Sweaty venues roughly the size of a walk-in closet. Eye-catchingly daft titles. Lampposts all but sagging under the weight of promotional fliers. Drunken Shakespeare mash-ups and earnest solo shows. Volunteers shooing audiences onto the street in order to air out those closet-size venues before the next performance, and the one after that, and the one after that.
These are among the standard ingredients for fringe festivals, the multidisciplinary showcases that have become economic drivers in cities looking to replicate the pell-mell, “Wait, did I sleep last night?” energy of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland.
The Rochester Fringe Festival, which runs through Sept. 23 at 34 different venues, has all of the above features, with shows like “Shotspeare,” “A Jewish Woman Walks Into a Maloca” and “A Nerdy Gay Juggling Show” nestled alongside headliners like Garth Fagan Dance and Tig Notaro. And for this year’s iteration that list also includes acrobats and a grand piano dangling off a hot-air balloon.
Those last two attractions, both courtesy of the French company Cirque Inextremiste, point to one aspect that sets the nonprofit Rochester Fringe apart from similar festivals: a commitment to free spectacles that have in the past lured crowds of 15,000. “Nobody else has these huge free public events, at least not in the United States,” said Xela Batchelder, the executive director of Fringe University, which sets up college classes at fringe festivals in Edinburgh and elsewhere.
Past iterations have featured Bandaloop dancers rappelling down a 21-story skyscraper, the white-knuckle choreography of Streb Extreme Action, and an all-but-unclassifiable street parade of enormous fish puppets courtesy of the French troupe Plasticiens Volants.
“We’ve gotten pretty good at working with the Rochester Police Department,” said Erica Fee, artistic director of the festival, which in just 12 years has become one of the country’s more prominent fringe events. (While the sheer number of performances and venues can make precise bookkeeping tricky, Batchelder estimates a total number of audience members and paid tickets comparable to those of more established festivals in Hollywood, Orlando and Philadelphia.) “But working out the logistics for a 60-foot whale puppet was a new one for everyone.”
Among the complications for this year’s festival? “Exit,” a new Cirque Inextremiste work stemming from the company’s residency in a Nantes mental hospital, in which aerialists perform stunts using that hot-air balloon. Fee, who frequently travels to Europe in search of Fringe-worthy pieces, saw the piece in southern France in 2019 and immediately booked it for the 2020 festival. But Covid and then Covid-related travel restrictions prevented “Exit” from making the trip to upstate New York until now. This Friday and Saturday it will serve as the centerpiece of a variety of events in downtown Rochester’s Parcel 5 outdoor space.
Unfortunately, Parcel 5 sits just a few feet atop an underground garage, which makes digging stanchions for a hot-air balloon tricky. And the dangling grand piano was far less contentious than a much smaller stage prop, according to Yann Ecauvre, the Cirque Inextremiste artistic director.
“It is forbidden to have a gun on the stage here. I thought, ‘But this is the U.S. There are guns everywhere here,’” Ecauvre said. “So now we use a banana gun.”
Even with the balloon tethered for the duration of “Exit,” the elements play a major role on any given night. “It’s like two different shows depending on whether it is windy,” Ecauvre said. “If the wind is a monster one night, we just have to tame it.”
Fee said that sort of flexibility comes with the Fringe territory, especially in the wake of the logistical headaches that came with planning a virtual Fringe during the pandemic.
“We still have to plan four festivals at once,” she said. “Having lived through Covid and done an online festival, that mentality will probably never go away.”
Batchelder of Fringe University says this mentality has helped fringe festivals, which typically have less fixed overhead and more topical programming, survive and even thrive in the post-pandemic cultural landscape. “They are nimbler in terms of advance planning, and they can often do better when these other groups struggle.”
Even the seemingly more staid offerings require some legwork. Take “Monuments,” the latest iteration of the Australian artist Craig Walsh’s outdoor installations. As he has done around the world over the past 30 years, Walsh filmed the faces of three Rochesterians — among them the Seneca/Haudenosaunee storyteller Ronnie Reitter — and is projecting them as ephemeral monuments on three trees in downtown Rochester each night of the festival.
“We had to audition trees!” Fee said.