Fringe 2014: A little angst among the ambition

Chef Peter Woolsey's La Peg will host free late-night cabaret shows at the FringeArts headquarters.
Chef Peter Woolsey's La Peg will host free late-night cabaret shows at the FringeArts headquarters. (KEVIN MONKO)
Posted: September 01, 2014

After 18 years of innovative experimental theater, cringingly clunky one-man shows, and everything in between, the 2014 Fringe Festival officially opens Friday with the most ambitious lineup yet.

There's the epic The Four Seasons Restaurant by acclaimed Italian director Romeo Castellucci and Soc├Četas Raffaello Sanzio, a meditation on absence set to the soundtrack of black holes. There's a cast of 100 non-actors in 100% Philadelphia, from Germany's Rimini Protokoll. There's artist Mary Mattingly's live-in WetLand installation (think Hurricane Katrina meets Waterworld) afloat on the Delaware River. And there's Experiment #39 by New York's Institute for Psychogeographic Adventure, a show for one audience member at a time, a walking tour through Old City featuring chance meetings with 60 strategically placed artists in dozens of venues.

"Plus, I'm sort of producing this [place] as well," said Nick Stuccio, president of FringeArts, as workers scrambled to put final touches on the organization's $7 million combination headquarters, theater, restaurant, and beer garden on Columbus Boulevard.

Stuccio's vision for the Fringe Festival - a world-class international arts festival anchored by a glossy permanent cultural hub - finally is about to be realized. But some worry that that means abandoning its historic role as one of the city's main incubators for emerging talent.

"Younger artists may feel that there's no place for [them] at Fringe," said Amy Smith, codirector of Headlong Dance Theater. "I've heard that rumbling."

This year's "presented" - invited - Fringe includes the fewest productions yet (11, compared with 50 in 2004, and 21 in 2008). It also features the fewest Philadelphia acts ever (Fringe favorites Pig Iron and New Paradise Laboratories are in, plus a program created by three experimental choreographers with the Pennsylvania Ballet and composers and musicians from the Curtis Institute of Music).

"We believe every city should have a great arts festival, and that's where you can see the world's preeminent artists," Stuccio said. "That means that it's tough to present local artists."

But if you want inclusion, he noted, that's what the Neighborhood Fringe is for: For $350, anyone can sign on, receiving in return a blurb in the catalog and box-office support. And going forward, he said, FringeArts will be able to support emerging artists better - if not during the festival, then year-round, by hosting performances at its home venue.

For now, though, his resources are focused on pieces such as White Rabbit Red Rabbit, in which a new script by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour is read aloud for the first and last time each night by a different actor who has never seen it before, and 100% Philadelphia, cast to precisely represent the city's demographics and probe its belief systems. Casting director Sarah Gladwin Camp calls it "a living documentary" shaped by her interviews with cast members: their opinions, hopes, and fears, "the particular problems and beauties that are here in Philadelphia."

Other pieces are self-produced. Take New Paradise Laboratories, which spent 14 weeks developing The Adults - inspired by the plays of Anton Chekhov, rife with natural danger and families misbehaving - or the paintings of Eric Fischl, tense, sunbaked scenes of beachgoers.

"We don't exactly do it the easy way," said Whit McLaughlin, artistic director. Nor the cheap way. A grant supplemented FringeArts' support, which he estimated covered only about one-ninth of the production's cost.

"Being in the festival has huge benefits, and also has its own particular kind of costs," he said.

Still, McLaughlin said, Philadelphia is known as a place to find a foothold in experimental theater, and the Fringe has been central to that reputation.

Brian Sanders, whose dance company JUNK will perform a piece called Suspended in the Neighborhood Fringe this year, agrees.

"Being part of the festival in any capacity is what helps the artists grow and allows their audience to grow," he said, pointing to up-and-comers such as performance artist Gunnar Montana, who are building followings one Neighborhood Fringe show at a time.

Sanders said presenting his own show is financially risky but may also yield greater profits.

To that end, he's inviting audience members to upgrade their tickets from $35 to $75 for a VIP locker-room pre-show involving nudity and "some creative work with suds and bathtubs and maybe some towel wars." (That's if the main event - a homage to boxing involving demonic femmes fatales, organ harvesting, a sensory track invoking temperature changes, fragrances, and even a splash zone - isn't edgy enough for you.)

"If I'm going to 'Fringe' it, I'm going to go over the edge and really be on the fringe. So I'm working on being overtly homoerotic and overtly hypersexual," Sanders said. He promised to go even further in yet another Fringe show he's presenting under a top-secret pseudonym.

Other companies are navigating the Neighborhood Fringe by looking to new partners.

Leah Stein Dance Company, for one, will present Splice, a site-specific piece woven through sculptor Jeremy Holmes' ribbons of wood, which loop like huge three-dimensional scribbles through Drexel's Pearlstein Gallery.

Stein was hoping for financial support from Drexel for the project. As of late last week it hadn't come through, she said, so she's just trying to keep costs low. "It could sound like it's very limiting, but it's also freeing. I'm working within the parameters of what is possible."

Headlong Dance Theater, another FringeArts favorite, is working with the University of the Arts' Brind School of Theater Arts for a production of movement, music, and spoken text inspired by Caryl Churchill's play Love and Information. The performers are students, but Headlong's influence will be evident.

"There will be porousness between the audience and the performers," said director Amy Smith. "There may be times when audiences are lying on mattresses with performers, and performers are whispering to them."

That intimacy requires small audiences, which means ticket sales may not cover production costs. And a shrinking pool of local arts grants has made it more difficult for artists in Philadelphia to fund their work, said Smith, who recently organized a forum on the topic.

"I think we need to create those opportunities for ourselves," she said. "I also wish there was a layer of production and presentation support. That isn't strong right now."

Stuccio also is looking to create opportunities. He said many local performers will be participating in the free late-night cabaret shows at La Peg, the restaurant that chef Peter Woolsey is opening at FringeArts' headquarters.

The creation of the new festival hub and the year-old Neighborhood Fringe concept are attempts to return, in a way, to the Fringe's early days of the late 1990s. Artists recall that back then the festival would flood Old City with artists and audience members; all you had to do was step outside and hand out fliers.

The Neighborhood Fringe, for now, isn't densely populated enough to replicate that. In the future, Stuccio hopes community development corporations and others will pitch in to cultivate hyperlocal festivals across the city.

Until then, he knows, people will gripe.

"People hate change," Stuccio said. "But if we're not changing, then by definition we're dead. . . . If we remain set in our thinking, in our programmatic style, we're not really delivering on our promise of being contemporary."


FRINGE FESTIVAL

2014 Fringe Festival / Neighborhoood Fringe

Friday through Sept. 21 at various venues.

Information: 215-413-1318 or www.fringearts.com


smelamed@phillynews.com

215-854-5053

@samanthamelamed

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