PHILADELPHIA: The Philadelphia Fringe Festival brings the world to Philadelphia and Philadelphia to the world. This year’s iteration, with a total of 140 shows on offer between Sept. 4 and Sept. 19, splits these missions neatly into two columns: Fringe Arts Curated and Neighborhood Fringe, with the former featuring international acts and the latter showcasing local artists.
There’s another difference between the two categories, as well: One is culled/curated, while the other, in classic fringe-fest style, is open to all comers.
“Experimentation and innovation has been the mantra of the Philadelphia Fringe,” says Nick Stuccio, cofounder, president, and producing director of Fringe Arts. “There has always been an adjudicated segment of the festival because we were interested in bringing contemporary artists who are really having an impact around the world here to Philadelphia.”
Stuccio cofounded the Fringe with Eric Schoefer, a former dancer/choreographer, in 1997, and though Schoefer is no longer associated with the festival or Fringe Arts, his playful nature set the tone of Fringe in the early days and has influenced Fringe productions ever since.
“We were inspired by the Edinburgh Fringe,” explains Schoefer. “Old City erupted into a five-day party, that served the work of artists like myself. I was performing in abandoned warehouses. If artists work in isolation, it’s hard to draw people, but if you have a bunch of people doing a bunch of work at the same time, it creates an avant-garde party atmosphere. “
Philadelphia is the “City of Neighborhoods,” and the Fringe has always been a platform for local artists like Tina Brock, a professional actress who launched her company, Idiopathic Consortium Ridiculopathy (IRC), at the Fringe in 2006 with Three One Acts: Albee, Beckett, & Ionesco. IRC has been a force in the Philly theatre community and a Fringe staple ever since.
For this year’s fest, Brock brought her production of Ionesco’s Exit the King.
“Oh, it’s not theatre—this is a sport,” Brock tells me outside of the Walnut Street Theater’s Studio 3. “At the auditions for Exit, I didn’t ask, ‘Who went to acting school?’ I asked, ‘Who played volleyball in high school?’ A word in a text written by Ionesco is not a word at all; it’s a ball that you’ve got to keep in the air. This play is about the moments of disconnect when life kicks you in the gut.”
Brock’s surreal production encapsulates the colliding artistic frenzy of the Fringe by honoring what she calls Ionesco’s demand that “the effects of theatre be magnified, underlined, pushed to the max.” Audience members walk down a red carpet littered with cigarette butts. The castle ceiling is crumbling, and the makeup on the actors is severe—red lipstick, rouged cheeks, powdered faces. Queens Marguerite and Marie wear gargantuan wigs and flouncy pink and gold dresses labeled “QUEEN.” Actor Robb Hutter, as the 400-year old King Berenger, hurls himself into a panic. (The circumstances are drastic: He is going to die at the end of the play and he knows it.) As we watch, audience members turn to each other and whisper, “Oh, so fringe.”
Philadelphia is also filled with alleys, and on a walk to Christ Church, performance artist Jenn Kidwell escorts me to an evening performance of Underground Railroad Game.
“Look at that!” she says, pointing to an actual crumbling brick wall. “Look at how beautiful it is. Why is it that when we are onstage everything has to be the thing? Flat. If a play takes place in an apartment, why would I recreate an apartment onstage? Reality is not real. We could be way more imaginative. Give me crumbling brick walls. If we stopped valuing realism so much, then we actually start to crack open how absurd reality really is.”
Kidwell and Scott Sheppard’s Underground Railroad Game, produced in association with Lightning Rod Special, explodes these boundaries with a serious purpose: to crack open the history of the institution of slavery and how we talk about it in 2015. Sheppard originally intended Underground to be a solo piece based on his experience learning to play the interactive Underground Railroad Game in fifth grade, while studying the Civil War. Two years ago, he was hanging out with Kidwell, who was then a fellow classmate from the inaugural class at Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training, and they decided this should be a two-hander.
In the spring of 2014, the show had a developmental staging at the Church of the Crucifixion, believed to be a stop on the historic Underground Railroad. Stuccio and Fringe Arts program manager Sarah Bishop Stone happened to be in the audience, and they approached Sheppard and Kidwell about mounting their show as a Fringe Arts Curated production.
“I was there when Underground Railroad played at the Church of the Crucifixion,” says Dan Hodge, cofounder of Philadelphia Artists’ Collective. “I like plays that question who are we and how far do we think we’ve come?”
Founded in 2008 by five artist/managers—Hodge, Krista Apple-Hodge, Charlotte Northeast, Damon Bonetti, Katherine Fritz—the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective breathes life into rarely performed classics. Hodge’s one-man adaptation of Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece was a hit at the 2014 Fringe Festival, which posed the same questions: Who are we, and how far do we think we’ve come? Hodge is asking them again in this year’s Fringe production of Edouard Bourdet’s The Captive, which he is directing.
“Bourdet’s play was a scandal in 1926,” Hodge explains. “Irene is in love with a woman who we never see. Since same-sex marriage was only recently legalized, this is still very much a hot-button issue that needs to be explored.”
The production is at the Physick House, an historic Philadelphia home. “Our Fringe productions always seem to be site-specific—there is something to be said about the immersive quality that that gives you,” says Hodge.
“Fringe is a great time of year for us,” Hodge continues. “It’s a time when theatres get to do shows that are beyond audiences’ expectations. We get to push our boundaries…It is also an important time because it’s the time when we grow our audiences,” Hodge continues. “People go to see plays during the Fringe festival who don’t normally go at any other time of the year.”
A mile from the Physick House, Norway’s own Jo Strømgren Kompani’s is breathing new life into a classic, albeit not an obscure one. Their staging of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House features an American cast, performing in a 234-seat black box theatre tucked behind chef Peter Woolsey’s contemporary brasserie, La Peg, inside the industrial chic Fringe Arts Building, a converted historic firehouse. (For $15 you can get a Fringe burger and a Lionshead Pilsner.)
“All the writing in this production is actually the actors,” says Trey Lyford, who plays Krogstad in A Doll’s House. “Strømgren was really open to us rewriting our words to make it flow off our tongue.”
Indeed, though Ibsen wrote A Doll’s House in 1879, Strømgren’s production—choreographed, developed, and rehearsed in Oslo—is so fresh it makes you feel like it was written an hour ago. As audience members take their seats, Suli Holm and Pearce Bunting, as Nora Helmer and Doctor Rank, respectively, are tossing coins into a tiny cooking pot and dancing around it saying, “Cha-cha-cha.”
Since we are at the beer garden outside the Fringe Arts building, it’s just a short walk over to the Fringe Arts box-office camper to see Belinda Haikes’ Compass, part of another branch of, and recent addition to, the festival, Digital Fringe.
“Digital Fringe was sparked by our desire to showcase artists’ work that is not easily performed in a theatre,” says Jarrod Markman, coordinator of the Neighborhood Fringe. “There are only 16 [productions] this year, but they are all kind of different. Some of them are pure video, and others are more app-based technology.”
Haikes, a South African designer based in Philadelphia, says she created Compass “to explore how far technology can take us.” From the beer garden, the heart of Fringe Arts, Haikes’ Compass digitally engages cellphone animations from the four farthest points of the Fringe’s neighborhoods (north, south, east, and west) to create what Haikes calls “a metaphor of displacement.”
“One thing that is true then that is true now: The Philadelphia Fringe was created with an idea of flexibility,” says Deborah Block, producing artistic director of Theatre Exile. Block was part of development conversations about the Fringe in its early days. “Fringe leaves you with more questions than answers. In my 10 years working with Fringe, I consistently asked, is the work we present pushing the boundaries in content or form? That has always been true. Fringe will always be new, always changing.”