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The Orlando Fringe Festival celebrates its 30th edition, and the city celebrates the return of live theater

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On March 19, 2020, the future of one of Central Florida's most important cultural institutions was thrown into question when the 29th annual Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival was canceled in light of the then-accelerating COVID-19 pandemic. While the event nimbly pivoted to presenting virtual productions, fans were worried if the organization would survive to celebrate its 30th edition. Well, what a difference 14 months — and three miraculous vaccines — can make. In this spring's surest sign yet of recovery for Orlando's arts community, the 2021 Orlando Fringe is back, live and in person at Lock Haven Park, from May 18 through May 31.

For years, I've been threatening to take a year off from my duties as Orlando Weekly's chief Fringe critic and let the Orlando Sentinel's Matt Palm review all the shows while I sit home. After I more or less got my wish in 2020 (much to my dismay), I didn't think there was anyone more excited than I for the Fringe's return. That was, until I spoke to Orlando Fringe executive director Alauna Friskics, whose anticipation almost exploded out of my phone.

"I am pumped and energized for this year's festival," Friskics enthused. "This has been a festival that has been deliberated and talked to death about how we do it safely. ... We have implemented as many safety precautions as we can and are moving forward in a way that is exciting. I'm ready to bring people together."

Originally founded downtown in 1992, Orlando Fringe has "made a mark on Orlando [and] greatly impacted the cultural fabric of who we are in Central Florida," according to Friskics. "Amazing talent has been birthed out of Fringe and either stayed here and grown, or moved on to other places. And that's something that our community as a whole should be really proud of."

As one of the largest Fringe festivals in North America, and the United States' longest-running such theater fest, the Orlando Fringe isn't only important to locals, but has grown into a linchpin of the entire international Fringe touring circuit. However, even three decades of history wasn't enough to guarantee the Orlando Fringe's survival through another pandemic-stricken season.

"We suffered over 90 percent loss financially last year as an organization, by not having a festival. It was a huge blow to us," Friskics reports. "However, we stayed the course, and we looked to the future, we created alternative events to stay afloat, and we're going to be OK."

But for Friskics, bringing back the Festival was less about Fringe's finances than the performers' funds. "The real driver was getting the money back into artists' pockets," says Friskics. "There was a $500,000 hole for all the artists last year, and so that really was devastating, [so] to get them back on the stage, to have the artists making money again ... that's our mission."

With cross-border travel still severely restricted around the globe, keeping the "International" in the 2021 Orlando International Fringe Theater Festival was a particular challenge for sophomore producer Lindsay Taylor, whose first year in the role saw the event shifting online. "Typically we have about 25 national [artists from outside Florida] and 25 international," Taylor says, but this year the only international act will be Japan's Theatre Group Gumbo, whose home prefecture of Osaka (which includes Universal Studios Japan) is currently under lockdown again.

"They had to get a negative COVID test before they got to the airport," Taylor told me on the eve of their arrival in Orlando, over a week before the festival, "and they've decided to have a one-week quarantine." Another veteran Fringe artist, Swedish trumpet virtuoso Elias Faingersh, was less fortunate and had to drop out because the consulate in Sweden wouldn't give him permission to travel.

Among the nearly 70 shows that will appear at the Fringe, Taylor notes recurring pop-culture themes like superheroes and role-playing games, which she feels reflects a trend this year toward escapism: "I think a lot of [producers and performers] are just happy to be at the festival, and [they] know that audiences want to see something lighthearted."

The bottom line is that, after a series of well-received socially distanced events during the winter, Friskics feels Fringe audiences are ready and eager to attend live events again, while still following CDC safety guidelines. "We've seen incredible willingness for audiences — and their hunger to sit in those seats and absorb that art again."

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