After her mother died in 2019, Jill R. Hildebrandt fell into a deep depression, doing things that she could not remember. One morning, she found herself dressed in her late mother's garments.
"It was just the funniest thing — I literally woke up wearing my dead mother's underwear in grief," the theater artist said. "I didn't know how or why but I was laughing with my sister about it and thinking about the things we inherit and the things I'm passing onto my kids. Of course, my mom would've been mortified."
Hildebrandt used that incident as the spark for the show, "Dead Mother's Underwear," which can be streamed online as part of the 2021 Minnesota Fringe Festival.
Last year, the theater festival billed as Minnesota's largest went virtual, bowing to the realities of the coronavirus pandemic. It is back now but in a hybrid format that is attracting the eyes of an industry trying to navigate the new realities upended by COVID-19.
There will be, among its 100-plus shows, more than a dozen live in-person performances with audience members, the thing that has made theater special for eons. But there also will be online performances — some live and some prerecorded. Also, some of the in-person shows will have a streaming element.
"It's a brave new world for us all and we're navigating it," said Fringe executive director Dawn Bentley. "Is this the future? Maybe. We found last year, after engaging entirely online, that we were able to work with artists who lived far away and audience members could see more performances than they could in previous times because they're not having to deal with parking or mobility issues. This virtual thing is actually a good deal because we can engage with more artists and audiences than before."
Hildebrandt, for one, is grateful. The single mom lives in St. Peter, about 75 miles south of the Twin Cities.
"There's no way I could hold down a job and take care of my kids and still be able to do the show living in rural Minnesota," Hildebrandt said. "But this way, I get to do my art."
The Fringe seeks to address every type of theatergoer, from those itching to be back in person to those who are still skittish. While some in-person shows are at regular Fringe venues such as the Crane and Southern theaters that patrons are used to visiting, other in-person performances take place in locations such as the boulevard outside someone's home ("Why We Have a Body"), a distillery ("Last Summer's Love"), the Bakken Museum ("The Scribbler") and in Twin Cities parks ("The Convent of Pleasure," "Meemaw McPhearson's Magic Mushrooms," "Pigheaded," "Campsite").
The virtual shows this year fall into four types: archival video recordings, usually with a single camera; audio recordings that are more akin to radio plays or podcasts; recorded performances; and livestreaming.
Archival recordings include Full Circle Theater Company's "Glass & Lady M" and Melancholics Anonymous' "On Air: The Wuppet Time Murders."
Audio-only recordings include Conundrum Collective's "Brad Nailer, PI: Sweet Revenge."
Martin Dockery, who was in last year's virtual festival, will be doing his Fringe show, "1 Easy Lie," live from his place in Brooklyn.
"I was so inspired by my experience [last year], as strange as it is to be performing for a tiny green dot which marked the camera on the laptop, that I did it for the whole time until just now, a new show every five to six weeks," Dockery said. "That's how I survived."
"1 Easy Lie" is about a character not unlike himself — a married new father — but with fictional stakes.
"He considers himself a decent person, but what if he came upon a car accident and inside is a bag of money that he just decides to keep?" Dockery said. "The story is told by a narrator who believes himself to be good and right but as the story unfolds, we learn otherwise."
The Fringe is famous as an avenue for experimentation and genre-bending. And that will also be a feature of its return.
Sputter Box, self-described as "a clarinet, voice, percussion performance art ensemble committed to performing interdisciplinary pieces involving sound, theater, movement, visual art and improvisation," will be doing "Let Me Out of the Box" online. The music-heavy show will be recorded and streamed.
"This past year and a half, we've all been in the virtual box and we're so ready to get back to that live stage," said clarinetist Kathryn Vetter, who founded the group in 2018 at Stony Brook University.
The Fringe has upgraded its platforms so online audiences can have a more uniform experience.
"We're looking forward to writing checks to artists again, and to welcoming audiences from all over," Bentley said. "The Fringe is a place of hope after such a tumultuous, uncertain time. Continuing on and adapting to the environment of this unplanned intermission has given us all an opportunity to reflect on how to better serve stakeholders. This hybrid festival is not a Band-Aid to get us through the pandemic, but a way to look into the future to engage artists from around the world and engage audiences in ways that they are safe and comfortable."
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390
When: Aug. 5-15.
Where: Held at multiple locations; in-person and online.
Tickets: $10 ticket for each show plus a $5 button for the festival. In-person shows have a $3 reservation fee to cover contact tracing and pandemic protocols. 612-872-1212 or minnesotafringe.org.