Old City, Fringe's BFF

The venerable Second Bank of the United States is visited by an astronaut in "Experiment #39," from Brooklyn's Institute for Psychogeographic Adventure. The troupe will create a performance experience in response to local history and neighborhoods, for one audience member at a time.
The venerable Second Bank of the United States is visited by an astronaut in "Experiment #39," from Brooklyn's Institute for Psychogeographic Adventure. The troupe will create a performance experience in response to local history and neighborhoods, for one audience member at a time.
Posted: September 05, 2014

Before FringeArts president Nick Stuccio says a word about his $7 million HQ/theater/bistro, his annual citywide festival, or his return to the area where the Fringe made its bones, allow him a misty reminiscence about the old days - 17 years ago, before the condo craze, when Old City was a bunch of empty warehouses, cheap punk bars, and studio/galleries with a smattering of newly opening lounges from interlopers like Stephen Starr.

"We had the run of Old City as our playground," he says. Unused space on the brink of development was Fringe's to use at its whim, and "we built our reputation on that freedom. We couldn't have afforded theaters or rents - that was Fringe. That's what defined us."

"We're playing into history," says current Fringe participant Emily Rea, "not only of Philadelphia and America, but of the area and the Fringe itself. That's why we were excited to take part in your Fringe," which starts Friday.

Rea, who lived in South Philly while a student at the University of the Arts, is a cofounder of Brooklyn's Institute for Psychogeographic Adventure, which, it says, "creates site-specific performance experiences in response to local history, neighborhoods, and the urban landscape." Its Experiment #39, an audience-participatory production-cum-walking tour, takes place this weekend at sites all over Old City, in whose maze of cobbled streets FringeFest laid its foundations.

Stuccio had plenty to do even before that first one launched.

"It's funny now - not then - but it was 4:30 p.m. on the first day of 1997's first Fringe when down Arch Street comes a fleet of trucks from the city's Streets Department that, upon further inspection, were preparing to spend the entire night and weekend ripping up the streets for repaving, with all the jackhammering noise and dust that would accompany it," he recalls.

But he persuaded a childhood friend who worked for the mayor's office to phone the Streets Department and explain who Stuccio and his Fringe were ("then, absolutely nobody"). Jackhammering ceased, and the Fringe went on to make its own mess and noise.

"When Fringe was focused in Old City, it was exciting trying to find each venue before the next performance started blocks away," says New Paradise Laboratories' Whit MacLaughlin, whose The Adults is playing the Painted Bride Art Center during Fringe 2014. "Everything was tightly scheduled, so you dashed to catch the next show on your list." That list was long, and early Fringe-goers reminisce about dashing through winding alleys, upstairs to vacant warehouses, or onto loading docks at empty spots like North Second Street's National Restaurant Supply showroom.

When the festival first moved in, it was a duchy unto itself, an all-arts village. But it eventually changed its name - to Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe, and now FringeArts - and broadened its reach beyond the neighborhood. Old City changed too, first for the better, then for the worse, and now for the better again with the Arden Theatre's expansion, the modernization of Christ Church Neighborhood House, a push to revitalize the Painted Bride, and, finally, FringeArts' move into an abandoned pumping station on Columbus Boulevard across from Old City's Race Street Pier.

"Before we took over the pump house, we, of course, considered what was going on with the neighborhood," Stuccio says. "But my take was as it's always been about Old City - everything will be OK. Remember when Starbucks came in, everyone said OC was going corporate and [it would] destroy the area? It didn't."

Stuccio points out that old coffeehouses and new, as well as longtime restaurants, shops, and mom-and-pop galleries and designers, are part of the landscape. Some things don't change: The blocks north of Market were always artsy and calmer, while the south side was always more of a wilder bacchanal.

"And even that's calmed down," he notes. "Face it, Old City has a way of maintaining its rich character, no matter what."

Ties between the festival and the neighborhood remain strong. The multi-choreographer-based What I Learned About Outer Space is happening in the FringeArts hub's theater, Nassim Soleimanpour's White Rabbit, Red Rabbit starts Friday at Christ Church, New Paradise is at the Bride, and the Institute for Psychogeographic Adventure is using the historic area's nooks and crannies as its stage for Experiment #39.

Thus Fringe and Old City are once again joined at the hip, so much so that Stuccio even steered the Psychogeographic Adventure folks there for their fever dreamlike walking tour. Says Rea, "The Fringe specifically asked us to do Old City, as it was their return to the area, to celebrate its HQ and its new mission in that neighborhood."

Experiment #39 finds its band of lab-coated/space-suited artists taking on tropes of chance and random weirdness with one audience member at a time, as it has in various New York "experiments." "Thankfully," Rea says, "Brooklyn has a lot of similarity to Old City, that mix of the industrial and the commercial."

Beyond the reactivation of that energy, the troupe of choreographers, dramaturgs, and such (four people plus a slew of Philly artists for the swarm of performers that will bum-rush audiences, both participating and unsuspecting) likes the fact that Old City is focused on the marketing of American history, and, like Brooklyn, is a place where artists "made it into a more hospitable environment for wealthy people, only to find themselves displaced."

Until now. "We did some pioneering in Old City before and we're doing it again with the FringeArts HQ, showing how that area is viable," says Stuccio. "Besides, I always bought all of my holiday cards at the Clay Studio, and now I'm just that much closer to there without having to drive."

Find complete festival show, scheduling, and ticket information at www.fringearts.com.

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