LEADING WOMAN: Creating a Festival Like No Other

By on September 4, 2012
Erica Fee
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BY CAURIE PUTNAM | PHOTO BY JENNIFFER MERIDA

It was the morning of Erica Fee’s first performance in a play – “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic”– when the then first-grader broke her arm.

“I was so upset,” recalled Fee, now in her mid-thirties. “I didn’t want to go to the doctor because I knew they would say I couldn’t perform.”

Fee went to the doctor and made it to the play at Lois E. Bird Elementary School in East Rochester in time to deliver her one and only line.

“The show must go on!” Fee said.

Such tenacity and commitment to the stage has served Fee well over the years.

In 2006 she became the first American woman to win the Society of London Theatre’s prestigious honor for new producers, the Stage One Award. And, this month Fee, who grew up in Victor, will see two years of hard work come to fruition at the fledgling First Niagara Rochester Fringe Festival – which she is producing –premieres.

“There’s not anything like it in Rochester,” Fee said. “At a fringe, artists are given the freedom to stage their own work and venues and decide their own programing.”

Venues ranging from Rochester cultural “bastions” like the George Eastman House and Eastman Theatre, to younger but “dynamic” arts icons like Blackfriars Theatre and Black Radish Studio will host local and world-renown comedians, musicians, thespians, dancers, and visual artists like the Harlem Gospel Choir, The Bicycle Men, The Event, and Matt Griffo, from September 19 – 23.

While a fringe festival may be a new concept to Rochester, the first event of its kind dates back to 1947 when eight theatre groups showed up – uninvited – to perform at an established festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. The renegade groups found their own venues and were so popular their “fringe” festival continued the next year.

This Edinburgh Fringe, where Fee has performed, directed and produced now grosses $100 million annually and has grown from eight theatre groups in 1947 to 2,542 acts in 258 venues in 2011.

Fee’s experience with the Edinburgh Fringe – which she gained over a decade living, working, and studying acting in England at the prestigious Arts Educational Schools London—perfectly primed her for the role of producer of Rochester’s first fringe.

Working with Fee is a board of about twenty, including the festival’s chairman Justin Vigdor, Dr. Elaine Spaull, Dr. Sylvie Beaudette, Mike Calabrese, Nina Caruso, Mark A. Costello, Mark Cuddy, David Henderson, Dr. Grant Holcomb, Ruby Lockhart, Burton Speer, Deborah Stendardi, Darren Stevenson, Heidi Zimmer-Meyer, and Dr. Paul Burgett.

Dr. Burgett, the University of Rochester’s vice president and senior advisor to the president, has known Fee since she was an undergraduate at there.

Fee earned a B.A. in political science and history from the University in 1998 and was awarded a coveted spot as a ‘Take 5 Scholar’ – which she used to study theatre, film and anthropology for a year following graduation.

“As the University of Rochester’s dean of students, I remember Erica as an undergraduate and her organizational and personal qualities and strengths were in evidence then,” Burgett said.

Burgett has enjoyed watching Fee grow the Rochester Fringe Festival from a seedling idea born by university and community leaders to a major arts festival that will put Rochester on the fringe map.

“Erica has been brilliant in managing this First Rochester Fringe Festival ‘ship of state’ on its maiden voyage,” Burgett said. “She is patient, thoughtful, firm and she has a solid grasp on the myriad moving parts and infinite details of this exciting project.”

And, speaking of ‘moving parts,’ one of the acts performing at the Rochester Fringe Festival will be Project Bandaloop – a renowned aerial dance company from San Francisco that uses climbing technology to dance on buildings, mountains and bridges.

Project Bandaloop will be dancing on the side of the HSBC building on Thursday, September 20 during the fringe.

Indeed, there is nothing like it in Rochester.

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