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Orlando Fringe best exemplified the ingenuity shown by our artists in this pandemic year

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As we warm ourselves beside the dwindling embers of the dumpster fire that was 2020, it's difficult to remember anything positive about this past year, especially amid the devastation of Central Florida's cultural community. But despite bearing a disproportionate burden of COVID-19's economic impact, Orlando's artists and entertainers agilely adapted, inventing new ways of connecting to audiences despite social distancing and serving as beacons of hope — or at least desperately needed distractions — during the pandemic's darkest days.

After the initial shock of last spring's shutdown subsided, I discovered unexpected joy in watching how local performers adapted to our abnormal new normal.

Some enthusiastically embraced online streaming, leveraging Zoom to appear in scores of international festivals (Brian Feldman's #txtshow), or innovating new forms of virtual interactive theater (Phoenix Tears' Posthumous, Odd-o-Ts' Secret Library). Others found safe ways to bring audiences together in person, ranging from the reopened theme parks — where Universal Studios Florida debuted its blockbuster Bourne Stuntacular with masked actors and staggered seating — and local stages such as Sanford's Theater West End, to independent walk-through and drive-in productions like Creative City Project's Bright Young Things and Engram Dance Project's The Unraveling, which both had viewers roaming around downtown Orlando. Finally, a few poured their creative energy into activism, creating organizations like Greater Orlando Performing Arts Relief (gopar.org) and Central Florida Entertainment Advocacy (tinyurl.com/cfeafacebook), which I hope will continue crucial conversations long after our current crises have passed.

Perhaps no area organization exemplifies the dizzying pivots artists have been forced to perform better than the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival, which was among Orlando's earliest major arts events to go fully virtual back in May. Under the leadership of executive director Alauna McMillen and producer Lindsay Taylor, Orlando Fringe hosted nearly two solid weeks of daily streaming content, providing a financial lifeline for festival performers whose livelihoods were on lockdown. Since the summer, Fringe followed up with months of online workshops and performances spotlighting members of the BIPOC and transgender communities, then returned to in-person productions with December's outdoor reinterpretation of A Christmas Carol. Most importantly, Orlando Fringe, with some assistance from the Federal Paycheck Protection Program, managed to both stay solvent, and also keep the majority of its staff employed [full disclosure: including this writer's spouse].

Now, Fringe is here to help us shake off this hellish past year and welcome the new one with its fifth annual Winter Mini-Fest (ofwinterminifest.com), which kicks off Orlando's 2021 cultural calendar on Jan. 7-10. While "virtual" was the watchword for 2020, "hybrid" is now the name of the game, at least until vaccines are widely distributed. This year's Winter Mini-Fest is no exception, with a blend of socially distanced live performances at Loch Haven Park plus 25 virtual shows recorded by Fringe performers from around the world, including past Festival favorites Ryan Adam Wells, Savannah Pedersen, Fourth Wall Ensemble, DK Reinemer, BeeJay Aubertin-Clinton and Lily E. Garnett.

You can consume the online content on demand, either by paying $10 per program or buying a $75 access pass for four days of unlimited bingeing in your bathrobe. Better yet, reserve a private pod or chair at the "socially responsible hangouts" held nightly at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center's courtyard and enjoy outdoor screenings of select virtual shows in the vague vicinity of fellow Fringe fanatics. The Mini-Fest's traditional beer tent, featuring food from Ace Cafe, will also be available; a $5 cover charge for the Lawn will apply to help control capacity. Safety precautions will include temperature checks before you enter the Festival and mandatory masks throughout the event.

This will be many people's first opportunity to enjoy the newly renovated Darden Courtyard since Shakes invested CARES Act funds into making it a viable venue, complete with a tented ceiling, elevated stage and capacity for about 50 patrons seated at cocktail tables. The new space was jokingly dubbed the "Laura Hodos Stage" by its inaugural performer, who christened the courtyard with her delightful Holiday Cabaret before Christmas; she certainly owned the wall-less room with her charmingly quirky covers of both well- and lesser-known seasonal songs. In February, the Darden Courtyard will host Tymisha Harris in Josephine — another show with strong Fringe ties — replacing Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill on OST's season schedule.

Carrying the banner for in-person entertainment at the Winter Mini-Fest will be Unhappy Accident, an original site-specific satire of television's late "happy little trees" painter Bob Ross. The show comes from Bruce Ryan Costella, creator of 2018's award-winning Muttnik, who held socially distanced "Spooky & Gay" cabarets outside his house in October. His latest outdoor work, which will be performed nightly under a giant tree near the Orlando Museum of Art, is described as "a darkly comedic exploration of identity, art and obsession featuring on stage art and projection."

The remaining in-person performances at Winter Mini-Fest will actually be part of Kids Fringe, held only on Saturday, Jan. 9. WeFlip Entertainment will perform acrobatic circus acts; Brain Bros presents a Hamilton-inspired rap about Frederick Douglass; and Phoenix Tears returns with a Winter edition of their "Stardust Kingdom" audio drama series.

Producer Lindsay Taylor says the diversity of Winter Mini-Fest offerings "truly taps into all the branches of our festival that our most loyal patrons have come to love over the years." She also calls the weekend event "a perfect lead-in to our 30th anniversary in May" and hopes that it will help fans start the year off on a high note. As a longtime Fringe follower, I can't think of a better way to finally blow off 2020 and welcome in a brighter new year.

skubersky@orlandoweekly.com

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