Gimme Shelter: Drip Symphony Returns to the Fringe
Nick Schwasman and Nate Barnett are local Philadelphia artists who run Drip Symphony, an experimental performance company now entering its second season. This Fringe, Drip Symphony presents Shelter, the story of a group of artists living together in an abandoned theater, brought together by a shared sense of artistic integrity. Staged using an immersive design where the entire theater is transformed into performance space and the audience, seated on stage and scattered throughout the house, lives among the action, Shelter explores the value of art, the nature of creation, and the power of physical boundaries to shape our realities.
Shelter runs September 19-22 at Plays & Players Theatre (and Barnett also sings with the Grammy-winning ensemble The Crossing in its Fringe show Of Arms and the Man, September 16). Schwasman and Barnett spoke to FringeArts about their artistic process, upcoming production, and views of the Fringe Festival.
FringeArts: What was the inspiration behind Shelter?
Nick Schwasman: I just turned 19. I was sitting around a fire behind a barn, talking to my dad and friends. My dad had recently received a letter from his dad, who is homeless and schizophrenic, and whom I had never met. I was talking about how I wanted to meet him. The idea came to me somewhere in this moment, that any homeless person I saw could possibly be my grandfather, and that’s essentially where it started.
We began writing the script for it back in 2013, in a barn on winter break. We still have scraps from back then, and many of the characters still exist in evolved forms. But it’s changed a lot. We’ve allowed this process to take any twists and turns that appeared, so much had changed. The show is now most strongly inspired by our artist colleagues and ourselves, and the experience we all have trying to navigate a very fraught artistic landscape. It’s about the decisions we make to survive and stay true to ourselves, and the spaces we create in support of those decisions.
FringeArts: What’s the process been like?
Nate Barnett: Drip Symphony’s processes generally look like a long, winding path. We start with a seed, in this case a concept and some written materials. Then we start tossing that stuff around, prodding it, seeing what’s still good and finding out where it needs to go. We gather research and find other art that inspires us.
All of our work is extremely collaborative, so right away we assemble our team and immerse everyone in the project. Then we invite our collaborators to dream with us. One of the first people we brought on was Dylan Cooper, who created sketches of a giant dish fountain we knew we wanted in our set. That fountain is now being created by our sculptor, Paige Miller, and our performers are incorporating it into their movement and scenes. We love letting those processes guide our work, passing ideas through many people and watching them take on a life of their own.
As the final phase of the project we start rehearsals with our ensemble. We’re lucky to have people who are comfortable with the riskiness of our process. There isn’t a final script until the week of the show. Some of it’s written by us, a lot of it is being made in the room. But like the rest of the project, we want our performers to have their handprint on their roles.
FringeArts: What makes the show fitting for the Fringe Festival?
Nate Barnett: We’re taking a lot of risks on Shelter. It’s a big experiment for us, and it feels like everything we’ve done, we’ve done for the first time. Very little is standard. We’re extremely invested in the experiment, and not betting on any outcomes. We really are looking for an open-minded audience that is hungry for new performance work, and that’s what the Fringe Festival provides.
FringeArts: Is there a message you want to convey?
Nick Schwasman: One of the things we’d love is for people to leave our show inspired to create themselves. Maybe they’ll want to pick up a paintbrush, write a song or a poem, or encourage their friend to finish that novel. That kind of instinctive creation and support is the lifeblood of our characters. We hope it’s infectious.
FringeArts: Should art be understood, or experienced?
Nate Barnett: We fall pretty clearly on the experience side of the fence. Our inspirations at this point come from artists whose work emphasizes experience: painter Jackson Pollock, playwright Samuel Beckett, composer Terry Riley. As we’re creating, we’re trying to forge a unique experience for each individual audience member. We believe that facilitates more meaningful conversation around the show, as each person may have seen something somebody else has not. Nick always says, “Each seat will at one point be the best seat in the house, and at another point the worst.”
I think understanding is the ultimate goal, but you can’t put that much pressure on your audience, or anyone.
FringeArts: How does the work fit into Drip Symphony’s mission?
Nate Barnett: One of Drip Symphony’s central missions is to make original work for a modern audience. That modern audience is one we’re cultivating with each project—an audience that is open to innovation, that actually enjoys not knowing what to expect. Shelter is made with that audience in mind.
Another part of our mission is to bring together diverse artists to create new work. We believe diversity is the foundation of a strong community, and we’ve really striven to achieve that with the team we assembled. Each person has a unique point of view, whether that uniqueness is embodied in their gender, race, medium, sexual orientation, training, or education. It’s an amazing team and we’re really grateful to work with them.
FringeArts: What do you like about Plays and Players as a venue?
Nick Schwasman: Plays & Players has long been a home for the both of us. It was one of the first communities that really welcomed us in as young artists. I did a stint as a bartender at Quig’s, and I have some really great memories from that time. Plays & Players is a membership organization that has a legacy of a democratic approach to its space and productions. The building was bought with membership dues. As a member, you can’t help but feel that you own a little piece of it.
Drip Symphony has a long relationship with Plays & Players—our first show, Wedgwood on the Green, was premiered there back in 2015, and since then we’ve made basically everything there. The theater has been a great home for our work, and the community there has been extremely supportive. President Linda Gryn has provided endless support that has kept us dreaming. Shelter is actually a co-production between Drip Symphony and Plays & Players, thanks to Linda.
We’re especially glad to present on the P&P mainstage. The infrastructure of the building itself has a huge influence on the play. We always knew that we wanted the feel of an abandoned place, but it wasn’t until recently that we made that place an abandoned theater. It’s a beautiful space, historic, rustic, layered with character. We’re transforming the entire theater into the artists’ home, which is a huge undertaking, and something many places probably wouldn’t be down for. But Plays & Players likes the idea, and we’re really excited to bring a new perspective to the space.
Also: we both recently joined the Board of Directors at Plays & Players and are really grateful to be investing more in the theater’s future. If anyone who is reading this has any ideas for or questions about the theater, please get in touch! We’d love to talk to you.
FringeArts: What else are you looking forward to this Fringe Festival?
Drip Symphony: Almanac’s Jeanne/Jean/John/Jawn; The Crossing’s Of Arms and the Man; Chris Davis’s The Presented; Irish Heritage Theatre’s Lay Me Down Softly; Renegade Company’s (Kensington) Streetplay; the work of local Philly artists we respect.
FringeArts: Thanks Nate and Nick!
When: September 19-22, 2018
Where: Plays & Players, 1714 Delancey Place
Created by Drip Symphony