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Rochester Fringe Festival launches virtual era

Aug 25, 2020

In less than three weeks, the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival will do what the Edinburgh Fringe Festival could not pull off for the first time in its 73-year-history. 

Put on a show.

And that’s no knock on Edinburgh. It’s just a reflection on how huge that nearly monthlong event is. In 2019, it presented more than 60,000 performances of 3,800 different shows. But faced with the coronavirus pandemic this year, the lumbering Edinburgh simply couldn’t pivot to the internet and virtual performances, as so many younger and smaller fringe festivals are now doing.

So when the Rochester Fringe opens on Sept. 15, the downtown streets will be unusually quiet. Now one of the largest festivals of arts culture and counterculture in the country, the 12 days will be entirely online, 429 performances of 171 different shows.

And that’s the future of such events, says Rochester Fringe President Erica Fee. 

“I can’t see us ever going back to 100 percent in-person shows,” Fee says. “There will always be a virtual component with a lot of these festivals because we are now able to extend ourselves to such a wider audience.”

For this year, at least, the event is now KeyBank Rochester Fringe @ Home. That at-home audience will see comedy, theater, music, dance, magic and ruminations on “what it means to be a nursing mammal in modern America.” And while the mirrored splendor of the Victorian Spiegeltent will not anchor the closed-off downtown streets this year, Matt and Heidi Brucker Morgan will be back, virtually, to play host to a new Cirque du Fringe show, “Quarantini.” And promising if you don’t laugh, “you’ll get your monkey back.”

Get our monkey back? Did we hear that right...?

Whiskey Flicks Live.
Credit Provided by KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival

Probably not. Some of this year’s shows will be free, some you’ll have to pay for. Some will be scheduled events, some will be posted from Day One, available to be downloaded whenever you’re ready for “Whiskey Flicks Live,” featuring two guys drinking while reviewing film clips.

This virtual thing may work for people who have been shut out of sold-out shows in the past. “Spooky Stories in the (virtual) Stacks” is one such popular event, with ghost stories from the allegedly haunted Rundel Memorial Building of Central Library.

But will something be lost when these events are seen online rather than being witnessed in person?

“No doubt one of the things that makes the performing arts so wonderful is the immediacy of the reaction,” Fee says. And that works the other way as well, with the performers experiencing “the chemistry of being in the same room as the audience members. As David Mamet always says, you learn more from your audience than you do from any sort of acting teacher.”

At this year’s Rochester Fringe, 40 percent of the acts, the highest percentage ever, are from outside of the Rochester area. And since work visa issues aren’t a concern for performances that come to us via the internet, there’s an uptick with international performances as well; the phone-sex operator from Munich has been a hit at other Fringes, including Edinburgh, Houston and San Francisco.

PUSH Physical Theatre.
Credit Provided by KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival

Issues will be addressed. Rochester’s amazing PUSH Physical Theatre returns, with plans for a new set of pieces using movement of the human body to explore race. The first episode of a new interview feature, “FringeTalk,” will address Black Lives Matter and the performing arts.

COVID-19 is a topic of quite a few of the Rochester Fringe shows. It’s the backstory to the arts as well.

“A lot of those groups are actually from outside the United States, and their governments are propping them up to an extent,” Fee says. “A lot of arts spectacle, grand-scale shows tend to come from France, and the French government has really made it a priority to prop up the performing arts. Because they are aware that if they don’t, at the end of this pandemic, they may not have performing arts otherwise.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is it takes years and years and years of training to get to this professional level. It’s not something that you just acquire overnight.”

Fee is looking ahead to the day when the United States will support the performing arts at the same level as seen in Europe.

“I think it’s pretty depressing right now for American performing artists because they’re seeing colleagues in other countries, they’re able to get back to their normal roles,” she says. “The UK opened theaters a week and a half ago, and we have no reopening date for theaters at all. It is hoped, and it is speculated that Broadway may reopen in January, but why? Why would they reopen in January? No sign has been given from New York state that January is going to be a particularly safe date, especially in the middle of winter. I think it is assumed that everyone will be vaccinated by January, is that the assumption? I’m not sure that is going to happen. I think we’re in for the long haul in the performing arts.”

For a complete schedule, and ticket information, go to rochesterfringe.com.

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