Happy Hour on the Fringe: Conversation with Zach Blackwood & Katy Dammers
On this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, we chat with FringeArts Artistic Producers Zach Blackwood and Katy Dammers about the themes of the 2019 Fringe Festival, some of the exciting events happening, and the return of the Fringe Festival Bookstore! Learn more about the Fringe Festival, running September 5–22.
Listen to the episode and read the transcript below.
Conversation with Zach and Katy[Music Intro]
Raina: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. FringeArts is Philadelphia’s premier presenter of contemporary performing arts. I’m Raina Searles, Marketing Manager at FringeArts.
Tenara: And I’m Tenara Calem. I’m the Audience Engagement Coordinator at FringeArts.
Raina: We invite you to pour one up and enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence.
Tenara: On this episode, we’re talking to our incredibly imaginative artistic producers here at FringeArts, Zach Blackwood and Katy Dammers. Zach and Katy are the ones who curate the great work we get to see year round and at the Fringe Festival, which showcases the arts of not only a variety of genres that work outside of the mainstream, but also shows off the talent powerhouse that is the city of Philadelphia. We’re going to talk about their process and their curation for this year, and what they’re excited about this season. Hello Katy and Zach!
Zach: I imagine this is going to be a great conversation.
Katy: We’re excited to be back on the podcast.
Raina: So first question we have to ask, what are we all drinking?
Zach: I’m drinking a certain Brooklyn based cold brew brand that you can purchase, and I’m not going to name them because they don’t pay me.
Tenara: That’s true.
Zach: But I drink the espresso coffee one, which probably can zero you in, and for a few weeks I was drinking it I didn’t know it was a concentrate.
Tenara: Oh no. So were you just off your rocker?
Zach: No more than usual. Deeply productive. I’m deeply productive. I’ll say that.
Tenara: Katy, what are you drinking?
Katy: I’m drinking water as I usually am in the morning.
Tenara: Great. I’m also drinking water.
Raina: I’m having hot chocolate.
Tenara: What? That’s a power move.
Zach: High luxury.
Tenara: Oh my goodness.
Raina: Brought from home.
Tenara: So we, the last time the four of us were in the same room together doing this podcast was episode 16-
Zach: That’s impossible.
Tenara: Of last season. Yeah, no it’s not impossible. That was the last time-
Raina: Yeah, we’re on season three.
Tenara: Yeah. It was our Christmas episode where we were like, “This is who we are. Welcome.” So remind us, for those of our listeners who are new, remind us of your background and how long you’ve been working at Fringe.
Zach: My background. I grew up in Florida, in like Central Florida, we’re going to skip ahead now, and then yeah I first started working for the Fringe in 2013 with Tara Demi and Jordan Layman, and we had a really, really fantastic time actually work … That was another time that we presented a piece by an artist that we’ll talk about, a few artists that we’ll talk about actually later, they’re mostly doing work on independent Fringe at that time. So then it was called The Neighborhood Fringe, but I was working with independent artists a lot.
Zach: And then I was working at The Kimmel kind of before that and after that for a long period of time working a lot on PIFA, and Broadway Philadelphia and stuff, and yeah I came back to Fringe full-time in April 2017.
Katy: I am newer in Fringe. So I’ve been at Fringe for about I would say almost 10 months now. So it’s not even quite a year, but it’s been a very full 10 months. And before I was at Fringe, I was living at New York City and I was a curator at The Kitchen, which is a non-profit performing arts center and gallery space that’s known as one of the most innovative and oldest alternative spaces in New York. So it’s not a museum, it’s not a gallery, it’s a place for artists to create new innovative work across a variety of disciplines. And The Kitchen and Fringe have definitely collaborated in the past, and shared artists.
Katy: So actually, the first Fringe Festival that I’ve worked on maybe three weeks after I got here, so not in a curatorial capacity, more of a facilitating capacity. There was a show by Trajal Harrell that actually went from FringeArts to The Kitchen.
Tenara: Oh cool.
Katy: So we continued to have that collaborative relationship. But I’m thrilled to be in Philly and working at Fringe now.
Raina: Well let’s dive in. I mean, so we’re curious about the process that you guys go through in selecting works for the festival thinking about who approaches who. How do you guys as a team figure out who you want to bring in, and what is that discussion if there is disagreement or do you lean on one another that’s judging if you haven’t both seen the show? All of those questions.
Katy: Yeah. I think one person who’s not in the room I just want to name, who is often part of these discussions is Nick Stuccio, our Executive Director and producing director here at Fringe.
Zach: And Founder of the Fringe Festival in Philadelphia. Yeah.
Katy: And Founder notably. So Nick works with Zach and I to shape the festival, and Zach and I do the majority of the programming, but we do curate by consensus. So there are a whole host of different ways and artists is chosen. Sometimes they come to us, sometimes we go to them, sometimes it’s a relationship that’s decades long, sometimes it’s a new relationship that’s based off of us meeting somebody for the first time. It’s a whole variety of different things, which also then affects the scale of the work, and knowing how long is the presentation while they’re here at Fringe, how much support are we giving them and in what ways. It’s a really wide variety of scales.
Zach: Yeah. I think with some of these, the relationship with this particular engagement goes back a few years, and some of this goes back 10 months, and it’s just interesting kind of to look at as kind of people move into and out of the FringeArts orbit, kind of they bring new relationships with them, and it all kind of gets mixed together in this way. And I think, yeah, we were talking a little bit right before we started recording about there’s so many artists that I think all of us would like to present, and it really does become about who we all completely agree on to a certain degree, and how we’re thinking about them all in conversation with each other as well.
Zach: So I’m going to shout out another podcast, sorry, but there’s a really actually great episode of OK Radio, the Nature Theater of Oklahoma podcast where an artist straight up asks Phillip Bither-
Tenara: Who is that?
Zach: Phillip Bither from Minneapolis, who is their amazing, amazing curator.
Raina: Got it.
Katy: He works at the Walker Art Center.
Raina: Great. Thank you.
Katy: We have collaborated so many times, and our collaborating began last fall.
Zach: Exactly. Yeah, with the work by that same artist. But it’s very interesting because they asked him straight up like, “What did it take for you to finally bring our show here?” And it’s interesting. All the intersections, it’s very the meme of Charlie Day with the red-
Zach: That is very much how you actually get there because there’s a question of availability, there’s a question of scale, kind of what support you’re able to provide, all of those things kind of have to … The planets have to align to a certain degree. So get any single show here, and then also the curatorial part of it, kind of the matchmaking of how these things all fit together, what the kind of collage of that festival then looks like. Yeah, no. It’s magic. It’s witchcraft. That’s what we do.
Katy: Yeah. It really feels that way because we are always starting from a curatorial standpoint where we care about the work that the artist is doing, we’re in building a relationship, we’re curious about the thematic or the particular subject of that given work within an artist’s broader lifetime of creation. And then there are lots of logistic things that are not sexy and not interesting, but deeply important around visas. Are we able to even get them into this country? What are the costs of this particular production? A lot of that also comes down to partnerships.
Katy: If we’re bringing an international artist in as we are with EN-KNAP, this Slovenian dance company for the piece of Pursuit of Happiness, we frankly wouldn’t be able to do that unless we had the partnership of the Walker Art Center to share the costs in terms of travel, and freight, and visa preparation. And then you have to think about just scheduling. Honestly, that is one of the hardest things that we can decide all day, and we can curate for you probably 30 Fringe Festivals, but to have one that actually works does feel like a miracle, right?
Katy: We’re at the artist schedule lines with the venue that we’d like to put them in here with the support that we’re able to get, with the staff that we need from production otherwise to support it. There’s a lot of moving pieces.
Tenara: So that’s-
Zach: Frankly, some of these shows get put on a boat that then comes across the Atlantic Ocean.
Katy: Over a period of multiple months.
Katy: Quite frankly, we put the freight that is currently in Japan on a boat like yesterday or this morning, and it is slowly going to make its way to San Francisco, and then get driven to Minneapolis, so it would be there the second week of September, and then it’ll get driven by a very generous person at the Walker Art Center.
Zach: Oh. Shouts to you!
Katy: Shouts to you Doug! All the way from Minneapolis to Philadelphia.
Tenara: So there’s a single individual not from a company, or an institution-
Tenara: That is-
Katy: That is driving.
Tenara: Like, “To make this possible, I will drive the freight to Philadelphia.”?
Katy: And that is what we do. We have to make creative solutions because we are paying a freight company a whole arm, and a leg to put it on a ship, which is actually much cheaper than say putting it on a plane to get it to come all the way around the world. And yeah it’s still enormously expensive even though we do lots of fundraising, and lots of partnership, and creative cost cutting. And so that’s one of the things that we talked about as a team as I was looking up. When I’ve done this before, we put it in a U-Haul and drive it across the country, that’s going to be much cheaper than us hiring a freight company.
Katy: And so that’s what we’re going to do.
Katy: So that is the not-as-exciting part, but also equally important part of our job is what are all of these little details that we have to futz together of like one of the venues we’re working at doesn’t have laundry. But of course, all the shows that are there need to be able to do laundry each day. So what relationship can we have with our neighbors there to allow them to open their space so that this other theater company can do laundry in their space? What people can we work with to very generously give us their apartment for the summer, so we could have an artist stay there for three weeks or more?
Zach: And I mean, you know about kind of all the relationships Tenara. You know as well like all of the relationships that we’re building kind of around our public practice work this year. It’s a number of phone calls that is exponentially more than the number of presentations we will eventually present, that even likely how many people will see it, right? And it’s really kind of about stewarding this projects to not just to completion, not just to achievement, but to what we would determine as a successful presentation is one in which nobody knows that all of this stuff happened.
Tenara: Yeah. Exactly.
Zach: It has to look excellent, and effortless, and so that doesn’t get in the way of how it can impact an audience that way. How the art itself can interface with an audience.
Katy: And also be easy for that for the rest. We are thinking about our audiences all the time, but particularly in the Fringe Festival where we have more people traveling from out of time whether that’s just from New York or from Belgium, we want to make sure that they have an easy experience too in terms of their travel and hospitality. And for many of them, it’s their first time in Philadelphia. So we have to do a lot of work around that to, and be good ambassadors for our city.
Tenara: Well let me ask you a pretty philosophical question. I think we spend a lot of time thinking of in thinking of people who work in the performance industry. So you said, Zach, a successful iteration of this presentation would be one where the logistical stuff is hidden from the audience, that they don’t know that these are all the things we have to think about in order to present them an impactful experience. But I wonder in my position when I manage the ambassador program, one of the joys the ambassadors have is to find out all of the things that went into the decision to bring this piece or to the creation of this piece if they’re hearing directly from the artist.
Tenara: And so the lifting of the veil makes them feel more connected to the industry, and therefore better stewards of the industry to like a public audience. I just wonder the culture that we have in this country in particular separates performance as a product that’s really shiny with a bonnet for the public, and I wonder how much that actually serve us because does that actually create a bigger distance between the performance and the audience?
Zach: Well I don’t think it does because what’s important to me is to recede a little bit into the background, in the relationship between artist and audience. I want for them to interact with the work with no other expectations in the ones that the artist wants to get them, right? So backing up a little bit, I think that the presenter/producer kind of bisecting is not necessarily all the time firm, right? But I do think that we’re an arts presenter. We’re not producing most of this work.
Zach: So for me to take any kind of role interceding the relationship between audience and artist does not feel deeply appropriate to me. Well I think that all of this is so, so interesting and so cool. For me, it’s like I would rather do a wrap up of that after the festival or after everyone has seen the work than to, in some way, corrupt the expectations that a person has going into this experience because I want to feel the way I felt want I saw some of this work for the first time. Not to feel that way, but to have the benefit of a certain amount of blinders, about just, “I’m curious to see the piece.”
Katy: Well to play devil’s advocate because I get what-
Tenara: Do it. This is the sexy thing that I want to get us.
Katy: And I get what Zach is saying. I think there are-
Zach: Well I’m probably wrong, but-
Katy: No, but I think there are curators or producers in the world who are very much interested in facilitating experience that is guided on understanding personal taste, and I think our ethics as we curate this festival is opposite of that. We’re not interested in this being the Zach and Katy show. You will know more about us by watching these pieces. That is not an interest of ours. But I do think we’re interested in arming the audience with context should they be interested, and I think one way that we’re doing that this year is through the Festival Bookstore, which we’re super excited about, which will give people an opportunity to come to my podcast recordings, talks with other artists, and dialog with community partners about the work.
Katy: We’re also working with our marketing team to provide a number of essays and other context building materials that people can read, so I think that kind of work we definitely want to share with people if they’re interested in it, and that also gives them an opportunity to figure out, “Do I want that pre-show? Post-show? In the middle of the show?” They can kind of design their own experience. This behind-the-scenes veil of like, “The budget was really crazy to figure out, but we did it in this way.” Or-
Zach: “This is how we did the genie lift moment in this show,” or something. That stuff is less.
Katy: I think we are so happy to talk about that with people, but as we see to facilitate a great relationship for the artist and a great relationship for the audience, we don’t want them to worry about that kind of stuff. We kind of feel like in a small way like the invisible hostess. We want to prepare a really beautiful experience for people, and I don’t want them to worry about how much it costs exactly, and if they want to talk about that with me later, we’re happy to be open to that. But for the most part, we want people to come, and enjoy, and experience it, and talk to each other.
Katy: And then yeah, we are happy to do podcast episode X afterwards to hear about the surprising experiences and challenges part one in Fringe Festival 2019.
Zach: And it’s not about gate keeping, right? If there’s a young producer or a producer of any age, right? Who is maybe, “I’m interested in being a curator,” and anything like that, you are always welcome to come talk to us. And all the context and thematics that we’re going to talk about here are just things that we discussed, and we’re interested in yours as well. You can always shoot an email to us and ask us what we think about work or anything like that, we’ll probably give you a time that you can come and speak to us in person about that really and truly.
Tenara: I love asking really pointed, biased, provocative questions because they get such good answers.
Tenara: You mentioned the Festival Bookstore, which I think you talked about the Festival Bookstore.
Raina: Let’s talk about more about the Festival Bookstore.
Zach: Yes please. The Festival Bookstore is back. We did take a little break last year for-
Katy: We took a breather.
Zach: We took a breather. Yeah. There were a lot of reasons for that that we are not going to get into. That’s behind the curtain stuff. But we’re back with the Festival Bookstore in partnership with Head House Books in Cherry Street Pier. It will also be a kind of site for additional engagement. We keep talking about this idea of self-selected engagement that you can be a person who just sees the show, and that’s great, and we completely support you in that. You can be a person who sees the show and talks about it at the bar after with your friends, or you can be a person who sees the show and then comes and talks to us with about it in the Festival Bookstore context.
Zach: Then buys a book that the artist says it’s in part source material or it’s just written by the artist or that maybe you’ll never understand the connection between this book and the work you saw, and the artist practice who recommended it. But it just gives people another layer of engagement, another way to get their head deeper, and deeper, and deeper in the festival.
Katy: Yeah. So we’re going to have live podcast recordings with artists, we’re going to have artists talks, we’re going to have community talks where our community Philadelphia partners on particular shows are going to be engaging with the themes of the piece either with or without the artist. There will be, like Zach mentioned, books, and essays, and publications, and periodicals that artists have suggested we stock in the bookstore and others I would say as well.
Raina: Mm-hmm (affirmative). It’s also at Cherry Street Pier, which is a great place to go. It will be open on festival weekends. So not during the week, but as you’re kind of figuring out your Festival schedule, make sure to plan to stop by just to check it out. For members, we, new this year, are also going to be giving out free tote bags.
Katy: So get your membership now!
Zach: Put it on a tote!
Raina: Yes. Get your membership now, and get your tote during the Fringe Festival.
Zach: Otherwise, what are you going to do? Just carry your books?
Tenara: Or in your arms.
Zach: Well no, it’s deeply exciting. Cherry Street Pier has been an amazing partner, and just a really, really cool site within our neighborhood. So just to have them right across the street acclimated by all of these artists, doing the great programming that they’re doing. It’s been really, really nice, and kind of stimulating for us to find a partner there, and to have a second site for the festival that’s so, so close.
Katy: Plus, it’s gorgeous.
Zach: It is gorgeous. You can take an Instagram there and it will get likes.
Raina: So we’ve been circling around the general programming and theme of the festival, and let’s really dive in and talk about what’s actually going to be happening during the 2019 Fringe Festival.
Katy: Yeah. So the 2019 Fringe Festival is what we call our flagship program. So we have a whole host of festivals that happen throughout the year, but the Fringe Festival happens in the month of September for about three weeks. We’re doing a little bit longer than that with one of our presentations Let Me Die by the artist Joseph Keckler, created in collaboration with O Festival this year. But otherwise, it’s predominantly in the month of September, and it involves curated shows, which Zach and I will talk about, and also our independent artists who will be creating new works and presenting them all throughout the city in a variety of different venues.
Katy: But it’s notable that the curated shows that we’ll talk about happen both in our home venue here at the intersection of Race and Columbus, that also in other places throughout the city whether they’re outside, in venues like Christ Church Neighborhood House that we often use year after year, or new places like 2300 Arena that we’re using the first time.
Zach: Yeah. So as we kind of alluded to in the past, we don’t really do our booking here based on any thematic element. Really we go in looking for balance, looking for a kind of diversity of form. That’s really how we start. But once everything comes together and we really start digging into some of the thoughts and considerations that the artists were making in their work, some themes do start to emerge, and that’s just truly serendipitous. One theme that we have been thinking about a little bit here in the office is kind of the conceit of the individual body, the public body, and maybe the absence of body. What does it mean to be present in the space?
Zach: Really looking at kind of Úumbal as one of those shows. Úumbal is a piece, a public practice work for a group of dancers. It’s co-authored by a group of Philadelphians who each donated thirty seconds of dance that was stitched together by a team into a kind of movement processional that looks at how a collected body takes up public space, and who has the right to public, and what does it mean to be visible as a coherent unit. A group that’s clearly showing that they’re taking care of each other, and looking out for each other through the unison dance.
Katy: So then it’s an amazing piece that we’ll be happening the first two weekends of our festival. It’s really honed by the Mexican choreographer Mariana Arteaga, and it will be happening outside in a South Philadelphian neighborhood around Mifflin Square Park. But thinking about that same thematic, another corollary to that might be the singular body. And so thinking again about a work of dance, we’re excited to be bringing back the choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker with her piece Fase, which is one of the first pieces that she ever choreographed when she was a student at New York University in the 80s.
Katy: This is a duet for two dancers that at one point is a solo, just an individual, and it’s based on music by Steve Reich and his compositional principle of phasing, which is what the that alludes to as well. So while the composition and the dancers start in unison, they slowly begin to phase out of sync with each other, and then have moments of repetition within close proximity, but not exactly the same. So questioning what it means to move from this singular kind of determined body to bodies that might become subtly, but certainly notable distinct from each other.
Zach: Another pieces that’s really looking at this idea of body and the presence of body in space is the Wooster Group’s The B-Side: “Negro folklore from Texas State Prisons,” a record album interpretation. In the piece, Eric Barryman, who is the lead artist in this particular production from The Wooster Group has an in-ear monitor in which a record album, the “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons” is being transmitted into his ear, and then transmitted to us the audience via him singing with a group of people, with a group of ensemble members.
Zach: What’s interesting about that is how it renders in kind of three dimensional space, the experiences of these people from years, and years, and years ago. So by having a body kind of be this intermediary between the sound, us and audience, everything feels more fleshed out, more round, and you really do kind of experience this music through a different gravity. It’s a really, really interesting piece.
Katy: I’m so excited for that one.
Zach: Me too. I’m so excited. I saw it at St. Ann’s Warehouse actually. A great, great partner of FringeArts, and it was really, really lovely, and I’m really excited to bring it to Philadelphia specifically.
Katy: Yeah. And one thing about this piece that I think is particularly notable is that it shows aspects of our government, of our prison industrial complex, and of racism more broadly that often sits beneath the surface. This particular album that Eric found, is actually from 1965 and depicts songs that were sung in Texas State prisons where workers were required without any recourse or opportunity for themselves to work in these prison farms. And really speaks to this larger industry of subjugation that is certainly the bedrock of our American government and history, but something that often is beneath the surface.
Katy: So that’s another one of the themes of a number of presentations that are in our festival this year are these kind of subterranean or often invisible systems that certainly have outside effects on the way that we live our lives, and the work that artists create that depict the systems that certainly affect us, but that we don’t always see. So one group that’s thinking about these things in a more conceptual way than The B-Side is Pig Iron Theatre Company, a local here from Philadelphia. They’re creating a new work that will premiere the first two weekends of the festival called Superterranean, and they’re working with lead artists Mimi Lien, who is a company member and a very celebrated set designer.
Katy: And for the first time, they are leading their devising process from the set, and the design of the theatrical space itself. So Mimi throughout the devising process has been thinking about subterranean passageways or systems whether it’d be public transit or otherwise that really power our universe, but that are often not fully present or visible to the naked eye.
Zach: Another piece that’s kind of thinking about kind of what remains unsaid or just right beneath the surface as far as kind of our society and how we all interact with each other is Nature Theater of Oklahoma, and in that kind of collaborative piece Pursuit of Happiness. The piece asks a simple question that should maybe follow every clause in our constitution, every clause in our Bill of Rights, and it just says, “For who?” I think it’s very, very interesting. It takes a good look at the mythology of an American Dream as well as the reality of one, and kind of who’s paying for it? Where is the bill addressed?
Zach: It’s a really, really, really interesting piece. I hope you all come out. It’s very, very zany in portions. It feels like cartoony to a certain degree, and then all of a sudden very sobering in a way that is kind of bisected very interestingly. I think he does a good job of preparing you for an experience in subverting that experience almost immediately after.
Katy: Another example is the work Cartography by Kaneza Schaal and Christopher Myers that we’ll be presenting at Christ Church Neighborhood House the second weekend of our festival. This is a piece that recently premiered at the Kennedy Center a couple of months where I saw it, and we’re really excited to be background it to Philadelphia. It’s a work that was created in response to and also in collaboration with a number of young people who have recently migrated to the United States from places around the world whether they be Syria or Venezuela, South Africa or Mexico.
Katy: And working with these young people, Kaneza and Chris really saw to illuminate the histories of migration both in this present moment, and more broadly throughout our history whether it be cause of social injustice and desire for greater economic freedom, or because of global warming or other environmental related disasters. So there’s actually a moment within the piece where all audience members are encouraged to bring out their phones, and using technology in real time to chart their own family’s migratory journey, acknowledging that there are very few of us who are indigenous to the land upon which we are here in Philadelphia, and as such that we all or at least most of us have a relationship to migratory patterns, in ways that again are often obscured or alighted over as history has continued.
Zach: I think about our friends who are asking parents, “Where are we from? What’s our culture?” And get the answer, “We’re American.” Again and again, and that’s becoming this thing that I think is common now to have some people who have almost no sense of where they’re from. So this is really only a sampling of the shows that we’ll be presenting at the curated section of the 2019 Fringe Festival, and we urge you to go to FringeArts.com or download the FringeArts app, or come down to FringeArts and pick up a guide, maybe come diverge with one of us. There’s usually one of us downstairs eating a cheese curd or relaxing, and we look forward to seeing you at the 2019 Curated Fringe Festival.
Katy: It’s going to be so good. So good.
Raina: Also, at the time this episode is coming out, we do not yet have guides available, but we will have teasers. So do come and get a teaser, you can read about all our curated shows, and in August make sure you join us on August 2nd for our festival guide launch happy house or we will have guides available for you to pick up and start planning your full festival schedule.
Tenara: But never fear because all of the curated shows are online and on the app, and you can start getting your tickets now. So if you’re literally just at the edge of your seat waiting to find out when you can come see The B-Side for example, you don’t have to wait my friends. You can go on the website.
Zach: And if you have any additional questions about shows, you’re always welcome to reach out to someone from FringeArts and they’re happy to contextualize the work for you.
Katy: Yeah. And we’ll be announcing further late night programming here at FringeArts that we offer free of charge to everybody, as well as the full slate of our talks and community conversations at the Fringe Festival Bookstore.
Raina: We encourage you to become a member at FringeArts to receive 20% off of all tickets that you purchase as well as year round benefits such as a free FringeArts tote back coming up, and free ticket exchanges, invites to special events, and all kinds of other benefits that are really exciting that you can learn more about it. FringeArts.com/membership.
Tenara: Thank you for joining us for this episode of Happy House on the Fringe. The Fringe Festival will be running from September 5th to the 22nd. Make sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, and download the FringeArts app. Check out all of our shows with ticket information at FringeArts.com.[Music Outro]