A Summer Without Festivals

Coronavirus Pandemic Forces Cancellation of Fringe Festival, Irish Fest and Other Live Events, as Organizers Consider Scaled Down Virtual Alternatives

Cheryl Kimmi, founder and executive director, KC Fringe (photo by Jim Mathis)

This is the time of year when the KC Fringe Festival is gearing up for big crowds attending shows by diverse performers at multiple venues.

But that won’t be happening. The KC Fringe Festival, a showcase for performers, musicians, playwrights and visual artists, was set to unfold July 12-26 at downtown and midtown performance spaces. Organizers cancelled the annual event due to the coronavirus pandemic. A painful fact of life is that conventional performing and theatergoing make social distancing almost impossible.

Traditionally, the festival has functioned as an incubator for playwrights and solo performers to get their work in front of an audience for the first time. That won’t be possible physically, but Cheryl Kimmi, founder and executive director, said that in May, festival organizers were brainstorming to come up with an acceptable alternative in the COVID-19 era.

“There will not be an in-person Fringe,” Kimmi said. “We are putting together a digital Fringe.”

How that plays out remains to be seen. Not all artists may have adequate video equipment, but Kimmi said shifting to a virtual festival is the sensible way to go forward — and may continue even after the festival can be “live” again.

Many attendees have complained that seeing all the events is impossible, Kimmi said. But if each performance could be recorded, every show could be available online the week after the actual festival concludes.
Other public events are facing a similar challenge.

The Kansas City Irish Fest, held each year over Labor Day weekend at Crown Center, draws 80,000 or more visitors and showcases bands and other performers from Ireland, the British Isles, Canada, the U.S. and, in recent years, at least one band from France.

But a somber message now greets visitors to the festival’s website. The board of directors and officers of the event had made a tough decision: “The festival we all know and love will not be able to take place in its traditional format this year.” A major reason, according to the statement, was “the unknown restrictions and guidelines for large gatherings that may be in place later this year. And as always, the safety and health of our friends and patrons is foremost in our minds.”
The festival is considering the possibility of small-scale events with an Irish theme, of course, and a local focus. That could include virtual house concerts.

Keli O’Neill Wenzel, the Irish Fest executive director, said the festival is more than an entertainment event. Each year it attracts more than 80,000 visitors from around the country with its cultural emphasis on Irish heritage, including performances by Irish dance schools and a genealogy area set up in the Crown Center lobby.

“We knew we had to pivot early,” she said.

Angus Finnan, executive director of Folk Alliance International, didn’t waste time.

In April, Finnan announced that the FAI board had made an unprecedented decision: to cancel the 2021 FAI conference, which would have drawn thousands of musicians and other music professionals from around the world to Kansas City in February. The reason, of course, was the threat posed by the highly infectious COVID-19. Anyone who has attended one of the conferences understands why the decision was necessary — the packed lobbies, ballrooms, performance rooms and hallways would have made social distancing impossible.

Instead, the conference is refocusing its resources to provide support and resources to musicians and other members of the alliance.

The Kansas City Ethnic Enrichment Festival, which each year attracts visitors to Swope Park, was forced to cancel what would have been its 41st annual gathering in August “due to health concerns regarding the coronavirus pandemic.”

Above: Portrait of Aengus Finnan, Executive Director at Folk Alliance International. (photo by Jim Barcus)

Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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