30 years of Orlando Fringe memories: 2020, the 29th festival (sort of)

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Matthew J. Palm, Orlando Sentinel
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Back in 2016, I celebrated the 25th Orlando Fringe Festival in a series of articles detailing each year of the theater fest leading up to the milestone. This year, to honor the 30th installment of the oldest Fringe Festival in the U.S., we’ll continue that series with a column each month leading to the big 3-0 in May. Here’s the final installment before next week’s preview of this year’s festival.

The 2020 Orlando Fringe Festival was — wait, there wasn’t a festival in 2020 — except, hold on, there kind of was.

Like so much of regular life, the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled usual plans — so there was no in-person gathering in Loch Haven Park. Yet first-year festival producer Lindsay Taylor was determined that the spirit of the Fringe would go on.

You read that right: The Fringe had a new producer who was immediately faced with a once-in-a-lifetime (we hope) pandemic. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s go back to July 2019, when following the success of that year’s fest, the Fringe announced producer Michael Marinaccio would be moving to a new role focusing on the organization’s special events. Replacing Marinaccio, who had produced the festival since 2011, was Lindsay Taylor — no stranger to Fringe as she was the current associate producer.

The personnel change was followed by location changes. In September, The Venue had its last hurrah. The Ivanhoe neighborhood theater, owned by Fringe stalwart Blue Star, served as a festival location for years. The structure would be demolished at year’s end, part of a neighborhood redevelopment project.

Star’s still a big part of the Fringe. Her newest venture, the restaurant and performance space called Haos on Church, will host shows during the 2021 festival — and Star’s VarieTease troupe will stage a new production.

If The Venue was lost, a new location was found: Orlando Fringe and Orlando Ballet announced plans to use the dance company’s new headquarters, just a short walk from the Fringe campus as a second festival hub.

But, as it turned out, Harriett’s Orlando Ballet Centre wasn’t needed. Or any of the Fringe venues, for that matter.

In March, as the entertainment industry shut down while the world hunkered down to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus, the Fringe canceled its festival, which had taken place annually since 1992.

“I am heartbroken,” wrote Taylor in the announcement. “We believe this is the most prudent course so the festival can come back strong next year.”

But just a few weeks later, an online substitute was taking shape: Fringe Today.

The digital festival “kind of came out of nowhere,” Taylor said at the time. “We’re just having fun with it. It’s better than being sad for two weeks.”

She tried to set expectations low: “Let go of the feeling that this has to be just like Fringe,” Taylor said. “It’s not going to be.”

And yet … before long, Fringe Today was a whole lot like the in-person festival — minus the parking headaches.

Fringe Today had two full weeks of programming. There were online Kids’ Fringe activities and Visual Fringe art classes. Fringe bartenders taught viewers how to make cocktails (drinking along at home was strongly encouraged).

Familiar faces like Tymisha Harris of “Josephine” and Chase Padgett of “Superman Drinks” appeared in recordings of their shows or in real-time via livestreaming. Past award-winners, such as Willi Carlisle of “There Ain’t No More: Death of a Folksinger,” provided new entertainment.

The oddball Fringe vibe could be felt through the screens: DK Reinemer riffed on the same song for an hour in a bizarrely entertaining show. Jon Bennett performed his perfectly described “A Young Man Dressed as a Gorilla Dressed as an Old Man Sits Rocking in a Rocking Chair for Fifty-Six Minutes and Then Leaves.” The online comments were a comedy show in themselves.

All in all, the Fringe’s 29th not-exactly-a-festival was considered a success.

Orlando Weekly critic Seth Kubersky and I certainly thought so. At the closing ceremony, we gave our Critics’ Choice Award … to ourselves, for appearing on an interview show with Taylor. As Kubersky said, “When will we ever have this chance again?”

More seriously, I singled out two acts for particular acclaim: The Fourth Wall, of “Fruit Flies Like a Banana” fame, and Theatre Group Gumbo, beaming in from Japan. Both were able to use the digital format to enhance the strengths of their performances.

“This pandemic may change how we do things, but it’s not going to change who we are,” said Orlando Fringe executive director Alauna Friskics at the closing ceremony. “Our stories still need to be heard.”

And the Fringe kept providing a way for artists to tell them. First at January’s Winter Mini-Fest, with patrons seated in outdoor, physically distanced groups communally watching performances projected to almost scary heights on the side of the Lowndes Shakespeare Center. And just ahead, with a festival in which a limited number of patrons will sit among cardboard cutouts to keep them separated, performers will be masked, and Fringe volunteers will be checking temperatures.

If 30 years of ups and downs, record-setting highs and near-disastrous lows have taught us anything, it’s that not even a worldwide pandemic can stop the Fringe. And Central Florida is all the luckier for that.

To find links to the original 24 columns in this series on a single webpage, search “Orlando Sentinel Fringe Memories” on Google. The more recent columns are available at OrlandoSentinel.com/arts. Find me on Twitter @matt_on_arts or email me at mpalm@orlandosentinel.com.