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Arts & Life

Show takes a look at '10 Years of the Rochester Fringe Festival’

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Ten years ago, there was uncertainty -- and acrobats -- in the air. Would the city buy into this new festival?

“The first year we didn’t know what was going to happen,” says Erin DiVincenzio of the Rochester Fringe Festival Board. “So to be at that first-ever with Bandaloop, have these magical dancers bouncing off the walls of the city, and seeing people stream in with this almost festival atmosphere, it was happening, we almost couldn’t believe it. And to see sort of the diversity of people that were attending.”

DiVincenzio is a part of “10 Years of the Rochester Fringe Festival,” a special episode of WXXI-TV’s “Arts InFocus” series. The half-hour show, airing at 8 p.m. Friday and again on Monday, documents the growth of the event, as well as the challenge faced by all public events now: The coronavirus pandemic.

Rochester Fringe is one of about 250 such events worldwide -- festivals that delight in presenting the diversity of the arts, leaning toward the edgier stuff. Held each September, it quickly evolved into a major player on the Rochester calendar. The 2019 festival drew more than an estimated 100,000 people to the city.

“People say to us, ‘This doesn’t feel like Rochester,’” says producer Erica Fee. “And I just think: ‘My God, why doesn’t it? Because this is Rochester. And you should be proud of where you come from.’”

“10 Years of the Rochester Fringe Festival” interviews festival and city officials about how this event came together. And why.

Rochester Fringe is about access to art in public spaces. City Councilmember Mitch Gruber admires the energy pouring into these public spaces. “It’s not created anywhere other than the Fringe experience,” he says.

These officials speak in terms of the “economic currency” and “engaging in community art in a different way.”

“It creates a place that people want to be in,” says Heidi Zimmer-Meyer of the Rochester Downtown Development Corp.

Yet “10 Years of the Rochester Fringe Festival” also gives voice to the artistry such an event brings to the city. As Fee says, “Arts and culture go beyond economic impact. What are cultures remembered by if not for their arts?”

“It creates a place where people can experience artistic expression in the most unusual way possible,” DiVincenzio says. “It’s essential to creating the heart and soul of a place.”

Filmmaker and Rochester Institute of Technology film professor Johannes Bockwoldt describes the works-in-progress state of some of these shows as “a democratic statement about the arts.” One of the dancers from the Street Beat competition says, “I’ve never seen, like, a community like this come together.”

“I appreciate that it celebrates diversity and weirdness,” says City Councilmember Mary Lupien. “A lot of cities celebrate their weirdness, and I think Rochester has that element.”

The documentary draws on images mainly from last September’s festival. Trapeze performers. The interactive ROCgarden, where actors portrayed figures from Rochester’s history. And alongside proven events, those works in progress. “The day you stop having nerves before a show,” says Justin Reilly, who was directing a play at MuCCC Theatre, “is the day you start thinking about doing something else.”

“If you messed up,” says Jennifer Dovidio of Aerial Arts of Rochester, “you just make it a part of the routine.”

The documentary shows us “Smokestacks,” the concert that closed this year’s event, drawing thousands of people to the open-air downtown space called “The Five.” The show was curated by Rochester’s nationally known indie rockers, Joywave.

“I think we wanted to do something that showcased as much local talent as we could,” says lead singer Daniel Armbruster. “I mean, Rochester has an amazing music scene. There’s so many talented people, we probably could have made it three times as long.”

As Fee notes, after a 2020 Rochester Fringe that was a totally virtual festival, September’s 12-day event was a return, at least partially, to the promise seen before the pandemic.

“If you took me back to year one,” she says, “and told me we would be on year 10, and that we would be announcing all of these shows, and we would be persevering through a horrible pandemic, I would have been, I guess, pleased. But also like, yeah, of course we did.”

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.