What fuels the Fringe

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With the Rochester Fringe, Erica Fee is the founding festival producer and CEO, hopes to sustain and grow a vibrant performing arts ecosystem. (Photo courtesy of the Rochester Fringe)

It has been about 14 years since Erica Fee left London to return to her hometown. While it was risky to leave behind her production company, the move has landed Fee at the helm of one of the three largest fringe festivals in the United States, and the largest multidisciplinary performing arts festival in New York.

“I felt that I was in the right place at the right time and I knew it,” says Fee, founding festival producer and CEO of the Rochester Fringe Festival.

The Rochester Fringe Festival is preparing for its 12th season. Slated for Sept. 12-23, with more than 500 performances across 31 venues, shows include everything from comedy to live music, dance and theater. Since the festival’s inception in 2012, nearly 670,000 people have attended more than 4,500 performances by regional, national and international artists, organizers say.

“We’re really looking to ensure that we have a vibrant performing arts scene here in Rochester,” Fee says. 

History of the Fringe

The original Fringe Festival was held unofficially in Edinburgh, Scotland, when smaller theater groups showed up to the 1947 Edinburgh International Festival uninvited and performed at unconventional venues on the fringe of the festival. 

The Edinburgh Fringe has now surpassed the International Festival, becoming the largest performing arts festival in the world. There are now hundreds of such festivals worldwide. 

The Edinburgh Fringe marks a victory in arts ecosystems and arts access. Bill Taylor, writing in the Harvard Business Review, called it “an entertaining case study in the power of grassroots innovation and open-source creativity, a positive symbol of how unchecked human energy, shaped by a few simple rules, can unleash truly amazing results.”

Fee’s experience with Fringe started at the Edinburgh festival both as an actor and with her production company.

“That’s how I fell in love with the Edinburgh Fringe actually, by being in a very successful show at Edinburgh and then directing and then producing,” Fee says. 

A challenge

When Fee returned to Rochester on break, she asked the head of the theater department at the University of Rochester why a Rochester Fringe did not exist. As it turned out, then-UR president Joel Seligman had been working toward a new performing arts festival in Rochester.

She met with Seligman and some stakeholders.

Mark Costello, board chair and partner at Boylan Code LLP, who was at that meeting, fondly remembers Fee bringing a similar stack of guides from the Edinburgh Fringe that he had brought back from his visit. That was the genesis of the Rochester Fringe, Costello says, who at the time was also keen to create a Fringe here.

“I wound up throwing my hat into the ring and said to President Seligman, ‘If you want to (do a) Fringe Festival, I want to come back and run it immediately,’” Fee recalls. 

A UR alum, Fee earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and American history. Her graduate degree in acting is from Arts Educational Schools London. Fee’s acting, producing, and directing credits range in genre, medium, and scale. Her profile has led to her selling out nightly shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, and two New Producer’s Awards from Society of London Theatre’s StageOne. She was the first American to receive this award. 

Fee calls her offer to run the Rochester Fringe a “calculated risk.” She believes it is important not to be blinded by a specific plan, but to be open to new opportunities. 

“I do not agree with the whole idea of a five-year plan,” Fee says. “I think that you have to be open to possibilities, and you have to be open to change.” 

Efforts to organize the Rochester Fringe were led by her alma mater, until the Rochester Fringe Festival became a nonprofit corporation in 2011. A small team, including attorney Justin Vigdor,  led the effort, raised funds  and local colleges and universities, including UR, came on board as partners. The first season of the festival took place in September 2012. 

When UR invited Fee as a commencement speaker in 2016, Seligman noted that “in just a few short years the festival has become one of Rochester’s and the region’s most anticipated events. Through her vision and dedication, she is furthering the aspiration of Rochester to be a city of festivals.”

Cutting edge and explorative

In the spirit of the original Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Rochester Fringe Festival emphasizes the cutting edge and the explorative, creating an arts ecosystem that is accessible and diverse. Access to the arts is a priority, Fee says.

“Unlike other festivals locally, we are a nonprofit. So, part of our mission is to bring new people into the arts,” she says. “We are trying to provide varying high-quality experiences to people regardless of their socioeconomic status.”

Some 118 Fringe performances this year are free, including France’s Cirque Inextremiste with a U.S. debut of their spectacle performance “Exit” at Parcel 5. The show involves acrobats hanging off of a full-sized hot air balloon, and a suspended grand piano. 

“That is what sets Rochester apart,” Fee says of the local festival’s model. “It’s these free public shows in public space. These are incredible spectacle-type performances; they’re the sort of performances you would normally see at an international festival. Oftentimes, these are shows that are only being seen in Rochester.”

The Rochester Fringe Festival follows a bifurcated model, with some of the performances curated by the festival organizers, and some of the performances curated by the venues. Artists can apply to perform at any of the Fringe locations. Headline acts, like comedian Tig Notaro’s appearance this year, are booked by the festival.

Since the venues choose their own programming, they can foster an audience and community. Venues also report higher attendance numbers following the Fringe. For instance, the Multi-Use Community Cultural Center reported a 50 percent increase in attendance after its first year at the Fringe. 

“Part of our mission as a festival is to get new blood into venues because we want our arts ecosystem to thrive and to do that we need to introduce new audiences to venues,” Fee says. “Often what we see with the festival is that venues are attracting new and different people.”

The Rochester Fringe Festival also fuels the artistic communities in Rochester by connecting them.

“The festival really helps the arts ecosystem because we’re introducing groups to each other,” Fee says.“The groups are finding each other and we are just so thrilled by the results because generally our audiences want something new, they want something different.”

Fee recounts 2012’s “Spirits Within,” which brought together FuturPointe Dance, the Eastman School of Music, and Rochester Institute of Technology’s Imaging Arts and Sciences for a show that combined dance, music and projection—all improvised.

“It was just the most incredible collaboration. They had never worked together before, but they did it for Fringe,” Fee says. 

Missy Pfohl Smith, a choreographer and collaborative artist who directs the program of dance and movement and the Institute for the Performing Arts at UR, has been performing at the Fringe since it began here. The contemporary repertory company Biodance, where she is artistic director, has performed each year.

“We get people coming out who wouldn’t normally come out and see our work or who just wouldn’t even hear about our work,” Smith says. “The power of that is kind of unparalleled. Aside from that, it’s also the only time of year that we have the potential, particularly in dance, but I think across the board in the arts, (to) get our work reviewed.”

Those reviews are critical to artists who want to take their work elsewhere.

“It’s one of the only times that the performing arts is really celebrated, and in such a robust way, in the city. … You get to see other people’s work, both local people, but also people coming in,” Smith says. “So, you’re kind of broadening your perspectives a little bit.”

Breaking a record

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Fringe to go remote, hosting over 170 online productions. Since then, the festival has returned in-person, but the pandemic has had a lasting impact. Federal support for the performing arts from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act has ended, leaving performing arts organizations without aid.

“People are still more comfortable with outdoor performances,” Fee says. “It definitely has not become easier. If anything for the arts, it’s become harder to get funding and our costs have escalated.”

Fee hopes that the Festival will return to the record-breaking attendance numbers of 2019, which had more than 100,000 attendees. 

“The Rochester Fringe Festival is definitely putting money into the pockets of shows and acts and venues,” she says. “Of course, we’ve been hit incredibly hard by the pandemic. But what local residents must remember is that New York State closed performing arts and festivals for the longest.”

Typically, fringe festivals offer opportunities for artists that are off the beaten path. The economic impact of these events are hard to pin down. The first economic impact study on the Orlando Fringe, the longest-running fringe festival in the U.S., notes that it generated $1.46 million in audience spending.

The Rochester Fringe’s economic impact hasn’t been studied yet. The Rochester Area Community Foundation has commissioned a new Americans for the Arts Study, which is  expected to be released later this year.

Costello credits the success of the Rochester Fringe to a combination of business acumen and the support of arts organizations and their leadership. For instance, Vigdor was instrumental in raising funds. He finds that business experience and fundraising are critical to any festival.

Add Fee’s drive, talent and focus, and it makes a recipe for success, he says.

The festival receives significant support from grants. Sponsors include New York State Council on the Arts; the city of Rochester, UR, Monroe County, Ames Amzalak Memorial Trust; Daisy Marquis Jones Foundation, Rochester Area Community Foundation, ESL Foundation and many others.

Fee did not provide details of the support and number of grants received so far this year. The process is ongoing, she says.

In its financial statements dated Oct. 31, 2022, the Rochester Fringe reported total net assets of $446,203 compared with $496,195 the year before. Gifts, grants and contributions in 2022 totaled $780,817, up from $655,292 the previous year. It received $319,737 in pandemic government funding and generated $216,597 in ticket revenue and $140,499 in concession and merchandise sales. Total support and revenue was $1,431,887, up from $1,389,991 in 2021.

The Fringe reported total expenses of $1,481,879, with program services accounting for $1,172,668 or 79 percent. Among program service expenses, the biggest line items were talent fees ($225,823), advertising ($207,938), salaries ($145,561) and staging, lighting, and sound ($189,511).

Reflecting the community

Fringe festivals become a reflection of the communities they reside in due to their grassroots nature and their locality. Fee says Rochester’s strong arts community and its rich artistic heritage contribute to the success of the Rochester Fringe. 

“If you compare us to other cities, we have an incredible amount of professionals who are living here and are touring the United States and they’re using Rochester as their base,” Fee says. “Did I know that it would (be successful)? No. Did I think that we had some of the great conditions that would make a festival like this successful? Yes.”

The Fringe Festival is made possible by the community. The venues, organizers and artists craft a festival experience that is both successful and unique to Rochester. Fee stresses that the festival would not be successful without the partnered venues, and its board of directors. 

“I really bristle sometimes when people say to me during the festival, ‘Congratulations, you’ve done such a great job.’ Well, yes, but it’s a team effort. There are no stars here, we are all working together to move up the ladder,” Fee says.

The Rochester Fringe has a 13-member board, and more than 300 staff and volunteers combined help put on the show. This year, 1,800 Fringe creative individuals are involved, including actors, performers, musicians, stage managers, directors, technicians and producers.

Goals for the future include establishing a structure to attract national and international artists with ease. Immigration can be a challenge, Costello says.

“When we bring artists in … the headaches we have helping them with a visa, it’s mind boggling,” he says.

A system that helps these artists come to town and live here briefly would go a long way. Most artists who perform at the Fringe don’t make a profit—after splitting ticket sales with venues, advertising, insurance and other expenses, Costello says.

“People don’t realize that. So, having a structure in place that would support more artists coming in from out of town, and from out of the country, would be great,” he says.

Preparation for next year’s Fringe Festival has already begun, even though this year’s festival hasn’t started yet. Organizing an arts festival of more than 500 performances and thousands of expected attendees is hard work, and Costello says the work continues year round.

For Fee, the increased access to the arts that the Fringe Festival brings remains a driving force.

“When we have the festival and we see the joy on people’s faces, we see the increase in community self-esteem and we see the access that these artists are being given,” she says. “That is heartening, and that’s totally what motivates me.”

Jess Williams is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and a student at Ithaca College. Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

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