Fringe Festival shows aim for the light and the heavy
This is how the salami of journalism is made: reporters from WXXI and CITY Magazine met last week to decide who covers which drag queen at the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival. We’re all on the hunt for the theme of the year before we’ve seen if Matt Morgan drops his pants to show off his tight whites.
Erica Fee, Founder and Producer of Rochester Fringe, said: Be patient.
“I know the producer of the Philadelphia Fringe, he says every year that they – the press and the rest – say to him, ‘What’s the theme this year?’ “, she says. “And he said, ‘I’ll tell you when it’s all over.’ And it’s always like that for us too.
May be. After the past 18 pandemic months we’ve been through, we may not have to wait to make big statements until the final moments of the 12-day Rochester Fringe, which begins on Tuesday. As a card holder of et cetera, I can say with some certainty that the theme for this year is social issues.
Black lives matter. #Me too. The environment. Gender identity. Immigration. These are issues that can be found throughout the 425 live and virtual performances of the 10th annual event. You can find the full list at rochesterfringe.com.
Some aspects of Rochester Fringe will be familiar from years past, following a 2020 festival that was presented entirely online. Silent nightclub. Pedestrian access. Gospel Sunday. The dance of Garth Fagan. The intimate comedy of the women of Bushwhacked at the intersection of Gibbs and East Main Street, dubbed “One Fringe Place” for the festival.
Yet other events will show signs of what the nation and the world have been through. Masks will be required for all indoor events, with proof of vaccination required for spectators 12 years and older. As some older venues in the East End District are not yet available, the shows are scattered further afield. Released to Brighton and to the new Canalside stage at the JCC. “What a stroke of genius, and everyone’s been clamoring for this scene all summer,” Fee said of the outdoor venue.
The glittering Spiegeltent, anchoring One Fringe Place, was unable to leave Belgium due to travel restrictions linked to COVID-19. In its place will be an Italian circus tent, with sides that open, letting in fresh air.
And there will only be one big free event on the grassy grounds of East Main Street, formerly known as Parcel 5, but now dubbed with a new oh-so-hip name inadvertently borrowed from a talker. Fox cable show, “The Five.” Rochester smart rock stars Joywave hosted and are headlining a special concert on Parcel 5 – duh, The Five – for the final day, September 25 . Joywave will be joined by a few national acts, and some of the best that the city has to offer in dance-floor rock from KOPPS, pop harpist Mikaela Davis and ukulele charmer Cammy Enaharo.
To that end, Rochester Fringe allows most of the 23 individual venues to reserve their own acts, rather than filtering the process through a small artistic committee that can harbor its own narrow biases. Kids can enjoy pumpkin painting at One Fringe Place before their parents apologize to head to the Italian circus tent for Matt Morgan’s return and the boozy celebration that is Circus post-wedding comedy from the Fringe, “Afterparty”.
“A lot of these artists, of course, wouldn’t have a stage otherwise,” Fee says in perhaps the understatement of this story. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t get this platform. They would not be heard by our community.
“Street Beat,” the September 18 dance battle at Martin Luther King Jr. Park, is a prime example of introducing the unknown to a new audience.
“The first year we did this,” Fee said, “I have to tell you there were families that were there who almost looked scared. These were white families who had obviously never attended any kind of hip-hop or urban dance competition before. But they were there.
“At the end of the day, there was such a community spirit in this room, it was absolutely amazing. Because people who had never attended before, they got down to it, they got it, and we’ve seen these people come back year after year, because now they’re familiar.
“And that’s one of the reasons we organized our festival. This is one of the responsibilities we believe we have to the community as a whole. To provide them with experiences and provide them with shows that they might not otherwise encounter the rest of the year.
These obscure shows include BIODANCE’s “Elemental Forces” with its environmental message. Or “The Fixer”, a funny but poignant story of a mother whose daughter was born with cerebral palsy. Or the interactive mix of “A Love Letter to Brian Lesley and Michelle” – the names point to BLM, or Black Lives Matter.
“Of course, Black Lives Matter has been such an important force, and why shouldn’t it be? Fresh said. “I think it would be almost ridiculous if a lot of shows didn’t cover that.
“And also part of the Me Too movement was addressed. You watch a show like “Generic Male” from PUSH, and it touches on some of the issues with the #MeToo movement, and where are the men at at this point?
“I am seeing overall, certainly, an awareness, a reaction to some of the social advancements and social issues that have unfolded that have recently been raised,” Fee said. “But I also see a lot of joy here, and a happiness to be able to come together again.”
With the possible exception of unicorns in children’s shows, the performances are aimed at all things socially conscious these days. It will be the Woke Fringe.
She suggests that the Rochester Fringe’s mission is, in part, to “provide a platform for artists, so we’re not picky about censorship.” We don’t tell artists what they can and cannot present.
When Fee says Rochester Fringe offers “something for everyone,” she’s not just talking about music ranging from a Sinatra impersonator to a deep dive into Queen and Freddie Mercury. She also talks about shows like “Geographies of Power” at Java’s Cafe, oral poetry about being black, queer, female, and awake. And the virtual performance of “I Could Not Speak It”, the story of a woman sexually assaulted by her father.
“We really didn’t find that our venues tended to shy away from hosting these shows,” Fee said.
And it’s safe to say that the overall tone of the festival goes against a conservative point of view.
“I think the arts in general,” says Fee, “tend to have a progressive orientation.”
Although he has been dead for four centuries, Shakespeare is a constant presence at Rochester Fringe. But “William Shakespeare’s Sharknado,” a fusion of classic bard and pulp cheese, isn’t your high school Shakespeare literature class. Fee thinks it’s an interesting artistic experience to “revisit Shakespeare and bring it to life”.
“Personally, I have a real problem with the fact that we read Shakespeare in high school, when I think we should look Shakespeare in high school, ”she said.
Shakespeare historically, of course, brings us to the question of men playing in pickup.
“I think the art of drag has been overlooked for so many years,” said Fee. “It’s an art form. And yes, it’s funny, and yes, it allows you to escape the daily chore. When you are sitting there in a drag show you are definitely not focused on anything else. But there is an art to it, and just as there is an art to the circus. And so often the circus arts have been neglected and rejected.
As Fee speaks, tears roll down the cutthroat cheeks of the world’s clowns. And stumble upon some ridiculously oversized shoes that no one else would dare to wear. Rejection can be painful.
“You also see, like national funding and state funding, will go to theater, dance, music,” Fee said. “But it won’t go to the circus. The same goes for the drag.
“It’s not really fair to rank our art forms against each other, I don’t think so.”
Jeff Spevak is the Arts & Life editor of WXXI. He can be contacted at [email protected].