- Brian Feldman Projects
By their very nature, fringe theater festivals are about taking creative risks. In a world where live theater of any kind has been in a state of flux, that experimental spirit has turned into a necessity.
In summer 2020—with the COVID-19 pandemic in its second wave—the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival opted for an all-virtual presentation that ultimately featured 40 productions. But while the increase in vaccinations and general decrease in case counts made live productions an option for 2021, GSL Fringe co-directors Shianne Gray and Jay Perry decided that this year's installment would be a hybrid model, with a lineup that includes 35 live productions and 16 virtual presentations.
Looking back on the creation of the 2020 festival, Gray acknowledges with a laugh, "It's all a blur. I have no memory of last year. I would say my expectations [for the 2020 festival] were fairly low, not in a negative way, but just not knowing what it would be like. We just wanted to have something."
Perry adds, "We took some inspiration from other fringes that were happening around the country, and saw how others were reacting. It's cool to be part of that larger community of fringe, to come up with solutions. As artists do, they just found a way."
The way that they found included a mix of pre-recorded and live shows, some that featured audience interaction and others that didn't. Without the traditional opportunity to gauge audience response afforded by live shows, the festival depended on feedback mechanisms like chat boxes during the shows, Venmo tips for the performers and after-the-fact feedback from members of the community. "Artists reached out and said audiences were loving it," Gray recalls.
The artists themselves also appreciated the opportunity—not just to have some outlet for their work, or for a presentation format that was safe for audiences and performers, but for a way to participate in a Utah-based theater festival for creators around the country. "Being able to perform virtually is literally the only reason why it's possible for me to be part of 30 fringe festivals this year," says Washington, D.C.-based Brian Feldman, who participated in the 2020 Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival with #txtshow and returns this year with VFF. "It significantly brings down the cost barriers to participation, primarily travel-related, and challenges artists to be even more creative in solving problems that would never arise with in-person performances."
So as the process for planning the 2020 GSL Fringe proceeded through the uncertainty of early spring 2021 regarding what would be safe and practical, Gray and Perry settled on a format that would be welcoming to artists like Feldman preferring to participate remotely, as well as to anyone who might still be unsure about attending live theater. The virtual presentations take on a variety of different formats—some live, some on-demand, some free, and others with a ticket cost, depending on the individual artists. Perry notes, "After last year, we got a lot of feedback, and virtual will probably be with us for a while now."
"It's easy to add on to what we'd usually do," Gray says.
That "what we'd usually do" is live theater, of course, and it's exciting for everyone involved in live shows to get back to artists and audiences sharing a space together. Perry—who manages the Alliance Theater space in Trolley Square—recalls attending a dance performance in February, and remembering the power of that collective experience. "I remember myself and the whole audience having this collective sigh: We're together again, experiencing something that's stirring us," he says. "What's easy to take for granted is togetherness. As much as we've tried to do that virtually, being in person feels so good."
Both Perry and Gray are careful to note that safety considerations are at the forefront of the live performances. Great Salt Lake Fringe is requiring masks of all patrons for all indoor performances. They have also implemented special policies so that individuals with accessibility needs can make special requests for accommodations, including early seating.
As Gray observes, however, a fringe theater festival is in some ways an ideal format for anyone still in the "dip a toe in" process of returning to public spaces, with the short running times of the productions (usually an hour or less) and smaller audience sizes. "Audiences of 12-15 people are pretty typical; it's kind of micro-theater," she says. "You're not going to sit in a huge stadium or a huge concert hall."
Whether in live or virtual form, it will be intriguing to see how artists have processed the experience of the past year, whether directly or in themes that might feel more relevant. "I'm very interested to know what artists have been doing," Perry says. "It's been really stressful and traumatic for all of us, but also a time where certainly I've been reflecting and writing. We're having a different look at the world we're in."