The Plague Comes to Philadelphia: Pestilence: WOW!
Playwright and director Savannah Reich recently moved to Philadelphia after making work with her company Eternal Cult for ten years and touring it to bars, basements and warehouses across the country. Opening tomorrow night, Pestilence: WOW! marks the Fringe debut for her raw and immediate style of theater, produced punk-rock style: collaboratively, accessibly, and strange.
Reich spoke to FringeArts about this new play about the bubonic plague that lives somewhere between a game show and an acid trip.
FringeArts: What’s the worst illness you’ve ever suffered?
Savannah Reich: I was a sickly child and always had some kind of a cold. I have a real fascination with the the intimate nature of illness, and the way it takes away our illusions of control. I did a lot of reading about illness in preparation for this play: Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, and Eula Biss’s On Immunity; An Inoculation are particular favorites. None of this ended up in the play directly, of course.
FringeArts: What brought you to Philadelphia?
Savannah Reich: I graduated from Carnegie Mellon with my MFA three years ago, and I’ve been kind of an art tumbleweed ever since. I lived in Chicago for a few years, and I’ve been bopping around and doing plays in Pittsburgh and Minneapolis and traveling a lot. I think I’m looking for my artistic home.
FringeArts: What are your initial views on the city, its theater scene, and the Fringe?
Savannah Reich: I have loved being in Philadelphia. it’s a cool combination of DIY ethic, kindness, and a real openness to experimental work. I came to the Philly Fringe as an audience member several years ago and saw Romeo Castellucci’s The Four Seasons Restaurant, and I was so impressed with the idea of a Festival that included such amazing curated performance and also new work from this community. It was a huge part of the reason I came to Philadelphia.
FringeArts: What inspired Pestilence: WOW!?
Savannah Reich: I started reading about the plague about six months after the 2016 election. I was thinking a lot about feeling despair, and about the whole culture despairing at once. I was hearing a lot of rhetoric about pushing past the fear and fighting back, which I absolutely agree with, but I think that one of the things that theater artists do best is creating a space to honor a feeling first, without trying to do anything about it. I wanted to write a play about the feeling of powerlessness, and fear, and being overwhelmed. I wanted to just swim in that feeling, without trying to push past it, just let it in. In performance it’s a very funny play, but it came from a place of grief.
FringeArts: Is there a message or themes you’re trying to convey?
Savannah Reich: It’s not a message as much as an opportunity to take a long hard look at how it really feels to be alive in this moment. I try to create a space that allows me to really be honest about my feelings, and hope that it does that for other people as well.
FringeArts: How did you find your collaborators and what did you look for in them?
Savannah Reich: My main artistic and producing collaborator on this show and several others in the past is Douglas Vento, who wrote and is performing the music for this piece. He’s an incredible musician and artistic mind, and he’s made a very weird, John Carpenter-esque score for this show using a table full of electronic gadgets that I don’t understand. It’s very exciting. We’ve also worked closely on the script together since it’s earliest inception. Douglas lives in Pittsburgh now but he grew up just outside of Philadelphia, so it’s a cool kind of homecoming for him.
The actors in this show have exceeded my most unrealistic hopes. I had assumed that being new to town, I would have a hard time finding people who would be willing to take a chance on my show, but the people that I connected with—mostly through asking friends for recommendations—are incredibly powerful performers and whip-smart collaborators. They all have a lot of training from a cool variety of places: we have people with backgrounds in clown, drag, and modern dance as well as traditional acting. I’m wildly grateful for them. They have all been making me cry-laugh for the entire rehearsal process.
Emily Cross, our costumer, is another friend that I have worked with before. She created beautiful, 1348-period appropriate costumes for us almost entirely out of materials that she found for cheap or free. Don’t tell the actor playing Alphonse this, but she made his fake bangs out of an old wig that she found on the street, then washed, ironed and sewed into a hat. One of my favorite parts of Philadelphia is that I am close enough to Pittsburgh to keep working with Douglas and Emily.
FringeArts: What other shows are you looking forward to this Festival?
Savannah Reich: We are sharing Panorama with four other amazing artists: Donna Oblongata, Chris Davis, Sarah Knittel, and Billimarie Robinson are presenting their shows here as well, and it’s a great opportunity for people to stay for more than one show without leaving the building. From what I’ve seen so far, all of our shows share a strange, dark and DIY vibe that pairs well together. I can’t wait to see all of them.
FringeArts: Thanks Savannah!
What: Pestilence: WOW!
When: September 8-15, 2018
Where: Panorama Philly, 5213 Grays Avenue, West Philly
Created by Savannah Reich