FringeArts Blog

Necessity is the Mother of Invention: The 2018 Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival

Posted July 20th, 2018

The Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival is back for its fourth season, and this year’s theme is Motherhood in Theater. The PWTF is partnering with Parent Artist Advocacy League (PAAL) to present four staged readings and a children’s play written and directed by mothers, and exploring the joys, complexities, and challenges of parenthood.

Cofounders Polly Edelstein and Christine Petrini have each been involved in theater locally and around the world for many years, and in 2014 they graduated together from Villanova University, earning masters of arts in theater. That same year, they decided to confront the lack of opportunities for women in theater, onstage and off, by founding a festival highlighting women’s voices and perspectives that are often misrepresented or left unheard.

Co-founders Polly Edelstein and Christine Petrini (center) promote the 2016 festival

 

The inspiration for this year’s theme comes from seeing the work parents do to juggle art and life. “Last spring we co-hosted a panel on motherhood in the arts with Rachel Spencer Hewitt of PAAL. It was such an inspiring panel that opened our eyes to how talented parent artists are, not only as theater artists but as humans able to take on the many different responsibilities of parenthood and making art,” says Edelstein, artistic director of PWTF and creator of 2011 Fringe Festival show Trappings. For the 2018 festival, Edelstein and Petrini hope to give an artistic platform to parent artists, as well as to provide the resources and support needed for successful art production.  

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Does It All Add Up? Trey Lyford on The Accountant

Posted July 18th, 2018

Trey Lyford’s distinct brand of physical theater has impressed Fringe Festival audiences in all wear bowlers (2005), Amnesia Curiosa (2006) and Elephant Room (2011). He returns to the Festival this year with The Accountant, a new interdisciplinary theater piece that follows the story of a middle-aged office clerk stuck in the tedium of life, fusing physical theater, humor, and illusion to create a “dreamscape of memory and loss.”

Lyford’s latest work will give audiences the chance to ruminate on their own lives, to think about the people who have come and gone, who have touched them in different ways. In witnessing the accountant coming to terms with the loss in his life, viewers are immersed in Lyford’s humor, slapstick, and illusion while reckoning with their own experiences. We asked Lyford about how the show has evolved since its conception and about the many performance forms that make up this innovative piece.

FringeArts: What was the initial inspiration for The Accountant?

Trey Lyford: The piece has been a long time coming . . . I originally thought of the show when I was temping in New York City in my early twenties. I was working at a pretty normal office, with glass-fronted offices that surrounded a pool of partitions for all the assistants in the middle. I was walking around delivering mail and one of the offices was completely dark and had an old man hunched over his desk. There was a lamp and he had stacks of paper surrounding him, floor to ceiling. It was right out of a Dickens novel and totally out of place in the modern office building. I have no idea what he did, or what his title was, but I felt like he had a secret doorway into another world under his desk. I have never been able to shake that image.

I came back to this idea (and also to one of my favorite Beckett pieces, Krapp’s Last Tape) when I started hitting middle age. This isolation really began to speak to me when my life was hit with five important deaths within two years. The people who were sick or dying and the people who they left behind all had to take stock, look back at their lives and put it all together somehow. I was in awe of that space. The moments of total clarity, beauty, and sorrow.

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Steamy Nights On the Plains: An Interview with Trajal Harrell on Caen Amour

Posted July 11th, 2018

Trajal Harrell is a dancer and choreographer who uses history to inform the contemporary dance he creates. Known for the series Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church, parts of which were performed in the 2014 Fringe Festival, Harrell recently completed a two-year residency at MoMA, where he turned his attention to butoh, a form of Japanese dance theater. That study informs his entry into the 2018 Fringe Festival, Caen Amour, a new work that draws inspiration from dance styles of the near and distant past. Harrell gives viewers a look into the hoochie-coochie shows of the early 20th-century, positing that perhaps this early form of erotic dance served as an origin of dance as a modern artform. His piece, which premiered at the Festival Avignon in 2016, is an invitation into a historical imagination, Harrell’s vision of the exoticized, orientalist peep shows that drew in crowds a century ago. FringeArts talked to Harrell about his historical influences and the different styles that all exist in this innovative dance work.

FringeArts: Do you remember how you decided upon the title Caen Amour? Do you remember where you were when you decided upon it?

Trajal Harrell: I don’t remember where I was but the title was an attempt at a cheesy title for a hoochie-coochie show. Another, for example, could have been “Steamy Nights on the Plains.” In the case of Caen Amour, the title is a mix of the city Caen, France, and the word for love in French. Because of my touring schedule, Caen is the place I’ve spent the longest consecutive time since 2009. It’s still reigning. Also, Caen Amour when you say it could almost sound like “quand amour” which means “when love?”

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Thinking Out Of The Music Box: Phyllis Chen on In Plain Air

Posted July 2nd, 2018

Christ Church recently completed the installation of a state-of-the-art C.B. Fisk pipe organ in its historic home, one of the oldest buildings in the nation. In a world premiere performance at this year’s Fringe Festival, musicians from International Contemporary Ensemble will explore the physicality of the grand organ, the lasting power of its sustained notes, and the tangibility of its vibration throughout the space.

In Plain Air is composed by Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis. A founder of International Contemporary Ensemble, Chen has worked extensively with toy pianos and other miniature mechanical objects, but the massive organ presents new challenges due to its enormous size and complex mechanics. Chen spoke to FringeArts about the inspiration behind the piece, the distinctive quality of the Christ Church organ, and the significance of working inside one of Philadelphia’s most historic buildings.

One portion of this work will be made entirely from crowd-sourced music box compositions created at a music box-making session this weekend, July 8, at the Philadelphia Magic Gardens. Chen will guide Philadelphians as they create their own music box piece by punching out holes in a paper strip. These compositions will then be joined from end to end (exquisite-corpse style), creating a grand music box composition to be unveiled in the Christ Church courtyard prior to entering the church as part of In Plain Air. 

FringeArts: How does this project fit into your larger career and to International Contemporary Ensemble’s mission?

Phyllis Chen: I have been a pianist since I was five but this has been my first opportunity to explore the organ. I can still remember the first time Parker (the Christ Church organist) walked us through the innards of the organ while it was still being constructed…all the pulleys, levers and Rube Goldberg-esque design that took such engineering and craftsmanship to create. As a composer I have gravitated towards cheap, miniature and small objects as musical instruments, so working with this new state of the art organ has been a new direction for me, despite it being in the keyboard family.

As a pianist, the organ has always been a bit like a mythical instrument to me for its large range and coloristic possibilities. For example, there are low sounds of the instrument that can be physically felt in the space for its powerful vibrations. As I enjoy playing and composing for small instruments, finding the organ has begged me to think more about the place in which it lives and how it is part of its surroundings. This has led me to think of ways of incorporating the community and the performers into the space itself.

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Scenes from a Life: Ishmael Houston-Jones on John Bernd and Contemporary Dance

Posted June 26th, 2018

Ishmael Houston-Jones has lived dance history. Now a New York-based choreographer, performer, and teacher, Houston-Jones was a staple in the East Village experimental dance community in the 1980s, having moved to the city from Philadelphia in 1979. One of his collaborators during this period of innovation was John Bernd, the interdisciplinary artist whose work forms the core of Houston-Jones’ upcoming Fringe show Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and other works by John Bernd.

Drawing on his own experience dancing in Bernd’s Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life, as well as the reality of losing an entire generation of artists to the AIDS epidemic, Houston-Jones teamed up with Miguel Gutierrez to create a new work that mashes up seven of Bernd’s pieces. This entirely new performance displays Bernd’s lasting influence on contemporary dance and imagines what his work might have looked like today. We asked Houston-Jones about the inspiration behind the show and about his experience working with the influential choreographer.

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Nicole Burgio Shoots For The Moon in Almanac’s xoxo moongirl

Posted June 25th, 2018

The newest show from Almanac Dance Circus Theatre, xoxo moongirl, comes this Tuesday, June 26 to Christ Church Neighborhood House. Fringe favorite Almanac is the company behind Exile 2588 (2016) and Leaps of Faith and Other Mistakes (2017), and will appear again in the 2018 Festival with Jeanne/Jean/John/Jawn, a circus extravaganza.

Nicole Burgio

Almanac’s current show xoxo moongirl is an autobiographical solo performance by company member Nicole Burgio, who tells the story of her childhood, which was plagued by domestic violence and abuse. Using many forms of performance art, Burgio confronts her past and, in it, finds hope and resilience.

I think often times when bad or violent things are portrayed in media and popular culture, they are either communicated about in a very clinical way so that the facts are all 100% accurate, or they can be very graphic,” director Ben Grinberg tells FringeArts, discussing the timeliness of the show amid the #MeToo era. “Using dance, circus, and theater, we can get at all of the feelings and sensations and acts of processing that are messy and not clear cut.”

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On the Record: Rebecca Wright on Applied Mechanics’ Latest Performance

Posted June 22nd, 2018

Philadelphia’s Applied Mechanics established itself as a Fringe Festival favorite with half a dozen shows between It’s Hard Times at the Camera Blanca in 2009 and Feed in 2016. The company will be absent from the Festival this September, but the cast of its latest offering, This Is On Record, draws heavily from 2018 Festival stars: Annie Wilson will feature in Meg Foley’s The undergird, Thomas Choinacky is part of Simpatico Theatre’s 4Solo show, and contributing writer Mary Tuomanen will appear in the Bearded Ladies’ Do You Want A Cookie?

This Is On Record displays Applied Mechanics’ signature immersive style, transforming 3,800-square-foot Glass Factory performance space in Brewerytown to tell six intersecting stories simultaneously. The show investigates the construction of cultural narratives through the lives of six different people as their paths intersect across time. FringeArts spoke to company member Rebecca Wright about the play, which opens tonight and runs through July 1.   

The cast of THIS IS ON RECORD: Alison Ormsby, Annie Wilson, Brett Robinson, Thomas Choinacky, Anita Holland and Daniel Park.

FringeArts: How does the format of the show contribute to its meaning and to the audience’s experience of watching the performance?

Rebecca Wright: This is a piece about the construction of cultural narratives and the various biases and circumstances that shape both the stories we tell and those we inherit. The parallel narrative immersive structure—where many stories are unfolding simultaneously and the audience is free to watch who and how they want—highlights how subjective storymaking is, as well as the question of how much we can and can’t control about what we see and inherit. Multiplicity is also really key here: there is not, in fact, ever one story—there are always multiple perspectives—and the structure of our work reflects this quite literally.

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John Jarboe Gets Nostalgic with an Exploration of Mister Rogers

Posted June 19th, 2018

John Jarboe and the Bearded Ladies Cabaret will provide a highlight of the 2018 Fringe Festival with Do You Want A Cookie?, which uses live performance to trace the long history of cabaret, from Weimar Germany to 21st-century drag shows.

Before taking a bite from the poison cookie, don’t miss Jarboe performing as Mx. Rogers, an updated version of the friendly face you remember seeing on your childhood television set. You Can Never Go Down The Drain is a show that honors Rogers’s prolific songwriting career and presents the lessons in these songs—some that stuck with us and others we have long forgotten—in a new format for a grown-up audience. The show, which opens this Wednesday at the Wilma Theater, is a chance for adults to come to terms with their beliefs when confronted by life’s realities.

“Like so many of Bearded Ladies shows, You Can Never Go Down The Drain is a poison cookie of sorts,” says Jarboe, artistic director of the Bearded Ladies. “It uses that nostalgia and power of Mr. Rogers, sing-a-long, and enormous costumes to seduce the performers and the audience into some hard questions about being human.”

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People are Strange and other revelations from Josh McIlvain

Posted June 13th, 2018

FringeArts superfriend Josh McIlvain wears many hats in this week’s performance People are Strange and other revelations, serving as writer, performer, and producer. He is joined by performers Tara Demmy and Marissa Kennedy, and by writer/performer Nik Menotiades. This team of creators delivers a show that is at once funny, thought-provoking, and utterly bizarre.  

When describing the performances in People are Strange, McIlvain explains: “I think one thing that unites them is that they all involve fuckups to varying degrees, and they all have a lot of humor, though the tones and styles of the piece are varied enough to keep it interesting.”   

The show consists of four short solo performances set in different rooms of the Da Vinci Art Alliance in Bella Vista. It is a collection of moments, of the seemingly insignificant encounters of life. The audience will move between rooms of the art gallery to view the series of distinct yet cohesive performances. “As the show is made up of four separate places, we are able to create four different performance spaces,” says McIlvain. “These aren’t radical changes, but there is a pleasure in these little shifts between areas, and for the audience to be led to a new room or even part of the same room, and to encounter the next performance.”  

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Join The Crossing on a Musical Journey

Posted June 6th, 2018

Coming up in the 2018 Fringe Festival is Of Arms and the Man, a performance by Grammy-winning choir The Crossing. The show will explore ideas of life during war and the alliances and enemies that can be formed across national borders. It is a discussion through music about life, death, and purpose.

Before presenting this new work at Fringe, The Crossing will kick off the summer for the ninth year in a row with The Month of Moderns, a festival of new music led by conductor Donald Nally. The festival’s theme this year, life journeys, arises from the need to look inward, to reflect, examine one’s own life, and speak out on the current political environment.

Donald Nally. Photo by Becky Oehlers Photography.

“When I was a child, I was fascinated by how sad cows’ eyes seemed. I wondered if they were lonely,” says Nally on his inspiration for this year’s festival. “I no longer wonder that; they are animals, like us, and of course they are. I thought we might make a season about that.”

The Crossing, a world-renowned vocal ensemble, sings new music that reflects the values of our time and the issues facing the modern world. Every year, the choir unveils world premieres and performs music unlike anything the audience has heard before. Working with new pieces allows the members of The Crossing to explore the music and to freely interpret the notes and lyrics, creating a truly unique experience for both performers and audience members.

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Sam Tower Straps On Her Director’s Helmet For Simpatico’s Red Bike

Posted June 1st, 2018

Sam Tower is a longtime Fringe Festival favorite, having participated in at least six Festival shows since 2009. Her newly renamed production company, Ninth Planet produced Festival hits 901 Nowhere Street (2016) and Strange Tenants (2017).

This month, she’s teaming up with Simpatico Theatre as director for Red Bike, a play written by Caridad Svich that follows an 11-year-old child who, while riding a bike, discovers a world bigger than they could have imagined. We asked Sam about the play, her directing, and her newly rebranded company.

FringeArts: How did you become involved in this project?

Sam Tower. Photos courtesy Plate 3.

Sam Tower. Photo courtesy Plate 3.

Sam Tower: When Allison Heishman became the new artistic director of Simpatico Theatre, it was clear that her talents as a producer and director would support the community-centered mission of the company, and that she would continue to bring imaginative, socially driven new work to Philadelphia. Well, she decided to waste NO time in getting a new season up on its feet. She approached me as a director for Red Bike, and upon my first reading of Caridad’s play I was shook/enthralled/conflicted/inspired… all the things you want to be when beginning a new artistic process.

FringeArts: What appeals to you about Caridad Svich’s writing and this play in particular?

Sam Tower: The play is direct address from the perspective of “The Kid”, an 11-year-old. “The Kid” is a detailed storyteller, and also a dizzying narrator, taking you down winding curves and tunnels of memory, fantasy and vulnerable confessions of the pre-adolescent person. The play is cyclical, raw and poetic, and the language is so vibrant — dreamy and cutting at the same time. On first reading, I was already seeing three bodies in space as The Kid and hearing percussive musical scoring inside my head — that’s when you know you have to go for it. I quickly brought Jordan McCree and Andrew Nittoli of ILL DOOTS on board as live musicians to score this Kid’s epic afternoon on their bike.

FringeArts: How does directing this play fit into your other work?

Sam Tower: Caridad has written, “Writing for live performance is about writing for the body. It’s all in the body,” which speaks to my artistic process so directly. The rhythm and physicality of the body are integral in the work I make with actors. Athletic physicality is a vessel to be filled, a container for our deepest rivers of unexplainable expression. Those experiences must be held somehow. And in this play, they live in between the details, in lives in the long strings of broken words, they live in the music, and in the body.

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Taking Care: Nell Bang-Jensen on Pig Iron’s new show

Posted May 30th, 2018

“I was thinking about what happens in domestic spaces that is often hidden from plain sight but could benefit from being brought into the open”

Pig Iron Theatre Company is well established as Fringe Festival favorite, with Pay Up (2005, 2013) Welcome to Yuba City (2009), Cankerblossum (2010) and A Period of Animate Existence (2017) among its many memorable offerings. The company’s interim associate artistic director, Nell Bang-Jensen is a prominent figure in the Philadelphia theater world committed to expanding the boundaries of theater production and consumption. She uses models of community engagement and social practice to reimagine the way theater can include and represent the diverse community it serves.

Bang-Jensen has brought her interest in community involvement to Pig Iron Theatre’s new show The Caregivers, a play created by and starring caregivers from the neighborhood surrounding Pig Iron’s headquarters in Old Kensington, where it is on show this weekend (shows are FREE but “sold out” and waiting list–only). The involvement of real caregivers in every step of the process allows authentic, lived experiences to be revealed, and shines a spotlight on underpaid, often invisible members of the community. We spoke with Bang-Jensen to learn more about the inspiration for the show as well as the joys and challenges of putting caregivers, creators, and actors together in one room.

Nell Bang-Jensen

Nell Bang-Jensen

FringeArts: What inspired The Caregivers?

Nell Bang-Jensen: I’m serving as interim associate artistic director of Pig Iron through a grant from the Theatre Communications Group . One of my focal points of the last eighteen months was observing and working with theaters around the country (and abroad) that have radical approaches to community engagement. I think sometimes theaters use the term “community engagement”  as a blanket term that really just means trying to diversify their audiences. I’m more interested by models of civic and social practice, which go beyond questions of how to make specific productions more inclusive and accessible, and ask more broadly: how is a theater actually serving its community? How could it be? It requires us in the theater industry to step back and think more deeply about  what the form of theater specifically is primed to do.

I knew I wanted the culmination of this grant period to be making a piece with citizen artists who were both driving the content and also performing.  Pig Iron’s neighborhood [what’s known as Old Kensington] is largely residential and I was thinking about what happens in domestic spaces that is often hidden from plain sight but could benefit from being brought into the open. I also took stock of what organizations were around and noticed that almost all of them had to do with giving care: there is a Visiting Nurse Group, Hospice Center, and Children’s Crisis Treatment Center all within a few blocks of Pig Iron.

I’ve always been interested in the topic of caregiving in general, in part because babysitting and nannying were my go-to side jobs when I was starting out as a theater artist. I was always struck by the intimate acts that strangers perform for each other in these roles, for what is ultimately a financial transaction.  Many of the bonds I formed with families were intense and long lasting, and yet we don’t have many labels in our society to describe these tangential, non-familial relationships of care.

On the other end of the age spectrum, I was very close with my grandfather, who passed away three years ago. I was born on his 65th birthday and we made an effort to celebrate every shared birthday together until he died. I remember being in a hospice center with him as he died, feeling completely helpless, and being overwhelmed by the proficiency and competence of the hospice workers. They were able to provide for him in ways his family members, including myself, could not. These acts of care are profound, and yet people who perform them (who are, unsurprisingly, mostly women) are some of the lowest paid workers in our society.

FringeArts: Do you remember where you were when the idea for the show came to you?

Nell Bang-Jensen: That our capitalist society places so little value on the work of literally keeping people alive is fascinating (and utterly depressing) to me.  I was thinking about all of these things and was out getting coffee one day and came across a banner at the Lutheran Settlement House (half a block from Pig Iron). It was advertising their CARES program, a support group for informal, unpaid family members who are caring for vulnerable relatives. It was the final sign I needed that this topic was worth pursuing in this neighborhood.

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You can be Le Super Grand

Posted May 21st, 2018

Do you want to be a part of a grand Fringe Festival show? Here’s your chance. Audition next month to participate in Le Super Grand Continental, one of the world’s most infectious art events.

Le Grand Continental® Philadelphia Museum of Art Plaza, Philadelphia Fringe Festival

Photo by Sylvain Émard Danse

The 2012 Fringe Festival kicked off with a large scale performance unlike anything Philadelphia had seen before. One hundred and fifty volunteer dancers of all ages and backgrounds assembled at the iconic Philadelphia Art Museum steps and twirled into a rhythmic human kaleidoscope of celebratory dance. Le Grand Continental was a joyous and intoxicating spectacle, one that united people from across Philadelphia’s diverse communities and was praised by the Philadelphia Inquirer as “fantastic… it left the audience cheering for more.”

Since then Le Grand Continental has travelled across the globe, gathering together hundreds of dance enthusiasts to perform its sensational choreography, which combines festive line dancing with the fluidity and expressiveness of contemporary dance.

“In every city the reaction is the same,” says Montreal’s Sylvain Émard, the mastermind behind this acclaimed work. “No matter the culture, the participants experience the same excitement and emotions. Same for the audiences. There is an obvious sense of pride to achieve such a challenge. It also allows the people to somehow reconnect with the city they live in.”

This year, the Fringe Festival will be ushered in once again Sept 8 & 9, 2018, with Émard’s unifying work, but with one key difference. As the title Le Super Grand Continental suggests, this time around Émard and his team are doing it bigger and are looking to gather 200 dancers to realize this remarkable performance, which features whole-new choreography.

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Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium Peels Back the Layers of This Absurd World

Posted May 18th, 2018

“The absurd is not in man…nor in the world, but in their presence together”—Albert Camus

Each Fringe Festival, the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium’s entry into the Fringe Festival is one of the first shows on the schedule and one of the most frequently performed. After several years exploring the works of French avant-garde playwright Eugene Ionesco (Rhinoceros [2014], Exit the King [2015], The Chairs [2016], Bald Soprano [2017]), the absurdist theater company switches its 2018 Fringe Festival attention to Tennessee Williams with a staging of his seldom-performed The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, September 4–23,  at The Bethany Mission Gallery. First though, IRC pads their Festival budget this Sunday, May 20, with a special one-night performance of Raw Onion 2018: Comfort Food.

The cast of IRC’s Raw Onion 2018: Comfort Food.

An annual tradition  at L’Etage Cabaret since 2008, Raw Onion stages commentary pieces from satirical magazine The Onion.

The show traces its history to acting classes in the early ’00s. “We began testing out material from magazines: editorials mostly, to see how the thoughts on the page held up/could be adjusted slightly for drama and comedy,” says Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium artistic director Tina Brock. “One of our favorite characters was the alter ego of Herbert Kornfeld, an employee in the accounts receivable department at Midstate Office Supply [in a fictitious Onion column]. A guy in class worked up one of Herbert’s monologues, it was ridiculous. We continued to test out this material in class, figuring out how to activate the words that were written to be read.”

IRC contacted The Onion for permission rights to perform pieces from the commentary section. Now the challenge lies in selecting material to illustrate the current gestalt, where real-world headlines feel drawn from the pages of The Onion.

“Since the election, selecting material for the IRC seasons (both Onion and regular mainstage season) has become a different challenge,” explains Brock. “Since the daily news is far more absurd than anything the IRC could present, the question becomes what is the response to that, as opposed to illustrating the thing. It would be a daunting task to outdo theatrically the current political situation.”

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Songs of Rivers Tempesta di Mare Has Seen

Posted May 16th, 2018

The 2018 Fringe Festival features Songs of Wars I have seen, an intriguing theater/music work by composer Heiner Goebbels inspired by a World War II memoir by Gertrude Stein. The composition will be performed (and spoken) by musicians from two local ensembles. But while the Philadelphia Orchestra will be familiar to most Festival-goers, baroque orchestra Tempesta di Mare remains less known.

This weekend provides an opportunity to get to know the classical ensemble, as they present their Spring program in concerts at Penn’s Landing and in Chestnut Hill. The program, River Music: Bach & Telemann on Water’s Edge, includes pieces by J.S. Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann, Baroque heavyweights whose compositions figure prominently in Tempesta’s seasons.

“This music is powerful and evocative, and it tells fascinating stories,” says Rafael Schneider, who works for the orchestra. Telemann’s piece “Hamburger Ebbe und Flut” (Hamburg ebb and flow) premiered in 1723 at a large hall overlooking the Port of Hamburg, a location Schneider compares to the Independence Seaport Museum overlooking Penn’s Landing and the Delaware. The Seaport Museum will host Saturday night’s concert, an event which also serves as the centerpiece of Tempesta’s annual gala. This festive gathering includes boat rides along the Delaware, a cocktail hour with signature drinks, a meal, and a post-concert dessert reception with the artists.

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Mission Complete: Playwright Collective Orbiter 3 Launches Its Final Show

Posted May 15th, 2018

After producing six world premieres by local writers, playwright collective Orbiter 3 brings the curtain down on its three-year project with one final play, L.M. Feldman’s A People.

“The scale of this show makes for a fitting end,” collective member Douglas Williams tells FringeArts, as he considers the company’s coda, which runs May 16-June 2, 2018, at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. “It’s a huge sprawling show, both in terms of story and production.”

“These are qualities producers often shy away from,” adds Emma Goidel, another founding member of the collective, “and ones Orbiter 3 set out to embrace.”

L. M. Feldman

Goidel and Williams are two of creative theatermakers who form Orbiter 3. They are joined by playwrights Emily Acker, L M Feldman, Sam Henderson, James Ijames, and Mary Tuomanen — some of the best-regarded theater writers in Philadelphia — and led by artistic director Maura Krause, with associate producer Erin Washburn and company manager Cat Ramirez. Over its lifespan, Orbiter 3 has produced a play by each of its playwrights, from James Ijames’ Moon Man Walk in June/July 2015 to Sam Henderson’s The Brownings (a presentation by FringeArts) in November/December 2017.

“You can judge for yourself if you think each individual production was a success,” says Williams, looking back on the company’s output. “But, in my book, they were each artistically daring and brought a new story to Philly’s stages that audiences would not otherwise have been able to enjoy.”

Several playwrights used the opportunity to produce plays unlikely to be staged by mainstream companies. Whiting Award–winner Ijames launched Orbiter 3 with a quasi rom com that inhabited a world completely populated by African American characters. Goidel’s A Knee That Can Bend looked at a circle of queer friends in Senegal. Williams chose to use an ensemble devising process to create Breath Smoke, a piece billed as “more narrative mixtape than play.” Mary Tuomanen’s Peaceable Kingdom featured a cast of eighteen.

“Outside of a theater like The Wilma, or Walnut Street, you’re not seeing a show like that get produced in Philly, and certainly not a world premiere by a local playwright,” claims Williams. “I’m just so proud we were able to take those risks and put those stories and performers on a Philly stage.”

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Death of Kings and Patriarchy: Revolution Shakespeare Reads Richard II

Posted May 11th, 2018

Whet your appetite for Revolution Shakespeare’s September show and help smash the patriarchy with a non-cis-male staged reading of Richard II, this Monday, May 14, at the Painted Bride Arts Center.

We’ve all heard the story: In Elizabethan theater, women weren’t allowed on stage, so all the female roles in all Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed by male actors (though exceptions were made for Gwyneth Paltrow). These days, some theater companies choose to revisit those troglodyte times by staging all-male versions of the Bard’s canon.

Revolution Shakespeare is not one of those companies.

For its large-scale Fringe Festival show this September 12-22, the company will present Troilus and Cressida with few, if any, actors who identify as male. The production revisits last May’s “Revolt against the Patriarchy” staged reading of the bleak Shakespearean tragedy. Monday’s reading of the beautifully poetic historical drama Richard II is also billed under the same banner.

Revolution Shakespeare presented “all-female” versions of Shakespeare’s oeuvre for several years, but they redubbed the series Revolt Against the Patriarchy “to be less binary, open it up to other voices and also rock the political a bit,” says Rev Shakes artistic director Griffin Stanton-Ameisen.

“When doing any classical text, I worry about the ways misogyny is coded into the storytelling and the language itself. Even though Shakespeare is my all-time favorite playwright, doing his work can feel irresponsible at times,” adds Hannah Van Sciver, who plays the titular poet-king in Monday’s reading. “This cast and artistic team allow me to worry a little bit less about that, as we’re actively combatting it through our casting.”

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A Séancers Syllabus

Posted May 10th, 2018

Photo by Julieanne Harris

This weekend, Nigerian–American curator, poet, and performance artist Jaamil Olawale Kosoko brings his latest work to FringeArts. Informed by the deaths of all his immediate family members, Séancers collapses lyrical poetry, movement forms, and discursive performance to explore how the American racialized body uses psychic, spiritual, and theoretical strategies to shape shift through loss and oppression.

Kosoko’s artistic practice is in many ways guided by his voracity as a reader and, in the case of Séancers, many of the works that inspired the piece were also pertinent to his grieving process, to seeing his loss in a greater context of cultural erasure and systemic oppression of Black people in America. At the top of a recent episode of Terrible, Thanks for Asking, he offered, “I think of a quote by James Baldwin: ‘You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.’ And I think really situating myself inside of being bookish has allowed me an understanding to know that my story is not particularly unique.”

Below is a list of texts and works that inspired Kosoko to make Séancers—a mix of Black theory, poetry, performance art, and video art—along with links and quotes (some direct, some contextual) to help spark your own exploration into these illuminating sources.

 

Mumia Abu-Jamal and Cornel West, “The Empire Files: Black Radical Tradition”

 

James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket (Viewing and Reading)

“If Raoul Peck’s fiery documentary I Am Not Your Negro piqued your interest in all things James Baldwin, then try this movie as a companion piece… This 1989 documentary is full of archival footage, recordings of Baldwin reading his work, old interviews, photographs and memories from friends like Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka. Although some scenes, like a recreation of Baldwin’s fight with his father, haven’t aged gracefully, the documentary’s focus on Baldwin’s personal and creative life humanizes this literary legend.” Monica Castillo, The New York Times

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Wake Work: An Interview With Jaamil Olawale Kosoko

Posted May 7th, 2018

Photo by Leni Olafson

Nigerian–American curator, poet, and performance artist is far more acquainted with loss than a person his age should be. At 34, he is the only living member of his immediate family. In a recent interview with the podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking, he detailed his tumultuous upbringing and the devastating losses that have marked his life. Kosoko is quick to note that his story is not extraordinary, that the pain and hardship he’s experienced is far more common than some might care to acknowledge. However, what is unique about Kosoko’s story is his ongoing journey towards “post-traumatic enlightenment,” which has seen him allowing grief to inform his artistic process and letting his work inform his healing process. “In grief work, you may know that in order to help someone move beyond a hard moment, there’s this idea of a transitional object,” he notes in the episode, adding, “That’s really what my creative work is doing for me.”

This weekend, Kosoko will bring his latest work, Séancers, to FringeArts and as the show’s title suggests it is one that approaches loss head on. Presented as a literal séance, complete with a different guest artist/theorist who helps frame the witnessing of each performance, it explores the ways in which the American racialized body uses psychic, spiritual, and theoretical strategies to shapeshift through loss and oppression in surreal and fantastical fashion. “I’m thinking a lot about trying to heal, strategies of survival that have been embedded in black thought, black life, really since black people landed on the Americas—about larger societal traumas and my own personal traumas and how they’re engaged in this dance,” Kosoko shared in a recent The New York Times profile. In this way, Séancers reaches beyond personal loss to encompass cultural loss as well, particularly those that relate to rituals, to old modes of congregating among African-Americans that Kosoko sees as extinct or dying.

Recently, FringeArts caught up with Kosoko to learn more about the theories and art that informs Séancers and what audiences can expect to witness.

FringeArts: What made you think up the title Séancers?

Jaamil Olawale Kosoko: My previous piece #negrophobia was described as a kind of séance as I toured it throughout Europe over the past couple years. It felt like a natural progression to lean more into themes of paranormal activity, loss, and resurrection as it relates to Black identities. Of course I’m also thinking a lot about Black theory, which has been incredibly healing and informative for me as a way to come to terms with personal and societal trauma. Black conceptual technologies such as fugivity (Fred Moten), afro-pessimism (Frank Wilderson), and intersectionality (Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw) have given me a deeper intellectual framework to ground the ideas and metaphors that are situated inside my new work, Séancers. Lastly, the work has literally become a way for me to stay in close relationship to my dead family. I’m the only living member of my immediate family.

Have a listen to an interview I recently did here.

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Vender Una Fantasia: An Interview With Alex Torra

Posted April 13th, 2018

Cuban President Raúl Castro’s second term is coming to a close and as such he’s preparing to vacate the office, making good on the two-term limit he set back in 2013. Though he intends to remain on the National Assembly and retain his position as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba (the country’s only legal party), for the first time since 1959 someone other than a Castro will rule the island. On April 19th, Cuba’s National Assembly will undertake the historic vote to decide just who that someone will be. The following day, as the reality of that outcome is settling in with Cuban citizens, those of us here in the island’s not-so-friendly neighbor to the north will have a chance to settle into some theater seats and get an irreverent, pointed examination of our nations’ contentious relationship.

Jenna Horton and Benjamin Camp. Photo by Kate Raines, Plate 3 Photography.

¡BIENVENIDOS BLANCOS! OR WELCOME WHITE PEOPLE! will receive its world premiere here at FringeArts on April 20th through the 28th. This new, original play from Team Sunshine Performance Corporation has been years in the making, and a true passion project for the ambitious company’s co-founder Alex Torra. Serving as the show’s lead artist and director, he was spurred to create the work in part because of his complicated relationship with his Cuban heritage. However, as the project has grown, it’s expanded its concerns far beyond the personal to encompass the long history of cultural exploitation and outsider ignorance Cuba has suffered through. Case in point, I’m embarrassed to admit just how recently I became aware that Cuba’s aforementioned vote was happening so soon. Live and learn.

Recently, we spoke with Torra to learn more about the origins of this bold, lively new play; the long journey to making it a reality, full of trips to Cuba and visa nightmares; and what audiences can expect to see onstage once the rumba beat starts.

FringeArts: Where did the title ¡BIENVENIDOS BLANCOS! OR WELCOME WHITE PEOPLE! arise from?

Alex Torra: Back in 2015, I had an opportunity to travel to Cuba for the first time. It was a super intense and difficult trip for me – for many Cuban-Americans, we only understand Cuba through the things our parents tell us and from photos or videos. To see it with your own eyes is a whole different experience.

I was really taken aback by how many of my interactions were tourism-based, and how much of the culture I was seeing was focused on getting (at that time) white tourists to have a great time and spend money. I kept having the strangest sensation – that Cuba was selling itself. I saw this phrase “Rentar Una Fantasia” on the back of a taxi. It clobbered me. Cuba has opened its doors to tourists, and now, tourism serves as one of the largest sources of revenue for the country. Cuba openly caters to tourists, and especially tourists from wealthy majority-white nations, to come and partake of the island and culture. It’s for the sake of survival, for sure, but it makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Idalmis Garcia. Photo by Kate Raines, Plate 3 Photography.

In my research, I discovered that this is a recurring theme in Cuban history. There is desire/repel quality to the way Cuba has dealt with foreigners. It goes as far back as La Conquista, where the Native people of the island, at some moments, welcomed Spanish strangers to the “New” World before they were enslaved, tortured, converted, and poisoned by European sicknesses. Then, in the 19th and 20th Centuries, Cubans, who had achieved independence from Spain had begun to welcome Americans. The Americans, in the early 20th century, used Cuba as a new marketplace and the island, especially Havana, became a kind of playground for the mafia, Hollywood, and tourists. When Castro came into power, many Cubans were happy to see the Americans go, but then the country became reliant on the Soviet Union. After the fall of Russian Communism, Cuba opened up to tourism for the first time in 40-50 years, welcoming European and Canadian tourists, and now, Cuba has opened up and is welcoming American tourists.  It’s a powerful and complicated story, of both revolting against these outside forces and also welcoming them in.

FringeArts: How has your identity and relationship with your heritage informed the piece from its conception?

Alex Torra: It was the starting place for the project. We’ll see how much of this finds its way into the final performance, but a big complication for me is my white Latinoness. I present white (some say I “pass” as white), but I’m part of a Latinx minority group. As a first generation Cuban-American, I was encouraged to find success by my parents and community, and so I set out to do that. Along the way I deleted my Miami accent, I went to theatre schools that focused on American and Euro traditions of theatre where the work was made for primarily white audiences, and I worked hard to fit and succeed. I “whitened.”

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