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In 2020, do not dismiss fringe shows as frivolous

Sep 23, 2020

PUSH Physical Theatre

Smart art must make smart choices.

And the process often means making far more compromises than most artists will admit to. The coronavirus pandemic has forced the arts to re-think everything. As in: To what degree will our society be embracing virtual presentation of the arts?

The answer is being explored in a major way during Rochester Fringe. It is a petri dish of virtual performance as we watch what kind of bacteria, mosses or pleasantly edible fungi emerge over this 12-day experiment. Is virtual arts useful culture, or is it contamination?

Live arts ignites the kind of visceral thrill you don't get from sitting on the living-room couch, peering at your laptop screen. It's not the same adrenaline response as you feel at a rock concert, where the sheer volume of the bass thumps you in the chest. It's not the same communal response you feel at a comedy show, joining in with the laughter of your fellow audience members. And it’s not the same emotional response you feel while examining the dark and moody "The Artist's Studio in an Afternoon Fog" at the Memorial Art Gallery, as you stand about the same distance from it as Winslow Homer likely did in 1894 after he completed the work, and was thinking: Yes, I nailed that one.

But virtual arts it is. There is no choice, at least for now. We have COVID-19 to deal with. Unless you are the president of some kind of banana republic, 200,000 dead Americans should be enough to tell you that this is a serious issue.

The consensus among most people in the arts is that virtual performance, whether live or recorded, is here to stay. But to what degree? Here's what they’re saying: A hybrid of both seems a likely answer.

Fringe festivals are already well known for recognizing, and embracing, LGBTQ+ performances. Drag queens are fringe royalty. Fringe festivals are a tool for building our more-inclusive society.

Deaf performers are already well established at Rochester Fringe.

COVID-19 is not only why we are here, watching the arts on our laptop screens, but it is the subject of many shows this year.

And racism. Unlike COVID-19, race relations is not a storyline that has recently emerged. It goes back quite a few centuries. But this summer of Black Lives Matter, and street protests acknowledging our racial fractures, has been very obvious content at this year's festival.

So do not dismiss fringe shows as frivolous.

PUSH Physical Theatre

PUSH Physical Theatre’s "The Trunk Show" is an on-demand selection on the Rochester Fringe menu. Download it and watch at your own convenience. The performance is the physical manipulations of the human body that we expect of the marvelous Rochester group. All recorded, virtual presentations. Reflecting on a childhood memory, Sydney Burrows climbs and dangles from a tree. Darren and Heather Stevenson are shown in performance with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, moving with a walker as they age. Heather Stevenson and Ashley Jones are packed in a trunk in a Chaplin-esque sequence.

But the most-dynamic piece is saved for the end. Darren Stevenson, Jones and guest artist Hassiem Muhammad from New York City use the physicality PUSH is known for to explore race. In one sequence the three men are seen in an actual race; Jones, a white man, runs alongside Muhammad, who is Black, and burdened with the task of carrying Darren Stevenson, a white man, as he runs.

FringeTalk is a new free feature at Rochester Fringe. It has two more segments of panel discussion coming up: "Using Storytelling to Communicate Science" on Sept. 23 and "Predicting the Future? Performing Arts in 2021" on Sept. 24. You can link to them at rochesterfringe.com.

Last week FringeTalk presented two discussions. On "….Too soon? Comedy in 2020," we heard Tim Meadows, the actor and writer probably best known as a long-time cast member of "Saturday Night Live," making this observation about the direction the United States has been heading in: "This country is in a weird place, people don’t trust each other, people are afraid of each other. It wasn't like that, four years ago."

The opening FringeTalk was "Black Lives Matter & the Performing Arts." Moderator Norma Holland raised the seemingly contradictory dichotomy of anger and hope. Two emotions that actually work together. "That's kind of what art is," she said. "Anger and hope."

Black Lives Matter & the Performing Arts

"Black Lives Matter & the Performing Arts" is also where we heard Thomas Warfield, the director of dance at Rochester Institute of Technology, talking about the time in the late '80s when he was auditioning for a Broadway production, and the director suggested he "act Blacker."

Warfield is Black. That's lazy thinking on the director's part, and underestimating his audience, figuring it will find stereotypes easier to understand.

Warfield applauded the music that has accompanied the street protests in Rochester, both after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, but the asphyxiation death of Daniel Prude here. Deejays. Eastman School of Music students playing classical music on the steps outside City Hall as protestors demanded answers, and action. Soul singer Danielle Ponder – also a public defender – serenading the crowds.

"They are creating the next phase," Warfield said, "of what it will be like to live in this world."

In the same discussion, Jason Nious – who's worked with high-energy theater shows such as "Cirque du Soleil" and "Stomp" – lauded the decision by some on-demand networks to showcase films featuring Black characters, "putting Black stories at the forefront" He described how a friend pointed out to him that "the people who are learning your style of dance are trying on your life, they're trying on your life through your art."

If virtual art is the compromise of 2020, then so be it. As Warfield noted, "this is a time we need more performances, not less."

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