CITIZEN CRANE: FringeArts president Nick Stuccio in the still-under-construction new festival headquarters.
“Seventeen years ago,” says Nick Stuccio doubtfully, asked for his recollections of the first years of the festival he helped found in 1997. “That’s many years ago, you know.” But once the FringeArts president and producing director gets talking about shows, he’s off.
“Unusual site-based work really set the tone ... for example, Joe Canuso directed this little playlet that took place on the street. One guy’s trying to parallel park and this asshole businessman tries to sneak in and they get into this huge melee — on more than one occasion the police came. It always drew a crowd. They’re screaming at each other, then they start having this dialogue, which then transforms into this little piece of theater. That typifies what we did — we sneak up on you, we lure you with something fun, the carnival, and then we deliver something meaningful to you via an artistic experience.”
Performances in storefronts, galleries, restaurants, coffeeshops and even the backseat of an old Cadillac were a hallmark of the early years of Fringe, Stuccio says, “because we couldn’t afford theaters.” These days, there’s still plenty of performances taking place in cemeteries, homes and in one case a bathtub, but also in the Suzanne Roberts Theater, the Wilma and the Arden, some of the city’s biggest theater spaces.
Fringe has been evolving steadily since its beginnings as a five-day theater, dance, music and visual-art festival in Old City. It’s grown in performances, days and locations, bursting out of Old City with an eclectic mix of local and imported shows. But this year has brought the most changes yet. The name “FringeArts” replaced the clunky “Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe,” a name that had been the bane of copy editors since 2004. (In the interest of clarity, in this piece we’ll be referring to the festival in its many past forms as simply “Fringe” and referring to the festival in 2013 and beyond as “FringeArts.”) The length has been bumped up by two days for a total of 18 days of 16 “invited” (read: professional, curated) shows and 136 “neighborhood” (read: lower-budget, more DIY) shows.
Most critically, it was announced that FringeArts would be opening a permanent home in a renovated former pump station on Columbus Boulevard across from Race Street Pier. The FringeArts building will not only end FringeArts’ nomadic rental of different business offices, box offices, primary venues and cabaret spaces nearly every year, but will allow for year-round programming starting shortly after this year’s festival.
“Fringe” is defined as something on the margins; something outside the establishment. Theater-wise, fringe festivals create an annual window for up-and-comers without the connections or funds to put on a traditional show to get their work noticed, or to perform experimental work unlikely to appeal to mainstream audiences — a temporary disconnect from the financial realities of producing theater.
These days, the festival’s budget is more than $2 million, employing a year-round, full-time staff of 10. In October, FringeArts will begin hosting year-round performances in their 240-seat theater — for comparison, the mainstage of the Wilma is 296 — at their shiny new building, which will also include a two-tier bar and restaurant seating 80 to 120. FringeArts, in short, seems to have far more in common these days with bigger regional theaters like the Wilma, Philadelphia Theatre Company and the Arden than it does with its younger self. If you’re an establishment, can you still be fringe?
What does “fringe” even mean? Stuccio argues that all you have to do to see the definition is look at the works being presented at the festival. For example, he notes The Quiet Volume, British artists Ant Hampton and Tim Etchells’ show at the Free Library of Phila-delphia, in which two patrons at a time sit side by side, guided through reading by voices in headphones — a production unlikely to be found at any regional theaters.
“For me, ‘fringe’ has two meanings,” says Stuccio. “First, it’s synonymous with innovation — avant-garde, boundary-breaking contemporary art. The second thing is this idea that it’s for independent-minded creative people — the independent spirit of art-making.”
Fringe, he says, is what it’s always been, just a bit bigger in scale. “It’s not so much change we’re experiencing, but growth,” says Stuccio. “For 17 years, we’ve been cultivating an audience for contemporary experimental work, and [we] think they can support it year-round.”
Swim Pony Performing Arts founder Adrienne Mackey, (who participated in her first Fringe in 2002 and directs The Ballad of Joe Hill at Eastern State Penitentiary this year) has always liked the word: “It conjures up the image of being out on the edges of what is known, like the places on old maps where the cartographers would draw dragons and sea monsters.” Fringe, she says, is “less a particular look or genre, but an attitude — something that says, ‘I am asking questions that I don’t know the answers to.’”
Fringe’s 17 seasons have undeniably given Philadelphia’s small theater companies — particularly the ones pursuing experimental styles — a huge boost. Tina Brock, artistic director of the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium, has produced rare absurdist plays in the Fringe each year since starting the company in 2006. “Audiences seem more adventurous and willing to take a risk in the Fringe than in the regular season,” says Brock, who’s staging an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Castle this year.
Brock recalls “a village vibe” in earlier seasons due to “the proximity of the artists to each other. Once things started to spread far and wide — which is a terrific thing in and of itself — the energy was diluted and it became more anonymous.” This year, there’s 16 curated, higher-budget shows in the “invited Fringe” and 136 in the more ad-hoc “neighborhood Fringe” spread all over the city; just reading all the descriptions is overwhelming, let alone trying to see everything. Though Brock says the growth is great, she misses that old sense of community and celebration: “Where is the ‘festival’ in the Festival?”
Stuccio hopes that village vibe of earlier years will be recaptured when the new FringeArts building under the Ben Franklin Bridge opens in October. Stuccio sees great potential for developing a social arts community and rebuilding that “village vibe.” The attached bar and restaurant (operators are still up in the air) aren’t mere moneymakers, he says — they’re central to the plan.
Stuccio took inspiration from Edinburgh’s culture of coffeeshop theaters, where patrons hang out before and after performances, and from beer-hall theaters in Europe and South America. Stuccio says he’s seen patrons stick around to drink beer and discuss shows all over the world — except here.
“How a work lands on the brain happens before, during and after the performance,” Stuccio says. “The work’s always better on a full belly and liquor,” he adds, laughing. “Our theater chairs will all have cupholders so you can bring in food and drink.” He plans for the bar, restaurant and theater (separated by a giant soundproof door that can open to combine the spaces) to operate simultaneously — in fact, the space’s second performance, a collaboration with Opera Philadelphia, will integrate the opera Svadba-Wedding with a traditional Balkan wedding feast.
It’s a different notion of the theater experience: “Not purely intellectual,” Stuccio explains, “but part of a fun, social night out, with the fun happening here, not somewhere else before and after.” For example, in December, when Pig Iron Theatre Company remounts its wildly popular version of Twelfth Night from the 2011 festival, Stuccio anticipates that its 23 cast and crew members will stick around to hang out with friends and audience members, allowing an open mingling between artists and audience that doesn’t happen much here. (For the bar and restaurant to be friendly to artists as well as their patrons, he says, “price points must be reasonable.”)
“I’ll be really interested to see what FringeArts does with that new space,” says Swim Pony’s Mackey. “Philly is sorely lacking in presenting venues. We would really benefit from a place that isn’t another company trying to put out their own work, a space that is more a habitat for lots of artists to plug into; where audiences trust the curatorial point of view and create a habit of checking things out regularly even if they don’t personally know the artists.”
For Mackey, risk is still the heart of the Fringe, new building or not. She and a friend have a saying when they buy tickets: “‘It’s a gamble ... at the Fringe.’ That goes for the horrible-abomination, three-hour, terrible-lighting, pretentious agony of a performance as well as the totally unexpected lovely gem that you never imagined you’d see.
“It’s a gamble, and that’s exciting."
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