The Minnesota Fringe Festival used to identify as the nation’s largest uncensored and unjuried performing arts festival, committed to creating “open, supportive forums for free and diverse artistic expression.” Getting in as a performer was so chanced, in fact, that the very first staff member listed on the Fringe’s website—it’s Artistic Director—wasn’t a human, but rather a spinning metal cage from which a random number would be drawn in a lottery. If your number was drawn, your performance was in.
But after a public relations crisis, police investigation, leadership change, and a lawsuit that concluded this week, you will no longer find the word “uncensored” on the Fringe’s website or any of its marketing material. The leadership of the non-profit Minnesota Fringe remaining silent, donors and patrons are left wondering what exactly happened.
(Content warning: the remainder of this article discusses the topic of pedophilia.)
The Twin Cities theater community’s collective spotlights focus every year on the Minnesota Fringe’s lottery drawing. And in February 2016, there were a record 524 applications, but only 170 spots for performances.
Sean Neely was among the many performers hoping to get in with his show Having Sex With Children in my Brain. Neely was to play the role of a non-offending but remorseful pedophile, to challenge the “mindscape of sexual acceptance” and “broaden the scope of what we think about when we hear the word pedophile.”
Neely won the Fringe’s random-number lottery, and his show got in. But despite the Fringe’s “uncensored” identity and their commitment that “if an application wins the lottery, they have a guaranteed spot,” now-former Minnesota Fringe executive director Jeff D. Larson kicked Neely out of the Festival within hours of hearing what the show would be about.
In an email, Larson told Neely that “…descriptions of sexual fantasies involving children (and anything else you have in mind relating to that) are, depending on the situation, either illegal or enough in a grey area that I can’t afford the lawyers and insurance to protect the festival from liability and keep you out of jail.”
Neely pleaded with the Fringe, “Don’t kick me out of the festival, I’ll just do another show.” But Larson stood his ground: “It’s done, Sean. There’s nothing more to discuss.”
Neely’s dramatic style had made waves at the Fringe before.
In his 2011 show The Great Midwestern Drug Circus, Neely—acting—overdosed on drugs, committing suicide on stage. In an online review, an audience member lauded the show as being “a perfect example of the original intent of fringe, to do unexpected and unsettling theatre.”
In his 2014 production Kyle and Sean are Lovers, Neely talked about sexual experimentation and joining a cult that was planning a mass shooting. “This show is intense, it’s insane, it’s controversial, it’s weird, it’s perverse, it’s everything you would ever want in a theatrical production,” wrote one reviewer. Neely and his co-performer “crossed some lines, ethically and otherwise, in a psychological masterpiece of antagonistic theater,” said another review, “You get to a point where you unquestioningly believe they’re telling their own life stories.” “I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time.” “This is what Fringe is for.”
In 2015, Neely performed Cancer. Rape. Theatre. Loophole. where he confessed to his mother, unable to speak while on her death bed, that he had committed multiple sexual assaults. And—again, acting—he said he was going to do it again, this time to a barista named Meredith at Caribou Coffee.
To be safe, Neely verified before the show that there was no actual Caribou employee by that name. But believing the confessions might be real, an audience member anonymously submitted a contact form on the Caribou Coffee corporate website, which eventually made its way to the Roseville Police Department:
Police investigators bought up two tickets for Neely’s performance on a department-issued credit card, and attended the show undercover. They found nothing illegal; it was theatre. Nevertheless, at the request of Caribou Coffee’s corporate office, police served Neely with a trespass notice, barring Neely from entering a coffee shop he’s never been to.
The Minnesota Fringe Festival said they also received complaints about Neely’s show, and Neely conceded that in the future, he would be more cautious to only describe fictional past events, rather than those in the future. But, while some were confused and overwhelmed by Neely’s on-stage comportment, many of the audience reviews exhibited adoration for Neely’s work.
It was “possibly the most unique Fringe experience I’ve ever had,” wrote a theater review, “It’s honest and dark and wonderfully weird. While it’s not for everyone, it’s definitely worth seeing and discussing post-show. Whatever your expectations are, forget about them and just come and see this show.”
“Theater is not always sitting in a room in a safe environment, content at all times being entertained. Theater is a universal truth. There is a challenge in this piece … seeing it could rock your world so hard, you may not recover,” wrote another reviewer. “If you don’t like to feel manipulated, stay away,” wrote yet another. “If you want a compelling performance that challenges both the audience and the idea of theatre, go see this show.” “He draws you in and then challenges you in perhaps the most in-your-face way possible … It belongs in our Fringe.”
Indeed, the fringe theatre movement finds its roots on the outside—the fringe—of a mainstream theatre festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the 1940s. Theatre companies, unable to get into the mainstream festival, brought their own shows to their own alternate venues. “Constraints on…artistic freedom [at the mainstream festival] were feeding its upstart companion,” wrote a researcher, leading the Edinburgh Fringe to establish in its first formal organizing document that its productions were selected without vetting or censorship.
It wasn’t too different when Bob McFadden founded the Minnesota Fringe Festival in 1994, after struggling to get his work on stage at established theaters. But two decades later, Neely is finding that perhaps the Minnesota Fringe Festival now is the establishment.
After Larson wouldn’t budge from his decision to exclude Neely from the 2016 Fringe Festival, even as he offered to change the show, Neely lawyered up. His attorney Ochen Kaylan, another avid theater-goer, said Neely didn’t want to be a headache to the Fringe, but that this was a matter of principle for both artists and their audiences in the future.
“He was being completely transparent about his plans for 2016 so that they could work out any details necessary for everyone to feel good about his 2016 show,” Kaylan said, as he described his own unsuccessful attempts to negotiate with the Fringe Festival. Eventually, Kaylan served the Fringe Festival with a lawsuit on behalf of Neely in March 2016, a few weeks after his expulsion.
Because the Minnesota Fringe yanked Neely’s show based on its content, Kaylan argued it constituted misrepresentation and deceptive trade practices: censorship and curation at a theater festival explicitly marketed as being uncensored, uncurated, and non-juried. “Our hope was that after seeing the [legal] complaint, the Fringe would realize that ignoring us wasn’t going to solve the problem, and that we have legitimate legal claims with sufficient factual basis to support those claims,” Kaylan said.
Neely says again that he would have changed the content of his show to meet the Fringe’s demands, but the Fringe allegedly never told him what rules or policies he was violating. “We expected [the Fringe] would start working with us and we’d never have to take this to court,” Kaylan said, “they continued to ignore us … we gave it one last go at resolving this without taking it to court, but they continued to refuse.”
Fringe director Larson said by email that there was “[n]ever an offer to change the content of the show,” but the Fringe Festival’s own court filings admit the opposite. “They not only admit to that discussion [in their court pleadings], but add that they stood by their decision to not allow Sean to participate,” Kaylan said.
Larson insisted there was more to the story, and that “any debate about censorship is entirely beside the point.” He declined to elaborate further, promising to discuss it after the lawsuit concluded. “The idea that they wouldn’t tell us, or anyone else, then or now, but are for some reason waiting until some future point to provide the actual reason [for Neely’s expulsion], doesn’t make any sense to me,” Kaylan said.
With news of a ‘censorship’ lawsuit, questions and strong opinions from the Twin Cities theater community immediately started circulating online.
Some expressed concern with the content of Neely’s prior performances, saying that Neely needed to be more responsible with the words he uses, and that inflicting pain and trauma isn’t art. But others vehemently disagreed in the name of artistic freedom, pointing out that his prior shows had prominent content warnings in the listings online, in print, and as you enter the performance venue.
Some suggested Neely’s dramatics were stretching the non-profit Fringe Festival’s resources thin, while others thought the Festival was being stubborn and ultra-secretive. There was even a minor edit-war on Wikipedia, as someone updated the Fringe Festival’s article to question its claims of being uncensored, with another editor reverting the changes.
Most everyone who had an opinion said they’re against censorship, but the real dispute was whether this was censorship. It was the general consensus that the Minnesota Fringe had erred; that if they were intending to ban Neely from the Festival, they should have done so at the conclusion of his controversial 2015 performance, or denied his application for 2016. Instead, the Fringe accepted his 2016 application, and let his number be drawn in the lottery.
To that end, criticism was especially sharp against Minnesota Fringe leadership. Fringe director Larson deleted his personal Twitter account, and those who commented online about the lawsuit found themselves blocked by the Fringe’s Twitter account, even the Festival’s own volunteers and performers. Larson said the Twitter blocking was intended to keep the focus on “artists who were actually performing” in the Festival, but many of the blocks came days after the Festival had concluded for the year.
“[T]he complaint here seems to be that the Fringe has an ethical responsibility to be notified in real time of the opinions of Twitter commentators. We respectfully disagree,” said Larson.
I’ve joined the club, now! I questioned their PR tactics and they’ve just covered their ears and gone “LALALALA” pic.twitter.com/E8wGmMykux
— sithlet (@sithlet) August 19, 2016
But while Neely and the theater community were openly talking about the dispute, the Minnesota Fringe’s point of view was notably absent, Larson telling the Star Tribune, “We’ll be dealing with this case in the court, instead of in the press.”
Though the Fringe’s website describes an organizational goal of “complete transparency,” secrecy seemed to be a trend. Some of the Festival’s board members allegedly weren’t aware of the dispute with Neely or details of the lawsuit until long after it was served. One Minnesota Fringe Festival board member condemned the organization blocking theater community members on Twitter, describing their frustration with the ordeal.
Larson and the Fringe’s attorney declined multiple requests to disclose when the Board was notified, if there was any Board action regarding the direction of the litigation, or even how much the Fringe Festival was spending to maintain its position in court. But in an email filed in court, the Fringe Festival’s attorney wrote that they “…believe that the lawsuit is without merit, and brought solely to bring attention to Mr. Neely.”
One might expect an affinity for attention from any theatrical performer, but there’s little to suggest it was Neely’s intent in filing the lawsuit. In fact, Neely—at this point a regular participant in the Festival—served the lawsuit in a manner that kept it out of the press for over four months as negotiations continued.
With increasing attention and questions from the theater community, the Minnesota Fringe’s board of directors got involved. The Twitter blocks of community members were reversed, and at a court hearing in September of 2016, Director Larson was nowhere to be seen. Weeks later, he announced his resignation.
“[I]nstead of merely confessing to being a rapist,” the Fringe told the Court, “[Neely] wanted to create the misconception that he was confessing to being a child rapist.”
In the Minnesota Fringe’s court filings, they defended the expulsion of Neely as not being a curatorial decision, but rather “to avoid subjecting a paying audience to a recitation of child pornography advertised (by Minnesota Fringe) as being real.” They expressed a concern with the Festival being exposed to civil liability based on the content of Neely’s performance.
The Fringe implied Neely violated the Festival’s rules, but they never told the judge what rules Neely violated, nor did they file any documents containing those rules with the court. “If [Neely] misconstrued the words ‘uncurated’ and ‘uncensored’ to mean that Minnesota Fringe was powerless to stop a performance once an applicant is selected through the lottery drawing, this was [Neely’s] mistake and not an intentional act of deception by Minnesota Fringe,” their pleading stated.
For the judge, it was less about shock-value and censorship and more about the application of law. Motions by both sides to resolve the lawsuit were denied on procedural grounds.
“Since the day the lawsuit began, we’ve given the Fringe a zero-cost way to end the lawsuit at any point,” said Neely’s attorney, “We’ve always said that if they acknowledge that Sean was inappropriately excluded from the 2016 Fringe and they give him his slot back, and reaffirm their commitment to not censoring work from the Fringe based on the content of the show, then we’ll drop the suit.”
The Fringe Festival wouldn’t agree, and wouldn’t comment earlier this year. But with Neely’s court case still pending and the Fringe under new leadership, Neely decided to apply to perform again in 2017. The Fringe accepted his application and his number was chosen in the random lottery yet again. But this time, Neely simply called his production Sean Neely and allegedly wouldn’t tell anyone what his show was about until weeks before the Festival began.
Dawn Bentley, the Minnesota Fringe Festival’s new executive director, sat in the audience to watch what is normally a three-hour rehearsal before the Festival, Kaylan said. But Neely didn’t give her—or anyone—a preview of his show. Instead, he brought out a chair, made the sure the lighting and audio worked, and said he was ready to go.
Neely was to perform five performances, his first late on a Thursday night. Signs posted around the Phoenix Theater in Uptown disclaimed responsibility for the content of the show, and a sign prominently posted at the box office warned the audience of adult language and difficult topics, including pedophilia.
A curious and mostly young audience filed into the theater in the minutes before the show began. One commented that he wanted to come to the first show in case there wouldn’t be a second. Another excitedly took a selfie in the front row, posting it to Snapchat. At a later performance, a protester outside the theater encouraged people not to see the “perverted” show.
“I want to thank my lawyer,” Neely said after walking out to applause, “If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be here tonight.” He later remarked, “We all want our name in the papers, but I was hoping it would be for the quality of the work, not the consequences of performing it.”
As Neely’s show began, he described an angry and sexually-charged childhood that manifested into a sexual attraction for 8-10 year old boys. But these were just feelings, Neely said. He was confident that he would never actually offend, alluding that he felt like Peter Pan, wishing he could be a boy forever.
Neely detailed his love for the curiosity and trust of children with dramatic silence filled only by the audience shifting uncomfortably in their seats. He was frustrated it was something he couldn’t talk about or get help for, describing his self-disgust, an inbox of death threats, and a mind “fucked and warped by years of fear, anxiety, paranoia, depression.” He worried that being open about the topic would jeopardize relationships, employment opportunities, personal safety, and perhaps lead to criminal charges.
“We all have something dark inside us. Theater is this beautiful sanctuary where we can talk about it in an open fashion,” Neely said. And the risk was worth it to challenge the audience to think critically about how hard it is for non-offending pedophiles to get help, and to communicate the realities of a misunderstood sexuality, Neely said, adding that there’s no standard of care.
True to Neely’s signature style, his performance blurred reality, making the audience unsure if he was secretly telling the truth. “It’s not just theater,” Neely said before walking off the stage.
In online reviews, Neely was praised not only for his performance, but the questions it left in the audience’s head.
“I think that [the show] did what it attempted,” wrote one review, “namely to make you question whether or not what he said was true because it was quite believable. It also made me think about what theatre is, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. The controversy is quite overblown.” Another reviewer wrote, “I can’t for the life of me see why this was pulled from the festival last year…”
Neely dismissed the lawsuit this week after the Minnesota Fringe Festival revealed a new policy: “As long as a performer abides by all applicable laws and documented festival policies and procedures, that performer will not be removed from the festival.”
But this statement is somewhat opaque, as the Fringe’s 2017 application materials documented a very limited set of policies and procedures, none of which pertained to the content of performances. With the lawsuit now over, it remains to be seen what changes the Fringe will make going forward.
In fact, after 18 months of litigation and little transparency from the Minnesota Fringe Festival, it remains unclear why Neely’s show was removed in the first place, and what necessitated the Fringe’s legal posture.
“[T]hey’ve acknowledged that Sean’s show didn’t violate any law or documented policy,” Kaylan said, “If there was any legitimate reason for his show to be excluded in 2016, it should have also been excluded in 2017. But it wasn’t, and every pretextual reason about the show being illegal or affecting insurance rates or public safety or any other excuse has been shown to be facetious.”
The Minnesota Fringe’s new executive director Dawn Bentley, reached by email, declined to comment about how much the non-profit spent on the litigation or if there were any plans to revise Festival policies going forward. Former director Larson, previously stating he would openly talk about the matter when the court case concluded, now said he wasn’t interested in doing so.
The Minnesota Fringe Festival is not alone in their struggle. Tonight, Neely will perform his show at the Chicago Fringe Festival. A Chicago city alderman denounced the show as being “deeply offensive and repugnant,” but defended the right of theater-goers to see it. The pastor of a church that hosts some Chicago Fringe shows expressed relief that Neely’s “cringe-worthy” and “exploitative” show would be at a different venue, but said they “support freedom of expression, including the freedom of artists to provoke and even disgust audiences.”
Neely will certainly have a disgusted audience outside the venue: neighborhood residents are staging a protest, and one person even threatened to take photographs of anyone who attends.
Disclosure: I was a volunteer photographer at the Minnesota Fringe Festival from 2009 to 2013. Prior to this, I had never met Neely nor attended any of his shows.