Go Deeper

We Got It All: Family Friendly Fringe

Posted September 14th, 2012

“It’s not a converted space and it’s not a ghostly space, and yet there are benevolent ghosts present there; children have been playing there for over a hundred years. It’s full of wood and old-fashioned plain toys—nothing with bells and whistles.”

When Seth Bauer, writer of this year’s Fringe work Seek and Hide, talks about Smith Memorial Playground & Playhouse in East Fairmount Park, he leans forward and his torso initiates his speech; like kids manipulating a gumball machine, a metal head is thrust front before a saccharine planet drops out.

Smith Playhouse: 1890s play meets modern day parking lot. Photo by Katia Strieck.

After the jump: late 19th-century children’s fashion, and iMagic

Seth sits across from Seek and Hide’s director Suzana Berger. Where his animation is full-bodied, her’s is electric: her mouth and the eaves of her brow erupt when she smiles, which is often. She restrains the curls of her light brown hair with bobby pins.

Seth eases off his chair. “There’s a different approach to play at Smith Playhouse. Among the toys, there’s not a gadget where you pick it up and say, ‘What! This is amazing!’” Most of the toys, he says, are wooden blocks. “It’s not amazing—the amazing has to come from the kid. You have to make stuff up.” Seth, Suzana, and Miriam White, the show’s other co-producer, decided Smith was the perfect place to make Fringe theatre.

Set on six-and-a-half acres of land—and home to a 24,000 square-foot playhouse—Smith Memorial Playground & Playhouse is every kid’s dream, and has been for over one hundred years since it’s opening in 1899. You can imagine the inaugural visitors (or at least use Google Images to fashion an idea): boys dressed in poplin trousers held up by tiny suspenders; girls sporting small bonnets and cotton dresses. The Wright Brothers’ first flight was four years off. These kids had never liked a meme on Facebook, or picked up a Starman while playing Mario Kart. Their toys were dull, they weren’t shiny, and any sound effects were self-generated.

The cast of Seek and Hide playing.

“That seemed like an asset to us. The things we’ve been playing with as we’ve been devising have been ordinary things: bits of fabric, blocks, umbrellas—nothing that can make its own imagination,” says Seth. As the show’s director, Suzana worked hard to facilitate in rehearsals the concept of ‘antiquated makes for inspiring’: she arrived at the first meeting with a bag of blocks, dumped them on the floor, and directed the cast to ‘make something.’

What they came up with was a narrative: a girl whose toys have been taken away. Her mother is busy, and tries to get her daughter of out the room by commanding her to go play. Yet the young girl is at a loss; stripped of her sparkling and beeping thingamajigs, how can she play?

It’s this story that will drive Seek and Hide, as the cast and audience meander the first floor of the Smith Playhouse. But what they do once they arrive at each space will depend on how the audience chooses to play and to imagine. “What [the girl in the narrative] will experience, and then what we hope the audience will take with them is, you’ve got enough. You’ve got the tools wherever you are,” says Suzana.

Intended for all ages, Seek and Hide welcomes all ways of playing: “We designed the show to have a range of ways to participate. The basic level of participation would be just to walk with us. If you don’t want to jump up and down, if that’s a safe level of participation for you, then great—we’re happy to have you.”

“Along the way there will be opportunities to take on a character, and we’re going to do a lot with transforming objects: for example, what do we have that we can use to make a boat? If you’re a kid or an adult who is really excited about that, then you hand us an object or you give us a suggestion and show us how to use something,” Suzana says.

Seth demonstrates for me: grabbing the Fringe guide I have brought with me: “You don’t have to do any real trick of the eye to take this and make a bird out of it,” he says. He holds the guide at the spine, and flaps it, creating a flurry of one-hundred-or-so glossy pages. No, wait–not pages but wings: soon there’s fluttering plumage and the distinct sound of wings carving air. “If enough actors do that [believe that the Fringe guide is a condor], then that’s what it is, especially if you respond to it. It’s not magic per say, but it’s iMagic.” Seth laughs, smitten with his off-the-cuff coinage—“That’s a great word!” he shouts—before expounding: “It’s using imagination to make theatrical magic.”

An assistant professor of Playwrighting at the University of the Arts, and a father, Seth first discovered Smith Playhouse when he took his son. “I’ve been going there for six years. It’s been a hub of a place where [my son and I] come and play. I’ve seen him learn to walk there, and learn to play, and learn to imagine and to create,” he says. “There’s a fabulous playground outside for families of all ages.” The indoor part though, the Playhouse designed by 19th-century architect James H. Windrim, is open only to children five years old and younger. Seth laughs, but it’s not unrestrained: “[My son] doesn’t quite understand why he can’t go inside now.”

Seek and Hide is, for many, an opportunity to reenter the Playhouse. It’s a chance to find something left behind when adulthood (which in this case, is ushered in at the age of six) stole you from its dreamy walls. “If you have been too old or too tall to go into the playhouse,” says Suzana, “[Seek and Hide] is your free pass.”

Seek and Hide runs September 15, 16, 22 and 23 at 10:00 am, 11:30 am, and 1:00 pm at Smith Memorial Playground & Playhouse. Note: The 10:00 am and 11:30 am shows on September 16 are already sold out. $10.

–Audrey McGlinchy