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10th KeyBank Rochester Fringe a Leader in Reopening Western New York Performing Arts


The festival reports well-attended – even sold-out – performances, while its free, outdoor events such as Pedestrian Drive-In, Kids Day and more remained popular.

10th KeyBank Rochester Fringe a Leader in Reopening Western New York Performing Arts

The KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival has been the largest multi-disciplinary arts festival in New York State for years now, and 2021's 10th anniversary Fringe (September 14-25) - with almost 90% of its more than 425 performances and events taking place in-person - was a leader in reopening the performing arts in Western New York.

"We were the first large-scale arts organization to pull off an event of this size in this region, using the accepted safety protocols of vaccine mandates, masking, and increased ventilation for our 20+ indoor venues," says Founding Festival Producer Erica Fee. "We are thrilled that we were able to prove that festivals can indeed be carried out in a safe manner."

That sentiment is shared by Fringe audiences and artists alike.

"We were so grateful to the Fringe for allowing us to find our way back to live theater after so long," says Luane Davis Haggerty, Ph.D, a Principal Lecturer in RIT/NTID's Department of Performing Arts who also leads a performance group called Dangerous Signs that performed at The Little. "It was thrilling to see...the whole community rise and come back together a little bit more uplifted in solidarity."

"As I approached One Fringe Place on opening night, a smile came to my face. A year and a half of no festivals in this area had put such a grey cloud over our community," recalls Fringe attendee David Corbin. "I really appreciated and enjoyed this year's festival - even if I came downtown for the evening to sit by a fire pit and watch a movie. The concert at Parcel 5 was really fun and many of my friends joined me to enjoy a great evening of music. The Fringe to me has always been the last hurrah for summer and this year did not disappoint."

"To say this festival was successful in the wake of the world we've been living in (and still live in) would be an understatement," writes Justin Rielly of Rochester's Aspie Works in a letter to the Fringe board of directors. "As a Rochester theatre artist and supporter of the arts in this city, I'm grateful for you for keeping this festival going - and for bringing the arts back in full bloom for people to enjoy live."

The festival reports well-attended - even sold-out - performances, while its free, outdoor events such as Pedestrian Drive-In, Kids Day, Fringe Street Beat, and Gospel Sunday remained very popular. A special Fringe Finale called SMOKESTACKS, a mini music festival headlined and curated by nationally known Rochester band Joywave, drew thousands of attendees to Parcel 5.

"We're very pleased with attendance," says Fee. "It was absolutely the right decision to 'make it work' in person this year. Now we have a great base for creating a full-on Fringe next year."

That said, planning such a grand-scale event through ever-changing public health and safety protocols was certainly challenging. Several of the festival's largest venues - notably Geva Theatre Center and School of the Arts - didn't reopen in time for the 2021 Fringe, though will return next year. To fill the need for the many artists submitting shows, Fringe brought on new venues in an expanded footprint: Centerstage Theatre at the JCC (Dawn Lipson Canalside Stage & Hart Theatre); Made on State; The Spirit Room; The International Plaza; the Theatre at Innovation Square, the newly renovated Xerox Auditorium that made its debut at Fringe; and the new Sloan Performing Arts Center at the University of Rochester.

"It was exciting to open the doors of the state-of-the-art Sloan Performing Arts Center for the first time ever to students and the community," exclaims Missy Pfohl Smith, Director of University of Rochester's Institute for the Performing Arts, Program of Dance and Movement. "We packed the what is only the first of many future Fringe shows on the river campus at UR, a Fringe sponsor and partner since the inception of Rochester Fringe Festival."

"JCC CenterStage was delighted to join the Fringe family of venues this year. It was the perfect way to ease audiences back into events and show the community that live theatre is back...and safe," reports Artistic Director Ralph Meranto. "We hosted thousands of people at 40 shows in two venues. Thanks to the support of the Fringe team, everything went smoothly, and we had lots of happy audiences!"

Returning Fringe venues were: Central Library, Eastman School of Music, Garth Fagan Dance, Java's, Joseph Avenue Arts & Culture Alliance, MuCCC, RIT City Art Space, Rochester Contemporary, Rochester Music Hall of Fame, Salena's, and The Little. A Virtual Fringe also returned this year, with 55 productions available on-demand as well as live-streamed.

"We not only had two sold-out shows and record attendance, but more importantly, a wonderful return to establishing our space as a live music and entertainment venue," says Mike Dornberger, Rochester Music Hall of Fame board member and venue manager for the organization's headquarters on Gibbs Street. "Can't wait to do more next year and build off the great experience we had in 2021!"

"Java's was super busy, and customers were commenting on how happy they were to have the first festival since COVID back," reports owner Mike Calabrese.

Organizers secured an Italian Circus Tent for One Fringe Place (corner of Gibbs and Main Streets, across from Eastman Theatre) that came with an added benefit: the tent sides could be rolled up to provide additional ventilation. Large air-circulating fans also kept C02 levels (the result of an audience's collective breathing) in the tent equivalent to outdoor levels.

Las Vegas Cirque du Fringe: AfterParty creator Matt Morgan was relieved that he and his talented cast were able to entertain thousands of attendees safely in the tent for 14 performances.

"What a joy to be back in the community of Rochester...smiling and laughing with everyone," reflects Morgan. "It's been a very tough year and a half, and it was heartwarming to be back with so many friends."

Fringe staff member Christopher Hennelly tweeted: "The actions and example of Rochester Fringe working with artists, workers and audience members was life-affirming for me. A pathway out of this nightmare of COVID-19."

"I am so very proud of our staff and volunteers, the performers, and the audiences who came together to make our 10th anniversary Fringe such a success," sums up Fee. "There is nothing like arts and culture for bringing communities together in a memorable way.

From its five-day debut in 2012, the 12-day KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival has become one of the fastest-growing and most-attended fringe festivals in the U.S. and the largest multidisciplinary performing arts festival in New York State. As a bifurcated festival, it allows for a combination of headline entertainment curated by the Fringe as well as an open-access portion based on the 74-year-old Edinburgh Fringe model. Last year's Virtual Fringe offered more than 170 online productions, connecting artists and audiences throughout our community and beyond. The 2019 Fringe featured more than 650 performances and events in 25+ downtown venues and broke all previous attendance records with more than 100,000 visitors.

Rochester Fringe Festival connects and empowers artists, audiences, venues, educational institutions, and the community to celebrate, explore, and inspire creativity via an annual, multi-genre arts festival. It was pioneered by several of Rochester's esteemed cultural institutions including Geva Theatre Center, the George Eastman Museum and Garth Fagan Dance; up-and-coming arts groups like PUSH Physical Theatre and Method Machine; and higher-education partners such as the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology. The not-for-profit organization's overarching mission is to provide a platform for artists to share their ideas and develop their skills while also offering unparalleled public access to the arts. It strives to be diverse and inclusive, and to stimulate downtown Rochester both culturally and economically.

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