News Column

2013 Fringe Festival explores new frontiers

September 1, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 01--The evolution of FringeArts and its community follows no known continuum of upwardly mobile sophistication.

Usually a paragon of nervy, aggressive hipster cool, the 2013 Fringe Festival (formerly Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe and now, at last, officially named what everybody always called it) uses a serene portrait of Jesus as its central marketing image. Among the artistic frontiers the festival will explore: silence.

"Never in a million years!" Veronica Perez of the FringeArts staff said when asked whether she could have imagined herself recruiting senior citizens to talk about their love lives in a show titled All the Sex I've Ever Had.

Other twists in the festival, which begins Thursday and ends Sept. 22, include a new collaborative piece by So Percussion using video, dance, and the members' own personal recollections about . . . home. The title: Where (we) Live.

So much for just banging on a can.

"We don't want to just do what is in fashion in the experimental theater world," said Dan Rothenberg, founder of festival regular Pig Iron Theatre. "We don't have a 'house style' with every piece."

He speaks for many. And when he revives a piece -- as Pig Iron is doing with 2005's Pay Up -- half of the eight simultaneous playlets from which audience members can choose will be new, and will reflect how the world has changed since the 2008 financial crisis.

Much of the festival's curated portion is imported from beyond Philly -- Norway, England, Canada, Oklahoma, Asia, Greece. There's a reason for that.

"People are more curious about what artists are saying about the world," says FringeArts director Nick Stuccio, who has charted levels of artistic acceptance in Philadelphia over 17 years. "Certain works, I know that if I brought them in three years before, they would've faced total rejection. The audience's international I.Q. is growing."

But not in the usual radical ways.

Many current artists are looking backward, not just with historic subject matter such as Swim Pony's The Ballad of Joe Hill, about the famous union organizer. On the Concept of the Face Regarding the Son of God examines religious iconography with a subplot that hardly fits previous notions of cool -- a man caring for his incontinent, geriatric father.

The typical "tear down the system" rebellion often embodied by cutting-edge artists is giving way to something more conciliatory, says Toronto's Darren O'Donnell, who directs the Mammalian Diving Reflex show, All the Sex I've Ever Had, and keeps up on current philosophical fields of thought.

"Now it's, 'Where can we patch it up? Where can we heal?' " he says. "We aren't saying that terrible things don't exist in the world. But there are ways of making work that brings people together rather than tearing them apart."

That trend is obliquely reflected in FringeArts ticket sales, which have risen from 27,000 in 2008 to 40,000 in 2012. New, young audiences constantly arrive, while older ones are staying.

Result: growth in every direction.

"It used to be that you'd walk down Second and Third Streets and could see everything in a span of four or five blocks," says Philadelphia choreographer Brian Sanders, who has created popular dance-theater pieces for the festival since 1999. "I was performing in a parking lot with lawn furniture . . . ."

That growth also reflects the fact that the current invited pieces -- as opposed to the free-for-all Neighborhood Fringe -- tend to be more polished, thanks to an international festival circuit that allows artists to develop their work over time.

Once nicknamed "the cringe festival," many Fringe presentations still strive for discomfort, getting under viewers' skin with some seldom-spoken truth -- The Quiet Volume, for one, which takes place in the Free Library, four people at a time.

Hearing a whispered voice over headphones while leafing through three prescribed books on an iPad is meant to "slip inside your head as much as possible," said Brit creator Ant Hampton. Then the piece's established floor plan starts morphing. "As the text fades away on the page, you're left alone with the voice, so you don't know if what she's saying is what's been written. There's an element of decay and destruction. " And abandonment.

Whether or not the Fringe aims to ambush, it does. All the Sex I've Ever Had is hardly a romantic walk down memory lane. Everywhere it's done, participants are recruited, often at senior centers; here, the older LGBT community was tapped at the William Way Center. Anticipated reactions are contradicted time and again.

In the show's Edinburgh version, a man who'd slept with 2,000 women when he was age 18 and 34 would seem to have been unbelievably busy. "But it's not that hard to do," says O'Donnell. "It worked out to about 18 a month." Some 60-ish women report being fetishized by much younger men. Also remarkable is how fearlessly the elders discuss sex. What do they have to lose?

In Where (we) Live, So Percussion of Brooklyn has what it calls "guest artisans" onstage -- a metalworker, a home brewer -- practicing their trades, perhaps in the name of defining what "home" can mean. Or perhaps not -- "Sometimes when you start telling audiences what they're supposed to hear you're limiting their experience," says ensemble member Eric Beach. If there's a sound you can't quite identify, it may be the group's amplified cactus.

How fringe-y is all this? Intuitive artists such as Sanders, whose past pieces have had Jean Cocteau-style surrealism as well as simulated sex with blowtorches, can't think that way. "I don't feel like I push boundaries," he said. "I just try to look at things differently, and people say that it's something new." This year, he uses the highest heels imaginable in choreography for a piece titled Hush Now Sweet High Heels and Oak -- for reasons that will be different for each beholder.

Failure is a statistical inevitability among groups that consistently take risks. Do Fringe participants have the freedom to flop? "There used to be that freedom,' says Rothenberg of Pig Iron. "Our show last year [Zero Cost House] was the most divisive we've had in a long time. A third hated it. A third loved it. That's when artists say you're doing something right. But it's painful."

Did regular funders subsequently step away? "A little bit."

"We always worry," said Beach, whose So Percussion has a decade-plus history of premiering major new works. "We're not always in control of our process as much as we'd like to be."

"I get nervous showing new sides of myself," admits Sanders.

No one knows how much fear can tame creativity. In any case, the curated portions of FringeArts may well be more a contemporary arts festival than a place of high experimentation. And is there anything wrong with that?

Such questions will have a new playing field when FringeArts becomes a permanent year-round operation with a real home: a 10,000-square-foot 1903 pumping station at Race Street and Columbus Boulevard with a full season of events starting in late fall. "We've cultivated an audience and only give them 16 nights a year," says Stuccio. "They're ready for much more."

Don't think the relationship between real estate and creativity is incidental. Artists who find Philadelphia is no longer the cheap-rent haven it was in the 1990s can't help but be encouraged by a new fixed presentation location. One element of particular importance to Stuccio is the late-night events that, one assumes, will be exceptionally fringe-y.

"That," he says, "is where collaborations happen."

If You Go: Fringe Festival

For information about performance schedules, venues, ticket prices, and run dates of all the Fringe and Neighborhood Fringe productions and events, go to www.fringearts.com. Box office, noon to 8 p.m.: 215-413-1318.

Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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