Happy Hour on the Fringe: Global Pandemics and Art with Ambassadors Tobie and David
During the global coronavirus pandemic, FringeArts is pivoting the focus of our podcast to checking in with our artists, our audiences, and our community partners during these unprecedented times. Since we can’t gather, we’ll chat remotely about how we respond to this crisis, and how the role of art during a pandemic shifts.
In this episode, FringeArts Marketing Manager Raina Searles and Artistic Producers Zach Blackwood and Katy Dammers chat with FringeArts Ambassadors Tobie and David about the ways in which they are staying connected to the arts and their communities during this time.
Raina: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. My name is Raina Searles and I’m the Marketing Manager at FringeArts. In the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic, many of us, especially those in arts organizations, have had to reflect on ways to do our work despite dramatic social disruptions. One thing FringeArts is excited to continue doing is connecting our artists and community partners with all of you listening through this podcast. We’re diving into how artists are responding to the pandemic, the intersection between art and public health, and how community partners are working to meet the specific needs of their constituents. You can learn more about what we’re doing at FringeArts by visiting fringearts.com/covid-19. And as always, enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence.
Today we are talking to two of our FringeArts Ambassadors, part of an ongoing initiative started by our Community Engagement Manager, Tenara Calem, in 2018 to help welcome new audiences to FringeArts through ticket subsidies that allow them to invite friends to attend FringeArts performances, direct communication with our artistic team, and personal invitations to community members to engage with FringeArts events. Welcome to David and Tobie!
Tobie: Hello. This is Tobie.
Raina: Awesome. So first, the question that we always ask on Happy Hour on the Fringe, even though we are recording remotely right now, is what are we all drinking? Or are we drinking anything?
Zach: I guess I can go. This is Zach, an Artistic Producer here at FringeArts, and I am finishing my second French press of the day. Yeah, it’s been interesting having all of your neighbors at home in South Philly, it’s a great way to meet them all. It’s a great way to form community and it’s a great way to hear what they get up to literally all night.
Tobie: This is Tobie and I am drinking a bottle of iced tea, which I just made this morning, which is one of my new routines.
Raina: Oh, are you making your own tea?
Tobie: Yes. Yes. With a little bit of lemongrass, lemon and rose hips. And, you know, I just– I don’t drink coffee. So it’s kind of my way to make something in the morning. And like I said, it’s like a routine now, which is good. I needed a routine.
Katy: That sounds delicious, Tobie. This is Katy, I’m another one of the Artistic Producers at FringeArts and I am drinking water. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m definitely less physically active than before. I’m working from home, sitting at my kitchen table most days and I’m like, way more thirsty than before. I don’t know if those things are related, but I am drinking a lot of water. David, what about you?
David: I’m drinking water from a water bottle, just working on getting through my, at least a quart a day.
Katy: That’s good. I think staying hydrated is so important.
Raina: Yeah, I’ve been checking on my Fitbit and trying to hit 64 ounces every day, which is surprisingly hard. Particularly when I don’t drink all day and then drink like eight cups in between like four and midnight seems to be the pattern that I’m stuck in.
Katy: Raina, I’m impressed that you’re tracking all that. That’s awesome.
Zach: So outside of just how we all keep ourselves firing, could the two of you just give us a little bit of an elevator pitch about kind of, who you are?
Tobie: The elevator pitch. I haven’t had to do an elevator pitch for a really long time, so – because I’m retired and so in one case, in one way, in the past seven weeks, I haven’t had to, quote, worry about work. But I used to work as an English as a second language professional for many, many – for over 25 years. And before that and during that, I’ve been a dancer and a musician and I and belong to many, many organizations that do music for social justice, on one hand. And also, I’m very active in my synagogue and I get to do music and dance and be very creative there as well. So those are kind of the things that keep me busy. Even now, those things keep me busy.
Raina: Awesome. And David?
David: Well, I’m an actor and a singer. And my focus of late has been, actually today I was on a call with Tuesdays with Toomey, which is a group of activists that show up at Toomey’s office every week, or we wanted to, of course. Which we haven’t lately. I think – I think, Tobie, were you there once? You were there with the Voices Rising.
Tobie: Yeah. They’re one of the groups I belong to is called Voices Rising Philly that does music for protests and rallies. So we were definitely Tuesdays with Toomey.
David: And I’ve been trying to show up for Voices Rising Philly activities. And I have a character called the S.O.B for Society of Oligarch Billionaires. And my goal is to use that character to get the message out to people who are, you know, sort of Trump supporters, but not necessarily, you know, ardent ones, who could be convinced that this is really all about supporting oligarch billionaires, everything that Trump does is in support of oligarch billionaires, not regular people. So I put on a top hat and a bow tie and tails, and I show up with signs that say things like Senator Toomey supports wealth, care, not health care, [inaudible].
Zach: Well, we thank you both for everything that you’re doing, you know, to kind of contribute to an engaged civil discourse. And it’s so interesting to hear about the ways that your kind of performance practices individually intersect with your kind of promise and community engagement and your history there. Could you tell us, each of you one at a time, a little bit about how you found your way to FringeArts and to the Ambassador Program therein?
Tobie: This is Tobie again. FringeArts. Oh, I’ve been going to the Fringe Festival probably for 20 years. I went when it was just in Center City, Old City, and you could, you know, do stuff on the streets. And then this year — and then I actually performed in FringeArts in This Town is a Mystery. And then, I was just totally intrigued by Úumbal. So I got to assist with that. And then from that, I was, you know, sent an email, and I thought, this is a great way to keep being involved with FringeArts by being an Ambassador.
Raina: Yeah. And David, how did you find your way to FringeArts?
David: Maybe 10 years ago, maybe more than that. My wife and I have gone to various Fringe shows for years and in 2012, I think. Oh – one of my favorite things back then was the monthly Scratch Nights which turned out to be on Monday nights. And I had another commitment Monday nights and I stopped being able to go several years ago. But early on I ran into a neighbor, Bethany Formica, doing a performance at a Scratch Night. And she told me about the, in 2012, the Grand Continental dance. And I got involved with that and loved it and worked as a volunteer on a couple of Fringe shows. Between then and 2018, when I did the Super Grand Continental as a dancer with a hundred and some other dancers and loved — on the art museum steps — loved that. And of course, was informed about Úumbal this past season and loved doing that. I just really enjoy the presence that — and the variety that the Fringe Festival brings to Philadelphia. I appreciate it very much as a cultural treasure.
Katy: It’s so great to hear those memories from you both. And it was awesome to work with you both Úumbal last year, which was a piece by Mariana Arteaga that was kind of like a moving processional of dancers winding their way through a South Philadelphia neighborhood. That was part of the Fringe Festival last year and was truly a highlight, I think, for all of us involved. And it’s been great to hear from you both more broadly that the arts are a huge part of your life, whether through FringeArts or your various religious organizations or your neighborhood groups and your activism. And so I’m curious to know, you know, how has this quarantine period been for you? Have you still been able to engage artistically? Are you maybe looking at all of the art experiences that are moving into a digital or a virtual space? How has this time been for you so far?
David: Well, hasn’t felt very artistic, actually. There’s a lot that I could be doing that is sort of drifting in my imagination that I’ve been having difficulty getting out into real world because I haven’t been able to get together with people and and just work on things. And I have seen some of what’s been moving on — going online. So a lot of Zoom, Zoom, Zoom every day.
David: There’s some things going on. A lot of – my synagogue also has a lot of activities going online.
Zach: Yeah, it feels like we live on Zoom now. It’s this platform I’d really not engaged with at all, you know, before this experience of all this kind of heading indoors. But now it just, it’s so deeply ubiquitous. Like I talked to my parents about Zoom, I talk to strangers on the Internet about Zoom. There is Zoom memes now. Tobie, where do you think, you know, where you’ll be looking to next as you seek to fill out your digital, cultural calendar?
Tobie: Well, you know, I was really thinking about this in terms of like, there’s been like several phases. And the first phase, like in early March, when we first started to, you know, be quarantined and not be able to see each other, was this kind of binge phase, you know, just bingeing on whatever I could internally, and didn’t really look out. And there was a lot of, you know, everyone was a writing parody songs, and I wrote like 3 I think, parody songs. And I wrote actually four songs in the first three weeks. And I had all these intentions like to write and to document. And that phase passed. And then I got involved in like three projects that, where I realized that, well, I was like part of this party putting together an online Seder. That wasn’t an artistic project, which, you know, hundreds of thousands of people did, but mostly, like, I’ve been trying to figure out lately how to turn the zoom experience into a creative experience. Because I’m finding that every project that I’ve been involved with in the past six weeks, the technology has become 80 percent of the conversation. And the content and the artistic creativity has become 20 percent of the conversation. And so I’ve been doing things where I’ve been going to like dance classes and improv classes and trying to learn more about what it might mean to actually turn this technology into something that I can feel creative about and not feel, like, swallowed, swallowed by the technology itself. So that’s kind of where I’m I am right now. And I’m actually doing something next week where I’m trying to incorporate everything, you know, things that I’ve learned about that, like how to turn it into something beautiful instead of something static and two dimensional. So that’s where my digital mind is going lately.
Zach: I’ve had a lot of challenge with the Zoom’s space as well, especially in the way that there’s no real opportunity. We’ve been talking about this even in terms of just viewing performance online, but there’s no real opportunity to switch gears in your brain and re-contextualize the Zoom space, you know, in the way that you can walk from your office to a coffee shop on your way to your apartment to shift from your work brain to your personal practice brain, to your relaxing brain. You know, you don’t have that, that benefit of space changing around you. And Zoom itself is this platform that most of us came to first know to work from home or to have conversations with coworkers, with the employment stakes attached to them. So it’s different to then kind of re-contextualize that as a creative space or a permissive space.
Tobie: One of the things that a friend of mine did and really taught me early on, was that at the beginning of our gatherings — and this was in a spiritual religious context, but it can be in any context – at the beginning of the gathering to re-contextualize it. To literally say we are all together, we are all sitting at the same table. Imagine that table that we’re all sitting at. And that, you know, really engaging our imaginations really up front. And it brought me to tears, actually, because in fact, I was realizing that these were my friends. And I loved, you know, we were all trying to be together in the space that we could and to imagine this beautiful white table with our best China with flowers and really helped a lot in kind of relaxing me, literally my body got to relax a little bit into the fact that we were not together. And this was a pretty early on. So this was the beginning of April. So that to me there I agree with you Zach, there’s a sense of like, how do you create that space that’s different than, “now we’re at a meeting.” You know? What’s the difference between being in a meeting than watching people doing music, and than creating some other kind of dance space or something?
Katy: Yeah, the imaginative quality of zoom is really interesting to me. You know, people have different Zoom backgrounds, and so sometimes someone seems like they’re on a beautiful beach or, you know, secretly, you know, countries away from us. And at the same time, Zoom is also really intimate like we’re seeing now, the interiors of our friends homes or our coworkers homes in ways that we didn’t before. So I’m excited to see what your artistic practice brings forth, Tobie, in creating something specifically for that environment or that medium, because I think what I have found are some attempts to like make it seem like an in-person group experience falls a little flat because it just is a very different thing.
Raina: Well, I think it’s also interesting to note the idea of being on camera, particularly as an audience member, as someone who isn’t a presenter or directly creating the material. There is like this sense of anonymity and it’s, I guess to an extent, the equivalent of sitting like in the back of a dark theater as opposed to being front and center ready to engage with an artist or ready to, you know, clap or add comments and be a boisterous part of the audience. Where, you know, there’s – I feel like I’ve been seeing a lot of like, “Oh, like, you know, everyone turn their cameras on,” or like, “We want to see everyone’s faces.” And there’s a big push to, like, really get that visibility. But at the same time, I was also just reading an article about how being on camera, you know, through Zoom and through these meeting services also can kind of screw with your brain a little bit because your visual cues are off when screens are freezing for a half second or there’s a little bit of delay between what you see and then your reaction. And so it can also create a little bit of like a stunted communication when you’re constantly looking at people and they’re all in like totally different stages and phases of listening, or, you know, being on screen or off screen.
Katy: I have definitely felt that way, Raina, for sure. And I think that is confusing for our brains and sometimes also makes it tiring. I think it feels like a lot of different kind of work, you know, to communicate in that way. So we’re figuring that out. Tobie and David, I’m curious about, you know, we talked a little bit about art experiences and how they may be seen differently in a digital sphere. Have any of you seen anything online or via Zoom or a livestream that was really exciting to you, or felt like something that was engaging?
David: My Playback theater group has been –Playback is kind of a combination of improv and psychodrama that’s very invigorating and fascinating. And it’s sort of possibilities. But we haven’t been able to do actual Playback, so we’ve ended up doing game nights and it’s — I was never a big gamer, but it’s all like word games and visual things and it’s just run of the mill party games that has been very rewarding to connect with people that way because it’s not even something that we would traditionally have been doing is just it’s something we could do. And I’ve been discovering really fun things about other people in watching the reactions to unexpected situations. And it’s felt very personal, surprisingly personal to be participating in that. And imaginative because a lot of them are imagination games. What would you do in this situation kind of thing, and somebody else throws in something that makes it veer off. It’s very, very improv-y.
Tobie: I went to a – I was part of – participated in a story circle that was co-facilitated by people from Spiral Q. And it was very dear because none of the – I didn’t know any of the people. There were nine of us. And they purposely made it very small so that we could all a we could all see each other and also we could all participate in the time that we needed. So it was very lovely and it was this process and we each brought an object with us that we, had meaning for us, and we told a story about it. And there was a reflection period. But the thing that was most meaningful that I really took with me was at one point we did some movement and part of the movement was to take our hands and connect our hands together and then to move our hands as close as we could to the screen. And then there were all these shapes on the screen and they took a screenshot of that and they sent it to us. And that was the art. That was part of the art experience, was this screenshot of all this amazing sculptural hands. So there were nine squares. And it was it was so moving to me. Again, that use of like, the “Here’s using Zoom in a different imaginative way,” and the idea of screenshots, you can have an instant poster. So that was, that was something very moving to me along the way. I’ve done other things since then, but that was, I think that started my realizing that Zoom wasn’t just this two dimensional thing that I couldn’t control.
Zach: Yeah, we were in that workshop together and it was just so beautiful to see that screenshot afterwards because it really resisted and pushed up against the aesthetics of Zoom that we’re used to. Like this kind of Brady Bunch style of like a bunch of people’s heads with like, their, you know, bookcases behind them and all of that. It was something that was designed as an art object that was conducted by Spiral Q with Nichole Canuso Dance Company as part of the development for a piece that will premiere in real space eventually. I want to talk about “eventually” together here as a group. We don’t know when we’ll return to, kind of, gathering in real space together, but we do know that– what we’ll hope to see when we do. So I kind of want to open the floor a little bit for the two of you to talk about maybe what you miss about gathering together as a group outdoors or in a theater or in a gallery, and what you hope to see in this kind of new appreciation we have for one another, kind of, once we all return?
Tobie: Well, I certainly want to be able to sing with other people at the same time without having to go through a huge technological bit of challenging, putting together different voices. Absolutely. That’s like, I’m sure that’s what we all missed. And I can imagine even just, you know, a huge group of people doing, you know, moon dance, you know, moon, you know, shouting at the moon or something. And it is completely unstructured, completely on unbidden, you know, without thought, without, you know, without any forethought about — just, “here we are,” just a celebration. I can imagine a celebration of people together, laughing together, hearing each other laugh together, laughing off each other. Cascades of singing. Cascades of talking together, talking over each other. It would be lovely to hear that again.
Katy: That sounds so exciting. And I think it’s definitely one of the things I’m yearning for, too, is that like being in shared space and creating together and the incredible joy that comes from that. And, you know, you both have mentioned previously your experience at FringeArts through our public practice programs. So where we work with artists to create large scale works that involve many different members of the public and Úumbal is a great example of that, which we talked a little bit about. And so is Le Super Grand Continental I know David was part of, which is a piece by Sylvain Émard in our Fringe Festival in 2018. And then of course, in 2012, many years prior to that, also. I’m curious about what you all are thinking in terms of participatory art in the time after this crisis. Do you imagine that it might change? Do you imagine that maybe even more people will want to participate because they’ll be craving that kind of experience? What do you envision that might look like?
David: I’ll say one thing I’ve been pushing for is a, an activist performer, activist consortium, or collective in some way to work with other performers who regard their activism as as core central to their work to, to work with and support each other in achieving their visions and bringing their imaginations into the world. That’s something I’ve been trying to do in the last year with my character.
Tobie: The word that keeps coming to me is tender. Like, I imagine people are going to be extremely excited, but also tender about it. Particularly because I don’t think it’s gonna be either you’re in or you’re out. I imagine that there will be kind of, that there will be a sense of meeting in small group so that you can gage how, how comfortable, how safe? And the word safe comes up, how safe you feel and how close you can get. And I can imagine like actually doing gatherings around that very, that very sense of moving in and out and and getting to touch people again and getting to be close again and that it’s not a rush towards it. I can’t – I just mean it obviously is a rush towards it because you see pictures of it now in New York even. But personally, I just would want that sense of tenderness about it.
Raina: I guess maybe one question that comes to my mind is also what will and/or what does make you feel safe? You know, the warm weather feels like a little bit of a red herring because, you know, everyone wants to be outdoors and also wants to be social distancing. But then, for example, I went on a hike through the Wissahickon this weekend and, you know, had my mask on and everything, but like kept passing people because there were people on all the trails. And so, you know, you feel like you want to get out and, you know, do all the things, but also be safe. But then everyone else is doing them, too. So there’s also suddenly a crowd. And so I’m curious as to what makes you feel safe as we reopen and as we kind of reenter the world as we knew it before.
Tobie: That is the million dollar question. Used to be to be 64,000, but I think it’s up to a million. I wonder because I have to say that I belong to a swimming pool, an outdoor pool, that usually opens Memorial Day and they keep saying they’re going to open Memorial Day, which is May 25th.
Raina: Ooh! Feels soon.
Tobie: That’s three weeks from now. And they keep saying they’re opening and they keep saying they’re preparing and that they’re, you know, doing all these things. I’ve asked them different questions and I don’t know what would make me feel safe in that environment, even though it’s an environment I long to be in. I can’t imagine not being in it. So it’s a really, it’s a question that a lot of us obviously are asking.
Zach: I’ve been thinking a lot about neighbors. And kind of all the mutual aid networks I’ve seen cropping up here in Philadelphia. And kind of all over the country. And just this past May Day, seeing a lot of communication between, kind of, workers and people all over this country. I think — I made a joke earlier about like hearing everything my neighbors are doing. They watch TV until very late at night. And so I’m awake until noon, late at night. But they also hang out in their backyards and I hang out in my backyard and we’re six feet apart, and we’re getting to know each other. And it’s an interesting thing, right, in this like 2020 urban environment. It really took this kind of a quarantine to get us both into our homes and into our backyards at the same time, to not avoid seeing each other and try and give each other space, but to give each other connection. I think what makes me feel safe is knowing that that’s going to continue through and after this experience, you know, that getting to know people and getting to know about their perspectives and their needs are ways that we practice for moments of challenge like this. Yeah, that’s felt pretty, pretty powerful.
Katy: I think what you said about care, Tobie, really resonates, you know, that it is tender. These small steps that I imagine we will ultimately make towards being together in larger and larger groups. And there’s a deep amount of sensitivity that comes from that that I think happens through relationships as Zach was talking about. And so I hope that we can find ways to be there for each other and to hold each other tenderly as we move in different directions.
Tobie: In some ways, some of the conversation we’ve been having is about the joy of coming together again. Certainly there will be a lot of that. I would also say that we also need to make it make space for for the grieving, whether we’ve lost somebody directly or not. There’s a lot of grieving that is not being done, directly or indirectly. And I think, sort of as artists, that would be a really useful, good use of our skills to create spaces for people to experience the depths of what this has been meaning for people. And that’s – some people in my community are starting to do that. What would – what will it mean to come out of this? And what are some of the rituals that we would like to create for ourselves individually and as a group to acknowledge all of this and also to acknowledge what we have learned. And to really, like, make that real so that we’re not losing all the things we’ve learned as well.
Raina: Yeah, that feels so powerful to really highlight because unless you know someone, it feels like it’s just numbers of people, you know, sick and dying and especially, you know, all of us at FringeArts are, you know, working a white collar job that allows us to work from home, and so we don’t have to be on the front lines. But yeah, I think thinking about that grief is such a strong point to highlight because so many people are going through things that they can’t fully dive into when they can’t gather and grieve together in person.
David: I’m hearing this a lot of people wanting to just go, “oh, my God, that’s over.” Wait, wait. What just happened? What did we just spend this last several months or however long going through? What was it like for you? Who’s gone? How do you feel about there not being a normal to return to? That wasn’t that good to start with. There’s a lot wrong that that needs to be addressed. I’m seeing things like, you know, the people’s bail out being a priority instead of just, “ok, pay off the big companies,” and that’s the status quo we’ve got. Who wants to return to that? Very few I’m sure. A lot of wanting to just jump in and get past things that people’s hearts aren’t going to get. They’re just going to shovel things that – sweep things under the rug emotionally. And I think, Tobie, you’re absolutely right that artists have a role in slowing people down and putting a hand on an arm and saying, let’s take a look at this.
Katy: David, I think that’s so true. You know, the arts have a really important practice of reflection and consideration. And also, like have a moment of looking towards the future and like creating the vision of new possibility that maybe is hard to see otherwise. But the arts give us space to envision that shared future together, you know, to take stock of that which we have lost, and also to very carefully and pointedly leave some things behind to create a different and a better world. And I wonder, as we begin to conclude the podcast, if we could finish by each of you sharing, you know, maybe one of your favorite memories from FringeArts and the art that we have done that is in that vein. You know, as part of Giving Tuesday now this week, we’re asking folks to share stories and memories about their experiences at Fringe, knowing that the arts play a really important role in this time and in all times. So I’d love to hear from each of you how Fringe has been that for you.
Tobie: This is Tobie. I have – I want to go way, way back to a favorite Fringe memory, because this is what really cemented my love for FringeArts. And it was back when, again, most of the the offerings were in Old City. So if you were doing something at 6 o’clock and you didn’t have something till eight o’clock, you could walk up and down, you know, 2nd Street. And you could like, somebody might be on the street doing something. They might be, you know, juggling or they might be even doing some kind of art project. Another kind of art project. And I remember very, very distinctly that there were these maybe, maybe high school, college age students kind of sitting on a sidewalk and they had made an X on the sidewalk. And then they made a little sign that said ask us a question. And I think was 10 cents something. And it was like, you know, it was like Lucy, right? And they, and we asked a question. So I went up and I asked this question that was kind of perplexing me. And they all conferred together and they came up with a very lovely and reasonable, thoughtful answer. And I moved on. And I thought this is what Fringe is about, Fringe is about people being able to go and experience something maybe momentary, or maybe just so deep that it stays with them forever. And then you move on and you see a completely different experience and then you have to kind of transform yourself and go into a completely different experience. And then you come out and you go into another completely different experience. And each one of them is its own unique wonder and wonderful thing. And these artists are putting themselves out to an audience that is going to lots of different events. So I just wanted to give you that sense of history of the FringeArts Festival that it can mean – it can be the smallest, the smallest thing that really brings people into FringeArts.
David: I would like to see, I mean, I’m thinking what I have seen some of in the past and would love to see even more of is, and saw some with Úumbal with reaching into communities. This is something that Mariana, the creator of Úumbal, was doing in Mexico City. The… bringing a community perspective and even more performers may not be professionals, but that are something important and artistic and beautiful to say into less traditional and less formal Fringe presence. I’m not sure how that would work, but I’d love to see more of, you know, more of the the community as a whole rather than, there’s the traditional theater crowd, the traditional Fringe audience, and to draw more of the city and the region in somehow.
Raina: Well, thank you both so much for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe. It’s been a pleasure picking your brains and just kind of checking in, seeing how you’re doing throughout everything that’s going on.
Tobie: Thank you for asking.
David: Thank you.
Zach: I’d love for both of you to keep in touch, please. So please feel as though you can send us an e-mail whenever you’d like. Just continue the community process of processing and thinking towards an imaginative future.
Katy: Yeah, we’re so grateful to your participation in our Ambassador Program and some of our past artworks and we look forward to whatever is next for all of us.
Tobie: Have a wonderful day – a beautiful spring day in Philadelphia.
Raina: As part of #GivingTuesday now, we encourage all of our listeners to share their stories about interacting with FringeArts. And if you’re able to donate to support our continued activities, you can do so online at fringearts.com/donate. And you can follow the link in our episode description to share a voice message via the Anchor app with some of your own favorite Fringe memories. To everyone on the call and to all of our listeners at home, stay safe, stay well, and stay positive.