Notes from the Fringe 2016: The Spiegeltent

The cast of the Cabinet of Wonders, from Fringe Fest 2015.

The cast of the Cabinet of Wonders, from Fringe Fest 2015.

The centerpiece of the ten-day long Rochester Fringe Festival is the beautiful Spiegeltent, located in the Spiegelgarden at the corner of Main and Gibbs Streets in downtown.

Don’t let the word “tent” mislead you; this isn’t any regular canvas event tent. This is an actual structure with walls and a wooden floor that, as I write, is being constructed from the ground up by a crew that travels with the tent from city to city, assembling and then dismantling the tent of wonders. Today, they’re toiling away in Rochester’s hot and humid weather.

The Spiegeltent, the centerpiece of the downtown headquarters for Rochester Fringe Festival, is being assembled today.

The Spiegeltent, the centerpiece of the downtown headquarters for Rochester Fringe Festival, is being assembled today.

The Cristal Palace, from Fringe Fest 2015, is currently being assembled for this year's festival.

The Cristal Palace, from Fringe Fest 2015.

Last year, I was awed by the Spiegeltent. It’s magical and beautiful, and it houses the festival’s headlining acts. This year it’s “Cirque du Fringe: Miracle Cures and Other Wonders From the Vagabond Caravan”, hosted by Matt Morgan and Mark Gindick, and complete with a cast of characters that include acrobats, musicians, comedians, and more.

It’s all quite spectacular to behold.

You know how I love behind the scenes stuff, so I stopped over this morning to take some photos of the skeleton of the building and had a chance to chat with the Spiegeltent owner, Rik Klessens. His family has been in the Spiegeltent – or Mirrortent – business for generations.

Spiegeltent, under assembly.

Spiegeltent, under assembly.

When you think of a fair you probably think of rides and cotton candy and noise. But a hundred years ago, when the fair rolled into town, at least in Belgium, it was more likely a traveling dance hall with a wooden floor, plush booths, and a bar. A live band would play while everyone danced and drank the night away amidst lights and mirrors, and I’m sure, more than a bit of mischief.

It was, the Spiegeltent website claims, “the domain of night owls, heartbreakers and dream chasers.”

The Spiegeltent, under assembly, will house the headliner, "Cirque du Fringe."

The Spiegeltent, currently under assembly, will house the headliner, “Cirque du Fringe.”

fringe 2015

The Spiegeltent, 2015, ready for the dreamers

The oldest surviving Spiegeltent, San Severia, was built in 1890 in Ghent, Belgium by Klessens grandfather, and is permanently located in Kingston, NY. Klessens tells me it was once used as the traveling waffle and pancake house and was also, he adds, “the hooker place”, where patrons sat in private curtained booths for, well, let’s say breakfast with a side dish. It’s now a music hall and events venue, and I’m pretty sure you can still get breakfast there. (Although probably without the extras.)

Inside the Spiegeltent today, as it's being assembled for the upcoming festival.

Inside the Spiegeltent today, as it’s being assembled for the upcoming festival.

fringe 2015

Inside the Spiegeltent, 2015

Klessen owns several Spiegeltents, and besides the one in Kingston, two more are in the U.S. at the moment. One is in Crested Butte, CO, for a classical music festival, and the other, the Cristal Palace, is right here in Rochester, one of several stops it’ll make during the year, including an October Fest in L.A., a Christmas festival in Houston, and the Super Bowl.

Klessen is the third generation of his family in the traveling dance hall business; his children are also involved in the family business. He told me his grandfather used to run the ticket booth and his grandmother was behind the bar. It was a gypsy-like lifestyle. “We’re carnies,” he laughs. Maybe, but a higher class of carnies than I’ve ever met.

Construction started yesterday, and the frame was finished by afternoon. This morning, the canvas roof was put on, and the sides and floor went up, sort of like a wooden puzzle where pieces slide into each other, matching Part A with Part B. There’s very little actual hammering going on, although there is a lot – a whole lot – of hauling large, cumbersome, heavy parts and pieces out of the tractor trailer. They’ll finish later today with mirrors, booths, and curtains – and, I’m pretty sure, a hefty dose of magic.

Booths will encircle the dance floor/stage.

Booths will encircle the dance floor/stage.

The booths have comfy seating, tables, and wooden dividers. And table service.

The booths have comfy seating, tables, and wooden dividers. And table service. From Fringe 2015.

While admission to the Spiegeltent requires a ticket to a show, you can enjoy the splendor of the exterior for free when you come to hang out in the Spiegelgarden. There’s a bar, fire pit, chairs, and free events taking place throughout the festival.

Be sure to check out the showings for the “Cirque du Fringe: Miracle Cures and Other Wonders From the Vagabon Caravan”. The show is suitable for ages 13+, except for three matinees when it’s appropriate for ages 5+. If it’s anything like last year, it’ll be wondrous to behold. (Matt Morgan’s wife and creative partner Heidi, who you may remember from last year’s show, will arrive in town next week with their newborn son, and, a little bird told me, the two just may make a cameo in this year’s show.)

For more about the Spiegeltent, visit the website.
For more about Fringe shows, visit the festival website.

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