Performing on the Fringe

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, an annual event in Scotland focused primarily on theater and comedy shows (often experimental ones), is billed as "the largest arts festival in the world." Last year's creative smorgasbord — which is "open-access," i.e., anyone with a show and a venue can participate — saw more than 2500 different productions put on by more than 20,000 performers.

The local version, being plotted to take place this summer, won't be quite as large (at least at its inception), but it will embrace similar ideas —grassroots energy, adaptability, and non-traditional works. (Full, and possibly pre-emptive, disclosure: a few Phoenicians may be somehow involved in this effort.)

The first Portland Fringe Festival is the brainchild of Adam Vachon, a Gray native who is currently getting a master's degree in lighting design at Arizona State University, and Stacey Koloski, the director of Stages Performing Arts Academy for Kids (who has been involved with Fringes in both Edinburgh and Washington DC). Still in the planning stage, the Portland Fringe will likely coincide with another big local-arts idea: the Portland Performing Arts Festival, scheduled to take place from June 28 through July 1.

The PPAF, also in its inaugural year, will incorporate everything from dance and theater to music and art, according to organizer Kara Larsen, who came to Maine last year with a background in the business side of the arts. Larsen's goal is to create an event that draws visitors from around New England; she has already lined up a few nationally known acts, such as classical guitarist Sharon Isbin.

Visit  portlandfestival.org for more about the PPAF; the Fringe organizers expect to set up a website soon.

Improving opinion polling

Pretty much as soon as the champagne glasses are empty, the state — and the nation — will return to Election Mode. With the presidency, one of Maine's US Senate seats, and the entire state legislature in the running, it'll be impossible to avoid the blitz of advertising, reporting, campaigning. At the core of much of that noise will be public-opinion polls, asking about issues, candidates, political parties, and anything else campaigns and pollsters can think up.

Polls obviously influence campaign efforts and media coverage, but they can also affect campaign contributions and support, particularly in multi-candidate races, as many of 2012's are shaping up to be. For all those reasons — and because polls can offer deeper insights into our collective psyche — it's important that opinion polling be done well.

But what, exactly, does that mean? The central piece is that the way the poll is conducted — from selection of the people who are polled, as well as how they are screened (to find likely voters, for example), and reporting of the results with complete statistical information (margin of error, confidence level) — is made public, so we can know how to respond to the results.

Of course, this takes a degree of public comfort and familiarity with the mechanics of polling — most especially, understanding the statistics behind why, and how, properly sampled groups of 400 to 700 people can, in fact, truly represent the opinions of much larger populations (like a 1.3-million person state, or a 300-million person nation).

The Maine People's Resource Center, a non-profit affiliated with the progressive Maine People's Alliance, has been working for the past couple years on establishing a poll-savvy culture here in Maine. By doing its own polls and releasing not only the results but the underlying data, and critiquing the available information about other polls conducted in Maine (by pollsters in-state and from away), MPRC is elevating the discourse around what Maine people actually think and want.

As the only group that conducted a poll for Portland's first-ever ranked-choice voting mayoral slate, by releasing all of its raw data as well as its methodology and analysis, and certainly as an organization willing to engage in discussions about polling, MPRC is bringing transparency and accountability to a challenging area of public debate. "When people make an argument based on public opinion, they are in a way speaking with the voice of all of us," says MPRC communications director Mike Tipping, explaining why his group is working to improve understanding of what public opinion actually is, and how various pollsters measure it — and is putting its own polls at the forefront of transparency, accountability, and open discussion. With MPRC's help, we'll all be better informed about the real state of Maine politics in 2012, no matter which polls we're looking at.

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