The History of the Rochester Fringe Festival
by Jenna R Warren | published Oct. 25th, 2021
Visual and performing arts acts from RIT have long been a part of the Rochester Fringe Festival, an annual arts festival spanning several days in venues throughout the city. The Rochester Fringe prides itself on constant evolution and on its continuous growth over the years. By contrast, RIT values the reliability and consistency of its presence at the annual Fringe.
The Evolution of the Rochester Fringe
The Fringe Festival was conceptualized in Edinburgh in 1947 and then formalized in 1958. Nowadays, Fringe Festivals take place all over the world, focusing on inclusivity and on showcasing a wide variety of art.
Erica Fee, the Founding Festival Producer and CEO of the Rochester Fringe, explained that she "fell in love with the Edinburgh Fringe" when she performed there in 2001. A few years later, she brought the idea of the Fringe Festival back to Rochester.
The planning for the first Rochester Fringe Festival began around 2008 and the first festival debuted in 2012 under Fee’s leadership. Since then, the Rochester Fringe has grown in popularity and impact.
Fee estimated that “it has grown from a festival of about 30,000 attendees which was a five day festival in 2012 to a hundred thousand attendees in 2019.” Fee also explained two goals of the Rochester Fringe.
One is being able to “connect Rochester audiences with art forms that they might not otherwise encounter,” and another is being able to “inject some new blood into our venues so that they can sustain themselves year round.”
The Fringe seems to be fulfilling these goals. Kara Osipovitch, the City of Rochester Special Events Manager, explained that before the Rochester Fringe’s debut in 2012, Rochester had not had an arts festival.
“Rochester is a city of the arts with no lack of venue space and no lack of artists and performers,” Osipovitch emphasized. To her, the Fringe “has really cracked open the possibilities” for performing and visual arts in the city.
“Rochester is a city of the arts with no lack of venue space and no lack of artists and performers.”
The Rochester Fringe’s “bifurcated” model has also had some influence on other Fringe Festivals.
Fee explained that, in this model, the festival organizers curate a few headliner shows “in the hopes that people will attend those shows and filter to other shows.” She noted that the efficacy of this tactic has led other Fringe Festivals to consider emulating this model.
RIT at the Fringe
At the annual Fringe Festival, RIT focuses on presenting a reliably family-friendly show and giving a platform for visual and performing artists affiliated with RIT, including students, faculty, and alumni.
RIT’s relationship with the Little Theatre, established at the first Rochester Fringe, has become a sort of symbiotic one — the Little Theatre provides exclusive space for RIT’s shows during the Fringe Festival and, in return, gains exposure through the audience RIT brings.
RIT aims to create a wide-ranging, immersive experience of performing and visual art forms.
Lynn Rowoth, associate vice president of Community Relations and Special Events at RIT, and Lori Gentile, technical and financial analyst of Government and Community Relations at RIT, pointed out the variety in RIT’s lineup this year, including a capella groups, improv groups, theater groups and other types of performances. They also gave credit to the interpreting services provided for a sampling of these shows.
Rowoth and Gentile also explained that, in previous years, visual art was also displayed along the walls in the Little Theatre.
Rowoth summed up RIT’s intention for its presence at the Fringe in saying that “we give an opportunity to people who want to try out their talent.” To this end, RIT also emphasizes the reliable affordability and family-friendliness of its shows at the Fringe to help bring in an audience to witness the performers' talents.
Gentile explained that the audience who attends RIT’s Fringe Festival shows is “mostly families and the Rochester community,” and she emphasized that's “what makes RIT unique and what people know us for is that all our shows are free.”
"What makes RIT unique and what people know us for is that all our shows are free."
The Fringe and COVID-19
COVID-19 put shows and festivals worldwide into jeopardy, including the Rochester Fringe Festival. Instead of shutting down completely during 2020, the Rochester Fringe held a fully virtual festival.
While Fee emphasized that "it was actually extremely difficult to pivot to an online festival,” the virtual show allowed the Fringe to continue its tradition of showcasing a wide variety of acts — totaling over 400 shows last year — and allowed an audience from all over the world to attend. To continue providing access to this wider audience, Fee believes that virtual events may become a long lasting feature of the Fringe.
This year’s Fringe had to account for a new set of COVID-19 related restrictions, including the requirement that indoor venues require proof of vaccination. The 2021 Rochester Fringe included a combination of in-person and virtual performances — with about 10 percent of the performances being virtual — continuing to provide offerings accessible to a wide range of audiences.
Fee admitted that the increased accessibility of the virtual offerings has “been one small silver lining of the pandemic."
However, Osipovitch hopes the Fringe will continue to host in-person events to create a community experience.
She praises the Fringe’s approach to the 2020 festival with how “they stuck to their mission even in a very difficult year.” But, she values the “vitality and connection that the Fringe brings downtown,” and hopes the Fringe will continue to thrive in-person in Rochester.
While RIT did participate in the virtual Fringe in 2020, Rowoth and Gentile believe that RIT’s performances will stick with the in-person modality in the future. They hope to return to how RIT ran their shows at the Fringe in previous years by including more visual art and using the full capacity of the Little Theatre once again.
Rowoth noted the value in the consistency of RIT's presence, saying that “in a world that’s constantly changing, I think if there is a constant, that’s not a bad thing.”