Erica Fee is the founding producer and executive director of the Rochester Fringe Festival, which celebrated its ninth year in September 2020 and is now one of the most-attended fringe festivals in the United States and the largest multidisciplinary performing arts festival in New York State. Before returning to her hometown to found Rochester Fringe, Erica lived in the UK for a decade, running her own London-based theatrical production and general management company. We welcome Erica as the newest member of MMIAM’s International Advisory Board.
What has your career trajectory been like that led you to your current role?
After graduating from university in the US, I went on to become an actor and earn an MA in Professional Acting from ArtsEd in London. I ended up getting cast in a show for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and just fell in love with it. I continued acting and studied producing through StageOne. I then became the first American to receive the StageOne Award for New Producers, which I ended up winning twice. As part of this award, I was mentored by the legendary West End and Broadway producer Paul Elliott, which gave me the opportunity to produce bigger shows and expand my career.
In 2009, I was on vacation in Rochester and I happened to remark to the head of the theatre department of the University of Rochester that I thought Rochester would be a great location for a fringe festival. He reported that the President of the University of Rochester had been working on just that concept for a year. One thing led to another and I wound up moving back to Rochester to get the festival off the ground.
The first festival was a huge success and it’s only grown since then. There are about 250 fringe festivals in the world now with the original Edinburgh Fringe Festival being by far the largest. A common misconception about Fringe is that it’s a traveling festival, when in reality each Fringe is independent and reflective of its own community.
What are you most excited about as the newest international committee member of the MMIAM program?
First off, I was so honored that Francois Colbert, the co-director of the MMIAM program, asked me to join that I immediately agreed. I believe that the collaborative nature of the arts is going to be what gets us out of this rough period and we have so much to learn from each other, so an international and collaborative program like MMIAM is very interesting for me.
What is the Rochester Fringe and how was it affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
This year has been a total nightmare for every arts organization. In January, I started following the developments in China and the world of medicine very closely. By February, I was suggesting to our board – and to others – that I thought our September festival would be in trouble. Of course, many people didn’t take me very seriously at first. We were hoping for a hybrid festival, but New York State law prevented any group over 50 people, even outdoors. This forced us to start assessing alternative strategies and we came to the conclusion that it all had to be virtual.
We quickly realized that the venues wouldn’t be able to curate the performances, which is one of the things that we usually take pride in as it’s how the Edinburgh Fringe does much of its curation. Instead, we would have to do open access curation, as all the other virtual fringes did this year. In the end, we had 170 productions, which was really quite an achievement.
There was a big learning curve for everyone. We shifted entirely into online format. This meant the shows were all on YouTube, Twitch, Vimeo, Zoom, or Facebook Live and everything from application to ticketing to viewing needed to be both planned and conducted online.
What are some of the strategies, tactics, or skills that other festivals can use to succeed despite today’s challenges?
You basically need to take your entire playbook and throw it out the window and accept that you will need a new playbook. Right now, things don’t work like they did in the past. Everything has changed. You need to have good sources, do lots of research, and talk to others.
Since we weren’t receiving information on reopening, or really any guidance on what life during COVID-19 would look like for the performing arts, we led two webinars with the Rochester Area Community Foundation to meet, discuss, and disseminate information to other arts organizations that also don’t know where to look. There were 350 organizations at the webinar including plenty from outside Rochester. It was so necessary that the National Endowment for the Arts told people to check it out and learn from it.
My top tip would be to become very familiar with science because it puts you at a strategic advantage. That way, you can communicate with medical and event safety professionals and you’ll be able to make the best-informed decisions even when information is lacking. A lot of organizations still think they are going to be able to open up fully in January and that’s just not the case. People have to realize that we probably won’t get back to normal until maybe this time next year so it’s best to start planning now. And, even then, “normal” will not be the same. We will be wearing masks and distancing for a long time to come. The first-generation vaccine is not going to solve *all* our problems.
If you could do it over again, what would you change about the event this year?
This year was a success, but it was also very difficult. As I’ve said, we had to change everything, and we often didn’t have enough time to properly test the solutions that we so badly needed. Even during the festival we had to continually make adjustments because everything was so new. Challenges arose that you would have never thought of before. An example is that there were quite a few people, not just one, that got their ticket in an email, printed it off, and then deleted the email with the link to the virtual event. Luckily VBO Ticketing worked with our development team to solve the problem, but how can you plan for things like that? Of course, we would have liked to test it all out, but we were all right down to the wire.
I want to be clear: 2021 is not going to be the same as 2019. I am certain that it will be hybrid (at least), but I am also certain that the digital aspect is now here to stay. Like it or loathe it, online productions allow for greater access and an increased audience pool. It will remain a component of both virtual festivals and regular programming moving forward.
By then the artist’s experience will also improve. This year was tough, but moving into 2021 the artists themselves will be better informed and more experienced with these types of productions so they’re more in control.
In the future there needs to be a bigger emphasis on audience education in terms of technology. Organizations need to produce content to teach people how to interact with their digital media. People like videos. They’re easy to consume and that’s how a lot of people get their information these days.
What do you think will be the long term effects of the coronavirus on arts and culture events?
At the end of the day, arts and culture venues were the first to close and will probably be the last to reopen. We’ve had very little guidance so it’s been up to us to try and assess how long everything will last. It has made me think more about how badly the arts need advocates. Arts organizations, especially in the US, often don’t advocate enough for themselves. This leaves us in a difficult position because during times like these, when art is so necessary, the funding and attention isn’t there.
Outdoor events are much safer than anything indoors. Most of our events could probably be done outdoors. We and other arts organizations need to be focusing on this format for 2021 since it’s safer for everyone and we want to make the visitors comfortable. It’s best to start planning now.
*Headshot credit: Matt DeTurck.