Go Deeper

Artist Profile: Eric Balchunas – “All directions had a left at Wawa.”

Posted July 16th, 2009

Eric Balchunas’s schedule called for him to die on September 11, 2001.

“I was supposed to be at Windows on the World [the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center] that morning for a media and finance technology conference. At 9:00 pm the night before, my company redirected me to a different assignment. When I arrived that morning, I saw that the guy who invited me [to the conference] died, two colleagues died. I was kind of tired of New York City anyway, and thought it was time to come home.”

Eric, a financial analyst, moved back to Philadelphia. Despite a brush with death, and despite being born in South Jersey: “The culture here was a little bit of a shock.”

Eric took note of road rage, Eagles obsessives, and the impossibility of customer service at Philadelphia’s Kmarts. And he began to take notes, filling pages with observations about Philadelphia’s peculiarities. After sharing his stories with friends, a show began to emerge: Wawapalooza.

“When I moved back, we had a party called Wawapalooza where we got a bunch of hoagies and a bathtub full of beer. I put that title on the Evite, and later, writing the show, that name popped out.”

The Wawapaloozas are humorous but loving takes on the things that make Philadelphia a deeply weird place to live. Eric and I’d Rather Be Here, his production company, launched the show in 2007 at Philly Fringe. 2008 gave us Wawapalooza 2: Get Shorti. Its third iteration, Wawapalooza 3: The Dark Roast, is moving to the main stage at Society Hill Playhouse for this year’s Philly Fringe. Eric is a little nervous.

“Our last two runs had a total of 300 seats. The scale is so much greater this year [nearly 1,000 seats]. For a second I hesitated because I’d rather have a full black box rather than a three-quarters empty large room, [but] when opportunities come you have to take them.”

After the jump: details on the new show, Whole Foods vs. Superfresh, and a video of Eric’s trip to the ancestral home of Wawa.

In Wawapalooza 3: The Dark Roast, the cast takes on obsession: the Eagles fan driven to therapy about losing Brian Dawkins and another NFC Championship game; a couple worrying over which New Age name to give their baby; how the Mummers find new recruits; a mom who will go to any length to feed her son’s friend leftovers; and more. And from their work thus far, Eric says that an overarching theme has emerged: the tension between old and new Philadelphia. On one side, Eric said, lie SuperFresh, the Eagles, the Mummers, and Rocky. And on the other: Whole Foods, hipsters, and iPhones.

In the Wawapalooza shows, the cast integrates short films into their quasi-vaudevillian performance. The first show in 2007 included this film, where Eric tries to identify the fount of the region’s love of Wawa:

Wawapalooza 3 will include the short film A Tale of Two Food Stores, a mockumentary about the Whole Foods and Superfresh grocery stores that compete across the intersection of 10th and South streets in Philadelphia.

“We make fun of things that are people’s choices. To be an extreme Eagles fan, there’s something funny about that because it’s so over the top. And Whole Foods, and new age baby names: you’ve got people really getting into this whole world and you can tell that they’re kind of wearing it.

“In Whole Foods, if you see a guy with a mustache, it’s a hipster trying to be cool, In Superfresh, if you see a guy with a ‘stache, it’s the real thing. We poke fun at the ‘cool people’ too.”

Even though attention is paid to other markets, Eric says that Wawa is still a crucial part of the show.

“Remember the early Beastie Boys albums where they always reference White Castle? We use Wawa like that, even though a film will be about K-mart, or a date, and even though some of the themes are deeper, it’s still in touch with being a show about the region.”

And Eric was happy to find a home at Philly Fringe.

“I had a vision. I’m not a professional, but was looking for a place to do it. The Fringe was a perfect home for that, and still is. It’s hard to start a show at a theater, but the Fringe gives you access to a larger audience,” Eric said.

“When you’re so immersed in real life hopefully the art you’re producing is easy to connect to. [Wawapalooza]’s born out of day-to-day things: food shopping, going to an Eagles game, driving. Most of my life is my day job, home life, but I do this whenever I can. The Fringe is a highlight of it all.”

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Image courtesy of Eric Balchunas.