Zootown Fringe: Keeping Missoula Weird One Festival at a Time


Right now the Zootown Fringe Festival is in full swing. With over 60 performances and art instillations scheduled throughout Missoula and through the weekend, this is the summer’s biggest art event. And it is completely unjuried and uncensored. Anyone with an idea and an application can stage whatever they want for this festival. It’s a defining principle of the Fringe, and an exciting opportunity for audiences and artists alike.

The first Fringe Festival began in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1947. It was made up of a group of performers who had recently been rejected from a different, and at the time larger, theater festival happening in the city. These artists still had something to say and believed in the work they were creating. They set up their own festival on the fringe of the other and began building an audience.

Today the festival that initially rejected these artists no longer exists and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is now the largest performing arts festival in the world. Not only that, but the Fringe tradition has spread across the globe. Canada even has a central Fringe Society managing over 200 festivals throughout the country.

And as of last year Missoula has joined the hundreds of communities worldwide who embrace the fringe.

So what’s the secret to their success? How did a group of rejected artists become the central attraction? It’s really quite simple. In art, the rules are meant to be broken. No great artist has ever followed the conventional standards of his or her time. By eliminating rejection from the equation the Fringe Festivals allow for a wider range of art, and give freedom to those artists with ideas that may not have the biggest commercial appeal.

It’s also a liberating experience for the audience. Think about it. Every time you ever attended a festival or performance, you watched what someone else has decided you will like. For each band or play or work of art you see, there are hundreds that you will never see. It’s not that they’re all bad either. Performers and artists are rejected for a number of reasons. Maybe they don’t fit in the budget, maybe the structure or theme of the event isn’t right for them. Whatever the case may be, everyday you are denied hundreds of opportunities to be amazed, enlightened, or simply amused.

At the Fringe Festival, you are the curator of your own exhibit. It’s a bit of a gamble, but the freedom to discover new and unique works of art greatly outweighs the risk of walking into a performance that you may not understand. If you’re not sure where to start check out the Average Joe’s Guide to the Zootown Fringe Festival for some of this year’s highlights.

Missoula is packed with creative, inventive and insightful artists who only need a stage. Now in its second year the Zootown Fringe Festival has given that to them, and has given us a unique opportunity to see what is possible when artists are given complete freedom to create.

Art Director and founder Michelle Risho brought the Fringe to Missoula last year because it was her passion. Having attended a number of Fringe Festivals and participated in performances herself, she knew this was exactly what Missoula needed. She explained that, “Theater is so important because it can convey a message so effectively. It has the power to open new worldviews, to change the way people think, to start revolutions.” And that this impact can only reach its full potential when the art is uncensored.


In addition to an overwhelming amount of local art, the event has brought in talent from across the country. Along with performers from Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Canada the festival is featuring “Not From Here”, an impressive exhibit at the newly formed Hive Gallery and Exhibition Space. “Not From Here” features over 100 works of art by 8 Spokane based artists ranging from the sublime to the subversive.

The Zootown Fringe Festival plays hosts to these artists thanks to their recent induction into the American Fringe Society, connecting our community to other Fringe communities across the country. This gives us not only a great opportunity to see new art from outside our community, but it helps us go further in becoming a place on the map for art and artists. And with a local economy so dependent on tourism, as the Fringe grows, our community will see the benefits.

You can find a complete schedule of events online. The festival runs from August 13 to 17 at numerous locations throughout Missoula. No show is above $12 and most events are free to the public.