TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — A worldwide shutdown of live theater and concerts kept audiences big and small from seeing great performances. It also left local artists without an opportunity to share their stories.
Among the many performances coming to stages in Tucson, one yearly spectacle borrowed the philosophy and mission of the Fringe Festival.
For the past 10 years, festival leaders in Southern Arizona have followed the template perfected in Edinburgh, Scotland. They've invited under-represented storytellers to step onto a platform without fear of formal criticism from their peers or censorship from more traditional venues.
The COVID-19 pandemic felt like a curtain drop out of the blue on the festival, and in 2021, the artists who signed up to perform took their talents to a virtual stage. This year's shows, which go from Jan. `13-16, will be a mix of in-person and online storytelling through the video-chat app Zoom.
Before that can even happen, the artists have to memorize their movements and lines.
Inside the Circus Academy of Tucson, Sunday rehearsals consisted of acrobats practicing their contortion routines, while high-flying aerial silk artists ran through their own showcase. Circus director Katherine Tesch said ever since her company started performing in the festival, they've felt like a natural fit in the environment.
"It gives us a chance to experiment and do some things that are a little different," she said.
Tesch said she personally cannot wait to connect with a live audience, and she hopes her students can recognize that same feeling.
"There's definitely an energetic exchange that happens between the performers and the audience that you just don't get when you're doing it on Zoom," she said.
Elsewhere in town, technical crews turned the lights back on inside the Screening Room in downtown Tucson anticipating a crowd of fervent fans of Fringe.
This year, the festival had asked guests to wear face masks inside the theaters, as well as show proof of vaccination or a negative test within 72 hours of the festival. Amid growing numbers of Omicron-driven cases, some shows have been asked to move to another medium.
Actress Grace Waldrip had prepared to share her own play on the stage at the ATC Temple of Music and Art Cabaret Theater. Moving forward into the weekend, she will still perform through a screen, and it's not a new experience for her to connect with a live-streaming audience.
"You don't quite know what they were cheering for," she said. "It's just hard and so it's a little nerve-wracking to think, 'Oh, I'm going to do that again,'" she said in an interview before learning she'd ultimately have to switch to a virtual show.
Her high school teacher, Maryann Green, had planned on being in the audience to watch Waldrip transform into a princess hired for birthday parties. Green, the Fringe Festival director, hoped to have done the same for all the artists who originally signed on to perform.
"Our performers are just so eager to get back on stage in front of a live audience... (whether that's) a live, masked, physically distance audience, they don't care," Green said. "They just want to be doing what they love to do again."
Green said even with a pared down list of venues for this year's festival, she and her team took lessons from 2021 to at least offer a way for all audiences to connect with the artists.
"We were also able to pull some of that virtual performance from last year's experience, so really, this is kind of the best of both worlds," she said.
Back at the Circus Academy, Tesch said she's optimistic audiences will give their best effort to support the local performing arts community. "I feel like people are pretty eager to start seeing shows."
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