It's a muggy Tuesday night, half an hour before showtime at D 'n' D Improv IV, the zany unscripted serial based on the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons.
The large-cast show, staged for 10 nights at 11 p.m. at the 230-seat Gas Station Theatre, is sold out -- as usual.
The lineup of ticket holders is overwhelmingly made up of people who were unborn, or barely born, when the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival made its debut 25 years ago.
The nightly flock of teens and 20-somethings bodes well for the future of the festival, says executive producer Chuck McEwen, who reported ticket sales of 9,789 for Tuesday -- a Day 7 record for the theatre extravaganza that wraps up Sunday.
"It's great to see they're not immune to getting hooked on fringing... and they see the fringe as something that speaks to them," McEwen says.
In the D 'n' D crowd, nobody bats an eye that Brett Owen, 24, is dressed as a pointy-eared fairy -- or a "woodland nympho," as he puts it. His three friends, all in their early 20s, are costumed as a unicorn, Zorro and Optimus Prime from Transformers. They got a $2 discount for dressing up, but more importantly, they're in the goofy spirit of the show.
Owen is a devoted fringer, while some of his friends are first-timers. "I just love that there's something for everyone," he says about the festival, where he has seen 12 shows so far.
The only downside of the D 'n' D show, Owen says, is that the Gas Station is a satellite venue, far removed from the action at Old Market Square. It can be hard to uproot yourself from near the beer tent, outdoor entertainment and food vendors to make a trek to a distant venue, he says.
"You're standing at the outdoor stage and you go, 'Do I want to go to The Forks? Probably not.' That kept me from going to Cabaret."
Russell Martens, 36, is older than the average D 'n' D Improv fan, but he's so dedicated that he won two tickets to every performance by submitting a piece of fan fiction to the troupe's website. He's first in line, costumed as a paladin (heroic knight).
After discovering the fringe fest through the D 'n' D show in 2009, Martens and his wife Shelley are first-time buyers of a Buddy Pass this year and plan to see eight other productions.
Their suggestion for fringe management is a scheduling app for mobile devices that would allow fringers to input their available times and the shows they want, and get an instant schedule.
Earlier in the evening around Old Market Square, sweaty fringers said they'd like to see more healthy food options, more recycling containers and air conditioning at every venue.
Lynda Richard, one of more than 900 festival volunteers, said patrons have improvised their way to the discount for facial hair at The Complete History of the Moustache by drawing a moustache on, or by holding a strand of hair across their lip. "But we have not had one woman admitting that she has an upper-lip moustache."
At the Warehouse, exuberant longtime volunteer Betty Gauley, 60, has embellished her volunteer T-shirt with silver bows and champagne glasses for the 25th anniversary. She's pleased that fringers have worn tinfoil hats to get a discount at Illuminati 3: The End of the World. "One looked like he had taken a salad bowl and put tinfoil on it," she said.
Rod Beilfuss, 29, director of Lungs, commented that having the clothing and craft vendors strung out along closed-off Albert and Arthur streets isn't as lively as when they were packed into the courtyard beside the Union Bank Tower (now fenced off because of the building's renovation by Red River College).
"There was more hustle and bustle and more of a buzz," Beilfuss said about the former set-up.
McEwen said the college will let the festival use the refurbished courtyard next year, but he will wait to see it before deciding whether to put street performers, the Kids Fringe, vendors, food booths or some combination there.
McEwen is getting positive feedback about advance tickets being held at venues for the first time, saving fringers a trip to the central box office.
But some festival-goers are nostalgic for the days when there were no advance ticket sales, forcing everyone to queue up. "The fun of lining up and kibitzing -- 'What have you seen? What did you like?' -- has gone," lamented Brian Crow, 68, who has been fringing with his wife Barbara for about 10 years.
After lining up and being turned away from the red-hot show Loon twice, the Crows broke down and bought advance tickets themselves.
Kathy Clune, 50, a self-described "crazy fringer," has attended all 25 Winnipeg fringes and plans to see 62 shows this year. She's among the hardcore types who dislike the satellite venues because they eat up too much precious time. If you arrive at one and it's sold out, she said, you can't whip over to an alternate choice.
Clune noted that the shows at the Ellice Theatre and the West End Cultural Centre, across the street from each other, overlap so you can't see both on one trip.
Gwendolyn Collins, 25, is acting in Artichoke Heart at The Forks' Shaw Performing Arts Centre. "It would be great to have a shuttle that goes to these far venues," she said.
In fact, a bus that would circulate to the satellite venues is a service the fringe has been proposing, unsuccessfully, to Winnipeg Transit for at least four years. The main stumbling block is staffing because many transit drivers take holidays in July. "We're still working on it," McEwen said.
Kevin Klassen, 40, director of Lulu: A Monster Tragedy, feels that in the festival's early years, the audience was more evenly distributed among the productions. He urged fringers to take more risks on lesser-known companies.
"I think the audience is focusing on the big marquee shows," he said. "There's a tendency for shows that have done well in the past, repeatedly, to have a guaranteed audience -- a tendency to celebrate what's already been incredibly successful."
Colleen Sutton was out in green regalia promoting her solo football fan show, Rider Girl, and sounded over the moon about the warmth of the Winnipeg crowd. "It's a bit overwhelming -- in a good way," said Sutton, 35. "I can't get over the spirit, the numbers of people that are out, the enthusiasm.
"You've got smart, savvy, supportive audiences. Even though I'm a Rider girl in a Bomber town, they love the show. They come in with tons of energy... I feel really welcome."