FringeArts Blog

Always the Same and Never the Same: An Interview with Jérôme Bel

Posted March 7th, 2018

Photo by Herman Sorgeloos

This Friday, Jérôme Bel is returning to Philadelphia with his 2016 Fringe Festival smash hit Gala, a performance featuring 20 dancers, from professional dancers to first timers—including children, teenagers, pensioners, and people with disabilities. Back in 2016 we spoke to Bel about working with a new cast and creating a piece which anybody can understand and learn within a few days of the performance. In advance of this one-night-only remount, we’re reaching into our archives to share his insights.

FringeArts: What was the initial inspiration for Gala?

Jérôme Bel: I was giving a workshop for amateur dancers in a suburb of Paris. I immediately thought that it would be very interesting to put on stage people who are not skilled in dance, people who are very different—old, young, good dancers, bad dancers, terrible dancers.

FringeArts: How did you develop Gala’s basic structure?

Jérôme Bel: 1, Amateurs are not traveling, they can not go on tour, because they have their jobs or they have to go to school if they are young. So my idea was to have a local cast in each city where the performance would be invited. 2, Amateurs can not rehearse a lot because they have a job, so the piece should be rehearsed very, very fast. 3, Consequently I found a very simple structure that anybody can understand and learn within a few days in order to perform the piece.

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The History of Cherdonna Shinatra: From Name to Fame

Posted February 23rd, 2018

Photo by Lou Daprile

This weekend, Seattle-based dancer and choreographer Jody Kuehner, aka Cherdonna Shinatra, will take the stage in all her queer drag glory for Clock that Mug or Dusted. It’s sure to be a wild ride, one filled with live installation art, dance, birthday cake, found objects, and a commentary on all things queer feminism. While getting ready for Ms. Shinatra to perform, I feel it’s important to discuss where her stage name derives from and the journey she has gone through to make it to this point.

The first artist in her name is none other than Cher, the Goddess of Pop, known for songs like “I Got You Babe,” and she’s “got” the queer community on her side. Cher has become a gay icon, in part through her son Chaz, but also for her sense of style and fashion. Drag queens—specifically Chad Michaels and Charlie Hides from RuPaul’s Drag Race—have imitated her, feeling that her struggle and story relates to their coming out processes. Madonna, the other half of Cherdonna’s namesake, is another another legend worth talking about. The Queen of Pop, known for bestsellers including “Like a Virgin,” is also considered a gay icon. She was introduced to the queer community as a teenager, and since then, has been a welcome presence. Like Cher, many drag queens have imitated her, seeing her journey to stardom as very similar to their struggles. And then we have Frank Sinatra who, while not necessarily a gay icon, was a legendary singer known for classics like “My Way.” Adding his name at the end of her stage name cements Cherdonna Shinatra as the legend that she is. In discussing the origin of her character, she also offers, “I feel like Cherdonna is an extension of myself in a way that’s not like an ‘other’… For me it’s a heightened version—more or less myself, or my less censored self.”

Courtesy of the artist

Cherdonna’s work has been shown in every major venue in Washington State and all over the country, but she hasn’t always been alone in the spotlight. From 2008-2013 she performed with Ricki Mason, also known as drag king Lou Henry Hoover, as “The Cherdonna and Lou Show.” The character of Cherdonna started with Lou in this cabaret-style series of performances which often included dance, theater, drag, burlesque, glitter, and featured celebrity impersonations, including an infamous Sonny and Cher routine. Both artists would transcend their queer identities with how they presented themselves on stage—Cherdonna with her long legs, platform heels, big blonde hair, and copious makeup and Lou as a petite drag king wearing a neat mustached face and all. In a 2016 interview, Kuehner commented on her and Mason’s stage duo’s gender play, noting, “We’re both queer people, and we had started diving into more work about gender and gender play… Over the last six years, it’s been diving in more. I got hooked, and just felt there was so much to explore in it.” Kuehner performing drag as the gender that she identifies with is a revolutionary concept, as it transcends what the audience expects from drag.

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Laughing in the Face of Inequality: An Interview With Beth Eisenberg

Posted February 20th, 2018

Beth Eisenberg is one of the organizers of Philadelphia’s Bechdel Test Fest, a comedy festival highlighting our city’s funniest women, trans, and non-binary comedians and performers. Founded in 2016 to help foster a more inclusive comedy community in the face of gender inequality on Philly stages, the annual festival has continued to expand with each iteration—in duration, in number of performers, in stage sizes—and this year is no exception. Spread out over three nights at three different venues, the 2018 festival offers audiences around the city a series of diverse showcases, highlighting a wide range of comedic forms including stand-up, sketch, improv, clowning, and much more. Each evening also ends with a free open stage event for open-mic standup, performance pieces, and improv jams. FringeArts will be hosting the festival’s second night, March 3.

The festival’s continual growth speaks to the ever-present need for greater inclusivity in comedy, and it’s heartening that, as our cultural conversations around gender discrimination continue to develop with more verve than has been seen in many years, so too do platforms that are actively working to upend this universal inequity. It’s vital work that, as Eisenberg is quick to acknowledge, has been happening in our city long before the festival’s genesis, but it seems now more than ever comedy fans are eager for more diverse offerings. Thankfully, Bechdel Test Fest is here to provide.

FringeArtsHow did the Festival come about?

Pictured: Heather Raquel

Beth Eisenberg: Almost three years ago there was an uproar about diversity on some stages. Few women being cast. Few women being asked to create or direct. Most spots in comedy locally and nationally were pulling from the all men’s clubs. Initially, there was a post in the all female identifying Facebook group, Improvaries, sharing the feeling of exclusion and isolation around a recent audition that cast primarily men. Though this issue wasn’t a unique occurrence, it was from that moment that an energy was generated around making a space for female identifying performers in the city.

Everyone rallied. Everyone shared frustration. And lots of individuals shared about how other cities have successful females festivals. So it was the right time and interest from the group was there. That group is comprised of comics from all spaces and theaters, backgrounds, experience, ages, etc.

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Making a Radical Mess: An Interview With Jody Kuehner aka Cherdonna Shinatra

Posted February 7th, 2018

Courtesy of the artist

Cherdonna Shinatra is a drag queen who’s not a drag queen. Not in the way we’ve come to expect, anyway. She’s the alter-ego of Jody Kuehner, a Seattle-based dancer and choreographer, and a queer woman. That last bit makes Cherdonna—a simple, brilliant portmanteau of icons Cher and Madonna—a bit of an anomaly in the world of drag, as does her penchant for dipping her creative toes in the worlds of performance art, experimental theater, and contemporary dance.

Over the last several years Cherdonna has evolved from a cabaret performer with her former artistic partner, drag king Lou Henry Hoover (played by dancer Ricki Mason), to one of Seattle’s preeminent boundary pushing performance artists. She’s created evening length performances like Worth My Salt and more recently Kissing Like Babies; she regularly performs with drag artists like former RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant BenDeLaCreme, Kitten LaRue, and the aforementioned Hoover; and she recently “crashed” a production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House at Washington Ensemble Theatre. And that’s simply scratching the surface.

Her solo piece, Clock That Mug or Dusted, rolls strains of all her artistic endeavors into one. Then through some paint. And maybe a birthday cake. Kuehner has described the work as a “conceptual and inspirational homage to feminist performance artists” and an artistic dare to “find what present day queer/drag feminism might be.” It’s a search left open-ended by the show’s improvisation-friendly structure and reflective of Kuehner’s own avoidance of easy categorization. We caught up with her recently to learn more about the piece’s origins, its challenges, and why she’s looking for a “might be” rather than an “is.”

FringeArts: What made you think up the title Clock that Mug or Dusted?

Jody Kuehner: The title came out of a drag saying that you’ve “clocked” something, meaning you’ve noticed something you like or dislike or generally want to bring attention to. This work is largely improvisational so the idea of noticing things as they come, “clocking” every moment is central. Giving “face” aka “mug,” means giving attention to. Dusted coming from the idea of putting on your face, “being dusted,” and also it’s used as a word to mean being under the influence or even death—“turning to dust.” All these layers are in the work.

FringeArtsHow was creating Clock That Mug or Dusted an artistic leap or creative challenge to you?

Jody Kuehner: Using so many materials continues to be a creative challenge. Not knowing exactly how they will play in the space or what I will be inspired by, it changes with every show. The materials add a whole new cast member to the piece. I like the risk in that. It’s an unknown.

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An Uncanny Approach to Presence: An Interview With Megan Bridge and Peter Price

Posted January 22nd, 2018

Sp3 is shorthand for “space, pulse, pattern, and presence,” four abstract concepts from which storied Philadelphia multimedia dance theater company <fidget>‘s latest show grew from. Developed over the last two years, this interdisciplinary work, utilizing music and movement, obliquely grapples with the increasingly post-human nature of modern living, where technology is wedged between us all, disrupting our interpersonal relationships as well as our relationships to time and our environment. The show seeks to disrupt this interference, positioning the notion of presence as something radical.

Recently we spoke with <fidget> co-founders and co-artistic directors Megan Bridge and Peter Price to learn more about the concepts behind Sp3 and the development of its music and movement.

FringeArts: What was the first idea behind Sp3?

Peter Price: Sp3 is shorthand for space, pulse, pattern, presence. So the initial kernel of the work came out of discussions around those somewhat abstract concepts. We knew we wanted to make a work in a way we have not in some time—mostly set choreography to composed music.

Our last large piece was to preexisting music by the late great composer Robert Ashley, and much of our collaborative practice involves improvisation of both music and dance. So it had been some time since I wrote a piece of scored music of significant scope and Megan choreographed to it.  We began by thinking about the different ways these concepts map to sound and to the body. What does pulse mean and how is it articulated musically or by a dancer? What does playing with pattern do compositionally or choreographically?

Megan Bridge: Peter and I were having brunch (sans kids . . . rare!) on the day after Dust closed at FringeArts, and we were discussing our next projects. We knew that Peter was going to be the lead artist on our next collaboration, and after making Dust I was really excited again about music coming first and letting the body be moved by sound, treating sonic material as a physical phenomenon in the space, and figuring out what it does to the other material that occupies that same space.

In terms of the evolution of the work, I’d say we started very abstract, just playing with material, but as stuff started to stick we realized it had this dark, uncanny vibe. The mood of the piece started to feel very related to our perception of the world around us right now—tension-filled, edgy. So for me the biggest evolution is witnessing that mood and subtle narrativity weave its way into the work.

FringeArts: How is Sp3 structured? What does that structure enable you to do?

Peter Price: Part of the original conception of the piece for me was that the music was going to be continuously pulsed over for about an hour. So the historical models would be the classics of “pulse-pattern minimalism” like Terry Riley’s In C or Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. As we developed the piece that conception evolved and much of the first half of the piece is now concerned musically with non-pulsed dark atmospheres. The second half of the score remains continuously pulsed and unfolds in six main sections. Each of these sections, though sharing tempo and meter, has their own characteristic sound world and compositional approach to rhythmic pattern. A major concern compositionally is exploring the balance between novelty and redundancy so that the perception of the passing of time changes from section to section even if the clock time of the pulse does not.

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Return to Semi-Innocence: A Dear Diary LOL Playlist

Posted January 19th, 2018

Oh the early 2000s. What a time to be alive. Y2K was in our rearview mirrors and the freeze dried foods from our techpocalypse bunkers were in our children’s lunch boxes. Wayward boy bands roamed the earth hoping to strike a chord with young audiences, relying only on their good looks, dance moves, digitally-tweaked vocals, and focus-grouped personas. And an upset in the Presidential election had our country more politically polarized than ever before. Thank goodness that’s all over.



Anyway, this month FringeArts presents an encore presentation of AntiGravity Theatre Project‘s 2017 Festival hit Dear Diary LOL. Born verbatim from the real-life tween-teen diaries of middle school girls from the early 2000s, most of whom are in the show’s actual cast, this comedic theatre performance plumbs these once heavily guarded tomes for all the earnest desires, deepest fears, secret shames, and terrible poems that often come part and parcel with coming-of-age.

The concept of the show first came about during a fortuitous trip home for lead artist Francesca Montanile Lyons. At the time she was attending Pig Iron’s Advanced Performance Training School and had recently been tasked with devising a show as a lead artist. Montanile came across her middle school diary and found inspiration—or rather, deep, utter embarrassment—in its content. “Obviously it was the thing I had to bring in front of an audience,” she recently told FringeArts. She soon found that many of her classmates had similar diaries and similarly mortified responses to them in the harsh light of hindsight and from there the project began to grow.

While most of us would be equally aghast at having our own inanimate confidantes unearthed and their contents aired for anyone to hear, the intrepid ensemble of devisers fearlessly bare these texts and explode the material with moments of direct address, music, dance, and physical comedy, colliding the melodramatic musings with the inherent humor found in their earnestness. The result is a light-hearted, intimate glimpse of the ways these young girls come to understand the world around them, form a self, and use their voices as they experiment with their malleable identities and budding adulthood.

Since nothing triggers memory and nostalgia quite like music, Montanile has shared a playlist that embodies the spirit of that period in the ensemble members’ lives, a veritable early aughts megamix. Stream below or over at Spotify, and catch Dear Diary LOL when it returns for a limited engagement, Jan 25-26, here at FringeArts.

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Ready, Set, Sew: An Interview With Theatre SKAM

Posted January 15th, 2018

Since its founding in 1995, Victoria, BC’s Theatre SKAM has built a strong reputation for their innovative theatrical works. From intimate, elegant plays to boundary-pushing site-specific performances, they always seem to be actively widening the scope of what a contemporary theater company can, and should, do. Case in point: Fashion Machine.

SKAM will bring this widely acclaimed theater/design/education project to FringeArts later this month. Gathering a group of 28 local children, ages 9-13, SKAM artists will lead these budding fashionistas through a few days of intensive training and teaching. They’ll learn about the history and current state of fashion, play some drama games, and, most importantly, learn all the fabrication skills they’ll need to invite a handful of lucky audience members into the Fashion Machine. From January 23-27, these children will take the outfits of seven brave (and willing!) audience members and, over the course of an hour, transform them into something entirely new.

Recently we spoke with two of the projects core artists, Matthew Payne and Shayna Ward, to learn more about how this wild work came together, the benefits of working with children, and the experience of the performance.

From the 2014 premiere of Fashion Machine.

FringeArts: How did the idea for Fashion Machine first come about?

Matthew Payne and Shayna Ward: In 2009 SKAM co-presented the show Haircuts by Children in Victoria by a Toronto company called Mammalian Diving Reflex. We were in the room as children participated in training sessions with a professional hairstylist. It was remarkable to see children grasp concepts quickly while having a blast doing it. Seeing that spark made us want to embark on something equally audacious in spirit.

FringeArts: What made clothing the right vehicle?

Matthew Payne and Shayna Ward: We wanted to try something where the training session made more of an impact than the 2 two-hour sessions the kids received in Haircuts by Children before they started giving free haircuts to people.

As it turns out, remaking someone’s outfit is harder than cutting their hair. Fashion Machine requires more training (12 hours). Part of that time is spent discussing where our clothes come from, the state of the fashion industry, and how new clothes are presented to the public. So the kids who train with us learn how images are manipulated and what they can do to break or better this cycle.

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Happy Hour on the Fringe With Sam Henderson

Posted December 1st, 2017

The latest episode of our newly launched podcast is available for streaming! This episode features a conversation with playwright, performer, and theater technician Sam Henderson. Henderson has appeared on stages or worked behind the scenes at theaters all over the city. He is a member of the self-sustaining producing playwrights collective Orbiter 3, a group focused on sustainability and empowering the playwright as lead artist by embracing administrative and fiscal responsibility in the pursuit of the artistic growth of its members.

The conversation touches on Henderson’s history working in theater throughout the city as well as his latest play, The Brownings, an immoderate re-telling of the great love of the 19th century. This unconventional, rudely comic exploration of the purpose of art and the nature of love runs here at FringeArts from Dec 1 – Dec 9.

Listen below, or over at our show page.

One Long, Horrid Writer’s Retreat: An Interview with Sam Henderson

Posted November 17th, 2017

The love affair and marriage of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning is one of literary history’s favorite romances. It’s not hard to see why. The narrative of two brilliant artists who could articulate their love for each other, wring beautiful verse from it better than just about anyone is certainly an enchanting one. Of course, when are relationships ever that perfect?

From Nov 29–Dec 9, FringeArts will present The Brownings, the latest play from and in conjunction with the acclaimed Philadelphia producing playwrights collective Orbiter 3. Written by Philadelphia playwright and performer Sam Henderson, The Brownings is an immoderate retelling of the titular couple’s famous relationship, with all the fighting and weird sex and drug abuse they didn’t teach you about in school. Though, perhaps there’s a reason for that. We should be sure to reemphasize the terms immoderate and retelling. We spoke to Henderson back in August about the play’s origins and taking some artistic liberties with these famous, oft-idealized figures.

FringeArtsWas there any incident in particular that spurred the creation if The Brownings

Sam Henderson: I was homeless, but staying with friends. I’d spent some time in a psych unit about three weeks earlier, where I’d received really good health care for the first time in about a year and a half. My life was beginning to improve after a long decline. My friends had provided me with a huge, stand-mounted map of Australia for privacy, and I used to just stare at Australia and write plays.

I was struggling to understand myself in the light of my diagnosis of type II bipolar disorder, and my coming to God: two recent, wholly unexpected events that brought meaning to all this personal chaos, if not comfort.

I was deeply under the influence of Mary Tuomanen’s Marcus/Emma, which was still unproduced. I wrote the first seven scenes of The Brownings very quickly as a joke to crack Mary up, and I was surprised when she encouraged me to keep going, since The Brownings is such a rip off of Marcus/Emma.

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Happy Hour on the Fringe With Jorge Cousineau

Posted November 10th, 2017

FringeArts is excited to announce the launch of our very own podcast! Hosted by our Communications Director Hallie Martenson, Happy Hour on the Fringe is our chance to sit back, relax, have a drink, and chat with some of the most imaginative artists in the world.

This premiere episode features an in depth conversation with Subcircle co-founder Jorge Cousineau. The Dresden-born, Philadelphia-based artist has worked as a theater designer for the last two decades with many of this city’s—and others’—most lauded theater companies, receiving widespread acclaim for his imaginative integration of technology into many performances.

The conversation covers a wide-range of topics including Cousineau’s beginnings in theater, his relocation to Philadelphia, some of his most memorable projects, as well as the concepts behind and his work as a live sound designer for Subcircle’s latest show, HOLD STILL while I figure this out (coming to FringeArts Nov 16-18). You can hear snippets of this sound work, generated during rehearsals, throughout the episode.

Check out the trailer for HOLD STILL while I figure this out below and find more info and tickets here.

A New Foundation for Growth: An Interview with Niki Cousineau and Scott McPheeters

Posted November 2nd, 2017

Niki Cousineau and Scott McPheeters are co-directors of the Philadelphia-based performance company Subcircle. Founded in 1998 by Niki and Jorge Cousineau, for nearly two decades Subcircle’s work has transformed theatrical and site-specific spaces, merging dance, sound, set design, lighting and film, conveying to audience and performer alike an inseparability of performance from environment.

This month they bring their latest piece to FringeArts. HOLD STILL WHILE I FIGURE THIS OUT is a daring experiment in spontaneous creation featuring Niki, Scott, and Christy Lee, with live sound design from Jorge. Each night a previously unseen performance will unfold before audience’s eyes, with most of the movement, sound design, and set construction being created in the moment. Described by thINKingDANCE as “a dance of mild idiosyncrasy, enhanced by the dancers’ subtle balance between logicality and lunacy,” witnessing these artists’ ingenuity from moment to moment is enthralling, entrancing, and giddying all at once. Earlier this year Niki and Scott shared some insight into what it’s taken to create a show that constantly recreates itself.

FringeArts: Do you remember how the title HOLD STILL WHILE I FIGURE THIS OUT came into being? 

Niki Cousineau: The title came about during the rehearsal process at the Maas Building. There is a section of the piece where we narrate/interpret what is happening on stage. As I was going through my notebook after a few rehearsals I was looking at some of the texts we generated during these improvisations. One of the things I’d written down was “hold still while i figure this out.” It felt both fitting for the piece, art making, and life.

FringeArts: How has the show evolved from where it started?

Scott McPheeters: The vast majority of material in this work is developed live and in direct relationship to one another. For the year and a half that this piece was being created, we often found ourselves entering the studio in dismay of the state of the world. What had originally been a weekly exploration of various improvisational scores eventually turned into a question: “What if we could start all over from scratch?”

We spent a year and a half essentially studying how to begin again, and how to build upon different proposals of a new foundation for growth. We were fascinated by how quickly entire environments could be constructed from a single source of inspiration and that depending on the day and the source of inspiration, the environments would be completely different.

FringeArts: Can you discuss how the various components, from movement to sound to visuals to text, relate to each other?

Scott McPheeters: Each time we perform the work, it is from scratch. We choose a starting point—usually an image from a book or online along with a piece of text chosen from a book. This informs a movement solo which inspires original text generation. A new audio landscape is developed nightly from sound bites sourced only from the performance space itself. Set design is constructed live to complement or provide contrast to the dance taking place. The most exciting aspect of the work is that everything unfolds for the very first time right in front of you. Through example, we hope to inspire deep listening, reflection, and action.

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A Dreadful Sound

Posted October 30th, 2017

In describing their mission, Not So Silent Cinema notes, “Some suffer from the delusion that the history of cinema is a straight-line of progress from primitive, clumsy beginnings to high-tech, modern perfection.” This ever-changing ensemble of musicians—helmed by Philadelphia-based composer Brendan Cooney—provide a much more engaging means of dispelling this delusion than streaming a classic to your computer. Performing new original scores to accompany silent film classics, they manage to invoke the manner in which these films were originally presented and bring a fresh perspective to material we may believe we already know well. This Halloween night, Not So Silent Cinema will perform their new score for Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 film Vampyr live here at FringeArts. The film was the largely unheralded but supremely influential filmmaker’s only explicit foray into the world of horror and a watershed achievement for the genre and film itself.

Cooney’s scores in NSSC’s repertoire are always a diverse melange of musical styles, composed to fit the film’s aesthetic, but unafraid to add some modern experimentation. As he describes it, “This is not historical performance, but rather it’s historically evocative performance.” His score for Vampyr fits this bill perfectly. Imbued with an old-world, Eastern-European atmosphere, the music suits the gloomy environs we’ve come to associate with vampires, but additional electronic production gives it a dark, transcendental element that calls to mind the soundtrack work of later horror greats like John Carpenter. If that sounds a little bit disparate in theory, in practice it melds surprisingly well to the film’s evocative unraveling, paying respect to it’s context while also nodding to its legacy as a pioneering psychological horror film.

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Your Record Collection Just Got a Little Saltier

Posted October 19th, 2017

This Friday night, FringeArts’ monthly series of sexy, satirical, queer, and tantalizing cabaret returns to the La Peg stage to kick off it’s fall season. Hosted by Bearded Ladies Cabaret artistic director John Jarboe and co-presented by the William Way LGBT Community Center, this season of Get Pegged features some powerhouse performers from Philadelphia and New York.

October’s featured performers include a “stripped down” assemblage—if that means acoustic or naked is being left unanswered—of Philly’s favorite musical misfits ILL DOOTS, performing two tight sets of original tunes and covers around the notion of “Passion.” Where that will take them is anyone’s guess, all they’ll say is, “We’ll experience several forms of passion together that culminates into what we can only hope is a sweet release.”

Salty Brine in Second Hand News, a reinterpretation of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours through the lens of sensationalist news and gossip.

This month’s other featured performer, the out-of-towner of the bunch, is New York cabaret artist Salty Brine. Astute Fringe attendees may recognize him as the boisterous but wise host from the 2016 Festival hit The Elementary Spacetime Show, but the talented actor and playwright has made his name as an inventive cabaret artist as well for his own ongoing series, Salty Brine’s Spectacular Living Record Collection, which he’ll be performing an excerpt from at Get Pegged. Journeying into the heart of popular music and consciousness, Salty takes classic albums from legendary artists and twists them in style and form, building spectacular and unexpected theatrical worlds for these well known works to inhabit. These are places where they can be appreciated in an entirely new light and he can weave his own personal, historical, and fantastical narratives into our shared musical history.

The first installment of the series, Abbey Straße, took the music of The Beatles’ Abbey Road and reimagined it as a scandalous German cabaret styled in the spirit of Brecht and Weill, Marlene Dietrich, Ute Lemper, and others like them.

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There’s Nothing Called African Music: A Conversation with Olivier Tarpaga

Posted October 12th, 2017

“Dance and music are one in our tradition, and they come in one body.” This is what Burkina Faso-born dancer, choreographer, musician, and composer Olivier Tarpaga offers when asked about the relationship between the two mediums in his latest show Declassified Memory Fragment. Positioned as an “open letter” to life in a few African nations that have experienced cultural and political tumult over the last several decades, the piece opens tonight and runs from Oct 12-14 here at FringeArts. As the dancers move throughout the performance space, a group of virtuosic musicians play from the sidelines, informing the dancers’ movements and energies. “Live music affects everything and the dancers feel different and create different when the music is live,” Tarpaga asserted in a previous interview. Live music has always been a hallmark of Baker + Tarpaga Dance Project, likely because music has always been a hallmark of Tarpaga’s life.

Growing up in Burkina Faso, Tarpaga didn’t have to look far to find great music. His father was a saxophonist and the leader of Supra Volta, a popular band that played West African musics with modern instrumentation, even a rhumba influence. They were active throughout the ‘60s, soon after the country gained its independence from France, and often played for heads of state and dignitaries. They were based out of an empty bedroom inside the Tarpaga household, and young Olivier couldn’t help but be drawn to their infectious tunes.

“I’d just walk there and listen to them, and they’d all walk out—somebody was smoking a cigarette, everyone was talking—and then I’d go in with my brothers and we’d start banging on everything. I was always on the drums.” In the ensuing chaos things would get broken, and as a result he was often in trouble with his father. Even so, he simply couldn’t get enough. “Music was an addiction,” he said, and though he’d repeatedly beg his father to teach him to play, he’d always be told to study his math and science, that music would have to wait. Even when his father was teaching Tarpaga’s brothers to play saxophone—despite their total lack of interest—he was still pushed to focus on math and science. Nowadays, he’s the only musician in the family.

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Recapping Opening Night of The October Revolution

Posted October 6th, 2017

Last night, The October Revolution kicked off in revelatory fashion. The festival, organized by Ars Nova Workshop and co-presented by FringeArts, runs through the weekend and is named in tribute to a revolutionary 1964 DIY jazz festival of the same name, curated and produced by the late legend Bill Dixon. With a lineup featuring some of the most thoughtful, adventurous music inventors and performers of our time, from across a diverse range of genres that span jazz, free improvisation, and contemporary classical and radiate outward, it’s a new music festival of a caliber rarely seen in our city, one where the act of “listening”—not for anything specific, but rather the experience of the act—is paramount.

Opening the festival was Karuna, the duo of longtime friends and collaborators Hamid Drake and Adam Rudolph, here made a trio with the addition of master multi-instrumentalist and Rudolph collaborator Ralph Miles Jones. It’s a shame that there are no official recordings of this unit because their set was utterly engrossing from beginning to end, moving fluidly through musical styles and instrumentation, and, in a way, exemplifying the festival’s emphasis on listening.

Drake and Rudolph are two of the most innovative, influential and creative percussionists of the last century and their friendship goes all the way back to a chance encounter at a downtown Chicago drum shop when the pair was just fourteen. From there they’d both go on to collaborate with a veritable who’s who of mid-century jazz legends, including Don Cherry who they both toured with for some time. In 1977 the pair joined Gambian musician and composer Foday Musa Suso to form the Mandingo Griot Society, a unit that explored and fused West African and American musical idioms, and one that is credited as an early “world music” innovator. While that’s a pretty loaded terms these days, back then the idea of melding non-Western musical instrumentation and idioms into Western styles had yet to be so rampantly, clumsily trodden. Rudolph in particular helped pioneer this kind of experimentation, and the arsenal of instruments he had at his disposal last night was exemplary of the breadth of his musical fluency. The same was true for Jones—a composer, educator, ethnomusicologist, and multi-diasporic aerophonist—who had an array of wind instruments from a variety of musical traditions at his side that he’d pick and choose from throughout the evening.

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Fragments of Unrest: An Interview with Olivier Tarpaga

Posted October 4th, 2017

Co-founder of the Baker + Tarpaga Dance Project, Olivier Tarpaga is both a choreographer and a musician who brings together disparate nations and identities to create powerful and meaningful performances. Working with his partner, Esther Baker-Tarpaga, the duo have generated a project-centered, transcontinental company that is based in both Philadelphia and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Their work has been noted for its intensity that “proved unforgettable” (Los Angeles Times) and for their projects that “metaphorically and abstractly decenter whiteness” (The Dance Journal). In their newest work, Declassified Memory Fragment, Olivier “declassifies,” or uncovers, experiences that many in Burkina Faso have lived through that are hidden from the world. Through the melding of dance and music, Olivier Tarpaga has created an exhibition of the memories of men in political military unrest from the many uprisings within Burkina Faso. We got the chance to talk with him about his process in creating the work and the contexts that informed it.

FringeArts: Do you remember how the title Declassified Memory Fragment came into being?

Olivier Tarpaga: It came to me during a research trip in Kenya in 2010. I grew up in Burkina Faso and have witnessed military coups in 1980, 1982, 1983, a very bloody one in 1987, and the revolution in 2014. This piece is addressing the issues of military coups. The irony is that in 2015 a coup in Burkina Faso happened the day of the avant-premier of this very piece at Denison University in Ohio. It felt like history revisited. Our country has been independent from France since 1960 and there are many fragments of my childhood memories during this time of political instability. I wanted to bring this issue into the open air and expose it with an artistic approach.

FringeArts: How did the choreography come about?

Olivier Tarpaga: I began the piece in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. With my cast we first began with speaking about the politics of ethnic conflict during the Kenya election and Ivory Coast war. We spoke about our memories and knowledge of the war zones. Several cast members grew up in conflict zones and their families were directly affected. I gave specific tasks, images, gestures and directions to research movement based on memories and experiences of different conflicts in the region. I then selected, transformed and composed phrases based on themes and emotions. We worked with live musicians creating the work and making solos, duets, and group work.

FringeArts: What made it important for you that it was an all-male dance troupe?

Olivier Tarpaga: This is purposeful because all these conflicts and wars we are focusing on were all created and directed by men. Men fighting for power. I am pro-feminist and thus I am specifically making a critique of men creating violence to grab more power. This is our first project with only men. Our company is not all-male, in fact it is founded by Esther Baker-Tarpaga and I. We frequently have mixed gender casts.

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Alone Together at Close Music for Bodies

Posted September 20th, 2017

I’ve found myself thinking a lot about sonic resonance lately, due in no small part to some recent visits to La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s installation Dream House. Various incarnations of this sound and light environment have been mounted by Young—a revered minimalist composer, some say the first—and Zazeela—a light and visual artist and musician— around the world since 1969. The MELA (Music Eternal Light Art) Foundation Dream House at 275 Church Street in New York City has remained in that space for the last 25 years, the couple’s longest installation to date. It is a room of infinitely repeating cycles of sound and light frequencies, one that transcends its overwhelming, lower Manhattan surroundings.

During my first visit, initially the sounds contained therein were not as pleasant as I expected, grating even. It took a few minutes to acclimate, but once my eyes adjusted to the dreamy, pink and purple hued lights and my body to the drone reverberating through it, the experience was unlike much else. Speakers are directed such that where you position yourself in the room determines what you hear. You can even opt to just sit down on the lush carpeted floors and loll your head to witness the difference, exhibiting just how spatially specific the installation is.

I couldn’t help but recall this experience when observing a rehearsal of Close Music for Bodies on a rainy afternoon some weeks back. The piece from sound artist Michael Kiley premieres September 20th and runs until the 24th, part of the 21st annual Fringe Festival, and much like Dream House it calls attention to the infinite amount of unique experiences that structured sound can offer in a live setting. That’s about where the similarities end. Whereas the experience of Dream House is a solitary one, Close Music for Bodies is a communal, deeply humane work that wrings beauty out of the limitations of perspective.

Central to Close Music is Kiley’s voice practice, Personal Resonance. “My primary goal with teaching is to have the student understand that the real beauty and benefit of voice has nothing to do with how you sound, and everything to do with how your voice can make you feel physically—and therefore mentally,” he recently told the FringeArts Blog. “Once someone understands how to control that physical sensation, their voice becomes as accessible as breathing.” This democratization of singing is integral to the performance and bolstered by the democratization of the space itself.

Once the piece kicks into motion, the shuffling about of cast and audience rarely ceases. At various intervals throughout the duration the performers guide audience members into various formations and in turn have to constantly navigate around them. These are all very conscious, choreographed movements, shaped with the help of choreographer Sean Donovan, director Rebecca Wright, and the performers themselves. Explaining the team’s close attention to movement, Kiley told us in that same interview, “I’ve been thinking of the movement as sound design—like speaker placement, only my speakers happen to be performers.”

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John Szwed: Notes on John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme

Posted September 19th, 2017

This is a guest post written by anthropologist, writer, and jazz scholar John Szwed. He has taught Anthropology, African American Studies, and Film Studies at Yale University as well as Music and Jazz Studies at Columbia University where he served as Director of the Center for Jazz Studies. He has published many books on jazz and American music, including studies of Sun Ra, Miles Davis, Jelly Roll Morton, Alan Lomax and Billie Holiday. On Sept 23, he will interview Salva Sanchis, co-choreographer of A Love Supreme, at the FringeArts Bookstore.

On December 9, 1964, the members of the John Coltrane Quartet crossed the river from New York to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. It was night, because producer Bob Thiele preferred to work after the ABC-Paramount executives had left for the day; he could then avoid having to explain what he was doing. The quartet arrived at 7 o’clock and left before midnight, completing the entire recording of A Love Supreme with few retakes or edits, something quite extraordinary for a piece that long and complex, and without rehearsal.

Manuscript of A Love Supreme, by John Coltrane, 1964. Photo by The National Museum of American History.

More remarkably, there was no written music prepared for the session, only a chart that Coltrane had made to remind him of the structure. The musicians followed his directions, most of which were not spoken, but came from what they heard him playing. They were collectively composing by improvising together, creating a 33-minute art work, risking everything as the tape continued to roll. Musicians have improvised collectively since the beginning of jazz, but never for such a sustained period with no given harmonic structure and no agreed-upon melodies or rhythm. Bob Thiele was there, but unlike other producers he sat back and listened. His trust in Coltrane was such that he gave John control over what he recorded and when, an arrangement that no one in the music business short of a Frank Sinatra might have had. Thiele did not always understand John’s music, because it changed so rapidly and radically. Still, his belief was so strong that he defended anything Coltrane recorded to the company, both financially and musically. But A Love Supreme would not need defending.

While he was still living in Philadelphia and becoming a member of the Miles Davis Quintet, John Coltrane was controversial. To some his playing was meandering, boring, and harsh, even described as anti-jazz. Once, when French CBS received the master tapes for a Miles Davis Quintet recording, they complained to Columbia Records in the US that there was electronic distortion during Coltrane’s solos. But to others, he was a revolutionary—an intense, yet disciplined master, whose music carried the message of struggle and resistance, and was theme music to the Civil Rights Movement. But Coltrane saw a spiritual dimension to what he was doing, a means to peace. When Impulse Records placed ads in Rolling Stone calling it “fire music,” grouping him with the protests of some other black free jazz musicians, he distanced himself from such claims.

In 1957 Coltrane experienced a spiritual awakening of such force that he ended his addictions, reset his life, and with this recording he sought to signal his conversion musically, to testify to his encounters with God. When A Love Supreme appeared in February of 1965 his harshest critics were silenced, and for the first time he received virtually universal praise (though a few were put off by the confessional spirituality of his poem included in the album’s notes; it was too much for high modernists and hipsters). The album cover was black and white, a stark departure from all other Impulse records that were trimmed in orange and black.

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Making Art in 2017: Nick Jonczak on Doppelbanger

Posted September 16th, 2017

Photo by Robin Stamey.

Name: Nick Jonczak

Show in 2017 Festival: Doppelbanger

Role: Creator, Performer

Past Festival Show: Exile 2588 with Almanac Dance Circus Theatre

FringeArtsTell us a bit about your show.

Nick Jonczak: This show is probably the most personal and definitely the gayest piece I’ve ever created. About three years ago, a man broke up with me by saying, “I think I could love a version of you, but I don’t think it’s a version you want to be…” which is kind of a terrible thing to say to someone. At that point I was really consumed by what the best “version” of me is and how I could manifest-build-shape-sculpt-summon that facet of me into being. I became really aware of how this man and many others had shaped the way I hold and use and think about my body, and I also became really aware of how I, like so many other gay men I know, pursue men who look similar to themselves. Doppelbanger tries to tackle these ideas through a collection of stories from my life where I was left wondering: do I want to be him, or do I want to be with him?

FringeArtsHow have your interests in or approach to art making changed in the last year? Have you found yourself taking anything new into consideration?

Nick Jonczak: I’m absolutely terrified of solo work—this is the first public solo show I’ve ever performed—so I’ve really come to rely on my director, Vanita Kalra, for her amazing sensitivity and sensibility to help me understand the core of the piece, which has definitely evolved over the past year. Originally I was much more concerned with the piece as a reflection of the LGBT community, but, with Vanita’s invaluable guidance, the piece has shifted to a much more personal reflection on formative experiences. I tend to be pretty skeptical of performances that rely heavily on personal narrative, so in making this piece I’ve had constantly, gently give my self permission to make the content about me—and trust that it will resonate with audiences. Trust is hard!

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A Period of Animate Existence Reading List

Posted September 15th, 2017

Next weekend the beloved Philadelphia institution Pig Iron Theatre Company returns to the Fringe Festival with their first major work in two years, and it’s clear they put that time to good use. A Period of Animate Existence may be their most ambitious work to date, an awe inspiring large-scale piece of symphonic theater that examines the most universal, urgent issue of our time: climate change.

In an era called the “Sixth Extinction,” when up to 50 percent of all living species might die off, rather than grappling with the issue in a lecturing, damning manner, the creative team hopes to achieve something more nuanced and universally relatable. “We’ve tried hard to avoid an activist voice with this piece—we want to avoid haranguing or scolding as we investigate the landscape of emotions around climate change,” director Dan Rothenberg told the FringeArts Blog. “As we contemplate extinctions, I keep talking about emotions that I don’t have a name for. I know what grief is, having experienced the deaths of people close to me. And I know what terror is. I think finding ourselves in the middle of extinction creates feelings like grief and terror, but it’s some other emotion that doesn’t have a name.” In taking this lofty approach to the issue, the artists have most certainly done their homework, and then some.

The company has been gracious enough to share with us a list of texts that helped inform the piece. These works may help deepen audiences’ understanding of the show, but, perhaps more importantly, they will help deepen their understanding of the serious crisis we are currently living with. If confronting this harrowing information sounds daunting or terrifying or a surefire way to send yourself into fear-induced catatonia, believe me, I understand. Yet, in reading from these works, I’ve found being informed in my dread has been far more comforting than being ignorant in it. And thankfully, despite the dire nature of the situation, many of these writers chart concrete courses of action for how we might curb the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

Taking in this full picture, perhaps you’ll find yourself not quite feeling grief, not quite feeling terror, but feeling that liminal emotion A Period of Animate Existence strives to articulate.

Vibrant Matter
Jane Bennett

Renowned political theorist Jane Bennet—known for her focus on nature, ethics, and affect— examines the active participation of nonhuman forces in natural events. Exploring just how political analyses of public events might change were we to acknowledge that agency is not strictly human, she suggests that such a change in perspective might provide impetus for more responsible, ecologically sound politics.


Key Writings
Henri Bergson

French philosopher Henri Bergson was an influential thinker of the early 20th century, one who recognized his time as a distinctly new and modern age, and in turn helped shape its intellectual discourse. At the core of his philosophy is his concept of Duration, a theory of time and consciousness, but most pertinent to the show is his concept of élan vital, his explanation for evolution (a relatively new concept at the time) and the development of organisms which essentializes life into “mobility itself.” This collection assembles Bergson’s most essential writings, including excerpts from Creative Evolution.


The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable
Amitav Ghosh

Acclaimed Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh takes to task our inability to grasp the scale and violence of climate change, particularly in terms of what he sees as an imaginative failure of literary writers. Arguing that the extreme nature of climate events make them resistant to contemporary modes of thinking and imagining, he sees this as connected to the fact that politics and literature have become matters of personal moral reckoning rather than a platform for collective action. They are therefore, at the moment, unequipped to deal with what is truly the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. It’s not all doom and gloom though, as Ghosh sees the climate crisis as an opportunity for us to imagine other forms of human existence. He sees no better realm to address this task than in the world of fiction.

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