Mankato West alum takes the reins at Minnesota Fringe Festival

Dawn Bentley at the Rarig Center on the campus of the University of Minnesota.

  • 11-day run begins Aug. 3 on over 15 stages across the Twin Cities

By Michael Lagerquist

Mankato Times

When the Minnesota Fringe Festival begins its 24th season Aug. 3-13, it’s going to highlight the six-month learning curve of 1991 Mankato West High School graduate Dawn (Stevenson) Bentley, its new executive director. It will also display her well-earned abilities in the areas of the arts, non-profit management and heredity.

At a Fringe Festival preview night July 24 at the Rarig Thrust on the campus of the University of Minnesota, she served as hostess, sprinkling self-deprecating jokes and references to the Urban Dictionary into her introductions of the 30, 3-minute show snippets. Although at intermission she claimed to be winging it, it’s safe to say nobody saw her sweat.

Bentley earned her first degree from Hamline University in microbiology. She credits “learning to play the violin, a series of excellent [Mankato West] teachers – Marty Wiltgen and Roger Wilker, specifically, who fostered an appreciation for the literary arts and humanities – and a grandmother who was an artist (primarily a painter) who created a reverence for the arts deep within me” for her appreciation of the arts.

She worked in microbiology for the University of Minnesota and Food and Drug Administration before beginning to work from the home to help technical, scientific and engineering firms with marketing and business development. Following the economic downturn in 2008-09, when many nonprofits cut internal marketing staff, she found a need for her help.

“I was intrigued and impressed by the passion with which these clients worked and became reflective on what my own next steps were,” Bentley says. “After some research and contemplation, I entered graduate school – back at Hamline 20+ years later – to pursue a dual Masters in Business Administration and Nonprofit Management with the specific goal to work in the arts, an area I have always been passionate about.”

According to her mother, her daughter’s success comes from an innate drive.

“Dawn’s achievements are on her own determination, for sure,” says her mother, Diana Stevenson, of North Mankato.  “She got her drive to always put her best foot forward from her father.” Harry Stevenson began working after high school, and studied auto mechanics before working as a gas station attendant. “From there,” Diana Stevenson says, “he went on to own North Mankato Standard, Fourth and Madison Standard and South Front Standard, all at the same time.”

Although the curves are different, it’s a path similar to the one his daughter has taken.

After earning her two Master’s degrees, Bentley landed the role of executive director at Art Shanty Projects, where she worked during “a critical time of growth for the winter festival.” Like the Fringe, Shanty is a nonprofit she calls “quintessentially Minnesotan and quirky.” She was there 21/2 years and gained the experience needed for her next job.

Now, as executive director of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, Bentley is responsible for the management and execution of the annual festival, as well as year-round work to strengthen and build relationships. She spoke of “putting ‘Minnesota’ back into the ‘Minnesota Fringe Festival,’” a philosophy that is welcomed by two artists with Mankato connections. In future years, hopes to enhance the voice of non-metro writers and performers in the festival.

“I’m most excited about meeting/interacting with the artists and volunteers, many of whom are long-time Fringe participants. The passion people feel for Fringe is palpable and it’s an honor to be asked to lead such a beloved organization that has played a critical role in the cultural competiveness of Minnesota for over two decades,” Bentley said.

A few of the many postcards promoting the more than 160 productions at this year’s Minnesota Fringe Festival.

One Mankato participant couldn’t agree more.

“Fringe is fantastic because it gives people the opportunity to self-produce their works, which might not otherwise get stage time…or an audience,” says Travis Carpenter, executive director of Mankato’s Merely Players Community Theatre. After writing shows for the last three festivals, Carpenter this year is listed as producer for “RomCom-Con: A Meet-Cute Musical.”

“Fringe is an opportunity to network with other people in the theatre community that one wouldn’t usually see,” according to Robb Krueger, a 2013 Master of Fine Arts graduate from Minnesota State University, Mankato’s Department of Theatre & Dance. He first appeared in Fringe with “Robot Lincoln: The Revengeance” in 2011, earning a City Pages cover photo. “Fringe provided the most artistically satisfying work I’ve had,” he says.

This year Krueger has a double presence at Fringe. He wrote and appears in “The Perils of Steve” with fellow Minnesota State alums Andy Gullixson and Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha, and appears with another Mankato alum, Meredith (Larson) Kind, in “Code: L-O-V-E.”

“Fringe has an amazing built-in audience so you can get a better feel for how people will respond to your work,” says Merely Players’ Carpenter. “This all goes a long way toward promoting the feeling of ‘This is possible’ in artists.”

Fringe definitely is hatching a lot of possibilities! It does so by presenting more than 800 performances of more than 160 works on 15 or more stages in the Twin Cities. With the help of more than 400 volunteers who put in 5,000 hours’ worth of work over the 11 days, more than 50,000 audience members will see at least one show.

During this year’s festival, Bentley says she will be watching and listening, examining ways to grow Fringe to include additional artist services and/or programs to further engage artists and audiences. It’s a role recently retired Minnesota State Mankato Sociology and Corrections professor, and Bentley mentor, Keith Luebke feels she is ready to undertake.

“Dawn and her cohort represent a new era in nonprofit work,” he says. “They’ve thought deeply about the role of nonprofits and how best to achieve a challenging mission while building stronger, more inclusive communities.”

It’s time to raise the curtain on implementing that mission.

For more information about Dawn Bentley, watch this interview from KSTP TV:

For a full listing of shows and schedules, visit

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