 70 groups representing rock and other music, dance, theater, spoken word and visual arts. 

A 2015 Shepherd Express article triggered the Milwaukee Fringe Festival. “I was interviewing Katie Rhyme and Karen Raymond from Dance Revolution Milwaukee,” recalls John Schneider, the paper’s assistant arts and entertainment editor, “and we got on the subject of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, which they had attended. They said Dance Revolution would like to start a Milwaukee Fringe Festival, and that they’d been talking with [Milwaukee Comedy Festival producer] Matt Kemple, who I’d known for years. I included this in the article.” 

The attention generated by that article became the catalyst for moving beyond talk of a fringe festival into organizing one. Schneider took on the role of the Milwaukee Fringe Festival’s creative director. Shepherd Express digital operations coordinator Eric Engelbart became the festival’s co-producer with Kemple. The paper’s music editor, Evan Rytlewski, curated the music lineup and graphic designer Dan Fleming organized visual arts programming. Other key figures in the Fringe Festival’s volunteer organization include Tom Grabow from Baker Tilly Virchow Krause LLP as accounting and finances director, Quasimondo Physical Theatre’s Brian Rott as theater curator and Dance Revolution’s Rhyme and Raymond as dance curators.

If “fringe” originally meant on the sidelines of post-World War II Edinburgh, what meaning does a fringe festival have for 21st-century Milwaukee? For well-established participants such as Renaissance Theatreworks or Theatre Gigante, it’s an opportunity to present work outside what one might expect in their normal seasons. For less-known groups, the festival is a chance to be seen and heard in a setting where boundaries are crossed and different audiences are brought together.

“The work will be unique and singular,” Engelbart says. “Many of the pieces have been made for this event. Many are world premieres. The festival is an altruistic cause, providing opportunities for people to express themselves and for building bridges between communities. How many people in Milwaukee’s art community have seen a performance by Project Non-Violence, even though they’ve been working in the inner city since 1999?” Says Kemple, “With a wide range of visual arts, live performances and music, I would expect people to attend one show and then get excited when they discover something else entirely. To me this is the real goal: not to get people to come out and see what they already like, but to experience and enjoy something they never expected.”

The Milwaukee Fringe Festival will have a carnival aspect with firewalkers, puppeteers, stilt-walkers and pop-up acoustic musical performances. Artistic expression this diverse has seldom been collected in Milwaukee in a single event. The bi-racial, bi-gender SueMo merges hip-hop with contemporary dance. Feast of Crispian, a Shakespeare troupe of wounded military veterans, will preface Summit Players Theatre’s performance of an amusingly accessible A Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It (depending what the audience chooses). The lineup also includes rapper Milo, Americana music from Lady Cannon, electronic alt rock from Light Music and the “political bluegrass” of Ruth B8r Ginsburg.

For Schneider, the Milwaukee Fringe Festival is an extension of his work at the Shepherd Express by “bringing to life the areas we cover as we try to influence the conversation on Milwaukee—the festival makes our work three dimensional as it reveals the face of our city, the soul of our city, the concerns of our artists.”

Engelbart sees year one of the festival as a celebration of Milwaukee. He hopes year two will be “a celebration of the Midwest by attracting performers from all over the region.” And then? “In the future, we want Milwaukee to be an art mecca internationally, the way South by Southwest transformed the culture of Austin,” he continues. “We’d like to do the same thing for Milwaukee.”

All performances at Pere Marquette and the Peck Pavilion are free. Performances inside the Marcus Center require either a part-day pass ($10.50), a one-day pass ($20.50) or a two-day pass ($30.50). Food and beverage vendors include the Old German Beer Hall, Milwaukee Brat House, Purple Door Ice Cream and Sazama’s Fine Catering. The Milwaukee Fringe Festival takes place noon to 10 p.m., Aug. 27 and 28. For tickets, more information and a complete list of performers, go to mkefringe.com

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