When it comes to the annual Philadelphia Fringe Festival, which typically includes hundreds of diverse artistic offerings peppered throughout the city’s many neighborhoods, there are a few constants you can count on: 1) It is impossible to see everything; 2) You will still run, sometimes literally, from a church graveyard in South Philadelphia to a loft warehouse space in the north, and finally to a tight West Philly basement where the floor is covered in mulch, all in the same night; and 3) You will sweat profusely in the dying summer heat.
There is something sacred and ironically dependable about the chaos of fringe festivals. They are the yearly rites of cities’ arts communities—thrilling, messy dives into scenes for the new and uninitiated.
But 2020 came with a new set of rules. With the outbreak of COVID-19 causing the shutdown of Broadway, regional theatres, and festivals around the world, it seemed unlikely that FringeArts could produce the 24th annual festival in its usual form—if at all. Yet the cliché “the show must go on” has recently found new meaning, with some companies taking to digital platforms to deliver the storytelling and culture that people crave in this time of isolation.
So, in a few short months, FringeArts transformed their presenting structure to a (mostly) digital one. While I was thrilled that there wouldn’t be a hole in my calendar, which is usually crammed this time of year down to the minute with performances and exhibitions, I wondered how this socially distant festival would measure up to my typical arm-to-arm-with-strangers experiences of the past. Without intense physical proximity, would it still feel like Fringe?
With my faint misgivings, I sat in front of my laptop prepared to watch the first offering of the FringeArts curated series, the premiere of David Gordon’s The Philadelphia Matter – 1972/2020. On my screen, a countdown clock met my gaze, ticking down the moments that the show would become live and available for me to watch. Though it was different from waiting for house lights to go to half, I felt a flicker of something familiar—a gentle thrill that comes from anticipation. Images began to fill and overlap on my screen, and we were off.
David Gordon, of Judson Dance Theater fame, created and first presented The Matter in 1972. It has had several iterations over the decades as his career grew and evolved, with Gordon adding pieces and making alterations with every major showing by his company, Pick Up Performance Co(s). For its newest form, he collaborated with video artist Jorge Cousineau to root the piece in the present while allowing us to traverse his vibrant and illustrious past. Commissioned by Philadelphia organization Christ Church Neighborhood House and funded by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, The Philadelphia Matter featured more than 30 local dancers who made up the “Virtual Company,” with appearances by Wally Cordona and Pick Up Performance Co(s) members Karen Graham and Valda Setterfield.
Over the course of an hour, the Virtual Company performed three pieces (“Song and Dance, “Close Up,” and “The Chair”) from Gordon’s choreographic repertoire in a video collage, having filmed themselves in isolation in bedrooms, open fields, or street corners in the city. As the video clips were layered and spliced, Gordon and Setterfield (his wife) narrated over the top with text scrolling across the screen, giving insight to the pieces themselves and to the moments in their lives, quiet and momentous, that inspired the work.
It all had the effect of peering through a kaleidoscope while traveling in a low-key time machine. We saw the modern-day dancers performing alongside clips of Gordon himself from 1972, singing “In the Mood” and moving through a series of precise yet gentle motions, or Setterfield winding herself in and out of a metal folding chair a performance of “The Chair,” decades in the past.
This may not have been the intended form for The Philadelphia Matter (as is likely the case for any production planned prior to the pandemic), but I was taken aback by its unexpected gifts. Without a traditional theatre to house the piece, there was no longer a mechanism separating us from the realities of the outside world. The rain drenching a dancer as they spun on the pavement, the sound of ambulance sirens, the excited dogs charging into frame, and more could not be denied. But instead of engendering frustration or removing me from the magic of the moment, I felt more closely linked with these dancers and with Gordon and Setterfield. I was held fast by a thin yet undeniable thread of connection. It was personal.
This was particularly true in writer/choreographer Nichole Canuso’s work Being/With:Home, another selection in the FringeArts curated series. Instead of allowing audiences to sit back, they were put face to face in pairs over Zoom in private encounter under the direction of a calm, faceless audio guide who posed questions and gave prompts. It was a simple conceit, but as the guide noted, “Sometimes the simplest questions can be the hardest”—or, at the very least, the most complex and rich.
In my encounter, my randomly assigned Zoom partner (Emily) and I were charged with creating tableaux in the room we chose for the hour, move in tandem together, and tell stories about objects we chose to display as our guide led us along. Throughout the creation of this movement/memory play, images and sounds of water lightly accompanied us—evoking the fluidity and changeable nature of remembrances.
With every direction from the audio guide, I felt layers of myself peel back to be shared with Emily, even if she did not know what pictures were flashing in my mind’s eye. We could not hide, save for the times we spent out of range of our computer cameras, and the connection I felt was as potent as it would be had we been in my kitchen dancing together.
Alongside the intimate curated pieces, this year’s festival boasted an impressive roster of shows, exhibitions, and workshops crafted by independent artists and companies throughout Philadelphia, including Temporary Occupancy, the latest immersive experience by Die-Cast. The company, founded by Brenna Geffers and Thom Weaver, “incubates work within spaces that are often inaccessible to audiences or are not thought of as performative spaces.”
Temporary Occupancy, created in collaboration with ArtsWest Playhouse in Seattle, brought audiences to the website of Vicurious, a boutique hotel chain proising provides an escape from the confines of our own minds by allowing us to observe the private experiences of others.
A quick questionnaire and assessment by the “Front Desk” attendant brought us to the Philadelphia rooms. Clicking a link then allowed the viewer to “preview” a room by watching a short video showing former occupants experiencing their hotel suites during the COVID era: a couple rewarding themselves with a weekend getaway after successfully quarantining, a man estranged from his family on a Facetime call, a woman stuck in another city for weeks when she couldn’t get a flight home from a conference, and a man who took the opportunity to try and connect with a long-lost loved one.
But as with any mysterious organization with a “members only” club you most certainly can’t join without permission, all was not as it seemed. On the surface, Temporary Occupancy appeared to hew closer to the traditional separation between performers and spectators—there were those who watched, and those who were being observed. But Die-Cast queered that dichotomy, posing the question: Are we ever truly separated from the stories we consume?
Norm-challenging is a requisite trait of any fringe festival, but it is a particular specialty of Philly Free Fringe, a festival in its second year that runs concurrently with FringeArts’s annual jawn. As the name suggests, this unassociated, alternative festival is free for both the audience members choosing to partake and the artists presenting the work; there are no fees for artists or audiences. According to their website, “The original spirit of the fringe festival is making art accessible (free). We are bringing that back.” Nothing is curated, giving no artist particular attention over another, and none of the artists pay to play.
Like their compatriots in the Philadelphia Fringe, Free Fringe artists embraced experimentation, spontaneity, and the unknown. Sarah Knittel, one of Free Fringe’s founders, had several acts over the course of the festival, including Four Drinks In, a delightful social experiment for Instagram Live wherein she downed four glasses of rosé (Whispering Angel, to be exact), turned on the camera, and invited guests to join her in a video chat with questions she had prepared for them. For Write Me a Letter, an ongoing project, creator Katherine Perry put out a call for anonymous letters, which she then distributed to artists for interpretation for performance pieces presented through Facebook and Instagram.
Some artists took advantage of having both festivals as a launch pad for their work, including Revolution Shakespeare, a company that recently shifted its mission toward creating new works inspired by the Bard when Tai Verley was named artistic director in 2019. In their Fringe project, 154 Revisited, Verley tasked 50 local creatives with adapting Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. Performers all over Philadelphia then self-taped or recorded the new “sonnets,” which were compiled into a digital library to be enjoyed throughout the festival.
Across both festivals, a common thread emerged. The pandemic and the subsequent quarantine have created the natural presumption among many that aloneness is inevitable and inescapable, and that true connection through screens is impossible or second best. But with every digital piece I took in, there was a call across the void and, to my surprise, real success at creating genuine bonds. There was little risk of audience complacency here; viewers were either made active participants in the narrative, called to reflect on their own brand of voyeurism, or invited into a special communion with the artists themselves. It was all very inventive, strange, and very fringe indeed.
Artists were shaken out of complacency as well. Whatever normalcy in which they previously created art no longer existed, so they were forced to reimagine and redefine. Artists are commonly at the forefront of ingenuity and innovation, refusing to stay quiet when life threatens to dismiss them or eradicate them altogether. Philadelphia’s two festivals demonstrated that artists are more than up for the challenge of changing our expectations of what constitutes a piece of theatre, and of ushering in the new, the more accessible, and the more equitable, if we’re willing to show up.
Alix Rosenfeld (she/her) is a dramaturg, writer, and theatremaker based in Philadelphia.
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