Our Story

The Milwaukee Fringe Festival has been put together by a team of enthusiastic Milwaukee artists and business professionals who believe in the transformative power of the arts. The event aims to invigorate Milwaukee’s culture, engage the youth of Milwaukee and inspire them to participate in the arts, attract artists from outside of Milwaukee to our city, and create a sense of community for artists of all ages, ethnicities, and disciplines.

Festival co-founder Matt Kemple has dreamed of creating a Fringe Festival for over a decade, and was quoted by the Journal Sentinel over a decade ago discussing that dream. His original attempt at creating a Fringe Festival eventually evolved into the Milwaukee Comedy Festival, which celebrated its 10 year anniversary in 2015.

John Schneider was a key member of influential theater company Theater X, founded in 1969 with a group of students and faculty from UW-Milwaukee. The company became internationally known for its bold and provocative pieces commenting on the world at large. Theater X’s alumni include founding member of the Violent Femmes Victor DeLorenzo (who will be performing at the festival with his current band, Nineteen Thirteen) and famed Hollywood actor Willem Dafoe (who serves as a founding member of the festival.)

Schneider and Kemple met in 2004 and began to work together on a number of theatrical productions. Schneider’s nonprofit, Nice Plays Inc. is responsible for a program called Project Non-Violence, in which Schneider works with students from the Milwaukee community to collectively create performances expressing their ideas about serious issues in their lives. While working on Project Non-Violence, Schneider and Kemple touched on the idea of putting on a larger scale event to positively impact Milwaukee’s arts community and use the arts to
improve the world around them.

Meanwhile, Katie Rhyme and Karen Raymond created a variety show that was essentially a miniature Fringe Festival, entitled MKE Follies. They also worked with Kemple about the possibility of creating a Fringe Festival. Kemple, Schneider, Rhyme and Raymond began to discuss the idea and pushed it forward.
The last key member of the team is Eric Engelbart, a journalist who works with John Schneider at local alternative newspaper The Shepherd Express. Engelbart put together a staff of professionals, including CFO Tom Grabow, music writer Evan Rytlewski, marketing and branding specialist Doug Cheever, and visual artist and graphic designer Dan Fleming.

The final member of the team is Brian Rott, whose company Quasimondo Physical Theater has many similarities to the work that Schneider did with Theater X. Brian Rott oversees the theater elements of the festival with Schneider.

The board of Nice Plays, Inc. agreed to put on the festival a nonprofit and altruistic cause to enrich and strengthen Milwaukee’s arts community. Although Milwaukee is home to a diverse collection of artists, it is also one of the most segregated cities in the nation, and the festival will serve as a way to integrate artists from different areas and walks of life, while also introducing artists to professional companies and generating national
attention for Milwaukee’s arts scene.

The festival team envisions the event growing on a yearly basis, with the eventual goal of establishing a year-round theater that will feature visual art, music, dance, and theater performances on a weekly basis.

MKE Fringe will ideally grow to a national and international event in years ahead, and help to establish Milwaukee as an arts destination and help the arts community to retain its most talented artists, while attracting more visitors to Milwaukee much like the South By Southwest festival has done for Austin’s vibrant arts community.