Unruffling The Fringe: Oregon Fringe Festival Returns Bigger and Bolder
Sure, COVID has blanketed stage performances with storm clouds, but a silver lining for the performing arts has been than costs for presenting shows has been dramatically reduced—specifically, producing virtual festivals has been remarkable for the savings offered by eliminating travel expenses. (Right? Let’s find some positive spin!) With a few clicks on a computer keyboard, viewers are able to drop in on performances in Paris, Portland or Nashville, Tennessee.
It is nothing particularly new in our digital age, however, the past year has rapidly evolved the production quality and presentation of virtual music concerts and stage performances—and this year, the annual Oregon Fringe Festival is able to deliver acts and performances from London, Chicago and Los Angeles, all without sponsoring airfare and lodging for the performers.
Started by Southern Oregon University students in 2014, OFF joins a decades-old tradition (and non-traditional style) of other so-called fringe festivals, presenting a grab bag of stage, dance and artist whatnots—and doing so with the same giddy delight as going to grab a meal at a pod of food carts; as an opportunity to shop and explore, to sample and try new tastes. Often, the performers at fringe festivals are not known commodities, which only adds to the thrill: The opportunity to experiment and jump into a performance with few expectations. It is a sentiment that OFF’s tagline underscores: “Expect the unexpected,” they promise.
Presented in the early spring, last year OFF called off their festival. The previous year, in 2019, during “normal” times though, they were able to showcase 45 distinct, separate acts—and they have rebounded this year with more than 50 acts from 40 different artists. Organizer Paige Gerhard explains that, in spite of the virtual format, she has tried to maintain the giddy atmosphere for fringe festivals.
“Utilizing YouTube and Zoom,” she wrote in an email interview, “viewers have the opportunity to bounce back and forth between performances throughout the day, similar to a live festival experience in which you have to pick and choose what you’re interested in seeing.”
Gerhard added that the online format has provided some versatility in terms of presentation. “When planning this year’s festival,” she wrote, “I wanted to provide our audience with options in regards to how they interact with the creative arts virtually. For those who are busy and prefer something a little bit shorter in length, I decided to create a virtual gallery on our website titled, #artfromhome. With this, viewers have the opportunity to interact with a variety of content at their own leisure, ranging from music and dance performances, to audio podcasts, photography exhibits, and more.”
The furthest flung presenter for this year is from London, an autobiographical monologue production by Manisha Sondhi about her coming out. With little information about the performance, it is indeed jumping in blindfolded, but the short blurb offered tells audiences to “expect witty lines, music, make-up and glitter.” Slightly closer to home is Nelia Miller, an up-and-coming performance artist from Chicago who blends modern dance and spoken word for eerie and mesmerizing effect.
Another highlight for the festival is the presentation of NorCal Water Music, a clever blend of concert hall quality music with multimedia art installation, which, sure, sounds a lot like a high-minded way to explain a music video, and perhaps it is, but the effect is enchanting—and in this production, composer Derek Keller considers water management, which sounds rather bureaucratic but really is the polar opposite, a fluid and cosmic presentation. (Trust me. Just tune in and experience it!) Keller recently moved to Ashland and holds an Assistant Professor position at Southern Oregon University.
And, nestled into the national, and international, talent are a few home-grown productions; each holding its own in terms of quirkiness and cleverness. Ashland-based The Juvenilia Collective is a versatile and active performer, and for this performance shines a spotlight on American Girl Premiere, a dated (late 90s) DVD that, with some stumbles, attempted to bring the line of historical dolls into the digital age—a premise that promises humor, awkward historical insights and creepiness through its dated and wonky technology.
OFF will present various performances from Thursday, April 29 to Saturday, May 1. For information about “tuning in,” check outoregonfringefestival.org, including three live, in-person performances. Free.