It took dancers jumping off buildings for people to finally "get" the magnitude of the inaugural First Niagara Rochester Fringe Festival.
"Another festival?" is a common refrain in Rochester. It can be hard to get excited about a new project when the area is already so flush with celebrations of everything from Turkish culture and lumberjacks to the environment and local restaurants (all festivals taking place within the current week).
But at the February press conference officially announcing the Rochester Fringe Festival all it took was footage of Bandaloop, a world-renowned aerial dance troupe that performs vertical routines while suspended on the sides of buildings, for people to realize that Fringe was not just "another festival" -- it has the makings to be a very big deal. Dancers, dangling from ropes, swinging, leaping, twirling against a bright blue sky: that's not something Rochester has ever seen before.
The group is one of the headliners of the premiere edition of the Fringe, and will twice perform excerpts from its piece "Bound(less)" on the side of the 21-story One HSBC Plaza. And it's only one of the dozens of acts that will be taking over downtown as the Rochester Fringe Festival makes its debut in more than 20 venues from Wednesday, September 19, through Sunday, September 23. The event will showcase a mix of local and national performers putting on 180-plus shows over five days, covering visual art, theater, dance, comedy, magic shows, film, music, and family-friendly fare.
Organizers have been working on the festival for nearly four years, and the project is backed by a Who's Who of Rochester's cultural elite. The road to the festival hasn't always been easy to navigate, and the festival has its challenges. But Fringe is finally here, and Rochester better get ready.
If flying dancers aren't enough reason to take Rochester Fringe seriously, consider the festival's pedigree. It was initially the brainchild of University of Rochester President Joel Seligman, who in 2008 started having informal meetings with various cultural groups, politicians, businesses, and other potential stakeholders for what was then being referred to as a summer arts festival to take place in downtown Rochester. Eventually the festival became its own nonprofit entity, and its board of directors now includes Mark Cuddy of Geva Theatre Center, Grant Holcomb of the Memorial Art Gallery, Ruby Lockhart of Garth Fagan Dance, and Heidi Zimmer-Meyer of the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation, as well as representatives from George Eastman House, RIT, Eastman School of Music, and other organizations.
In 2009, Erica Fee -- a UR graduate who carved out a successful theater career acting, directing, and producing in London and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival -- was brought onto the project, and eventually named festival producer. Along with board chair Justin Vigdor, Fee is widely regarded as the major force behind making Rochester Fringe a reality. ("The key reason we have a Fringe festival is Erica," says UR's Seligman.)
One of the challenges facing the Rochester Fringe Festival is explaining to audiences exactly what "Fringe" means. When you hear Greek Festival, you know you're getting "Opa!" and spanakopita. When you think about Jazz Festival, at the very least you know you're going to get a range of music. But Fringe? Not so obvious.
The allure of a Fringe festival can be best explained by Paul Burgett, vice president of the University of Rochester and a member of the Rochester Fringe Festival board. Two years ago, as he and his wife were touring the South Pacific, they had a stop in Adelaide, Australia, home to Adelaide Fringe, the second-largest Fringe festival in the world. (There are more than 200 Fringe festivals worldwide; the first -- and still largest -- is the Edinburgh Fringe in Scotland, founded in 1947.)
When Burgett arrived in Adelaide, the festival "was in full blossom," he says, "and I was absolutely captivated by what was going on. The streets were alive with all kinds of performers -- jugglers, musicians, actors, performers, magicians. People on 15-foot unicycles, art shows in galleries along the mall. We were there for four to five days, and I was just mesmerized, awestruck by all the activity. The streets were teeming with happy people, and the city was full of energy, excitement, and surprises."
More specifically, Festival Producer Fee explains that Fringe means, "a multidisciplinary, multiday festival that is not curated by a centralized artistic board," she says.
After Rochester Fringe established itself as a nonprofit organization, it reached out to a variety of arts and cultural organizations and community leaders. It signed up more than 20 venues, ranging from traditional performance spaces like Geva Theatre Center and Blackfriars Theatre to smaller stages like The Little Café and Writers & Books and quirkier spaces like Black Radish Studio and Java's. The participating venues booked their acts themselves, based on artist submissions that came in through the Fringe Festival's website this spring.
The festival's participatory aspect was perhaps lost on Rochester at first -- the idea that area performers could actually have their work be part of this enterprise. But eventually, people got it, and Fee says the website was flooded with submissions -- she was still getting pitches six weeks out from the festival -- with more than 180 fully fledged acts looking to get booked. That "far exceeded" the organizers' expectations for Year 1, Fee says.
Those submissions varied greatly. Some were new shows by local artists, like Method Machine's play "The Gay Fiancée." Others were edgy, existing works looking for a wider audience, like Kimberly Niles' "The Isle of Dogs." Some of the submissions came from out-of-towners, like Chicago-based musical comedian Matt Griffo or the Fringe circuit favorite, "The Event." And taking advantage of the area's rich academic scene, many of the productions are original collaborations between local college departments and arts groups, such as the intriguing "Astro Dance" by choreographer Thomas Warfield, RIT/NTID Dance Company, and the Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences. [See adjoining article for City Newspaper's critics' picks for the best bets at the Fringe Festival.]
After the submissions arrived at the festival, they were routed to the individual venues at which the artists hoped to perform. Kris Ashley, who handled the Fringe booking for Rochester Area Performing Arts on East Main Street, says that RAPA's East End Theatre received around 75 submissions -- second only to Geva, she says. For her, the process of deciding what made it into their Fringe offerings included reading the applications, going through artist websites or videos, and, in several dozen cases, giving the artists a tour of RAPA's recently overhauled theater spaces.
Ashley says her primary concern was the quality of the acts, and whether they fit the RAPA mission, which includes family-friendly and educational offerings. The final schedule at RAPA includes a variety of dance pieces, some theater, and even a night of very adult comedy.
The festival's programming process has not been without its detractors. Certain venues not directly involved in the festival have organized their own non-Fringe "fringe" series of events. (Ironically, that's how the Edinburgh Fringe Festival itself began.) Some artists objected to having to pay to participate in the festival, and others complained that the programming features some out-of-town artists, or isn't "fringe" enough.
"A Fringe festival doesn't mean that you're on the fringes of society," Fee says. "You don't have to be in the fringes of society or the fringes of art to participate in a Fringe festival. Sure, you can do edgy work. You can also do a revival of a Shakespeare play. One of the most successful shows of the Edinburgh Fringe was called 'Shakespeare for Breakfast.' It's at 9:30 a.m., it'simprov, most of the audience is over 70 years old. But I'll tell you right now, you show up and you can hardly get a seat."
As for artists having to pay to be involved, "Fringe festivals by nature all have registration fees," Fee says. "You perform at the Toronto Fringe Festival, you have a $750 registration fee. I think that our registration fee of $100 to $150 is a very, very good bargain. And the fact that we're taking such a low percentage of ticket sales -- 10 percent of them come back to us. With New Orleans Fringe, I think it's a 50-50 split. Most Fringe fests take far over 10 percent, and if they don't take that, they have a huge registration fee upfront. We've tried to keep that super competitive."
Regarding the criticism that the festival includes artists from outside Rochester: "I'm not going to pander to a xenophobic approach to the arts," Fee says. "The venues have programmed themselves. The venues have decided what they want in their own venues. If they want a group coming in from San Francisco, and that group wants to come to Rochester to perform, more power to them."
"The majority of our acts are from Western New York," says Fee. "This is absolutely a reflection of our community. But I think we are allowed to have outsiders come into the community and succeed. I think it creates a real cross-pollination of ideas, too. I think it's fantastic for Rochester-based artists to work alongside artists from other communities. Not only do they learn from the artists, the artists from other communities learn from Rochester. We want a festival that is exciting, entertaining, enthralling. And we don't care where they come from in the end."
With more than 150 shows taking place at 21 different venues, the range of acts involved in the first Rochester Fringe is larger in number and more diverse than any of the organizers say they had hoped for.
"I don't think anyone on the board thought there would be more than 100 different performances. That's extraordinary," says Geva's Mark Cuddy. "And there's such an eclectic range, a melding of high-brow and low-brow. There are populist events and yet some serious work and some comedy, as well as classical music. It's really the range. And I'm hoping that people in our community that don't think of themselves as cultural attendees will attend something, or several somethings, or just come on downtown to have a good time and check it out, and realize, 'Oh, it's OK, I fit in.' I'm hoping we grow audiences for the rest of the year. We're only going to do that if we do something really wonderful this one week and get really turned on."
"There will be something for everybody, I think," says UR's Paul Burgett. "Rochester is a festival town. In May we have the Lilac Festival, built around the magnificent lilacs in Highland Park. Memorial Art Gallery has Clothesline, built around the artistic efforts of 400-plus artists. The Corn Hill Festival is a quintessential American urban festival of vendors, some entertainment, but mostly vendors selling their wares. But Fringe Festival is not about selling products, it's about entertaining, educating, exciting the festivalgoer with a panoply of activities, from Bandaloop to Harlem Gospel Choir to just a whole array of activities. The other festivals in town offer what they offer -- usually a specific offering. Fringe Festival offers a much broader array of entertainment and activities than, I think, our other excellent festivals."
As for helping people understand exactly what "Fringe" means to Rochester, "It's very much about educating the community about what a Fringe festival is about," says Fee. "You can see many shows and exhibits within a short period. You can really feel enriched. You can laugh, you can cry, you can watch dance, whatever, all within that period. You can really judge for yourself. You can watch new work, you can watch revivals. You can make your own Fringe, as we say. It's a smorgasbord of the arts."
To ensure that as many people as possible stuff themselves at that artistic smorgasbord, the festival has deliberately kept ticket costs low. Most shows cost $10 to $15, and seats for the highest-priced headliner, geek-hero comedian Patton Oswalt, run $15 to $55. There are also dozens of free performances throughout the week, including a gospel showcase on Gibbs Street on Sunday, and assorted street performers and other acts performing around the festival footprint.
While people may not still fully understand Fringe, organizers believe that once audiences experience it, they'll get it. "I've been saying all along that the explosion will actually happen after the first year, because people will go, 'Oh! That's what that is,'" says Cuddy. "The first year is, let's just get through it, put on a really good first-year festival. And then people will understand what the possibilities are, and we'll really get rolling."
And just as that Bandaloop footage at the first press conference really captured the room's attention, Fee is looking for a similar experience for Rochester en masse when the troupe actually performs. "I think that when we have the community together watching Bandaloop dance on the side of HSBC Plaza, I hope the penny drops," Fee says. "I hope people realize that yes, we're right here, right now, and we can make a difference. I hope people recognize the potential of Rochester and the potential, not just for this festival... I think that Fringe festivals can really bring about a huge sea change in the performing arts. I hope that what we find here is, artists can really be edgy, not just during the festival, but they can try new things out year round, and that people are accepting of those things."