All you had to do was look out at the crowd in Manhattan Square Park on the evening of Thursday, September 20, to know that Rochester had embraced the Fringe. According to the Rochester Police Department, more than 6000 people packed the downtown venue to watch Bandaloop, the aerial dance troupe, perform its 20-minute set on the side of the 21-story One HSBC Plaza. The group was one of three high-profile headliners for the inaugural First Niagara Rochester Fringe Festival, which ran September 19-23. And while that draw was impressive, it was only part of the success story of the festival, which has already announced that it will return next year.
On Monday, festival organizers announced an estimated attendance of 33,000 over the five-day event — more than double their initial attendance projections of 15,000. So the turnout for Bandaloop is a big deal (the remaining headliners, comedian Patton Oswalt and the Harlem Gospel Choir, also sold well at Kodak Hall), but that means that the remaining figures came from the 20-plus venues that made up the heart of Fringe.
These locations, including Bernunzio's Uptown Music, The Little Theatre, Blackfriars, and Montage Music Hall, programmed and staged more than 100 performances of a variety of shows: visual art, music, dance, theater, family entertainment. Many of the acts featured local talent, some with original productions created just for the festival. And in many cases, those acts were embraced by the crowds. So much so that at several venues — including Geva Theatre Nextstage, Writers & Books, and RAPA's East End Theatre — people had to be turned away because their spaces were packed to capacity.
Almost all of the venues I spoke to throughout the festival were pleased or downright thrilled with the traffic coming through their doors, especially given the relatively modest pre-sale tickets for many shows. (Because of their multi-program nature, Fringe festivals — there are more than 200 worldwide — traditionally trade primarily in walk-up ticket sales, Rochester Fringe Festival Producer Erica Fee says.)
"We received very, very positive reports back from the venues," Fee said on Monday. "Some of the shows sold beyond their wildest dreams. Producing any kind of festival like this, it's a white-knuckle ride. You see ticket reports before, you don't know how it's going to turn out. It's been that way across the board since the recession: people buy tickets at the last moment. Walk-ups were huge." Some shows that had sold just a few tickets prior to the festival ended up selling out, Fee said.
One of the most interesting aspects of the festival that City's cultural critics noticed was the diversity in attendees, especially when it came to age. On Saturday night, I attended two shows that were absolutely packed with college-age students, who were filling downtown theaters after 10 p.m. to watch theater or improv comedy.
In terms of what didn't work, we noticed that Fringe venues on Thursday night after Bandaloop were fairly dead, and the outdoor stage on Gibbs Street also had spotty attendance throughout the weekend. Regarding the latter, Fee said that weather was certainly a factor — people wanted to be inside — but that people came out to Gibbs Street for certain shows, like the free Gospel Sunday programming, which she says drew more than 1000 people.
One of the advisors for the festival was Xela Batchelder, who has a PhD in Fringe festivals from Ohio State University, produced shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, recently attended the World Fringe Congress. To Batchelder, the turnout for Rochester Fringe's first year was "amazing."
"A lot of times in your first year," Batchelder says, a Fringe festival "is just performers going to each other's plays. Rochester got a lot of community support before it even started. There were a large numbers of arts organizations involved, lots of community people going, and sell-out shows in the first year. The whole community was behind it, and a lot of people didn't know what a Fringe festival was. It's one of the bigger from-the-start festivals that I've researched. This community should be proud."
Fee confirmed that the Rochester Fringe Festival will return for a second year, and that it will expand beyond five days. She said that dates will be announced after the Fringe board of directors meets, and everyone takes a nap.
City's Best of the Fringe Fest
City Newspaper's culture critics saw a total of 46 performances over the course of Rochester Fringe's five days. (Full coverage is at rochestercitynewspaper.com.) Here are their top acts.
Casey Carlsen, Dance Writer: My favorite was PUSH Physical Theatre, which performed at the TheatreROCS Stage at Xerox Auditorium. Its work was the most emotionally powerful that I saw all weekend, especially the piece "Web." Plus, during Bandaloop they were out and about, sort of Fringe-ing, miming really slow, stepping. They really seemed like an integral part of the festival.
Willie Clark, Music Editor: I'll give it to "Breakdown: Dance/Sound," featuring BIODANCE and Sound ExChange at Christ Church, specifically the instance where the dancers popped out of the audience (perhaps the most Fringe-y moment of the festival to me). I've also added The Great Chernesky (performed at Java's) and Matt Griffo (Geva Theatre Nextstage) to my must-buy-CD list.
Lillian Dickerson, Editorial Intern: I didn't blog about it, but the Harlem Gospel Choir's performance at Kodak Hall really blew me away. The performers were extraordinarily talented and engaged with the audience. They repeatedly called on us to stand up, dance, and sing with them. I had a blast.
Rebecca Rafferty, Art Critic: I loved Core Project Chicago's "The Dust" at RAPA's East End Theatre and "Solitude of Self: The Journey of Elizabeth Cady Stanton," a one-woman show written and performed by local actress Patricia Lewis at Blackfriars.
Eric Rezsnyak, Features Editor: If I had to pick one, I would give it to "Rules and Regulations" at Writers & Books. This was a total shocker for me — I went to it almost on a whim — but the multidisciplinary piece with words by Caedra Scott-Flaherty, dance by Lauren Hale Biniaris, and music by local composer rachMiel had me riveted from start to end. The fact that the piece even existed (the trio had never been in the same room prior to last week, all worked independently of one another, and scrapped their initial presentation plan last Friday) was a miracle. This, to me, is what Fringe was all about.