It is September in the city, and something is amiss downtown at the corner of Main and Gibbs streets. For the first time in nine years at the intersection, there isn't the bejeweled Spiegeltent staple of the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival.
Indeed, there is no Spiegelgarden with food and drink trucks and games and film screenings. There are no B-Boys competing for glory and there are no massive illuminated inflatable planets hovering high above Parcel 5.
At a glance, it would be tempting to conclude that the popular late-summer festival of hundreds of live performances has been canceled, another victim of the pandemic's pummeling of the performing arts.
But Rochester Fringe 2020 lives as a virtual festival, in which a blend of pre-recorded and live performances will be presented over a variety of digital platforms from September 15 through September 26. While the unabashed spectacle of previous Fringes is missing, the spirit of the festival isn't. With about 175 productions, this year's event boasts nearly as many acts as the usual, which is close to 200 unique productions.
"The dust is still settling for us," the festival's executive director, Erica Fee, said in late August, a time of year so frantic for Fee that she referred to the stretch as "Death by Fringe" on her Twitter account and only half-jokingly wrote, "Bury me in cyberspace." A week later she would reveal the festival's lineup of shows to the public.
This Fringe wasn't supposed to be this way. When it was announced in June that the show would go on, festival organizers envisioned a mix of digital acts and some live, outdoor performances.
But Fee, a classically-trained actress whose credits include performing in London, off-West End, knows how to take a cue. In the ensuing weeks she took more than one — from the draconian state restrictions on the performing arts, from headliners unable or unwilling to travel, and from her counterparts at Fringes in other cities earlier in the festival season that went entirely virtual.
"We don't have another choice," Fee recalled concluding. "We're going fully virtual."
- PHOTO PROVIDED BY ROCHESTER FRINGE
- Pulitzer Prize-nominated storyteller Nate DiMeo’s podcast “The Memory Palace" returns this year with a never-before-heard, Rochester-specific episode.
The show must go on(line)
Fringe organizers began consulting with the U.S. Association of Fringe Festivals — there are nearly 40 festivals across the country — and a global trade group called World Fringe and gleaning what they could about best practices for a virtual event.
Orlando Fringe, which was presented virtually in mid-May, was something of a guinea pig for Rochester. Producers there decided in late March to pivot to a virtual event, about two weeks after canceling their festival in anticipation of a state lockdown.
"We were going back and forth about it, like, 'Should we do something, or should we not?'" Orlando Fringe Theater Producer Lindsay Taylor said. "We decided to go for it because it's year 29, and our patrons expected something. And we wanted to still do some Fringe offerings, and then it just turned into this huge monster."
The festival drew 107 programs — a mix of shows and workshops and interviews — that represented a modest dip from its typical lineup of about 130 shows. Everything was presented via Facebook Live.
"Not all of them were shows, so it wasn't exactly like our festival," Taylor said.
Last year, Orlando Fringe drew about 75,000 people. This year, there were no tickets and the programs were presented for free with an option to donate to artists. The arrangement made measuring attendance difficult, but Taylor said audiences were engaged on the festival's social media channels.
Rochester Fringe productions will be presented two ways: As pre-recorded, on-demand shows, and as live-streamed performances. Artists were allowed to choose from different platforms, such as YouTube, Vimeo, Twitch, Zoom, and Facebook Live, to suit their productions.
It is too early to tell how audiences will respond, but artists seem enthusiastic. Fee said Fringe has seen an uptick in participation from non-local artists, with about 40 percent of the acts hailing from outside Rochester.
Among the roughly 175 shows are some returning favorites, including Matt and Heidi Morgan, the Las Vegas-based couple who annually present a new iteration of their "Cirque du Fringe," a circus-variety show of charmingly madcap acts of derring-do, in the Spiegeltent. The Morgans have a new show for Rochester, but instead of presenting to an audience in a tent that acted as a theater-in-the-round, they'll be on a flat screen. The show, "Cirque du Fringe: Quarantini," is a series of pre-recorded acts from an array of artists paired with an interview with a circus performer, much like an evening talk-entertainment show.
Rochester Fringe is also bringing back the Morgans' "Shotspeare," the tipsy, audience-interactive parody of The Bard, which will be presented live over Zoom.
Of course, streaming acts comes with its own set of headaches. Organizers in Orlando had to contend with unforeseen factors, like abiding by the rules for digital music licensing, which are different from music licensing at live performances. Conveying that to artists was another worry.
Then there was adapting to the technical needs for pulling off a virtual event.
"We had to learn how to run, essentially, a TV show," Taylor said. "Running the programming, running pre-recorded videos, dealing with technical difficulties for people on our staff who don't have that experience."
"We ended up really stepping out of our comfort zone to make this happen," she went on, "but it was very rewarding."
Virtually unforeseen benefits
Xela Batchelder, executive director of the Pittsburgh Fringe, which held a virtual festival in May, said some of the most effective shows at her event were the ones presented live that fed off audience feedback.
"That makes it feel more like a live performance, because laughter is contagious," Batchelder said. "You can see the other audience members and react with them and hear what they say. Hear them gasp at parts, you know what I mean? It's so much more fun and kind of brings that community feel back in."
Known among Fringe organizers as "Dr. Fringe" for her vast experience producing festivals, Batchelder said Pittsburgh Fringe was a week out from its typical 2020 production in April when Pennsylvania was shut down.
Like a lot of American Fringe festivals, Pittsburgh draws mainly local acts. When the festival committed to going virtual, however, participation from international artists rose and the audience broadened.
"What you find is the audience expands when you go virtual," Batchelder said. "It's all over the world."
An ancillary benefit for Pittsburgh artists was exposure. The festival there is quaint by Rochester standards, with some 30 acts performed over a long weekend. This year, Pittsburgh presented 25 shows that were only performed once, but streamed for a month. Several shows got picked up and have since gone on to other virtual Fringe festivals.
"A chunk of the Fringe mission is to help artists and give them a platform," Batchelder said. "So by doing the virtual festivals, we're still trying to give artists a platform this year, a way to present their work and get it out to an audience."
- PHOTO PROVIDED BY ROCHESTER FRINGE
- Matt and Heidi Morgan will also present a new iteration of their bawdy, audience-interactive, Bard-based drinking game, “Shotspeare."
Artists' last hope
Pivoting to a virtual festival rather than canceling has given a lot of artists a badly-needed platform at a time when work has dried up.
Whether people realize it, the inability of artists and art organizations to produce right now translates to a huge sector of the economy being shut down. In 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analyses and the National Endowment for the Arts figured the arts contributed $764 billion to the U.S. economy annually and employed 4.9 million workers with earnings of more than $370 billion.
Rochester Fringe performers this year will see 100 percent of the ticket sales from their productions. In previous years, the festival took a 10 percent cut of ticket sales, and individual Fringe venues worked out deals with the artists they hosted. Virtual Fringe ticket prices range from free to about $25, and the average price is $10, lower than for a typical festival, Fee said.
Some traditional Fringe venues are also getting in on the act. The staff at theaters that would normally host performances, for instance, have submitted their own shows as a way to earn a little something off the festival.
"One of the reasons that we do Fringe is to bring new audiences into our venues, so that we can keep downtown performing arts venues vibrant," Fee said. "And, unfortunately, with the pandemic, those venues are still closed."
"We want to make sure that performing artists exist, and that venues exist when this is all over," Fee said.
Local audiences might not realize it, but the 12-day grand spectacle that is Rochester Fringe is unique among American Fringe festivals, many of which span a few days to a week.
While Rochester follows the model of the granddaddy of all Fringe festivals — Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest arts festival in the world — which calls for curating a portion of its high-impact and dazzling shows, most American Fringes follow the Canadian model, which is open-access, uncurated, and entirely a negotiation between venues and performers.
Around the nation, you're more likely to see an emphasis on creative oddities than professional acrobats dance-rappelling down the sides of high-rise buildings, sculptural machinery belching flames into the night sky, or British rockers clad in Spandex leading a city block packed with people in pop-song karaoke, like we have in Rochester.
Some shows that are perennial favorites of Rochester Fringe fans aren't in the virtual lineup, including "Gospel Sunday," which was sidelined due to safety concerns over choir singing.
Dance is also problematic because of the performers' physical proximity to each other. Rochester Fringe will feature some dance, but a lot of the performances will have been pre-recorded, Fee said.
A healthy portion of Rochester Fringe's past lineups have tackled historical and contemporary racial justice and social issues. The virtual festival is no different, and the collision of the Black Lives Matter movement, the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, and issues of equity laid bare by the pandemic has made for rich material.
Programs include film screenings, discussions, plays, dance, music, and spoken word productions that present on Black oppression, Black arts, the Rochester riots of '64, The Children's Crusade of 1963, the Freedom Riders, the Black Lives Matter uprisings of this summer, and transforming scars into solidarity and solutions.
Also new this year is a series of four conversations with artists called "Fringe Talk," which will present different topics, ranging from the Black Lives Matter movement to the community impacts of COVID-19.
Three weeks out from the festival opening, Fee described Fringe staff as being simultaneously "pleased and overwhelmed."
"It's like, you're just tearing your hair out, like, 'Oh, my god, what are we doing?'" Fee said. "And then I really looked at this the other night, and I think that this is something we could be really proud of."Rebecca Rafferty is CITY's arts & entertainment editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.