Fringe at 20 Profile: Bobbi Block
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Fringe at 20 Profile: Bobbi Block

Posted September 2nd, 2016
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Bobbi Block (photo by JJ Tiziou)

Name: Bobbi Block

Type of Artist: Theater Artist; Producer; Director; Dancer; Drummer

Companies: Tongue & Groove Spontaneous Theater; LunchLady Doris; ComedySportz; P3: People’s Percussion Project; Unidos da Filadelfia

List of Fringe shows I’ve participated in: I have produced and performed in every single Fringe Festival since the first one, including many years when I produced and performed in multiple shows. There was only one year when I didn’t produce, though I did perform with my band one night that year, so I’m counting that as participating in every single Festival! My memory sucks, so thank god the Fringe Guide Archive is online or I would not have been able to make this list!

  • The Improv Marathon, 1997 – producer, performer, host [Got every improv group that existed at that time to perform back to back, I think it was a grand total of 5!]
  • Debut of LunchLady Doris at the Quarry Street outdoor stage, 1998 — artist, co-producer [LLD was a 5 member longform improv company (the first in the city) that ran for 12 years, with Dave Jadico, Karen Getz, Kelly Jennings, Kevin Dougherty.]
  • Bingo Bedlam, BbBb Productions, 1999 – director, producer, actor [A 10-minute play in which ALL of the words start with the letter B; featuring Jen Childs, Tony Lawton, Pete Pryor]
  • Birth-day!, P3: People Percussion Project, 2002 – co-producer, co-choreographer, dancer [The debut of P3 as part of the curated Fresh Moves series, co-founded with Judy Freed]
  • Late Night Cabaret, 2002 — MC
  • P3: People Percussion Project, 2003-2004 – co-producer, choreographer, dancer
  • LEAP! The Actors’ Improv Experiment, produced by LiveArts, 2007 – conceived and directed [w/ Megan Bellwoar, Catharine Slusar, Ben Lloyd, Tom Byrn, Joe Guzman]
  • In Bed, Tongue & Groove, 2007 – producer, director actor [Fringe Debut of Tongue & Groove Spontaneous Theater*]
  • LunchLady Doris, 1998-2008 – actor, co-producer
  • Secrets, Tongue & Groove, 2008-2009 – producer, director, actor
  • UnSpoken, Tongue & Groove, 2010 – producer, director, actor
  • Six, Tongue & Groove, 2011 – producer, director, actor
  • Le Grand Continental, LiveArts produced, 2012 – dancer
  • WHO, Tongue & Groove, 2012 – producer, director, actor
  • Secrets, Tongue & Groove, 2014 – producer, director, actor
  • Unidos da Filadelfia, 2012-2015 – drummer
  • Groove, Tongue & Groove, 2015 – producer, director, actor [A collaboration with blues dancers and musicians]
  • Before I Die, Tongue & Groove, 2016 – producer, director, actor

*Current and Past Tongue & Groove ensemble members: Fred Andersen, Megan Bellwoar, Beth Dougherty, Adam Gertler, Noah Herman, Matt LydonJennifer MacMillan, Carol Moog, Ed Miller, Eoin O’Shea, Seth Reichgott, Josh Rubinstein, Fred Siegel, Rebecca Sharp,Carrie Spaulding, Jordan Stalsworth

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Tongue & Groove (photo by Aaron Oster)

First Fringe I attended and highlight: I was there at the very start (go on, Grandma). The highlight was the exciting community vibe in Old City. The first several years, with everything taking place within several blocks, it was just so much fun to hop from show to show. You’d bump into people, ask what they were about to see or what they just saw, and just dash off to the next performance without planning. You felt you could take a chance on just about anything, cause everything was only 5 bucks. There was no on-line sales back then, so the ticket-buying process was in person and very communal – the box office was the place to see and be seen. I also loved the cabaret in the old days when you would see snippets of shows as teasers and then decide whether or not you wanted to see the full production. The cabaret was one big love-fest, kinda like a family — with Scott Johnston as a very weird ‘Dad’ of us all — plus you never know what might happen there. You wouldn’t think to miss a night of the Cabaret or you might miss something everyone would be talking about the next day!

First Fringe I participated in: I have a strong memory from the second year I participated in the Fringe: I was part of a small group of improvisers who had just begun experimenting with longform improv (as opposed to shortform games that we were all used to doing in ComedySportz). Deb Block was hosting the Quarry Street Café outdoor stage, and we were scheduled to perform there. Deb asked us how she should announce us – did our group have a name? We didn’t. Right then and there we all looked at each other and had to immediately think of a name so Deb could announce us. We were all Simpsons nerds, so we quickly decided on the name of a lesser-known character in the Simpsons: LunchLady Doris. It stuck for 12 years.

First show I produced at the Fringe: I have so many memorable moments from producing over 20 Fringe shows. Here’s two:

The events of 9/11 happened during Fringe ‘01.  All performances were cancelled for 2 or 3 days. Finally the Festival resumed, and LunchLady Doris had a show that night. We had no idea what to expect. We were doing an improvised comedy show — did people really feel like laughing? Turns out they did. We sold out, and while I remember all of us discussing backstage that we should stay open to bringing the tragedy into our show should it arise organically, it didn’t happen, and that was fine. The audience wanted to laugh and experience something magical: they had just experienced the destruction of something down to nothing — we provided them with the creation of something out of nothing. It felt quite rewarding to provide and share that communal outlet.

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P3: People Percussion Project; (L to R) Jake Miller, Judy Freed, Raahsan Lucas, Leslianna Federici, Daud Sturdivant, Bobbi Block, Joe Cicala, Rachel Laibson (photo by Debbie Boardman)

Another stand-out moment is when I applied for the ‘Fresh Moves’ series in 2002 in which new dance companies were given 10 minutes on a bill with others. I applied on the basis of one conversation I had with a performance artist, Judy Freed. We said ‘hey, we should form a body percussion group like STOMP!’   When we got accepted to the Fringe, I called Judy and said, ‘uh, we got accepted, I guess we better form a company now and start choreographing!’ And we did. P3: People Percussion Project, was formed solely because the Fringe accepted my proposal, and we lasted another 4 years and created a dozen fantastic pieces with a company of 8 percussive dancers. And we had no right doing it. I had no dance or percussion training, and, while Judy was a musician and sometimes dancer, she had never done anything with body percussion. But the Fringe supported us, so we went for it. And P3 was a huge success. Thank you for launching one of the most fun ventures of my performing career, Fringe!

The Fringiest show, venue, action, or moment I ever experienced: ComedySportz was scheduled to perform at the late night cabaret. Before we went on, this visiting artist did a reading called The Whaler (or something like that), in which he read some epic poem about whaling, and at every refrain he bent over and dipped his head in a bucket of water and quickly stood up, flipping back his hair and spraying water everywhere. And he was naked. So the water would drip down his body and started drip drip dripping off the tip of his penis. It was hilarious because he performed it so earnestly and seriously. So. ComedySportz has to follow The Whaler. And we’re all saying to each other that we didn’t want to follow that! We thought we’d be booed of the stage with our PG-rated little improv games. And then one of us suggested we do the show naked. We were getting called on stage and had to make a decision. We weren’t quite brave enough to go all the way, but many of the women took off their tops and played in their bras, and several men took off their pants and underwear and kept their shirts on. Suffice it to say, the audience paid attention to our little improv games.

A Fringe show that influenced me as an artist: Once again, SO many!! Very difficult to remember them ALL.

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Bobbi Block dancing in Le Grand Continental (photo by Marci Green)

  • Burn Manhattan: movement-based improv group from NY – the only one FringeArts has ever brought in – they were extraordinary and I always think of them when looking at the movement elements of the unscripted theater I direct.
  • Le Grand Continental: participating in this 150-person 30 minute dance was extremely challenging and allowed me to re-embrace myself as not only a theater artist, but a dancer as well.
  • Patio Plastico: Brian Sanders at his most delightful. I was filled with joy from the second it started to the end. The influence he had on me was his unique vision and perfect execution. I have seen almost every Sanders’ Fringe show – I love watching his visions come to life, and I’m so grateful he makes his life’s art here in Philly. I mostly make theater, not dance, but no matter, because Brian Sanders’ imagination can inspire anyone doing anything.
  • Cafeteria: Early Pig Iron show that made me understand a new way of theatermaking
  • LEAP!: LiveArts produced this show in which I trained accomplished scripted actors to do longform improv. That experience informed my aesthetic and provided me with the foundation for my future work. I was so grateful to experience what skilled actors can do to elevate unscripted theater.

The craziest idea for a Fringe show I wish I had done or to one day do: I really want to bring back ‘Pratfall Fridays.’ A long long time ago (long before the awesome antics of the group Improv Everywhere), a group of improvisers used to meet at Rittenhouse Square on Fridays and, at a precise moment, all take a pratfall at the same time in the middle of the square, get up, and walk away, without acknowledging any of the others or that this was a performance. We would all come up with a new way of falling each time, from elaborate  — tripping on your own foot which is on fire from cigarette butt, or carrying giant cake bumping into someone walking while reading — to mundane — trip over nothing, and carry on.  We all assumed it would go on forever and make it into future Lonely Planet Guides to Philly (‘don’t miss Pratfall Fridays!’), but, alas, it was rather short-lived. I would love to bring it to the Fringe someday.

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Tongue & Groove (photo by Aaron Oster)

Fringe notes: If it weren’t for the Fringe, my career as an unscripted theater artist would be quite different. The Fringe provided opportunities for me as a producer/director/actor to introduce the magic and integrity of unscripted theater to a wide audience. “Next Fringe” is a common refrain for Tongue & Groove, as it was for LunchLady Doris – both of these companies upped our games and pushed our boundaries each year, inspired to make the next Fringe production even better than the last. Without the Fringe vehicle to self-produce and market my work, I would not be the artist I am.

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