Happy Hour on the Fringe: Lauren Rile-Smith, The Way Out
In this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, Community Engagement Manager Tenara Calem speaks with Lauren Rile-Smith about the upcoming presentation of The Way Out by her contemporary circus organization, Tangle Movement Arts. The Way Out is an outdoor, socially-distanced circus piece at the Laurel Hill Cemetery in the 2020 Fringe Festival. Carloads of audience members will flow along Laurel Hill’s gently winding roads to experience the show at a series of separate performance stations located across the historic cemetery, including dancers, live flame working, and aerial artists. Participants will encounter these storytellers along the way, and navigate the cemetery as if through a maze, finding answers in unexpected places.
Tenara Calem: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. FringeArts is Philadelphia’s premiere presenter of contemporary performing arts. I’m Tenara Calem, Community Engagement Manager here at FringeArts. And I invite you to pour one up, and enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence. On this episode, you’ll hear from Lauren Rile-Smith, about her contemporary circus organization, Tangle Movement Arts, and the new outdoor performance they’ve created for the 2020 Fringe Festival at Laurel Hill Cemetery called The Way Out. You can find more information on The Way Out and other independently produced shows in our festival at www.fringearts.com. But for now kick back, enjoy your happy hour and listen to this week’s episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe. Ok so Lauren thank you so much for joining us today. If you want to go ahead and share with our audience who you are, what you do, and what organization you’re representing today.
Lauren-Rile Smith: Thank you so much I’m so happy to be here. So I’m the founder and producer of Tangle Movement Arts. and we’re a Philadelphia-based contemporary circus company, which means we use trapeze and aerial silks and other elements of the circus to tell contemporary stories grounded in queer and female experiences. We do a lot of ensemble based work and the really fun thing about circus is we get to be in this interdisciplinary pot full of dance techniques and theater techniques. We use live music, we use interactive kinetic sculptures sometimes so its always fresh for us. We’ve been part of the Fringe Festival since our founding in 2011 so this is our tenth Fringe Festival.
Lauren: Yes and let me tell you we were planning a really big indoor performance to celebrate it. When the pandemic happened obviously all those plans were scrambled and we thought a lot about making a fully digital work and decided we wanted to figure out how to make a big big big outdoor performance that would be in the flesh, immersive, for an audience that would be completely safe, for performers and crew that would be completely safe, we wanted to make zero additional Covid risk for anyone involved in the production at all. So thats been a big journey. But at the same time we do a lot of outdoor shows in our normal life. Every year Tangle does two major theatrical productions in the spring and in the fall as part of the festival of course. But we also do pop-up outdoor shows throughout Philadelphia mostly in the warmer months. So we have a lot of experience producing circus outside. So we’re able to draw on that. We also are really energized by a new format. So thats something we’ve done either for the Fringe Festival at different times… in 2018 we made a show at the sanctuary at the Rotunda, in West Philadelphia, which is a really special space. Its a room with forty foot high ceilings. Its a perfect circle. It has a ten second echo. The floor is on a slant so if you put a ball down it like rolls from one end of the room to the other. Its a really special space very rarely used. We actually had to get a variance from the city to be able to be in there at all. And so we created a performance that happened 360 degrees around the room with audience in the center like the center of the donut. Constant performance constant interactive set. Many different narrative threats. So that was very fun its really energizing for us to figure out what this really interdisciplinary work of circus can become when its taken out of the bigtop and put in a more intimate setting. So thats what we did this time around in a totally different setting as well.
Tenara: Yeah. Well we’ll get to all the things that you mentioned. But can you talk a little bit about this outdoor performance, The Way Out? Like what will audiences experience? You mentioned its outdoors you mentioned that its safe but could you just walk us through the experience for the audience?
Lauren: Absolutely. So the guiding principle is that we wanted as I said to introduce no additional Covid risk to anyone in our audience but also our performers and crew. So every aspect of our production has been reimagined. we are usually like all out there in cable with our lighting designer so we won’t be doing that this year. So thinking through what’s logistically possible with that format we thought, alright to be as conservative as possible we’re going to have a barrier between audience and performers and a car is a barrier. So we’re starting with this audience on wheels. We’re going to have the audience move from space to space. So upon entering the grounds of the amazing Laurel Hill Cemetery which is this gorgeous historic cemetery. Its a really special space in East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia. So audiences will arrive and audience will greet them by cell phone with totally no contact and help them get into a waiting area where they’ll line up one at a time to enter the performance. So audience members will drive through the gorgeous grounds of Laurel Hill, pausing at each performance station to take in a brief performance from each of our amazing guest artists. So we have six total stations throughout the grounds of Laurel Hill. And each of our artists have tackled the question of ‘what is the way out of our current moment?’. I know that’s a question that I’ve been obsessed with since March, or possibly longer.
Tenara: Yeah totally.
Lauren: And sometimes the ‘what are we getting the way out of’ has changed but it’s actually what is the next step here. So we decided to make a performance that was engaging very directly even literally with that question, like what’s the next stage? And we have an amazing host of interdisciplinary performers. So the audience will spend time with each of those performers and then they’ll move on to the next getting different facets, different answers… takes on what that answer is. Their final station will be tangles aerial rig. So as I mentioned we’ve spent a lot of time performing outdoors over the last ten years. Sometimes at craft fairs and festivals. Sometimes just.. We made a show with the city of Philadelphia, performance in public spaces, in Clark Park, in our hometown West Philly, that was really fun. So Tangles aerial rig, we can perform anywhere as long as there’s nothing over head thats too high, is set up and that’s the last station that the audience will experience Tangle’s aerial dance on trapeze and aerial silks and other apparatuses.
Tenara: That’s awesome
Lauren: And then they are guided out and they go home with hopefully some answers. Or more questions. So that’ll be…
Tenara: Answers to the question of what’s the way out?
Lauren: Yeah, I hope because when the pandemic started I realized that that experience you have when you go to a live performance, its like nothing else, where its this moment of communion and intimacy with someone who is really sharing who they are and what they’re thinking about on stage, you know framed and transformed by stage lighting. That kind of like moment of being completely outside of you normal self and maybe the performers are outside of their normal selves- that’s something that I realized I was so missing. And digital performance is really amazing and exciting but it isn’t the same. We wanted to kind of serve up a platter of those chances for connection.
Tenara: So clarify something for me. Is The Way Out something that was sort of a rapid response to the current moment or were you planning on engaging with artists to create this sort of pastiche of different acts answering the question of what is the way out and then with the pandemic the sort of way through the piece changed, or can you tell me a little bit more about what the inception of the piece was, if Covid necessitated something, or if you were always planning on doing something like this for the 2020 festival?
Lauren: Thats a really good question. So a little bit of both, one of the really fun things about Tangle is that we’ve had a nearly stable group of collaborators since its founding.
Tenara: That’s awesome.
Lauren: So that has been such a privilege to be able to say… especially in the world of circus arts, where frequently people are like, ‘oh duet partner I’m so committed to you, sorry I got a contract to go to France for three months’… well not anymore. But really Its really hard to make long term collaborative relationships in the world of circus. So Tangle has this other rhythm where we’re really grounded in the Philadelphia performing arts community and we’ve done ten consecutive Fringes and many more shows besides so we have this really long history so we’re able to say to one another ‘you said something in 2013 and we never got to work on that, let’s come back to that.’ So to a degree we’ve had some like… We really wanted to return to the immersive format, we learned so much when we did that 2018 show at the Rotunda and we really wanted to take it to the next level. We actually were literally planning to do a show on two levels of a building with an audience that had to move from floor to floor. Yeah it was gonna be so fun. And we were kind of just at the beginning stages of refining both the emotional and intellectual sparks that came with that idea for us and also trying to figure out the literal… ‘well if the audience is here than only x amount of people can go up the stairs at a time’… and so forth you know like how are we going to make it accessible ok we’ll have an elevator. You know so we were just kind of digging into that stuff and as I said like that logistical challenge is just so delicious to me. So we had some seeds for that concept and when the pandemic came along we were like ok for example we’re not gonna be serving food to the audience, that had been one of our fantasy items. But taking the bones. Actually The Way Out had been a title for example that I had in mind… about, you know, totally different dynamic but that was already on the table for me. But it translated so neatly when I started thinking, alright so we have to totally change the format but in some ways the questions that we had been asking felt even more real when the whole world changed so the spark was there.
Tenara: And then the pandemic lit the flame.
Lauren: Exactly. We’ve collaborated with artists outside of the circus community. Before for sure we’ve collaborated with live musicians we’ve collaborated with artists who helped create interactive sets for us which has been really fun. But we haven’t really had a chance to make work with performing artists like dance and theater artists outside… Like we’ve done shared bills etcetera… in this kind of deeper way before. So the gift of connecting with our amazing guest artists for the 2020 Fringe has been really exciting. And for me circus arts is exciting when you get to translate that like kinetic virtuosity, that death defying feats, of physical skill and when we get to translate that into more traditional storytelling formats where we’re connecting with say using skills from dance and theater to tell more intimate stories to me that’s like the heat in the work that we do so it’s really rewarding to connect to work with these dance and theater artists.
Tenara: So speaking about these artists, you know, posing this question of what is the way out, have any of their artistic responses surprised you or you know whats sort of the range of responses to that question?
Lauren: That’s such a great question, I’ve really found, Its funny um we got such an amazing response. When I shared this call for guest artists we got such an amazing response from Philly’s performing arts community, I think people are just really hungry to figure out ways to present live work in our present circumstances. And reviewing these performers with the rest of Tangle’s ensemble, you know just to take a step back all of Tangle’s creative work is devised collaboratively by our ensemble so a lot of time in the studio a lot of email chains. So talking about Tangles ensemble it was just like so rewarding to realize how many artists were working on questions that were already really resonant with us. And some folks that we talked to said ‘I want to make a new version of this piece, right, I’m gonna make a totally fresh song for this performance but these are my tools this is my background this is prior work’ and we really say like ‘oh wow I love that you do…’ Christina Eltvedt is one of our guest artists and she’s a dancer, choreographer, and a sculptor, so she works a lot with dance that uses physical materials to bind, connect, or constrain the dancers. So she has this really amazing dance work she did here with us called entangled, actually very on the nose for us. Her performers are wearing these long woven textile sculptures that provide literal tension between the dancers. We were joking like its a match made in heaven this is like exactly what we do. Because for us most of our work is aerial dance that uses trapeze or aerial silks so we always have this object thats a dance partner that holds our weight or we’re trying to escape from. There’s a lot of instant metaphor and instant chemistry with these physical objects so we really connected with that work that she had although she’ll be doing a different format for the show, which I’m really excited about.
Tenara: Thats awesome. Yeah this is so exciting so why Laurel Hill Cemetery? I mean I love Laurel Hill I spend a lot of time in East Falls and its one of my favorite places to walk around, and I think Philly has such a great number of well-preserved cemeteries in a very victorian tradition, which also serve as destinations for being outside. And so Im curious what about the cemetery fit you needs? Did it elevate the material in any way? Was it a thematic choice? Like can you talk a little bit about the site for the piece.
Lauren: Those are all such great questions, absolutely. Well so I actually came up with this concept while walking in a historic cemetery, The Woodlands estate which is in my neighborhood of West Philadelphia. You know when the pandemic hit my family started to spend a lot of time outside- I have a three-year-old and a one-year-old so we really gotta eat up the miles somehow- got a lot of energy in those little legs. And so from a personal perspective, we started spending a lot of time in the Wissahickon which is like a jewel of Philadelphia, so wonderful. We realized that the more dense foliage and narrow trails which are just a layout of a natural space, are actually a little more challenging when you have a lot of people all having the same idea, let’s get out to nature, you know it can actually be challenging to navigate that on the path. So then we realized we started gravitating to this gorgeous green space in West Philadelphia, the Woodlands Estate, where Tangle has performed many times, and realizing these historic cemeteries they’re beautiful, beautifully landscaped, they have architecturally interesting monuments and they’re really designed for a lot of people to be visiting. You can see someone coming from a distance, there’s not very dense foliage, they’re multi-pathed. They’re designed for people to spend time visiting and literally that was the inception of these rural cemeteries. You know they were rural meaning landscaped is the term. These historic cemeteries from a time before public parks and from an era in which people spent more time with their dead. People would visit one another and visit their dead in the cemetery and maybe have a picnic at the same time as visiting a grave. So it was very striking to realize at the early stage of the pandemic that you know, my family and many others are rejoining that tradition in part because these spaces were really perfectly designed for this need for an outdoor green space that has the right amount of density. And then of course in this challenging time where there’s a lot of loss and death, to be able to say, you know I think that the pandemic is such an abstraction for so many people, people who aren’t front-line workers. We don’t have memorials to the dead, lost of Covid, or we don’t have concrete ways of talking about all the other types of loss that has happened that there is something that feels really important about being able to say ‘I’m literally looking at monuments right now, I’m present with this fact of life’. So that we were spending a lot of time individually, within Tangled, other artists I talked to, in that mode. So this rolled together for us, for us we feel… And you know Laurel Hill is such an amazing, iconic part of Philadelphia as a destination for tourists and locals. Its a gorgeous space, really dramatic views, I’m really excited to bring an audience there. They’re not usually open in the evenings so its gonna be really special to bring our performance there. And um they know it, they know how special their space is. They have so many… they have a gorgeous grounds, and they do a lot of events there- not during the pandemic. They do tours of the space, they also host other performances, they have markets etcetera. And I think they really know that it’s special and unique to have a space where living people can commune with the idea of death and be present with it and say this something that’s sort of lacking in our culture generally.
Tenara: Yeah absolutely.
Lauren: So for us we feel this show is not specifically about death or particular people who are buried at Laurel Hill. But we do feel that it brings that sense of heightened stakes and loss and contemplation into the show. The venue is a partner with us in figuring out the way out. And literally the show ends when you leave Laurel Hill. So (laughter) if nothing else you’ve found the exit.
Tenara: Yeah that’s great. Um. Separate from the context of the pandemic I’d love for you to talk a little bit about uh, the emphasis of Tangle Movement Arts on being a space for queer and non-binary and femme stories um. Its specific to circus cause I think its really interesting you know we hear a lot about, or I think most contemporary audiences are aware of where there might be inequalities in the performance world but not, you know contemporary circus is not such a huge part of American performance even though I do believe that’s changing, and I think that’s, Philadelphia’s a huge reason why thats changing.
Lauren: Absolutely. And Fringe Arts too is a big part of that as well.
Tenara: Yeah yeah totally. And I think people just might not be aware, if there’s… you know and maybe I’m just reading into this- If there is a specific gap that Tangle Movement Arts is trying to fill, if you could talk about that or if you’re like, ‘no this is just like who I am, what I’m interested in, and these are the collaborators that I was interested in working with and so that’s sort of how it naturally came about.
Lauren: Um, well thank you for bringing this up because I love talking about this (laughter)
Tenara: Yeah of course.
Lauren: So my background is that I was never an athlete personally. I kind of by chance followed a friend um, into taking a circus arts class. Well first actually to be honest I saw a contemporary circus performance in 2006 maybe, and It just like, it filled a void in me that I hadn’t realized existed and I couldn’t even fully tell you why. I was just like ‘this is something I want to get back to’. So it a couple of years before I was brave enough to try taking a class myself and you know, in the last 15 or so years, circus arts as recreational fitness opportunities has like exploded across the U.S. You probably know someone who has taken an aerial yoga class- it’s really fun. Its just like a really fun way to connect with your body and that was really satisfying to me but also, I felt this kind of instant possibility for telling queer stories. Partially the fact is that in circus arts its a place for all bodies, it’s said ‘you can get strong you’re gonna do pull ups… Also, you’re gonna get flexible you’re gonna be graceful, you’re gonna learn how to point your toes’. There’s kind of like this convergence of like gendered aesthetics that I found really exciting. And it’s also at the same time, when you see it on the stage I almost feel that kind of like instant excitement. That like- its in the water, you know? Gender expectations are gonna converge. There’s more vocabulary available to us than in normal, you know like highly gendered dance settings. This is a place where we could be telling queer stories on stage and sometimes I think maybe almost as a reaction to that, what tends to end up on stage is very much gendered in traditional fashion. You tend to see, particularly at the high, like the internationally performing contemporary circus um… very overwhelmingly male casts. You tend to see female performers on stage as romantic interests.
Lauren: You tend to see them… so in circus when someone holds somebody else’s weight we call that person a “base”, and we call the person who’s weight is held a “flyer”. Now heres the thing, body proportions are part of this, but technique is more important. Anyone… and at stuff that is at an introductory level… anyone can base, anyone can fly, everybody gets held. That is just so… that was like an initial spark for me I said I want to make stories that use these like really liberalized metaphors. Like, I can hold you up, or I can let you down. And as I’ve said we’ve had a pretty stable ensemble since 2011 so we’ve gotten to like really play out every (laughter) like many different permutations of relationships largely between women. Saying, like we’re gonna say that we have relationships that are romantic, that are antagonistic, that are deep friendship that’s friendship that’s been broken. Getting to play that out we’re gonna put like ten women on stage over and over again um, so that’s something that I think we’re all hungry for and when I found my initial collaborators we were all hungry for that like feminist storytelling that uses these really literal metaphors um. We’re gonna put different icons of female strength on stage. We’ve had seven-months-pregnant performers like four times.
Tenara: That’s awesome.
Lauren: I’ve done it twice (laughter). We just keep lining up with those really big bellies and get to say like ‘these people are really strong, they’re really different sizes and shapes of body, really different gender expressions’. So that’s something that um, that kind of the heat for me in circus arts I just keep returning to that dance with as I said like the trapeze is a duet partner, and then the other bodies on stage, these collaborators. And for us we say that um, you know sometimes we have very explicit queer stories um, it feels really important to put those on stage, and sometimes its more subtextual. Sometimes the movement is about movement for us. For The Way Out we are, because of our cover restrictions, we’re not, all of our ensemble work is gonna be distanced so we won’t have two performers sharing the intimate stage together. But this is still, you know, a portrait of our whole selves on the stage.
Tenara: That’s awesome. This is kind of a shift in gears, this is sort of our last question that I’d love to chat with you about but I feel like it links and maybe I’ll share why I think it links. But something that I’ve been asking a lot of myself and a lot of the arts industry is like, you know, what we’ve done in the great before as people say, what we’re doing now, and what we want to continue to do in the great after, and so hearing you talk about all of the care and intension that went into creating Tangle Movement Arts as a space for queer circus, um I’m curious to hear from you if there is something that cover has necessitated that actually you want to continue after the pandemic is over. Because I think that, you know for me especially there are a lot of things that I have discovered or maybe re-discovered about my relationship to movement and to rest and to play and to my artistic process that I wouldn’t have been able to discover without cover. Um, and so, making little mental notes of things that I actually don’t want to get rid of when we return to the great after. And so is there anything organizationally that comes to mind with this question or even just personally.
Lauren: That is um, such a great question. I think that this is a time, and when I say “this moment”, which is coming up a lot cause we’re saying what is our way out of the current moment. Of course its the pandemic, but its also the economic crisis, its the other ways that the cruelty of our nations entire structure and history has been heightened and made even more explicit than ever. So I think that sense of clarity and focus. The sense of urgency. The feeling of ‘wait what do we go to live art for?’. Sometimes its entertainment and that is joyful and important. Like entertainment that distracts you from your sorrows or just puts a pep in your step, that’s fantastic that’s important. But art also focuses. And one show can be entertainment for one person and art for another and no value judgements for that. But as I said that sense of communion and transformation that’s possible when you’re really connecting with a live performer. I’ve left shows feeling like I understood the world better. Um and something I’ll carry with me forever. And so I think that digging into, really, ‘I mean why are we doing this? Because we’re working really hard.’ (Laughter). We are really like um, its so much work, and the work that we do… you know one of the things that’s fun about live performance is there’s always a little room for improvisation whether it’s artistically or whether it’s problem-solving. It can be really satisfying to be like, ‘I just, I left out there, and I fixed the issue, and the audience didn’t know, I got away with it’. You know, so with this show we’re like absolutely no room for improvisation we are trouble-shooting everything in advance, there is like no, nothing’s gonna get messed up so we’re putting so much work into that. And you know this is a show that we’re trying to figure out how we can manage to pay artists to do work during a pandemic and um, this is round one of figuring that out. This show is really quite expensive to make and we are gonna have, comparatively very… we have only eighteen tickets per night available because we are bringing people in one at a time. We always knew cars were not a very dense way to move people from place to place. Um, so you know. So for us this is round one. But I think being able to say like alright, so the logistics- it can be exciting to tic on a big logistically complex project, it can also be a little tiring. But, what is the reason that we’re making live art during a pandemic, during any moment in time. And I think that like connecting with that question in a really deep way feels like very energizing and important. So I think that is something I’m gonna carry with me into the future.
Tenara: Absolutely, that’s great. My last really quick question is if someone doesn’t have a car, perhaps has a bike, are they able to go see The Way Out?
Lauren: This is such a great question. We, you know.. access to a car, that doesn’t even describe everyone in Tangled to be completely honest with you so we feel that lack of accessibility really keenly. We’re hoping to be able to offer individual tickets for people on bicycles. We’re gonna see how Philadelphia’s Covid levels are doing a little closer to the date but we’ll have more information about that check out our website and social media for more information.
Tenara: Awesome. Great. Ok well thank you so much Lauren for joining us on the podcast today and for sharing so much about your work and what drives it and how its changing.
Lauren: Thank you so much, such a pleasure to talk with you.
Tenara: Thank you for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe. The Fringe festival will be running from September 10th to October 4th. For tickets, head over to our website at www.fringearts.com, and make sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, and download the FringeArts App.