Happy Hour on the Fringe: Conversation with Cecily Chapman on Public Practice Works
On this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, hosts Zach Blackwood and Tenara Calem chat with FringeArts ambassador and Le Super Grand Continental (2018) dancer Cecily Chapman. The trio discuss the importance of public practice performances and Cecily goes into detail about her personal experience as a performer in a large-scale production. The conversation acts as wonderful insight for people interested in getting involved in the 2019 Fringe Festival participatory piece, Úumbal: Nomadic Choreography for Inhabitants. Learn more about Úumbal and how to participate in the Step Library here! Listen to the podcast or read the full transcript below.
Conversation with Cecily Chapman
Tenara: Hello, and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. FringeArts is Philadelphia’s premiere presenter of contemporary performing arts. I’m Tenara. I’m the Audience Engagement Coordinator at FringeArts.
Zach: And I’m Zach. I’m an Artistic Producer, here. We invite you to pour one up and enjoy our conversations with some most imaginative people on this plane of existence.
Tenara: Here at FringeArts, we’re getting ready for The Appointment by Lightning Rod Special previewing on Wednesday, March 20th and running through March 31st. Make sure you visit fringearts.com to grab your tickets for this spectacular show exploring misogyny, hypocrisy, and absurdity surrounding the abortion debate in America.
Zach: But today, we’re talking to a very special guest, Cecily Chapman, one of our FringeArts ambassadors, and dancer in last year’s public practice dance piece, Le Super Grand Continental. Welcome Cecily.
Cecily: Thank you.
Zach: One of our first questions we always ask. What are you imbibing? What’s your beverage today?
Cecily: Ah, sparkling water. It’s my go-to beverage.
Zach: Spicy water.
Cecily: Spicy water. Yeah, that’ll do.
Zach: We have a young friend that calls it that.
Cecily: Like a child. Yeah, that makes sense.
Tenara: Yeah, that makes a little bit more sense. And now that I’m thinking more about it in the context of a child’s brain, it actually is a perfect description.
Zach: What are you having tonight?
Tenara: I’m also having spicy water.
Zach: I’m actually having spicy water. I’m having a Turmeric Ginger Tea. [crosstalk 00:01:33]. It’s very, very good. It’s sometimes too spicy. And we’re gonna get too spicy today on the podcast, right?
Cecily: Ooo spicy. I am ready.
Zach: So we’re to talk to you kinda about your experience in public practice work. You got to participate in Le Super Grand Continental. Are you willing to tell us a little bit about how Le Super Grand Continental worked, as though we’ve never heard of it.
Cecily: It was like we spent the whole summer preparing for a two-day weekend performance for the first weekend of the Fringe Festival, and it was like 150 may 200, normal, regular, Philadelphia area people who are not professional dancers learning a 30 minute piece. It was ranging from little five-year-olds to like probably close to 80. I don’t know. I have no idea. Like at some point, you don’t ask people their age.
Cecily: But it was all of us together practicing twice, sometimes much more than that a week to get our dance steps down and it was fun event.
Zach: And were you costumed for that?
Cecily: We could choose our costumes. There were no real limits as long as we could move in them, and it wasn’t advertising anything. But there were people in just their regular jeans and t-shirts, and dress things or whatever, and then there were people in sequins. I had a sequined shirt on top. It was very bright and red. There were people with tutus. There were multitude of different costumes per se, but that was our chance of being creative and letting our own personalities show to a certain degree ’cause in a group dance you’re supposed to be doing all the steps, all the same steps that everybody else is doing, so it’s nice to be able to at least show some of your personality.
Zach: And what was your experience with dancer performance before jumping into Le Grand?
Cecily: So, I actually did the first Le Grand. I’ve taken dance classes and things, but not anything that I can really remember where I was like I’m a dancer. I did do a musical theater camp at one point.
Tenara: Heck yeah.
Zach: I was reading about that. So Cecily’s an amazing stand up performer in town and also a storyteller, and some of Cecily’s stories are so so good WHYY has published the transcripts of them, so you can definitely look those up and check them out. I looked them up and had a great time reading about them. What was the title of the piece, I had a nightmare time at musical theater camp, or-
Cecily: Oh, I don’t remember what the title was.
Zach: When you talked about turning over and looking at the 10-year-old boy in the face, like it is so so fantastic. No more spoilers. Check it out yourself.
Tenara: So what was it like for you returning to Le Super Grand after you did it in 2012? So, it was like six years have gone by and then you came to not exactly the same piece but something similar.
Zach: There’s some old people, some new people. [crosstalk 00:05:23]
Cecily: I was excited to sign up again to do it because my memory said that it was great experience. And I only say that because physically I’m six years older, and all the things which I’m still young and I look at [crosstalk 00:05:46] but my body is different than six years ago, so that is the only thing that came to mind. But I was excited because I do like the idea of meeting people from my community per se, like people I might see on the bus, or might see at a performance, or wherever I am, and getting to have some form of connection with them. And it was really nice to see a couple of my friends from six years ago return because some of them I hadn’t stayed in contact with, but as soon we saw each other, it was like “Yes! I’m so happy you’re here,” and basically kinda like an old friend like you just picking up where you left off, almost literally, ’cause we left off dancing and we’re picking up dancing.
Cecily: So, that was exciting to have like a portion of people that were familiar and even a couple of the instructors were familiar. So, it was nice to know that there were people who remember our previous performance, had some energy about it. And then, there were a lot of new people, and so it was a chance to kinda meet new people and I’m not the most social person, so I’m sure coulda connected way better, but like to me it was nice to just be in our room or a huge ice rink with people every week, a couple times a week coming together. We’re in different stages of our life and different ethnic and different all the things. All the things we can come up with. So, it was really good to kinda see that happen again. My body was just like, “you forgot.”
Cecily: I was told that this piece was a little bit more challenging than by one of the instructors. They said it was a little more challenging than six years ago. So, my body my not be lying to me and my memory. But it definitely felt, I was like, I’m actually working out, and like a couple times in a week. There’s some fun contrast and similarities.
Tenara: Yeah, when I was hanging out at rehearsal, some people told me like the main, similar to you, they end up find a sense of community and connection with everybody around them, but originally they wanted to do Le Super Grand in order to build in exercise into their week. So, they like literally did it at first because they were like, “Oh, I will just be moving for two hours twice a week.”
Zach: And I think a lot about my experience, I was a marching band nerd in high school. And to get with all those people to learn the drill, [inaudible 00:09:14], to get injured together in some cases, to share nasty moldy water bottles together, it feels almost you share in this joy but almost bodily trauma in a certain way that’s not bad, it’s just [crosstalk 00:09:35]. There’s something in that sense of shared accomplishment that’s like, it compounds my personal sense of accomplishment in a certain way. And its’ funny, I see so many Le Grand dancers around town like at the Whole Foods. Last night at the Rosenbach Museum, I saw a person, who I won’t name ’cause this is being recorded. And Yeah, it just makes me feel like I have friends all over in certain way.
Tenara: Do you run into people?
Cecily: I have. Yes. I’m also at this weird stage in life where I don’t know where I know people from. So, it’s like do I know you because you know me from [inaudible 00:10:11]. Do I know you from some other, like the bus. Or do I know. But I have seen some Le Super Grand people in my travels and things, and some of them recognize me, some of them don’t because there’s some many of us, like you might not remember everybody.
Zach: The other day I was just walking up the street and Sarah Gladwin Camp rides by on her bike and just goes, “Hey, looking forward to the next one.”Just like that. Just so funny like it just it feels like, it makes the city feel smaller to me in a certain way and that’s exciting. When you’re looking at the first Le Grand opportunity back in I guess this is 2012, when you’re reading through the description, what made you say this is for me and I can do that?
Cecily: So, I honestly don’t really remember what … I think my mom sent me an email and it was just the idea that as long as I could move, I could be a part of it. So, auditioning and all the things, it … the pressure of being like a perfect dancer, and I didn’t have to worry about that.
Tenara: So, the pressure to be like a perfect dancer was off and-
Cecily: Yeah, so I think also at that point in my life I was just kinda more willing to try something new, try something different. I don’t really remember. It was six years ago.
Zach: Were you new at comedy then?
Cecily: Yes, I was very new at comedy then.
Tenara: Do you feel …or I’m sure there is a difference, but maybe you can speak a little bit about the difference of being a participant in these big, large-scale performances versus being an audience member watching a performance.
Cecily: Well, I think in some ways when I watch a performance I want to be a part of it to a certain degree and usually it’s, “I wish I could do that.” And so, I think there’s just a certain amount of aw in seeing people moving their bodies or any creative form that either not using or just haven’t got to a certain level of using. So, it’s always fun to see people performing and then when the opportunity comes to being able to be a part of something, it just seems right because now I’m getting to do what I have wanted to do when I’ve been a spectator. So, if it happened again and I was physically able to do it again, I would still do it and not be a spectator.
Zach: I watched all three performances from different places each time. Like one time I was up high on the steps of the art museum, another time I climbed up weird sculpture and was on top of that, that was fun. And I just felt this immense sense of like pride. Right? ‘Cause I was there in some rehearsals, I did a lot of recruitment for this, and I felt proud of everyone who was dancing, but I felt more proud broadly of the city and I just don’t know that there are … It’s funny they take this piece all over the world, and what’s interesting to me is I feel like Philly, it’s just very like–
Tenara: It’s very different.
Zach: Like it … something just locks into place. Philly, especially it’s such a big, small town in a certain way. The footprint of the city, geographically is kinda teenty, but there’s so many people here, and there this kind of … There’s this thing that I don’t feel like you have in New York anymore where you run into everybody you know all the time here. And sometimes it’s great, and sometimes it’s like ugh, there’s my ex again. [inaudible 00:14:09]. There’s someone I ghosted. What do they want from me? You know, but it’s just, it felt like there was this immense interconnectivity that I don’t know [crosstalk 00:14:22] but was foregrounded.
Tenara: Yeah, it was just so celebratory. It was really infectious. I was there doing, essentially recruitment for this year’s public practice performance. I was like basically like if this seems interesting to you, write down your name and email address, and we’ll send you information about next year’s show. It won’t be the same thing, but it will be something very similar and I can tell you that the number of email sign ups we got after the show, like tripled the number that we had right before the show started because you can’t watch that without being like oh my god that was amazing. I wanna do that. I wanna be a part of the crew.
Zach: So what advice do you have for people who might consider being in the large scale public practice piece in the future? Maybe in their decision-making or how to prep for a hot, sweaty rehearsal process.
Cecily: Okay. So, first with the decision making, I know a lot of times, there’s a audition type situation and it’s not really an audition as much as it’s showing you that you can do it. So, I would suggest people not take it so seriously as like oh my gosh this Broadway show. I have to get all the steps. And just know, be mindful of your body, but also in this kind of situation, know that there are people who are going to be faster at getting the steps, who are going to be more limber, and more all the things, and there are going to be people who are not gonna be good as you in picking things up and all that, and by the end of it, we’re all doing the same thing.
Cecily: So, it might take you longer. It might take you a much shorter process, but the overall, the ending is gonna be great. So, definitely go to the auditions or whatever they’re being called. And information sessions just so that you can kind of see what was being offered. For me, I think I, at some point, mostly towards the end, I wasn’t present. So, I was kinda like get this over with at some point.
Zach: In the dress rehearsal and then in that performance also.
Cecily: In the dress rehearsal, we got rained out of. And then, the actual Sunday performance, we were rained on, and for me, it was not fun. I was not interested at all and pictures prove that. It feels like all the pictures that are of me captured my inner thoughts. [crosstalk 00:17:34] But at the end, what I wanna say is don’t let the positive be the memory, but the positive be the present. So, if I do it again or something like it, I would hope that I would be able to be present and experience the joy that is around me and just being proud of myself that put in this work and you know, be able to celebrate and dance in the rain even though I really, really, really, really hated it.
Zach: There were so many audience members who stayed in the rain.
Cecily: Yeah, it was an amazing idea. [crosstalk 00:18:19] It’s great for the movies. You know. It’s a great scene to inspire people and yeah, the audience members were great.
Tenara: It was cold.
Cecily: It’s was cold and it was-
Zach: And you had to lay down [crosstalk 00:18:44]. And at that point, that was it. I was just like feeling for everybody at that point. [inaudible 00:18:52]
Cecily: But there’s so many people around me that were excited and so I kinda wish I would’ve been excited too.
Zach: And now it’s like a competition, right? ‘Cause we got rained on in 2012 too.
Cecily: Yeah, that was different though ’cause it was a mist. It was more of a … it was actually kinda nice like you weren’t drowning from looking up into the sky [crosstalk 00:19:17]
Zach: It was a torrential downpour. I’m from Florida like hurricane season and I was like this is real. Generally, I’m like “Ooo, people whine about rain here”, but like that was powerful.
Tenara: So, one more question for you. You know, I’m wondering where public practice work like what it does in terms of representation that feels different from traditional theatrical performances or performing arts where people often find that there’s a gap between who they want to see on stage and who’s actually on stage.
Cecily: Representation is such a weird kind of thing for me right now ’cause usually what I was telling you I do, just so that people know, I’m a black woman, cisgender, so when I walk into room, I know who is there and so, I’m always aware of how many black people, how many women…like I’m counting in certain sense. And I do that just about any space I’m in. When I’m in like certain parts of the city, it’s like well it would make sense that I’m the only one. But then there other spaces where it’s like well there should be more of us here because of where it is like that kind of thing.
Cecily: So like, there’s certain percentage of black people in this country, but then when you start going down to the certain percentage of black people in Philadelphia and those things, then it’s like there should be more in certain areas. So, my experience with community space is I think generally everyone was represented with this last performance and I think continuing on, in general, I think there’s a lot of possibility for representation in the fact that there would be at least one. But I don’t know if that’s accurate and I think there’s a certain amount of people trying to make it be more accurate. But in some way, you’re always gonna miss the mark.
Zach: I feel that. Yeah, it’s interesting. For me, as like a black person and queer person, and all the kind of ways [inaudible 00:21:58]. When I go to see traditional theatrical work and there’s maybe somebody who looks like me and whose identity or the identity that they’re taking on in that space is like man, and I think to myself, what a jackpot in a certain way, thinking about all of the training that you have to do, all of the opportunities that have to line up. It’s almost like the planets have aligned, and here it’s this person on stage who in some ways is speaking to me and I think where public practice work has an opportunity, and a unique opportunity, is that it says come as you are and we’ll teach you the skills you need. What you need is enthusiasm. We need your living human body and we’ll get there together. And I think what we’re really thinking about a lot as we go into this second year of this three-year initiative to a large-scale public practice work each year, is how do we take any further?
Zach: ‘Cause right, looking at what the barriers are implicitly to being able to participate in something like this. Maybe you just won’t four hours a week to commit to this. You know, maybe you need childcare, maybe you need more of a travel stipend, maybe you need a different level of engagement that you can touch the piece from. Where not having to be there four hours at all where generally, it is prohibitive of you to give up that much of your time from a financial perspective, from a body perspective, and how can you participate in other ways? So, we’re thinking a lot about kind of [00:23:21] level of engagement up to the four hours a week, and then you dance with us forever, but what if you were just able to I don’t a portion of the dance to us, or to be there the day of the performance in some capacity other than dancing. You know, maybe you don’t need to be there for all of the rehearsals, but you get to hold a speaker that plays the music that they listen to. And we’re thinking about all those things as we go into this next year’s project.
Tenara: What a great setup to talk about next year’s project. You were in the meeting where I mentioned it?
Tenara: So you have heard a little bit about this. So, we are bringing a Mexican artist named Mariana Arteaga to Philadelphia to bring piece Úumbal: Nomadic Choreography for Inhabitants to the United States for the very first time. It’s the U.S. premiere. We’re so excited about and Úumbal does every single thing that Zach was just mentioning. There are three phases to the piece. The first is called The Step Library, or in Spanish, La Pasoteca, and it’s inviting Philadelphians who love to move, who love to dance, who are the first to get up and dance at a party, who have a gesture that’s very special to them, who like just love moving their body to come to a Step Library event with 10 to 30 seconds of dancing and bring their music with them and literally show us your favorite move. We film it. We put on a website and then, Mariana choreographic team look at all those moves and weave together a choreography that then 20 to 25 Philadelphians are invited to develop with her.
Tenara: So, that’s phase two. And phase three is sort of the model of Le Super Grand, it’s a 100 Philadelphians who are learning this choreography that was developed by Philadelphians and donated to by Philadelphians, and then performing it as processional through the literal streets of Philadelphia in September. It’s exactly what Zach was saying. We wanted to create opportunities for people who don’t four hours a week, who maybe they’re in a wheelchair, and learning this kind of choreography would be very prohibitive to them.
Zach: Maybe they just don’t wanna hang out with all these new people. I think there are people who sometimes that’s enjoyable in small doses.
Tenara: Yeah, exactly.
Zach: I’m trying to think about all of these different ways people might’ve been shut out from the process we had last year, and growing on it. And next year, who knows.
Tenara: Yeah. For real.
Zach: Next year, have everybody in a space shuttle. We’re gonna put people on the moon. Just trying to figure out what the next level up from there is how to zoom out further and do something that that says something else about Philadelphia.
Tenara: Yeah, so if folks are interested in donating a dance step. The dates are April 6th, 7th, 13th, and 14th. You can find information about the step library at https://uumbal.fringearts.com. And you can also poke around on that website and find out just like all the ways you can be involved through all different phases of the project which will really be in development from April to September, so we’re in it for the long haul, my friends. Cecily, thank you so much for joining us.
Cecily: Yeah, thank you. And you guys are doing great work and I applaud you.
Zach: Oh, thank you.
Tenara: We applaud you.
Zach: We applaud you and where can people applaud you doing some comedy stuff?
Cecily: I am all over Philadelphia and the country. I’m doing festivals and things, so you can check me out on cecilyalexandria.com or @Cecilythegreat on the Instagrams and things.
Zach: And you can follow us at fringearts.com or @FringeArts on everything in the whole world. Make sure to register for the step library and find out about the ways you can get involved with Úumbal. Thanks guys.
Cecily: Thank you.