On the fringe of arts and technology

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A. Sue Weisler

The Little Theatre will be center stage for many performances.

In an old freight elevator 
splattered with fading graffiti art, 

surrounded by a jungle of computer labs and hubs of student innovation, RIT professor Marla Schweppe rips a hole in the notion of RIT’s arts culture.

“A lot of people don’t think of the arts when they think of RIT,” says Schweppe, professor of 3-D digital graphics. “They think of technology.”

But it’s really the intertwining of technology, innovation and the arts that puts RIT on the fringe of Rochester’s art scene, says Schweppe as she steps off the elevator. So when a festival dedicated to the fringe sets up shop in town, RIT artists jump on the opportunity to be involved. RIT’s Division of Government and Community Relations is spearheading the coordination of the university’s participation, led by Meredith Smith, associate vice president.

“They’ve totally embraced this,” says festival producer Erica Fee. “I think RIT has really brought this inventive nature to the Fringe Festival. They are really pushing the rest of us.”

The First Niagara Rochester Fringe Festival takes place Sept. 19-23 in Rochester’s East End district and surrounding area. For Schweppe and other RIT participants, the opportunity can’t come fast enough.

The wide variety of performances includes one-act plays, satirical rap groups, comedians, aerial dance performances and even a computer playing improvisational jazz.

More than 180 performances of 120 shows will take place across Rochester, and the RIT community will be involved in more than 20 of those performances and exhibits.

What is a fringe festival?

Fringe festivals arose from a group of performers and artists who were not selected to take part in the juried Edinburgh International Festival in Scotland in 1948. The group didn’t believe in the juried selection and decided to perform at venues not included in the festival but on the “fringe”—so began the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Fast forward more than 50 years and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the largest arts festival in the world—larger than the more mainstream international event, according to Fee, who has produced shows at the festival. There are now more than 200 fringe festivals in the world, including New York International Fringe Festival, New Orleans Fringe Festival and Toronto Fringe Festival—and now Rochester.

A steering committee comprised of faculty and staff from RIT charted the course for RIT’s participation in the festival. Schweppe jumped at the chance to help.

“I think the opportunity to show our work and what we can do is so great,” Schweppe says.

In fringe fashion, most venues and performers will produce their own shows. Official venues include George Eastman House, the Nexstage at Geva Theatre Center, and Hatch Recital and Kilbourn Hall at the Eastman School of Music. RIT’s shows will be held at The Little Theatre on East Avenue for three days. Additionally, Gallery r on College Avenue in Rochester will host several exhibits including video installations and interactive pieces from RIT.

Leading the faces of fringe

In Schweppe’s studio in the basement of Frank E. Gannett Hall, she tinkers with lights and circuit boards to be used in art installations. It’s one part mad scientist, one part master artist.

Schweppe’s big performance will be a collaboration among several members of the local arts community. Eastman School of Music professor Stephen Kennedy will improvise on a restored 1790 organ inside Christ Church while dancers from FuturPointe Dance improvise in movement. Meanwhile, Schweppe and her 3-D Digital Design students improvise graphics projected onto the organ and dancers.

In addition to four performances, Schweppe will be putting on a fashion show highlighting her wearable technology. She will show festivalgoers how flying birds, fireflies, invisibility and blinking lights can accessorize clothing.

Technology meets art

Al Biles, professor of interactive games and media, believes RIT’s focus on technology and 
innovation makes its arts programs exceptionally diverse and obscure—putting it in sync with fringe culture.

“It’s not technology or arts—they are the same thing,” Biles says. 

Biles knows technology—and he knows music. Biles, a trumpet player, will be performing at the Fringe Festival with his project Gen Jam. 

Biles, whose background is in writing software, created Gen Jam as an interactive performance system in 1993. His band mate is a computer. It improvises along with Biles, using software to apply music theory such as inversion and harmonization to Biles’ notes. 

“As a side man, Gen Jam is pretty formidable,” he says. 

The Fringe Festival isn’t just for faculty and staff at RIT. Its students are, by definition, fringe. 

“Arts and theater culture has been overlooked at RIT, but it is one of its hidden gems,” says Brittany Remington, vice president and marketing director for the RIT Players, one of the many theatrical troupes performing at the Fringe Festival. “It comes as a shock to some people to think that the computer science major or electrical engineer just gave a stunning Shakespeare performance because we are often stereotyped as not wanting to be involved in the arts. But that is not true.”

The RIT Players will be performing four short one-act plays, all written by members of the group. 

In addition to RIT’s shows and performances, there are a host of other entertainment options. Headliners at the First Niagara Rochester Fringe Festival include comedian Patton Oswalt, the Harlem Gospel Choir and aerial dance company Bandaloop, which will be dangling from the side of the local First Niagara headquarters in Rochester for its dance performance.

Additional highlights include a performance by Dangerous Signs presenting an exploration of African-American, deaf and original poetry fusion using music, dance, mime and spoken word; visual art installations; and a variety of films by students and faculty from RIT’s School of Film and Animation.

Adds Fee: “I think people will be blown away at the depth of performances.” 

If You Go…

First Niagara Rochester 
Fringe Festival 
When: Sept. 19-23
Where: Rochester’s East End; various 
locations throughout the city

For a complete list of performances, go to