In Scranton, despite pandemic, annual Fringe Festival lets art find a way

(Photo courtesy Scranton Fringe Festival)

SCRANTON — The Scranton Fringe Festival was ready for a big year.

Event organizers had spent the previous five years building momentum. The inaugural festival lasted two days and had 2,500 attendees. More than 10,000 people attended the 11-day event in 2019. Organizers had impressive plans for 2020.

Then, while they were in Australia for a conference with organizers from other fringe festivals, the Scranton team started hearing about the disease that would cancel almost everyone’s 2020 plans.

“None of us could have predicted how vast this was going to become,” organizer Connor Kelly O’Brien told the Capital-Star, “but we could see this was going to be serious.”

O’Brien and his co-organizer, Elizabeth Bohan, refused to give up on the arts in Northeastern Pennsylvania, even though they had to scuttle plans for the actual festival. 

(Photo courtesy Scranton Fringe Festival)

The result is Fringe Under Glass, which will run from Sept. 25-27.

The question for organizers was making sure attendees and performers would be safe.

“From our experience of running Fringe for five years,” Bohan said, “I know our audience is thirsty for new art, but not so much so that they’re willing to put themselves or our artists in danger.”

The festival will include local singers, musicians, and community groups presenting and performing from behind the windows of small businesses and venues. 

Attendees can purchase tickets for tours that will take them on a walking tour of the venues. The groups will be able to watch the performance from outside the windows. 

Everyone in the audience must wear masks.

(Photo courtesy Scranton Fringe Festival)

None of the people in the performing groups will be exposed to people they haven’t already been around, Bohan explained.

The organizers worked with city officials to ensure the safety of performers and spectators alike.

O’Brien and Bohan can testify to the region’s arts appetite.

The Fringe Festival has grown so much because the region is filled with artists and people willing to support them. The festival is regularly filled with everything from stand-up comics to poetry and theatrical performances. 

Northeastern Pennsylvania is home to several independent theaters and performing arts venues, more than a dozen theater troupes and three drive-in movie theaters.

O’Brien thinks there are two reasons the arts succeed in the region. First, its proximity to New York and Philadelphia gives people an opportunity to bring in good talent. Second, people from outside the area are willing to come here to catch shows at a reasonable price.

“You can actually create and make things happen here,” O’Brien said.

For Bohan, the audience is important: It’s willing to try new things when it goes to see artists.

“It’s an audience that is willing to take big risks with us,” she said. “Because of the nature of fringe festivals, the audience we’ve built up the last five years is willing to take that chance with us (on different types of shows).”

O’Brien and Bohan knew the area’s artists were itching to show off their skills, despite the virus.

First, they held Social Distant-Scene Theater, which allowed local artists to perform over Zoom.

But they knew that wasn’t enough.

“If we’re going to do something, we’re going to do something different,” O’Brien said. 

So, in the spring, they started planning Fringe under Glass.

“To have something in person for people who are starving for the arts is important for us,” Bohan said.

Correspondent Patrick Abdalla covers northeastern Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. Follow him on Twitter @PaddyAbs.