From there to here
It all started with eight performance groups in 1947. These companies had arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland, to perform in the Edinburgh International Festival, but since they weren't booked in the festival's program, they were kicked to the curb. Instead of packing it in, the groups decided, in some cheeky defiance, to capitalize on the crowds there for the festival and perform their shows anyway in the venues on the edge of the ongoing festival — you see where this is going: they performed on the fringe.
In the 70 years since the beginning of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, that event has become the world's largest multi-arts festival, with more than 3,000 shows (at least 50,000 performances) across three weeks. Its official printed guide is as dense as a JC Penney holiday catalog.
The Edinburgh Fringe started something big: There are now more than 200 fringe festivals around the world, including the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival. Now in its sixth year, the Rochester Fringe will feature more than 500 shows, taking place September 14 through September 23, across more than 20 indoor and outdoor venues in and around downtown.
While each fringe festival is a little different, there are some unifying principles. The US Association of Fringe Festivals outlines that a fringe has a focus on performing arts of all genres — and often combining or breaking genres — at multiple venues and should be easy to participate in. The shows are usually within an hour in length, and there is an emphasis on originality and creativity. Plus, this being an alt-y multi-arts festival, who cares about a little swearing or nudity? (Don't worry; there are plenty of kid-friendly and all-ages shows at this year's Rochester Fringe.)
The Rochester Fringe itself follows a two-part model (like the Edinburgh mothership). The Fringe curates several headlining programs — including Plasticiens Volants and the Friday and Saturday on the Fringe, comedian John Mulaney, and the events in the Spiegeltent — but the majority of shows are curated by the participating venues themselves, pulling from artist applications submitted in the spring.
Rochester audiences have steadily kept up with the Fringe. The Fringe started in 2012 as a five-day festival, drawing around 32,000 attendees, and that success prompted the event to expand to 10 days the next year, which attracted more than 50,000 people. In 2016, more than 68,000 people came out for Fringe events, making it one of the most attended fringe festivals in the US and one of the largest multi-arts festivals in New York State.
While the Rochester Fringe's growth can be pointed to as a sign that it's doing something right, the real success can be seen in the participating shows. As artists and performance groups have picked up on the fringe concept, the shows and "experiments" that occur within the festival's 10 days have become more ambitious and adventurous. It's no longer "weird" to watch a show unfold in parked cars, camping tents, or a Jacuzzi. Giant tricycles belching fireballs, acrobats dancing on the sides of buildings, and synthetic voices that lead you across the city on an adventure with your friends have become the expectation. And that's not mentioning the venues filled every day with stand-up and improv comedy, dance, theater, gospel choirs, drag performers, and musicians.
The effects of Fringe can be felt outside of September. Local artists have started to take advantage of the festival's format to workshop new theater productions, premiere new dance collaborations, experiment with music and technology, or just do something they never thought they could get away with. Those ideas come out the other side of Fringe stronger and ready to take on Rochester.
The Rochester Fringe Festival is put on by a nonprofit corporation spearheaded by some of the area's key cultural institutions, including Geva Theatre Center, the George Eastman House, Garth Fagan Dance, Eastman School of Music, and others.
For a full schedule of the festival, a list of venues, maps, and other information, see the official Fringe Festival Guide, or visit rochesterfringe.com.
CITY Newspaper will offer extensive coverage of the 2017 Rochester Fringe Festival. Look for daily blogs during the run of the festival, with photos, reviews, and our critics' picks for best of the fest. And let us know how your Fringe is going on social media with the hashtag #fringeCITY.