In the past few months, I’ve experienced several incidents of the “Fresno Apology Moment.” It’s that moment when you’re out of town, you mention you’re from Fresno, and people give you their sympathy. Nothing pisses off an Angeleno more than when you refuse to accept their sympathy, believe me!
As often as not, though, the anti-Fresno vibe is reinforced by people who live here or used to live here and whose ideas about Fresno are stuck in 1995. Few people bash on Fresno more than Fresnans.
That’s a stance that’s beginning to change, though. More and more people are starting recognize Fresno as a center of interesting ideas, affordable culture, and on-the-cusp growth. (See #unapologeticallyfresno, as just one example.)
But we’ve occasionally needed an outside perspective to drive that home. For the last 14 years, the Rogue Festival has brought in internationally recognized artists to present their work side-by-side with Fresnans. And these artists are some of Fresno’s biggest cheerleaders, talking up the city and all of its advantages to other artists nationwide.
One of them is Grant Evan Knutson, an independent producer who heads up Minion Productions. He’s a Rogue Festival regular from Seattle whose admiration of Fresno knows no bounds.
In fact, he so enjoyed his time at Rogue Festival, he’s returned to Fresno at other times to produce other shows in the area. On Saturday July 17th, he will present “CIRQUE-ish BURLESQUE: An Eclectic Mix of Irreverent Entertainment” at Full Circle Brewing Company alongside Fresno’s Maverick Burlesque. And in September, he’ll return for the second Seattle-to-Fresno: Best of West Coast Fringe event, produced with former Rogue Festival maven Jayne Day.
I chatted with Grant a few weeks back to get a deeper understanding of what these artists see in Fresno and what, perhaps, Fresno should recognize in itself.
WMCT: Give us the scoop on what Minion Productions is all about.
Knutson: What we do is help artists with logistics and we help independent artists – with no company behind them – find resources, plan tours. A lot of consulting. I won’t do it for you but I will help you make a schedule, make a budget, etc.
I also help create performance events, like the “Seattle to Fresno” event.
WMCT: How many years have you come to Fresno for the Rogue Festival?
Knutson: Four years of Rogue fests, five total trips to produce in Fresno (so far). [Grant is now up to visit number 6 and will be back for his 7th in September. -hp]
I directly help one group produce their show each year, and help several artists with general planning and sharing resources.
WMCT: What acts have you worked with who have played Rogue?
Knutson: – Christopher Bange (“The Fat Guy Show” & “Breaking Bange”)
– Xan Scott (“Apocalypse Clown”)
– Carolina “CoiCoi” Duncan-page (“Dolores”)
And numerous others in a less direct way.
WMCT: One of the things that Rogue Festival does is attract out of town acts, many quite popular in the Fringe and independent art world, to present in Fresno. But Fresnans often don’t realize what big names these people are throughout North America. Many are pushing forward independent art and influencing new work everywhere. Can you name a few?
Knutson: Baba Brinkman is still a big name in this world. He presented, I think, two shows here.
Other names that come to mind are:
(I’m sure I’m missing many)
These are all artists that get great crowds and great press in some of the biggest Fringe Fests in North America. They also fill their year with other big events and bookings by regional theaters.
WMCT: Yes, Baba Brinkman presented Rap Canterbury Tales and Rap Guide to Evolution. I believe the Evolution show actually world premiered in Fresno and went on to play worldwide and was nominated for a Drama Desk Award in NYC. That’s not something a lot of Fresnans realize.
WMCT: How many cities do you visit, on average per year?
Knutson: 5-10 cities . . . Fresno and NOLA are the ones I’ve done the most. Winnipeg, Edmonton – these are the biggest fringes in North America. I don’t know the total amount of cities I hit in a year for various reasons, but probably in the 20-25 range.
WMCT: When you visit other cities, what do you seek out when you’re there? What do you look for to judge or evaluate what makes a city interesting or worthwhile?
Knutson: On a professional level, I usually go to a city for for the first time to hit up their Fringe. I’m not often hitting cities you’d go to on vacation, but rather I hit a lot of cities people don’t always go to. First thing I look for: I like exploring the cultural areas that have the Fringe venues, the bars, cafes, and meeting people.
I find local coffee, local beer in each city. In many cities (including Fresno), I will often hit up another neighborhood and meet some locals and strike up conversations. I’m often raving about neighborhoods locals have never been to as visitors. Usually if it is a well-to-do couple who are not in the arts, what I tend to hear is “Be really careful in X area”. And then that’s usually the next place I go. (As often as not, it is the exact area the Fringe festival is in!).
WMCT: What do you usually find when you go to those places?
Knutson: There’s a reason the Fringe Festivals are there – the small, off-beat venues are usually there. They aren’t the places that get the large groups and families. They are grittier places where the artists can afford to do their work. Along with that is the grittier neighborhood and the kind of people who can afford to live in there. . .but there’s a lot more variety, too. The cultural, arty neighborhood looks very different with their black box theaters and make-shift spaces in coffee shops, whereas the Broadway-style “legit” venues all look the same.
To be honest, when artists first drive into Fresno, the cues aren’t there to say “This is going to be a great Festival!” [They come in off of Highway 99 at Olive, typically. -hp] But usually we aren’t going to the nice, bright great cities. . .usually touring artists don’t do great in big, destination cities like New York, LA or San Francisco. The midsize cities are our sweet spot. The big cultural cities already have too much. . .but cities that have some good art happening, a good amount of audiences encouraged to go to art or out to events. . . . those cities are awesome. Fresno is high up on that list – with Winnipeg being real close.
Fresnans don’t hang out with the artists after shows so they don’t hear us saying all of this.
In Fresno, the bottom is the same for everyone: If you fail, you can only make $0.00. The high dollar mark isn’t as big as some places’ potential. . .but it doesn’t cost a lot to do Rogue in Fresno, it is in the off-season, and it is a generally pleasant time of year to be here, so you can take the risk here.
WMCT: Do artists use Rogue to test material?.
Knutson: A lot do, yes. . it’s a good place to test new material, variations on old material. It is a great chance to work a new idea. We take advantage of the very friendly crowds here. . . and it is a low risk way to do that. Most of the shows that we [Minion Productions] bring in are almost all new material. Bange’s show was new this year, Ryan Adam Wells was new, the Haydell Sisters tested their show on the Rogue. [They Haydells are currently in the middle of a North American Fringe tour. -hp]
The crowds are SO friendly here. . . Not like other places. In Winnipeg and Minneapolis you can flyer a line at a show and people are like “Impress me”. In Fresno, they’re like “You have a show? What’s it about. Awesome!“
This is why I am bringing new shows to Fresno during the off-season as well, not only because the audiences are friendly, but because I’ve made friends here.
WMCT: When you talk to the out-of-town artists, what do you hear the most from them? And how do you prepare them for Fresno?
Knutson: Artists always note that Fresnans are self-deprecating about being Fresnans, and yet are defensive about being Fresnans.
We talk to lots of artists about the Tower District neighborhood and Fresno as a whole. We really talk it up to artists who are looking to ENJOY a Fringe experience. Fresno is really good at that.
The artists also like the work that gets done at Rogue. They like the artists coming in and many of the local artists who are routinely in the mix. I’m not sure how many Fresno locals know the caliber of the national artists that come through there. Some big names that sell-out in international Fringes and who sell-out in big markets regularly. People have used Rogue as a springboard and gone on and people have used is as a springboard and come back again and again. (The Wonderheads – now they are heavily booked).
Those who are outside of Fresno don’t often understand how great the audiences here are. And those inside Fresno don’t often realize the caliber of artists that return regularly.
WMCT: When you talk to Fresnans, what do you hear most from them? What’s their most common perception about themselves – either good or bad?
Knutson: The self-deprecation is legendary. And the self-loathing is right up there. Not so much of themselves as individuals, but of the city. There’s a contradictory nature in Fresnans. They are both proud and self-effacing at the same time.
We are hearing more and more about how under-appreciated the city’s offerings are, which I agree with. It’s like there’s a perception that if a thing is happening in Fresno, it must not be as good as a similar thing happening in Portland or wherever.
There are handfuls of people, though, who say, “We know what’s wrong, but here’s what we love. Here’s what’s always been here and here’s what’s about to be here. . .” And Fresnans have a good sense of humor. Not sure why or how that applies, but it is true.
WMCT: Yet, how would YOU characterize Fresnans? How would you characterize the city?
Knutson: The people are open, looking for things to do. And there are a lot of people here who just do their own stuff. If they don’t see it happening, they do it themselves. There are fewer big machines in terms of getting things happening – so you can just do what you want to do.
One thing I learned in New Orleans, that I think Fresno has in common is this: “How you get things done in NOLA – a little bit of motivation goes a long way in this city.”
WMCT: How do other cities of similar size/function compare to Fresno in these attitudes? In what they have to offer? (For example, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Indianapolis). Are these Fresno attitudes similar in other cities?
Knutson: It’s no coincidence that both Fresno and Winnipeg have great Fringe Festivals (theirs is larger, but older) but they feel very similar in certain ways.
Winnipeg is the second largest Fringe in North America and is a great festival. They have a really good way of being huge and professional while staying warm and welcoming. . . making the atmosphere about meeting people, the new work, the audience. . they do a good job.
But the city itself has an industrial background in the middle of a prairie, the downtown cores are trying to revitalize. . .but are run down, the high end stuff is in the outside. The people only go to the core for these arts things. The attitude, size, and make-up of the cities is similar to Fresno.
And they also feel sandwiched between two giants – Toronto and Vancouver. Fresno feels overshadowed by LA and San Francisco. But you know what? Minneapolis feels that way about Chicago.. . and Chicago feels that way about New York.
WMCT: In what ways do you find Fresno unique? What does Fresno bring to the table in terms of independent performance that is, perhaps, a bit unusual?
Knutson: The excitement! Fresno crowds are so enthusiastic to see new work and meet new artists. Also, the Festival being off-season and the central location to other big cultural cities both make for good accessibility.
WMCT: What two or three things are Fresnans most “not getting” about Fresno?
Knutson: The caliber of national and international artists that come to their town and how excited they are to come.
Also, how how cool some of the things going on there really are. We hear a lot of “There’s not a lot going on, it’s run down. . . “ but there’s a lot of great things here. Warnors and Tower Theaters, the food trucks at Gazebo Gardens, murals from Creative Fresno, so many great local artists — Fresnans are not aware of how to value these things. What are they comparing to this to?
Sure some areas are run down, but most cities have those areas. Most cities also have strip malls and suburbs. Fresno may not have AS MUCH great arts and culture offerings as SOME cities, but what Fresno does, it usually does very, very well. The Gazebo Garden nights alone would stand up as an outstanding regular event in any city. Many other things would to.
When you hear bad things about your city, it is easy to lump those things that aren’t ideal into to the things that are going great. But you can’t let one thing ruin the other. Even with other cities with the wealthiest and newest, they still have their not chi-chi areas. Those cities also share bad and good elements.
We visiting artists acknowledge where the reputation comes from; there are run down areas & the economy is rough. But we defend the people (especially the Rogue crowds), the culture (especially the Tower District), and the growth of the city!
Most people don’t realize how much they do have and that other places don’t have a lot of these things at all. There are cities better known and more respected than Fresno that don’t nearly as many or as diverse offerings.
WMCT: What do you see as Fresno’s strengths? Where are we moving in the right direction? What can we work on?
– Energy/enthusiasm for new things and local events.
– Pride (even if mixed with self-deprecation)
– Willingness to try new things
– Growth, and fun growth! There are new events, new venues, new businesses every time I show up.
– Wider participation. How to get more people aware of and involved in all these new cultural things?
WMCT: Final thoughts?
Knutson: Is Fresno essentially neurotic – looking and evaluating itself without any perspective? When Fresno is bad, it is completely bad? How many neurotic people say that about themselves? “I have this flaw, so I’m completely useless!” Isn’t that how Fresno talks about itself? And don’t we tell those people to get a grip?
But when neurotic Fresno manages to put its issues in perspective and understand that all cities of all sizes have their issues, then they can begin to value what is really going right and what they realistically have to work on.
It often doesn’t make sense on paper for the touring artists to come to Rogue. Spending precious resources to do a single, off-season, mid-sized fest. It is a good chance to try new work – or dust off established work – before summer touring. But the real draw is the great energy and warm atmosphere that we get from the Rogue’s staff and crowds.
Cirque-ish Burlesque premieres at Full Circle Brewing Company on Saturday July 18th at 8 pm with a full line up of adult-oriented vaudeville entertainment with some of Fresno’s best independent performers and special guest, internationally acclaimed fringe magician (and three-time Rogue Festival veteran) Christopher Bange!
Enjoy some locally brewed beer while being entertained by the finest performers from Fresno and beyond! For those unfamiliar with the Burlesque performance style, it can be said that Burlesque is old-school strip tease with an emphasis on the tease, rather than the strip. It is body positive, female positive, sex positive, and will leave you positively titillated!
Allow our bellydancer to mesmerize you, feel the heat from a local fire eater, be amazed by our contortionist and dance in your seat to the musical stylings of Nate Butler and Joy Mohler.
Jam-packed with high quality entertainment, Cirque-ish Burlesque is not to be missed!
This show is appropriate for young adults (21+) and mature audiences alike, but be advised: you may very well leave this show feeling more than a little frisky!
Admission is $12. Doors at 7, show starts at 8 pm.
Location: Full Circle Brewing Co, 620 F St Fresno, CA.
Ages 21 and over only please, show contains adult content.