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Fringe scrambling for venues, welcomes back Spiegeltent and Parcel 5

Aaron Winters

The KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival is firing up what it once considered “a pipe dream for us.”

After having conceded this spring that September’s Fringe would not include two major pieces from past years -- the glittering Victorian Spiegeltent and the open block off Main Street, Parcel 5 -- it now seems assured that both will be part of the 12-day festival this fall.

“It’s a result of the guidelines changing faster than anyone thought they would change,” says the event’s producer, Erica Fee.

Last year’s Rochester Fringe was presented entirely online. This year’s 10th annual festival, scheduled for Sept. 14-25, will include some online performances. But most will be in-person, live shows. 

After more than a year of being sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic, a wave of musicians, theater groups, comedians and dancers is eager to re-emerge at Rochester Fringe. “You just cannot believe how many artists are trying to get back onstage, and can’t,” Fee says.

They can’t because there aren't enough venues ready for them. In downtown Rochester, Geva Theatre Center, Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, Kilbourn Hall, Hatch Hall, Blackfriars Theatre and School of the Arts are among the major venues that are currently not available because of COVID-19 restrictions. To fill the gaps, the festival has added a handful of new spaces, some of which enlarge the event’s tidy downtown Rochester footprint. That includes the Spirit Room on State Street and the CenterStage Theatre at the JCC: Dawn Lipson Canalside Stage.

The University of Rochester would have to lift COVID-19 guidelines restrictions in order for the three Eastman venues -- Eastman Theatre, Kilbourn Hall and Hatch Hall -- to receive audiences. But the school has not yet done so, despite the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra having already released its fall schedule, which includes September shows at Eastman Theatre.

It will take more than a custodian with a proper set of keys to turn on the lights at these venues.

“It’s not just an issue for venues that they can reopen,” Fee says. “They have to have also the ability to reopen, they have to have the staff in place, they need to have the funding in place to be able to pay the staff to reopen.”

And there is still the question of whether proof of vaccines will be required of audiences and performers. Constellation Brands-Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center, just outside of Canandaigua, on Monday announced it is removing the mandate for people attending the 15 concerts it has announced for the summer season.

Rochester Fringe is withholding its announcement on whether it will require its audiences to be vaccinated until it gets closer to the event. Fee wants to avoid the confusion of the constantly shifting guideline goal posts we have seen over the past year. She has enlisted Steve Adelman, vice president of the Event Safety Alliance, and an attorney who specialties in health and safety at live events, to advise Rochester Fringe on the prevailing science.

“We are still mandating vaccines for our attendees and for our performers, we want to make sure everyone is safe, especially with the Delta variant spreading in the United States,” Fee says. “So we think that by September, that’s probably going to be even more important than it is now.”

With the state loosening COVID-19 guidelines, the close confines of the Spiegeltent, where comedians and tightrope walkers prevail, became available. The situation is different at Parcel 5, the site of sprawling, free outdoor shows in past years. The most recent of these shows have featured giant inflatables or party bands armed with extravagant light shows, drawing thousands of people. But those acts, originating at European festivals, are not available now due to international travel bans.

“We are exploring with the city right now, in ways that we can use Parcel 5,” Fee says.

The uncertainty of how to handle a re-emergence from the coronavirus pandemic knows no borders. What’s being billed as “Toronto’s first indoor theatrical event since March 2020,” is a August show in which the socially distanced audience will be seated on the massive stage of the Princess of Wales Theatre, with no actors present; instead, the audience will listen on headphones to what is described as a “soundscape” with narration.

Guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and New York state have been frequently shifting. So many summer festivals are behind on their planning -- and uncertain if the situation will change yet again.

“We are trying to make do this year,” says Fee. “It’s going to look differently this year. But we have some new venues that have stepped up to the plate and we’re trying to do what we can.

“We’re really hoping audiences can roll with the punches with us.”

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.