Archive for the ‘Happy Hour on the Fringe’ Category

Happy Hour on the Fringe: Conversation with Camae Ayewa aka Moor Mother

Posted June 7th, 2019

On this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, we share a drink with poet, noise musician and Afro-futurist  Camae Ayewa and discuss her latest project Circuit City. Known as a force of nature in the Philadelphia Arts scene, Camae has also made her mark world wide as the one-woman band, Moor Mother.  Camae discusses how Circuit City explores what the concept of freedom really is, through the lens of the housing crisis and its effects on those who’ve spent their lifetime in their community. Circuit City runs from June 20-22 as part of our High Pressure Fire Service.

Listen to the episode and read the transcript below.

Feature Photo by Bob Sweeney

Conversation with Camae Ayewa aka Moor Mother

[Music Intro]


Raina: Hello, and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. FringeArts is Philadelphia’s premiere presenter of contemporary performing arts. I’m Raina, Marketing Manager here at FringeArts.

Tenara: And I’m Tenara, I am the Audience Engagement Coordinator here at FringeArts. We invite you to pour one up and enjoy our conversations with some most imaginative people on this plane of existence.

Raina: Now, we’re really excited right now, because we’re really just gearing up for High Pressure Fire Service, what we also also affectionately call “Hipfizz,” from the acronym HPFS, so we’re really excited to be talking to one of the most exciting artists that we have in this incredible lineup for High Pressure Fire Service.

Tenara: Yeah, today we’re talking to Camae Ayewa, is that how I say that?

Camae: Yes.

Tenara: Excellent. Or, as some of you might know her, Moor Mother. Camae is a poet, a noise musician, a visual artist, and for the first time this Spring, a playwright. So Camae, welcome.

Camae: Hello everyone. Thanks for tuning in; thanks for having me.

Raina: Hey (laughs). So, our first question, cause it’s Happy Hour on the Fringe is, what are you drinking?

Camae: I’m drinking a spice chai.

Tenara: Oh, it’s so good. Like, vanilla spice, or…?

Camae: No, just the…just spices, ’cause they had vanilla, but I said, “No, I’ll go for the spice.”


Raina: I’m opting for water today, still.

Tenara: Yeah, I’m opting for water…sparkling.


Raina: Well, we’re really raging hard here. You know, you have Moor Mother as your stage name and we wanted to kind of see where did that name come from and how did you, you know, get there.

Camae: The name comes from what I figured what was most important to me and that was with music, and that was honoring mothers. So, I said “Ok,it’s going to be mother something,” and then I picked “Moor” because I wanted to expand the idea of blackness, and not just have people feel like my music is just for America, or something, you know, it’s for the world.

Tenara: Is Moor Mother, just your like…your performance title? Is it also a persona; is it…like a stage presence; like, is just like, the title of your band?

Camae: I would say it’s the title of the project, but of course, I’m utterly in the life of Moor Mother, so I definitely would love to continue to be more dramatic and more theatrical with my work, and creating the world of Moor Mother. But, uh, right now it’s the name of a project and I’m just taking where my imagination goes, you know, with the limitations that I have, you know?

Tenara: Mm hm.

Raina: Yeah. And with looking at where you’ve gone so far; looking at visual art, music and like now, this world of creating a play, have you found a medium that you kind of lean more into as like, your favorite?

Camae: Well, I would say that…I think Punk Rock is my favorite, and I’m not doing that in a traditional sense, you know, I do that with I have the attitude of it. But, um, I was just saying recently that, you know, I would like to have a rock band, you know. I really would love to do that. So, I’m still figuring out all the pieces to me. There’s a lot of things that I’m not doing yet that I would love to do.

Tenara: What is the attitude of, like, Punk Rock, that you feel like you feel to like you channel in your work?

Camae: Just the no fear to be free and the no fear about perfection or masters or rules, you know; just to say like “Hey, I’m just gonna do it and trust that and not trust the accomplishments that I need or the prerequisite of whatever, you know.

Tenara and Raina: Mm hm.

Raina: So when you enter into a new form, are you also going into that mindset of also breaking the rules and kind of changing that form into whatever you want to to be?

Camae: Well, yeah, and I mean, I speak about Punk like it’s a choice. I mean, it’s kind of a choice to say what kind of punk you like or whatever you chose to listen to, but…it’s more about the…the idea of punk, you know, the idea of “Hey you wanna be a famous Rock band, well get in the basement, find two other people…”

Tenara: Mm hm.

Camae: “…find some sort of instrument, make a bunch of noise until you figure out how to make a song.” You know, just kinda like that attitude of like, “You don’t need anything,” or feeling like you are enough, you know. Kind of like that is what…that’s how I came into the game, you know. If I came into music coming from Berkely and I did all of this a youth, playing violin or something, then maybe I’ll have a different perspective. But I didn’t…I didn’t come from that, I just come like dreams and imagination. So, it’s like…

Tenara: Yeah.

Camae: …everything has that approach to it because I’m must trusting my heart and just saying that I have an interest in this…what skills do I have that I can try to pull this off.

Raina: We had the chance to kind of read a little bit about you and…so you kind of grew up going to like, joining like, your gospel choir at church, but you didn’t play instruments growing up?

Camae: No, I did not. You know, I wish I played instruments as a kid but, you know I didn’t know where you buy instruments, it was like, do you play in the school band, what is that? I’m a dreamer type of kid so, my head was more in the clouds then actually being practical. And I…I love basketball, so that was the first dream that I had to like, be a professional basketball player.

Raina: Really?

Camae: Yeah.

Raina: Wow. That’s such an interesting, like, path can go from like basketball to music. Do you kind of still think like…I could have made it?

Camae: Definitely!


Camae: Definitely! But you know, school is like a business and everything so you gotta be able to get through the school part, you know, and I was never a good student.

Tenara: Do you still play basketball?

Camae: Well…, I…yeah, when I can, I mean, I coached, for over ten years at Friends Select school, here in Philadelphia.

Tenara: Wow.

Camae: So, when my album dropped, that was my last year of coaching, and I just said, this music thing is doing better than this coaching thing.


Tenara: So when you were in those…like you were singing in the gospel choirs even if you weren’t playing any instruments?

Camae: Oh yeah, as a kid, yeah.

Tenara: So, you grew up singing. There is like, was there…did you come from a particularly musical house, like was there music, like, you know, everywhere in your life?

Camae: Yeah. Yeah…like my dad was a singer in the choir, my grandmother, my aunt, you know the choir was jumping. So, it’s kind of like you wanna be a part of it. But I…, I quit the choir as a kid to practice Taekwondo.

Raina: Okay.

Camae: I also was like, in love with this idea of like, monks, and ninjas and…so that was end of my singing in the church, or pretty much going to church.

Raina: Well, I’ve…I just decided I’m gonna take up kickboxing.

Camae: Cool! That is so cool!

Raina: So I’m…(laughter) I’ve yet to take my first class but I just signed up for this Saturday, so, it’s gonna happen.

Camae: You gotta sign up two more people.

Raina: I signed up my boyfriend; I drag him everywhere.

Camae: Ok. So you got one more, you gotta bring one more person. (inaudible) little bit, you know.

Raina: Yeah.

Camae: And then bring someone because…especially women because we need all these fighting skills.

Tenara: Yeah.

Camae: Why not?

Tenara: Yeah.

Raina: Yeah.

Tenara: I took kickboxing for like, a couple of months and it was really like…they form an entire community, and it’s like mostly women, that like, they want you come to matches, they want you to like, like hang out. It’s like, really supportive and it’s all about…don’t do a move that you’re not proud of, you know, it’s like, always like, finding your strength and being like, holding the integrity of the strength, which is a lesson we can take to every part of our life.


Raina: So, I’d love to shift gears a little bit to talk more about Circuit City. So for us, High Pressure Fire Service as a festival is all about Philly, all about artists who are making Philly their home, and creating work that’s centered in about and kind of reflecting Philly in a lot of different ways, and so, I kind of wanted to ask you then, about how Philly’s influenced your work, and thinking about different elements like the Philadelphia housing crisis and how that’s become rolled into your thought process as you develop this.

Camae: I came to Philly in 1999, so Philly, like I’m sure many other communities…they go through a lot of waves, yeah, like, where I used to live now is like, luxury condos, you know, downtown where my college dorm was. So like, wow it’s been through so many different changes, so I would just say the, you know, the relationships, every day relationships with people and neighborhoods and students that come in and out of the city; just a movement of the city and the people, the everyday people that I’ve been able to meet. It’s just really, um…amazing. Philadelphia…we don’t…we’re not really known for like, celebrating its citizens.

Tenara and Raina: Hmm.

Camae: You know, besides the old kind of Revolutionary War kind of thing, you know.

Raina: Ben Franklin is everywhere.

Camae: It’s everywhere. And I’m not, you know, saying that…well I…whatever but like, John Coltrane should be everywhere.

Raina: Mm hm.

Tenara: Yeah.

Camae: Billie Holiday should be everywhere. These are people that…not only we can appreciate their music, but there’s so many levels, that we can learn from them.

Raina: Mm hm.

Camae: W.E.B. DuBois, you know, Patti LaBelle, all of these…so many studios…. We…Philadelphia really, um, pales in comparison to other places where they celebrate it you know. Like, I went to Vienna; had no idea Mozart was from there. But, I mean, it’s in your face so much. I mean, that’s just one person, you know, or just a person that went to a…Andy Warhol went to this coffee shop.”

Tenara: Right.

Camae: And it’s like, we’re celebrating this moment, and not in a milking way of being like…here pay a ticket to come see this kind of thing. So, I feel like, and not just people who are well-established or rich, like the people that I, uh, named, celebrity-wise. Everyday citizens. North Philly has amazing community members that, you know, won’t get any type of shine, with…outside their own community that have been doing a lot of work, whether it’s street cleanup, whether it’s organizing citizens to vote or…and there are a lot elders doing this work that have been, so those type of people make Philly to me; these lone heros.

Raina: Mm hm.

Camae: You know, these people are dedicated to their community, no matter what the changes that come in, ’cause like I said before, Philly goes through so much changes since I just been here…

Raina: Mm hm.

Camae: So…in mainly housing.

Tenara: You know you touched on it a little bit, but, you know, all the things you love about Philly, but I’m curious…like…why…you moved here in 1999 and then you sort of stayed and continued to make work here. What is it about Philly that you here and keeps you making stuff here?

Camae: I mean…that’s a good question, you know, because I definitely prefer warm weather.


Tenara: Whoops.

Camae: You know what I mean?

Tenara and Raina: Yeah.

Camae: Like…I definitely prefer it. I want to always keep working; not have the option of being like, ahhh, it’s too cold to go outside.

Tenara: Right.

Raina: Mm hm.

Camae: You know like…I would prefer to move. I…you know, the relationships that I formed…

Raina: Mm hm.

Tenara: Yeah.

Camae: You know. I was here to form the band, you know. My best friend that was in the band moved to California. That was like a chance. Then I was in a relationship and then had this coaching job that, you know, like a mentioned before, basketball was, like my first love.

Raina: Yeah.

Camae: So, to be able to coach for so long is like…I can can get this kind of thing that I’m not getting in music.

Tenara: Mm hm.

Camae: But, you know, but, yeah…just…relationships. I was doing an event for about 14 years called. “Rockers, ” and it was a monthy event here in Philadelphia, so that was another thing. But, we just recently ended about three years ago.

Raina: Okay.

Camae: All of these things keep me tied to Philadelphia but, I’ve seen so many…some great places all over the world but I would love to build connections; build bridges.

Raina: Mm hm.

Tenara: Yeah.

Camae: I feel like a lot of people that I was here with, you know, when I first came to Philadelphia, have been able to do that. Or move to different places and create this bridge. Hopefully, yeah, I would love to continue repping Philly I guess.

Raina: Yes!

Tenara: Yeah!

Camae: That kind of thing.

Tenara: Yeah…I’m curious because lots and lots of artists that make Philadelphia their home. And like, I think a huge part of it obviously is the relationships and the collaborations that you make. But, I’m curious if there’s something like…quintessentially Philly, that is friendly to artists?

Camae: It’s really hard, because in Philly there’s not a lot of places that I know, that you can turn to that support artists.

Tenara: Mm hm.

Camae: And there’s still a lot of artists that I know in Philly that’s been working forever that don’t know certain grants that are available to them. You know, just yesterday, I told my friend, who was at the first Rockers performing with her band about the Leeway Foundation, and I’ve won it twice. So it’s like, we’re close friends, you don’t even know that I’ve won this, you don’t even know there’s this award….

Raina: Yeah.

Camae: You know, it’s just like, you feel as an artist kind of like in the dark. Philly is like, a working artists’ city where you go to do some work in your house or in a studio and build things and get things done kind of. And then you’ll go to of course, New York or something to showcase it, you know?

Tenara and Raina: Mm hm.

Camae: But Philly…and we’re getting new venues and I think more connections are being made at the City Hall level where we can start to have these conversations about, um…highlighting this and making Philly a place where other musicians can come to do a show instead of coming to go in the studio with one of our drummers, you know?

Tenara and Raina: Mm hm.

Camae: So it’s kind of like…you know, we’re like Newark or something, you like, they’re like the industrial artist city, you know. We write, we…you know?

Tenara: Yeah.

Camae: Um…but yeah, no, Philly’s hard. Philly’s hard.

Raina: Do you find that there is…this information gap between different people like where, you may have found out about the Leeway Foundation, like…why wouldn’t someone find out about that. Is there like a…marketing issue on the part of, like, these grants and foundations or, do you think it’s more just people being in different area of the city?

Camae: I think sometimes you feel like you don’t know the people that are winning these awards and you think, “Oh, they must be from Harvard, they taught for 10 years…all the kind of things, you know, and not understanding that being a musician for 10 or 5 years is a lot of work in your community, you know. And you don’t actually…you didn’t actually have to graduate from here, you know…just going back to that punk mentality thing that I was saying before…and I feel like…people don’t know…

Raina: They psyche themselves out…

Camae: Yeah…

Raina: …even if they do hear about it.

Camae: Yeah, because you kind of…I mean, I won the grant…I don’t know, it was a long time ago, very long time ago when I won the first Art and Change Grant. And no one…it was a crazy thing, they were like “Whaaat?” You know, we were so poor, we couldn’t even build the project, we were like, “Aww, we got this money! What?”
You know what I mean? It was just like a surprise. No one we ever knew had anything; I had did it from Rockers, you know? And so I didn’t apply for a very long time after that, because it was kind of like a fluke, or like…

Raina: Yeah.

Camae: …what was happening, you know? And so…to get the next one, then I’m like “Oh!” The next one was the Transformation Grant, years later, you know. Then I got to meet the Director of the thing and I got to meet this person, and I’m rubbing elbows, or…

Tenara: Right.

Camae: You know what I mean?

Raina: Yeah?

Camae: …with this other Humanitarian kind of charity group world, you know?

Tenara: Yeah.

Camae: So…that was like blessing and then I also started doing workshops for Girls Rock Philly.

Tenara: Hmm. Cool.

Camae: And then I was like, “Oh…well…now this workshop worked out, now I’m with the workshop people.”

Tenara: Yeah.

Camae: “Ok, let me keep me keep developing this skill.” Now I do workshops all over the world, you know? But it’s like, I didn’t know about that world.
Tenara: The thing that I like, really respect about Philadelphia artists is that even if they do get themselves into a cycle where they like, psyche themselves out, and they think, Oh, like yeah obviously Camae has won a Leeway grant, you know, Camae has done so much and blah, blah, blah, not really considering the fact they could get it if they really, like, worked at the application, but I also really love that there’s a spirit in Philly of like, even if I don’t get this grant, I’m just gonna do the thing anyway. I mean, that happened, you know, our Fringe Festival in September we have like, hundreds and hundreds of independent artists that just do it; they just put on their show and they find any way that they can for whoever wants to come, and that…that feels like really Philly to me. Like, and very punk also, like “Whatever. I don’t need to be authenticated by these other people in order to just do what I want to do.”

Camae: Mm hm.

Raina: But I do also feel like that is part of where Fringarts is able to help these artist by connecting them to these foundations and like, by sharing what information we have, because obviously we are a nonprofit, we’re applying for grants too through a lot of the same foundations, but like, we want to be able to help artists find their way because we love a success story, like, we love to see a show in the Fringe Festival and then it’s like, getting a lot of recognition, a lot of press, and then it’s going further, like that’s great for us as well as the artist. There is definitely a lot of, you know, making it clear to people that they are like, you said that they’re worth it, they can do; it’s not out of reach for them.

Tenara: Totally. So, this is a bit of a pivot, like a topic switch, but I’m curious, like so much of your work can be described by other people as Afro-futurist, do you describe your work that way?

Camae: I don’t really describe my work as anything, but, yeah, like, I’m a part of that Afro-futurism community.

Tenara: Mm hm.

Camae: I mean figured that some people say that, right?

Tenara: Yeah, totally.

Camae: Yeah.

Tenara: So for any listeners who might not know, could you define what Afro-futurism is?

Tenara: Afro-futursim was a term coined by a critic named(?) Mark Dery, and…it basically was just like a question or, you know an idea which had already been, you know, stated about black people, seeing themselves in the future. And also, using this idea of Afro-futurism also as a lens to see how we’ve been cut out of the future, you know whether we’re talking about movies, where we’re talking about literature, government, media, all kinds of things like this. But of course, black people have always thought about the future. I’ve always looked to the stars, I’ve always, you know, imagined this documented history of that, but, because of how the world is set up, because of economics, classism, racism…it’s not…everyone doesn’t have an equal playing field. We’re all not dealing with the same time, the same privilege.

Tenara: One of the other questions that we have of like, what is the sort of classic definition of Afro-futurism, and then also, what does it mean to you?

Camae: I mean, I guess that would be…I don’t know what the classic definition of it, you know.

Tenara: Or the more like, popular definition of it, like you saying it was originally coined by Mark Dery…

Camae: Yeah, I think it’s just about black people taking agency in their future. It means to me, I mean…that’s based…it means to me in way of like, imagination, and to visualize what you want for yourself and your future. And I feel like…it has worked for me, not just for me, other countless people. One famous…Octavia Butler, a famous writer wrote down dreams and aspirations and goals for herself that she was able to accomplish just by writing it down and believing that you, you know what I mean, that this can be for you; that you can daydream a better place for yourself, you know. Sometimes people don’t even take the time, to do that kind of thing.

Raina: I wanna tie this back in a little bit to Circuit City, because we talked about your show and that it isn’t set in one place in time.

Camae: Right.

Raina: But, I’m kind of curious because you’ve talked about how the characters are working towards something; they’re building something over the course of the play. Can you tell a little bit more like, what that means…however much you want to spoil for the audience ahead of time, but, you know, like, what is this idea that they’re working towards?

Camae: I guess, I mean it can be so many ways, you know that you can say “oh it’s too that; it’s too that,” you know, that’s why I like the audience to kind of, make up their own minds. But, just thinking about it for myself, I think it goes to this idea of freedom. You know, in your own accord, you know, and I feel like this is something that’s been, you know, it’s a historical word, grained in war and enslavement flipped in a way of Civil Rights of being a light at the end of the tunnel kind of thing; this idea of freedom. I feel like it’s towards that, but that’s such a clouded…thing, this idea of freedom, you know, and I’ve been playing around with this long walk to freedom kind of idea of this, that’s so many people have spoken about before but, it’s kind of like, what is this thing? We get there and we actually realize it’s not what it means. Who defines what it is…this idea to escape of freedom. So, kind of like that kind of idea.

Raina: Yeah. And even unless all the people who have talked about it, we’re still not there in so many ways and it’s still a long walk to get wherever it really is.

Camae: Right. You know, because I think about like, we just passed Martin Luther King’s birthday which is recently, was this what he envisioned that freedom was? You know, I don’t know, you know. That “I Have a Dream Speech” is really amazing and this kind of way of creating these multi layers of a dream, and also what freedom is. Because equality…and how do we get to that.

Raina: There’s also the idea, you, know, where you don’t quite know what you can achieve if you don’t see it. Like the…I forget the exact kind of hypothetical but like, where there’s a person and they’re like in a box and so they don’t know that if they get to the other side, like there’s all this around them because all they know…

Tenara: …is the box.

Raina: …is the box. And so as even as we talk about freedom like, that definition is constantly changing because we can only see what’s right in front of us a lot of times.

Camae: Mm hm.

Tenara: I think a lot about how like, the kind of equity that so many people, you know, in this country, in this community are trying to achieve. We don’t really even have the words to describe it yet because we’re only working with the words that like, accurately describe the box.

Camae: Yeah and trying for figure out how to be more inclusive, right? We’re still at the Basic Humanity 101 kind of thing.


Raina: Yes.

Camae: And then, when do you reach this inclusiveness that we’re all onboard?

Raina: Yeah. Just to kind of go back a little bit to, you know, your experience growing up…we really would love to kind of wrap up to hear what your advice would be for young people of color who are interested in the arts; interested in finding a creative path and what advice you would give them to start pursuing that future.

Camae: I would say don’t be afraid to reach out to other musicians who are doing that you’re doing and ask if, you know, they’re willing to mentor. I feel like you at least have to ask 100 people before someone says yes. Don’t be afraid; it doesn’t have to be someone that you want to be, as far as identity. It could just be someone in the field and you can still get valuable information. So, sometimes it’s not about setting our goals high to keep reaching out to Rhianna or someone, and it’s more about, okay, well here’s a video director that’s in the industry, you know, or here’s an engineer. Everyone has important pieces to the puzzle for you to learn, and it’s good to just ask questions and not feel embarrassed about it because most of the artists do this. So don’t think that no one’s reaching out to each other to get advice or mentorship.

Raina: And we haven’t had too much time to talk about this, but I also wanted to touch on you work with the Community Futures Lab in North Philly and like, what that means for you and how that’s centered in your work.

Camae: My collective, Black Crime Futurism received a grant of Blade of Arts, Blade of Grass Foundation in New York and we decided with the money we want to build a community space that would not only offer workshops and information to the community, but would chronicle what was happening in the community. They demolished two affordable housing towers right around the corner from the lab…Community Futures Lab, so we took pictures, we interviewed residents, we collected oral histories, and what we call oral futures…visions of what they would want in their community. We brought all kinds of specialists in that could share information on housing. My partner, Rashida Phillips, is a housing attorney, so was definitely able to pull resources in from her colleagues to come in. It was a beautiful project. It was for a year, and we just received the archives for all the oral history stories and oral future stories, and photographs and everything. So, we hope…we don’t hope…it will be a part of the community.

Raina: Wonderful.

Tenara: Is it going to be like, displayed in like a gallery or accessible to the public in any way?

Camae: We’ve been working on an online website for that.

Tenara: Okay, cool.

Camae: And hopefully, some library will take it.

Raina: Thank you.

Camae: Yeah, thank you for having me. I hope everyone enjoyed the show. Thanks for having me on, hope to see you in June for Circuit City.

Raina: Yeah.

Tenara: Thanks, Camae!

Raina: Thank you!

[Music Outro]

Happy Hour on the Fringe: Conversation with Ben Grinberg

Posted May 24th, 2019

On this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, we had drinks with Ben Grinberg, Artistic Director of Almanac Dance Circus Theatre, instructor at Circadium and Pig Iron, and the curator and host for Test Flights, a circus scratch night. Join our conversation about how Ben found his way into circus, the growth of contemporary circus in Philadelphia, Almanac’s 5 year anniversary celebration season, and a teaser for who you may see at this July’s Test Flights! Learn more about Hand to Hand Circus Festival, running June 28—July 1.

Also, this weekend (May 24th) check out the final performances of Communitas: Five Years Later by Almanac Dance Circus Theatre.

Listen to the episode and read the transcript below.

Feature Photo by Daniel Kontz

Conversation with Ben Grinberg

[Music Intro]

Katy: Hello, and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. FringeArts is Philadelphia’s premier presenter of contemporary performing arts. I’m Katy Dammers, Artistic Producer here at FringeArts…

Raina: And I’m Raina Searles, Marketing Manager. We invite you to pour one up and enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence. Here at FringeArts, our new work series dedicated to local Philadelphia artists called High Pressure Fire Service, or HPFS, as we like to call it, is coming to a close. At the time this episode is coming out, we have just two shows left coming up in June: The Sincerity Project #3, in 2019, by Team Sunshine Performance Corporation, which runs June 4th through the 8th, and Circuit City by Moor Mother, June 20th to the 22nd.

Katy: But today, we’re looking ahead to some of the events happening just the weekend after HPFS closes. We are presenting the second annual Hand to Hand Circus Festival, with Circadium School of Contemporary Circus, and with a dynamic performance by the Circadium first-year students on the 25th, called Circadium: Springboard, and then an exciting lineup of events happening June 28th through July 1st. Today, we’re chatting with Ben Grinberg, curator and host for Hand to Hand Scratch Night, also called Test Flights, and he’s the Artistic Coordinator and Theater Instructor at Circadium, and the Artistic Director for Almanac Dance Circus Theatre. Welcome, Ben.

Ben: Thanks so much.

Raina: So, our first question, as is tradition, is what are we all drinking for Happy Hour on the Fringe? Ben?

Ben: Well, it’s 2:30 pm, so I have an iced coffee, which is delicious. Thank you.

Katy: I’m drinking tea.

Raina: And I’m having a nice glass of cold water.

Ben: That’s pretty lame, isn’t it?

Katy: We’re doing our best. Doing our best in the midst of a work day on this Friday. Happy Hour will come soon enough.

Raina: Well, we’re always happy, that’s… We’re just happy with what we’re drinking.

Katy: Ben, maybe you can start by telling our listeners, how did you get started in physical theater and in circus?

Ben: Wow, okay, sure. I was a member of the inaugural class of the Pig Iron School, which was sort of my introduction to physical theater. I had done a bunch of theater in my life previous to that, but I really had no idea that you could think about creating your own work, or think about making work that didn’t start from a script. Until Quinn Bauriedel actually came, I was in my senior year of college, and I was directing… I had a crazy idea to do a commedia dell’arte version of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap for the experimental theater company, because I was like “Oh, these characters are all such archetypes!” And it was very strange, but so, in order to get some commedia training, we reached out in the larger Philadelphia theater world and Quinn came in and taught a four-hour physical theater workshop on commedia for us, and I…

My mind was completely blown. I had never been exposed to anything with levels of tension or anything like that before, so I knew, Quinn and I knew that I wanted to go to the Pig Iron School and start getting really invested in physical theater, and then at Pig Iron, one of the classes you have to take is acrobatics, which at Pig Iron, which I don’t know if you know I teach at Pig Iron, and their acrobatics is definitely about coordination, getting strong and staying fit as a performer, but it’s also about acrobatics as a metaphor for all of the kinds of risk-taking you need to do in order to open yourself up to be an available performer.

So that was sort of my introduction to acrobatics and to circus, there wasn’t a real emphasis on technical circus, the technical circus world felt like a very different thing, when I started to encounter that, which I… At that time, Pig Iron had a relationship with the physical circus arts, so I was able to go and take classes there with Nick Gillette and Lauren Harries, which were some of my classmates that founded Almanac with me, and so, yeah, we got to start taking acrobatics classes and sort of just gone from there.

Raina: I am curious. You said you first met Quinn, like, your senior year of college, was that a path change for you? Did you have a different direction you were headed in?

Ben: Oh, yeah, I was about to go do Teach for America, and I didn’t really have any idea what I wanted to do, graduating from school. I had a strange college experience. I went for two years and sort of burnt out completely and lived in New York for a year and tried to be an actor, and realized I could come back and graduate in a year if I switched my major from Systems Engineering to Classical Studies, so I ended up graduating with a degree in Classics, and I really had no… I always knew that I wanted to be an artist and I wanted to be a performer, but I think I went through that thing that a lot of people go through, which is society and maybe some family and other things preventing me from conceiving of that as a real, viable career path, and so I was looking for anything else that I could be happy doing until I finally… yeah, I think that workshop with Quinn was the moment I realized, “Oh, no, actually this is what I really need to do with my life, so…”

Katy: Ben, since then, you’ve built kind of an incredible career as a performer, you have your own company, Almanac, and then you teach circus too.

Ben: Yeah, yeah. It’s sort of crazy. I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting, because… So, tonight actually is the five-year anniversary of Almanac’s first full-length show, that we performed in Philadelphia.

Raina: Congrats!

Katy: Congratulations!

Ben:  [crosstalk 00:06:10]. Yeah, awesome! And yeah, so it’s been crazy with everything that’s happened in five years, and yeah, I got really interested in the overlap between dance, physical theater and circus, and that’s really where Almanac’s work exists and that’s the lens through which I teach physical theater at Circadium, and I think, also, it’s what I bring to the acrobatics teaching at Pig Iron, so… Yeah, it’s kind of funny I teach acrobatics at the theater school and theater at the circus school, and I don’t know what that means, exactly, neither… I’m not… I don’t know. I’m not quite good enough to teach circus at the circus school or theater at the theater school, they’re just… Yeah, no, it’s great. I like being able to wear all of those different hats, so…

Katy: You really have feet in both worlds, and I feel like contemporary circus is increasingly moving in that direction.

Ben: I think so, yeah, and I think that is sort of… I think you could talk to a bunch of different people and get a bunch of different opinions about what contemporary circus is, but I think when you talk about the new circus as the roots for contemporary circus, you do talk about the desire to express something other than virtuosity inside a circus, and so when you talk about that in terms of performance, I think it’s so important to look to the art forms that have already been doing that, which are theater and dance, so…

Raina: I’m curious about what that scene looks like here in Philadelphia, because when you…I mean considering the fact that you started Almanac five years ago, Circadium wasn’t actually even a school yet, at that point. They’re in their second year now of having students, and so how has that changed for you, just in the past five years, but then also, what does that look like in other areas, and how does Philadelphia compare to other areas, even worldwide?

Ben: Yeah, absolutely. Well, all of us at Circadium are super optimistic that Philadelphia is going to become a real hub for contemporary circus on a worldwide level, and I think even nationally, that is becoming the case right now, and I don’t think that that was true five years ago, six years ago. So I think that’s really exciting, the audacity to start a serious three-year professional training program has started to attract lots of different artists. There are circus artists who are moving to the city, it feels like all the time. And that’s great, because that means there’s a community that’s starting to grow and there’s a sort of criticality that can come with that, and a sort of aesthetic proposition that can come as well, with time, which is something I’m really excited about. It’s something I think Test Flights is really trying to nurture, Test Flights/this Scratch Night. What was the original question?

Raina: I’m just thinking about how it’s kind of changed over the past five years and also how Philadelphia stands within that worldwide community.

Ben: Yeah. Philadelphia’s definitely in… I think in the circus world, there’s… You know, in all the different art worlds, there are these gravitational centers and Philadelphia is sort of in the larger orbit of Montréal. I think we get a lot of contemporary circus companies that come through because they’re touring to Montréal, or that are based in Montréal, but come to Philadelphia because it’s close and Montréal really is a world capital for the art form and for contemporary circus, and we’re lucky that we’re a seven and a half hour car ride away, so it’s still accessible for us to get up there. But yeah, we’re… I think… Okay, so six years ago… I don’t know, I always think of it like actually recreational circus schools are kind of a new thing in general in the United States, like now, you can sort of say “I’m going to take an aerial class”, or “I’m going to take a silks class”, and people sort of know what that means, maybe people need a little bit of an explanation, but that’s relatively common, and I feel like ten years ago, that just wasn’t the case.

And so, yeah, there’s really been this explosion of recreational circus in the United States, and I think that was partially due to a lot of reasons I mean the success of Cirque Du Soleil, and sort of people seeing the… Yeah, this physical virtuosity in performance through that and people getting interested in it, but now all through the States, you have a lot of recreational studios that have opened, and then you have people who go through the ranks and learn all of the things they can learn at these recreational places, and then they want more, and they want to know how to turn what they’re doing, which has been a really straightforward learning of technical tricks, it’s not [inaudible 00:11:21], it’s really tough, it’s fulfilling and it’s self-actualizing and all of that, but then they want to say “Oh, what can I do with this now? It doesn’t just feel like a show that has ten different people all performing the same tricks in slightly different costumes with different music, right? How can I start to really innovate inside of this form and start to express myself with it?”

And so that’s where we are now on a cultural moment of… There are lots of people who have a lot of technical skills and want to start to become artists, and I think that’s where Circadium comes in, it’s how do we yet take people who have been training in circus, maybe their whole lives, a lot of these young people have been doing circus since they were four or five and are coming to Circadium when they’re 18 or 19, and so have incredible technical vocabularies and know how to perform in a sort of more traditional showmanship kind of way, but how do we give them the tools to be able to create work that really says something and is meaningful to them and to audiences and is sort of vital for the world? Yeah, again I feel like I didn’t really answer your question, I just went off on a different tangent!

Raina: I thought that was all great commentary.

Ben: Yeah, five years ago, Philadelphia school-

Raina: Can I just give you maybe one more question? What made you start Almanac as a dance and circus and theater group when that wasn’t as big five years ago?

Ben: Yeah, absolutely. Well, okay, so I was at the Pig Iron School, with such giants as Jenn Kidwell and Scott Sheppard and Jess Conda, all the people who are here for High Pressure Fire Service, and a classmate of mine, Nick Gillette and I started to get really interested in acrobatics, and we started to look at… “What if we could create a language of storytelling that was acrobatic inherently?” And we got inspired by some videos that another classmate, Justin Rose, was sharing with us because he had some connections to the contemporary circus world, and we started watching some videos from some French companies, like [inaudible 00:13:37] and some 7 Fingers videos and performances we were able to see, and we also were learning about clown at this moment on our, you know, Pig Iron track, and so we were really interested in this idea.

“Okay, what if we could just play ourselves and not have any real performative character-based artifice, and what if acrobatics can become kind of like task-based choreography, and so it was really hard for us. We were very, sort of thought of ourselves as folk artists in this way, we didn’t have any real technical training, but we were like, “We can learn how to do this”, right? So it really was us self-teaching ourselves in a studio for many, many hours, sometimes biting things off, like clips we found on the internet, and sometimes just contact improvising until we found some kind of lift or something that we thought was interesting, or some kind of balance, and because we didn’t really have any technique and because these things were so new to us, I think the performance of them felt really new to an audience, and then one thing that people have always said about Almanac is that we really…

The work that we make lives in this place that just vibrates between the kind of risk that makes them really concerned for the performers and also this place where they’re like, “Okay, I get that there’s some craft and some artifice around this risk”, but definitely that thing that I think a great circus does, which is it puts you on the edge of your seat, and I think the thing that you realize which was really awesome is that you don’t have to be doing the best tricks in the world in order for audiences to be engaged in that way. Actually, if you’re approaching your own limits, and if you’re testing them, if you’re letting that be seen, that’s just as exciting or can be just as exciting for an audience as seven back-tucks off a Russian swing.

Katy: But I like what you’re saying, Ben, about circus being… I think it’s so enticing for people because on the one hand, people are doing amazing virtuosic things that an average person probably looks at and is like “Oh my God, I could never do that. I could never balance in that way, I could never juggle 20 balls at the same time.” But at the same time, they’re also, as an audience member, being like “I can see myself in those people, like what would it mean to get myself there?”, or “I do know the feeling of a fear of falling, even if it’s just down the stairs”, and so circus is kind of this fascinating balance between something that’s so out of this world and yet something that is so deeply human.

Ben: Exactly, and when I think about one of the reasons why I’m interested in continuing to make circus, I think it’s because now Cirque Du Soleil, just to, you know, hate on them for a little second, not really, it’s all based in love, but it becomes so great because their shows are so amazing, they’re so spectacle-based, but for me, there’s something that’s lost, because there’s not really a sense of intimacy.

I think the scale of the production value and some of these really elaborate costumes that sort of obscure the humanity of these people. If you see people do five back flips, they sort of seem… It’s almost like you’re watching a movie, it’s almost as if it’s a special effect, right, and you don’t really get to feel breath, you don’t get to be connected with those people in any kind of human way, often, and so I think that’s why there’s a movement now in contemporary circus, to make things that are smaller in scale and more intimate and let audience members more directly interact with performers as people.

I always tell a story because when we were first making Communitas, we heard… I think it was Totem was in town, and we just overheard someone recount the story of being outside after a show, and they were like “I want my money back! If I’m going to pay that much money for a ticket, that juggler better not drop any balls!” I mean, that’s so funny, because it’s like, “Right, how have we come to a place where we watch circus performances in Cirque Du Soleil, and we expect perfection, which is the opposite of humanity, right?”

You know, there’s nothing human about getting it exactly right every single time, and for me, and I think for a lot of contemporary circus artists, the moment where something goes wrong, the moment when you drop a ball is the most important moment, it’s the moment when you can really be let in, and I think that’s to discount any traditional circus lineages, because I think lots of really traditional circus families have such an artistry around crafting that sense of “Okay, we’re going to do something and it’s going to seem really hard for us, and we’re going to craft that experience”, and the artifice around that is really useful and traditional and has been honed over many years, but I think it’s easy, for whatever reason, for artists to forget that and to say “I need to only do the things that are technically the most challenging”, so, yeah. Just reminding audiences and maybe artists sometimes of humanity.

Katy: Yeah. Well, speaking of the artists that you’re working with, tell us a little bit about who we might see on Test Flights..

Ben: Yeah, absolutely. So, yeah, there have been a couple of Philadelphia-based companies that have been operating for a while, in sort of circus adjacent landscapes, and so I’m really interested in bringing their work into dialogue with contemporary circus, as it sort of comes from a more traditional circus background, so I’m really interested in creating a night where we might see a performance by Tribe of Fools, which is a parkour-based theater company, or Brian Sanders’ JUNK, alongside some artists whose work is really going in the other direction from a really strong technical circus background into interpretive expression.

And so hopefully 3AM Theater, which is a new circus company that’s based in Philadelphia that is Kyle Driggs and Andrea Murillo, will be involved in Test Flights, and also Open Ring Circus, which is an interesting new circus collective that’s based in Philly. They’re making a piece about the Hartford Circus Fire, which is super interesting, because the combination of documentary, historical theater and circus is one that I think is super challenging, and I’m really interested to see how that piece grows and progresses. And you may end up seeing something from Almanac during Scratch Night as well, so… Yeah.

Katy: I know Almanac has so many things coming up as well, you want to tell us a little bit about all that’s on your plate for that.

Ben: Yeah, absolutely, so I mentioned earlier, this is actually the five-year anniversary of our first full-length work, so we’re in the middle, now, of our run of Communitas: Five Years Later, which has sort of been a reimagining and a reinvestigation of that first piece, and that is… I think there are two more performances, May 24th and 25th at the Funicular Station, and then on Sunday, on May 26th, we actually have a pretty giant outdoor family fitness, arts and culture fitness festival, and I think it’s really like FringeArts and Almanac and everyone’s sort of humming on the same lines here, because I think the Circus Midway that will be a part of Hand to Hand…

These invitations for the public to come and try these circus things, I think are such an important part of circus programming, because it’s just like what you said, when we watch circus artists, we do put ourselves in that place, and we imagine ourselves as these people who are taking on these incredible things and we really just naturally want to try it, so FitFest is going to be really great. We’re going to have participatory workshops from Almanac and from the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, and juggling and wire-walking and acrobatics and also hip-hop fundamentals and the Old City Sweethearts, and dance and some martial arts forms…

Basically, anything that encourages you to creatively move your body will be there, and anyone can come, all ages, and it’s free, and then in the evening, we’re going to have some performances onstage overlooking the Delaware River in Penn Treaty Park, so we’ll have a special encore performance of Communitas: Five Years Later, and some performances from Circadium and other circus artists as well, and a few dance companies, so it’s going to be great.

And then, in June, we’re remounting the newest version of Almanac’s ensemble-devised solo show, featuring Nicole Burgio, which is called XOXO Moongirl, and it’s one of my favorite pieces we’ve ever made. It’s just Nicole and live music by Mel Hsu, and is a circus theater examination and processing of Nicole’s history of growing up in a house with domestic violence and physical abuse, and so… Yeah, there’s like a proposition for circus aerials, handstands and dance to be really used in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever used it before in my work, or I’ve seen often inside of that show, so I’m really excited to remount that, and then we’re taking it to Edinburgh in August, so I’ve got to hope that goes well.

Raina: Because you guys were in Mexico too, right?

Ben:Yeah, yeah, actually, yes, so XOXO Moongirl, Nicole was so mad at me when I told her that I told the producers that she would be performing the whole show in Spanish, but she learned the whole show in Spanish and we performed it in Mexico City, and also created an ensemble-devised work with emerging professional circus artists in Mexico as well, while we were there, so, yeah. Hopefully we’ll be going back again in the next Winter, so…

Katy: Awesome.

Ben: Yeah.

Raina: This is a little bit of just a divergent question. This idea of also speaking in circus theater, because I feel like so much of circus is that your body tells the story, and so I’m really curious, like, what… Is this one of the first pieces where, you know, also it’s like a solo show, so, like, what’s that process like building in text and language around the work?

Ben: Yeah, well, for Almanac, our first show, Communitas, didn’t have words in it, and then we started using words pretty much right after that, and I think that is something that’s really interesting, because so much contemporary circus doesn’t use any words, but some does, and… Yeah, so why do we do that? I think… Sometimes I see some contemporary circus shows and it feels like the artists have a really deep relationship with the subject matter that they’re trying to address, or they are addressing through their work, and it just doesn’t come across clearly to an audience because somehow the language isn’t as specific as verbal language can be, and so I think if you want to make work that’s really personal, it’s really about complex ideas that aren’t embodied and don’t start from a somatic place, and I don’t understand why you wouldn’t use words, actually.

I feel like, lots of times, not using words makes things feel distant and feel unclear, and if you feel really strongly about what you have to say, you should say it, and I think that circus is a really great way to express a lot of things, and sometimes it’s just not the best way. So, for example, in XOXO Moongirl, one thing Nicole says is “Last year, my dad hit my mom”, you know, and I think you could see a theatrical dramatization of that, but it’s not the same thing as being able to understand how Nicole feels about that by hearing her relate that to an audience, and so after that detail was clear, the movement that comes afterwards can be grounded and contextualized in a way that makes it reach an audience more, I think, than if that was never there in the first place.

Raina: Yeah. And I think it’s very much an ongoing thing that we have just within the contemporary art sphere, you know, not every artist wants to explain their work in the same way and so a lot of times, and people want the art to speak for itself, but it doesn’t always translate the same way, and sometimes having that language jump can help people get there much easier, or just possibly like more effectively, depending on what it is you’re trying to convey.

Ben: Yeah, absolutely, I think so. I mean, yeah, I think some contemporary dance suffers from this thing, which is that it’s quite academic and quite hard to understand for an uneducated viewer, and so I think one thing about circus is that it’s sort of always been a popular art form, and I think that it should stay that way. I think it should be the sort of thing that anyone can kind of come in and understand, so…

Katy: And contemporary circus rides this line between having a narrative, which sometimes can be a really easy way in for people, but also in terms of traditional American circus, it’s often a display of physical feats, which doesn’t always have a narrative. So I think contemporary circus is pulling from many different genres to create something that is interdisciplinary and has many different ways that an audience member could engage with it, which is cool.

Ben: Absolutely. Yeah. And that’s one reason why, when we do Test Flights at Circadium, it is an interdisciplinary works in progress show, so we have dance, theater, spoken word, music and circus all together, because it’s so true. All of us need to see each other’s work, we need to be inspired by each other.

Katy: Yeah, and likewise, why we include circus in our programming at the Fringe, so it’s all very good. And what are your highbrow and lowbrow inspirations, Ben? We ask everybody on the podcast this question.

Ben:  Oh, my goodness… Yeah, I was prepared for this and I still don’t really have great answers. Okay, so lowbrow inspiration, I think I can answer because I’ve been a little bit obsessed recently with shitposting.

Katy: So for our listeners, explain what that is.

Ben: So, shitposting is basically, like, innocuous sort of trolling of people on social media, like it is trolling, but it’s not like white nationalist trolling, or anything like that, it’s like…

Raina: Great!

Ben: Yeah. I mean, I’m in a group called “Fishtown Shitposting,” and it really is just a place where people can come and make mostly absurdist comments about this other Facebook group (I’m a Fishtown resident) which is called “Fishtown is Awesome, Old, New, Everyone,” and so, you know, where is the steam valve for society when we all have to behave decorously on these neighborhood Facebook groups, and someone’s like “Oh, somebody bumped into my bumper and I’m calling 911”, or whatever, you know, you can go and you can sort of let off the steam by making shitposts. And, yeah, so I’m really… I think shitposting is awesome, and I really am interested in what live-action shitposting would be, and how that could translate to performance, and so I’ve been spending a lot of time in some shitposting spheres.

And then in terms of highbrow, I really love the contemporary circus company Finzi Pasca Company. I’ve seen a handful of their works and the way that they integrate spectacle, storytelling and heart into everything and make it sort of really inspiring. They made a show called Donka: A Letter to Chekhov, which was sort of Daniele Finzi Pasca’s relationship to this, to Chekhov and all of the themes that are in Chekhov’s work, exploded into contemporary circus, and it was really a moving piece, and, yeah, I don’t know… We just performed at a benefit with the PA ballet, and now I definitely want to go and take ballet classes, so I don’t know what that’s about, but that’s another highbrow inspiration right now.

Katy: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe.

Ben: Yeah, thank you so much, it was super fun.

Raina: So, we will be having Ben Grinberg back here on July 1st, so Monday at 7 pm, and we’ll be hosting Test Flights, and we’re excited to see what that lineup of artists will be.

Katy: Yeah, and in the meantime, check out the rest of our Hand-to-Hand Circus programming, join us for our midway the Sunday before on June 30th and performances by a number of other companies. In the meantime, make sure you follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, and to download the FringeArts App.

[Music Outro]

Happy Hour on the Fringe: Conversation with Ben and Sydney Camp

Posted May 10th, 2019

On this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, listen to Team Sunshine Performance Corporation artist Benjamin Camp discuss getting older with his four year old daughter Sydney, featuring some dynamic costume changes and a rendition of Let It Go from Frozen. Read more about The Sincerity Project #3 (2019), running June 4–8 at FringeArts. Listen to the episode and read the transcript below.

Feature Photo by Jen Cleary. Pictured: Ben and Syndey Camp in the second iteration of The Sincerity Project (2016).

Conversation with Ben and Sydney Camp

[Music Intro]

Tenara: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe! FringeArts is Philadelphia’s premiere presenter of contemporary performing arts. I’m Tenara Calem, Audience Engagement Coordinator at FringeArts. I invite you to pour one up and enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence.

Here at FringeArts, our new works series dedicated to local Philadelphia artists called High Pressure Fire Service (or HPFS) is in full swing. At the time this episode comes up, Pig Iron Theatre Company’s A Hard Time will be wrapping up, and you can actually still buy tickets for A Hard Time. It wraps up this Sunday, May 12, and then we’ve got two more HPFS shows going through June. But before we head on into this week’s episode, I’m joined by a very special guest. Special guest, can you say who you are?

April: Hi I’m April Rose, and I’m the Fringe Festival Coordinator.

Tenara: Amazing. So April, you’re joining me today to let our listeners know about a special program that they can be a part of, correct?

April: Yes! So this is a program that we’ve created this year to make up for some losses in microgrant opportunities for artists. So there’s lots of artists participating in the Fringe Festival, and we want to make sure they have access to funding, so we created something called the 2019 Independent Artist FestiFund. So – fun combination of Festival Fund.

Tenara: Yes!

April: So we are crowdsourcing funds and working with some community partners to fundraise for independent artists participating in the festival. Artists can register to be supported by the FestiFund on our website under the Artist Resources tab. We ask you to go to festifund.wedid.it. The Independent Artist FestiFund is a project of Culture Trust Greater Philadelphia – so we thank CultureTrust. Go online to donate and if you’re an artist, head to our website to see how you can apply for some funding.

Tenara: Amazing! And when is the Festival registration deadline for independent artists for the Fringe Festival?

April: Independent artists should register by June 3rd. If you’re still looking for a venue, things like that, I can certainly help you, so hit me up at april@fringearts.com and I can help anyone out interested in registering.

Tenara: June 3rd is coming up! Oh my gosh, so many things going on.

April: Yes, and there’s lots of ways you can participate – as a visual artist, as a digital artist, you can register your poetry performance. It’s not just theater and dance.

Tenara: Awesome. Thank you April! So now we’re going to zoom back a bit to High Pressure Fire Service, out of Fringe Festival land and back to HPFS. I want to give some context about this podcast episode, which you will notice has a bit of a different tone. So we’re gearing up for Team Sunshine Performance Corporation’s third installment of their 24 year performance experiment, The Sincerity Project. The show, which draws material from its creators real lives, follows the seven-person ensemble through the passage of time. As the piece reflects on aging and growing older, we thought it might be interesting to get one of the creators, Ben Camp, in conversation with someone who’s at a very different life stage than he is – namely, his four year old daughter, Sydney.

So in this episode you will hear many things – cats, some tunes from Frozen, four year olds leaping around the house, Sydney’s mom, and tricycles. Listen in on the sweet pre-school musings on what it means to be older, and also to be Elsa.

Sarah (Sydney’s mom): But this is one of the harder things to do on a kid’s head.

Sydney: Play!

Tenara: Play?

Sarah: Play what, what are you asking, Sydney?

Sydney: I was asking play.

Sarah: Like do you want to play? Instead of me doing your hair?

Sydney: Uh huh.

Sarah: Okay, guess what, I’m going to be done in about one minute. Can you wait one more minute?

Sydney: Yeah.

Ben: You can say, good job, mom, thanks for your help.

Sydney: Good job, mom.

Sarah: You’re welcome, kiddo.

Tenara: Have you ever seen your mom or your dad perform in a show at FringeArts before?

Sydney: No.

Ben: Did you see me in a show one time?

Sydney: Yeah.

Tenara: What show was that? Do you remember?

Sydney: No.

Tenara: What was it like watching your dad perform in a show?

Sydney: Um. I think it was fun.

Tenara: You think it was fun?

Sydney: And just like a little boring because we didn’t get to play!

Tenara: Yeah, that’s tough.

Ben: That can be a real problem with shows.

Sydney: I go to Elaina’s show with Nana one time and when I just got to sit it was boring but when Nana let me take off my shoes and get to dance and like play during the show, it was more fun.

Ben: My sister Elaina, her show had a sensory-friendly/relaxed performance evening and that was lots of fun.

Sarah: Alright Sydney, guess what. You did it. You have double braids that look incredible.

Ben: They do look incredible!

Tenara: That’s so good!

Ben: Whoa.

Sydney: I’m the teacher, you two are the students.

Ben: So Sydney, let’s do a couple more questions and then we’ll play school or we could try to do them at the same time, but if we could do at least one more question before we play school, that might be good.

Sydney: …How was your day?

Tenara: Oh that’s a really nice question to ask, my day so far has been pretty good, but I actually have a question to ask you.

Sydney: What?

Tenara: Well, this is an interesting moment, right, because your dad is working on a show that as far as I know right now they’re talking about getting older, so I thought maybe I could ask you some questions about getting older. Do you remember being a baby?

Sydney: Yeah.

Tenara: What do you remember about it?

Sydney: It was fun.

Tenara: It was fun? What was fun about being a baby?

Sydney: Because I love crying.

Ben: Yeah, when you pretend to be a baby now, you do a lot of crying.

Tenara: You remember crying when you were a baby? What’s the first thing you remember?

Sydney: Um…crying.

Tenara: Crying? Ben, what’s your earliest memory?

Ben: My mom – [to Sydney] I see you, you’re sitting on the table, I’m letting you get away with it. My mom was an opera singer, and she was in an opera in which someone utilized a firearm and she passed away. And 30 seconds later, in the opera, she is resurrected.


Ben: I see that. But I, I became hysterical.


Tenara: How old were you?

Ben: Like two and a half or something? I became hysterical and they had to take me out, and so I never saw the part where she was resurrected. So I remember being in the car with my like – I don’t remember who it was, with someone in my family, but not my dad – being sad that my mother was gone forever, but also being happy that I was allowed to play with the steering wheel. So that’s my earliest memory.

Tenara: So both of your earliest memories are crying.

Ben: Yes! I was hysterical. And then my mom came back and I was like, I was super thrilled.

Tenara: I bet.

Sydney: Would you like to play?

Tenara: You wanted to play school? You wanted to be the teacher. Is that something you want to do when you get older?

Sydney: Yeah.

Tenara: Have you thought about it at all?

Sydney: Yes.

Tenara: Sometimes it’s okay not to think about it.

Ben: What kind of things do you like to do, Sydney?

Sydney: Um play fair!

Tenara: Play fair? Like play like you’re at a fair? Is that what you mean? What kind of things are at a fair that you like to play with?

Ben: How many fairs have you been to? When did you start going to fairs?

Sydney: Let’s play!

Tenara: I know, you really want to play. You’re really jonesing to play.

Sydney: Let’s play doctors!

Ben: That’s far more common than teacher. Go get your doctor kit, Syd.

Sydney: I can’t get down.

Ben: Well, you got up, so you gotta figure out how to get down. One time, like a year and a half ago, I mentioned like, ‘oh when you’re a grown up and you don’t live with us, you can get whatever pet you want’, and she like, totally teared up and was like, ‘I’m not going to live with you?!’

Tenara: Yeah, I used to get scared about moving away from my parents and living somewhere else.

Ben: With this economy, you’ll never move out! Sydney, can I ask you a question? Do you remember when you were in a show with me? When we were in a show together and we were kind of like under the stage? And we would peak in and see the people getting ready? And sometimes you got to eat a donut? And then we went onstage and we waved at the people and you got to hang out with Aunt Rachel? That was in the second version of the Sincerity Project.

Sydney: No!

Ben: You don’t remember that?

Tenara: I remember seeing that show, Sydney, but it was for one of the performances that you weren’t there.

Sydney: Were you there?

Tenara: I was there, but it was for one of the performances that you weren’t there for. There was a pillow, instead!

Ben: Oh that’s right. Was it during the day, or was it late at night?

Tenara: It was like 11:30, it was one of the late night performances. And I was like oh, look at the pillow that’s supposed to be Sydney.

Ben: You don’t remember that because it was over two years ago. So you were only one and a half. You were very small.

[Sydney coughs. A cat meows.]

Ben: Ah, the sounds of my house. Coughing, meowing, the dishwasher.

Sydney: Now I’m a bad guy.

Tenara: Sydney, do you ever think about what your dad might have been like when he was three years old?

Sydney: No.

Tenara: Did you know that your dad used to be three years old?

Ben: Did you know that I used to be a kiddo?

Sydney: Yeah.

Tenara: Have you seen pictures of him when he was a kid?

Sydney: Did I?

Ben: Maybe only a little, like at Nana’s house or at Granddad’s house.

Sydney: How old was I then?

Ben: Good question. I don’t really remember a specific incident, so I don’t know.

Sydney: [to Tenara] Do you know?

Tenara: I have no idea.

Ben: Yeah, I think maybe not a lot of pictures. It’s kind of hard to imagine that your parents were kids, huh?

Tenara: Let me ask you another question. Do you like getting bigger?

Sydney: Yeah.

Tenara: What’s your favorite thing about getting bigger?

Sydney: Um…look how strong I am! [flexes her muscles]

Tenara: Whoa so strong!

Ben: Wait, show me again.

Sydney: [flexes her muscles]

Ben: So strong. How did you get so strong?

Sydney: Cause I’m three and a half.

Tenara: How strong do you think you’re gunna be when you’re four?

Sydney: Stronger.

Ben: When’s your birthday?

Sydney: March 8th.

Ben: And on March 8th how old will you be?

Sydney: Four.

Ben: That will be very exciting.

Tenara: That’s big. That’s really big.

Ben: Do you think we will have a birthday party?

Sydney: Yeah.

Ben: What friends should be at the birthday party?

Sydney: Everyone but not the bad guys but Gray.

Ben: Okay. So not the bad guys but yes Gray.

Sydney: Yeah.

Tenara: (to Ben) Do you still have birthday parties?

Ben: For myself? I love birthdays. I think birthdays are great.

Sydney: You should come to my birthday!

Ben: I will absolutely come to your birthday.

Tenara: That’s so nice to invite Dad to your birthday!

Ben: Thank you for the invitation. I definitely plan to attend.

Sydney: Let’s go upstairs to play now!

Ben: Well, I think we’re going to hang out downstairs because Tenara’s still here. I love birthdays, I think birthdays are the best. I think everyone should get a week during their birthday.  Sydney, do you remember when you saw me pretending to be somebody, and I was pretending to be someone angry? Remember that part?

Sydney: Tell me about it.

Ben: So I was onstage and I was pretending to be very angry and you thought that that was an exciting part.

Sydney: Who were you?

Ben: I was playing Fidel Castro. In an unlikely turn of events.

Sydney: Who were you in the game?

Ben: When I was in the play? I was pretending to be a person named Fidel Castro. He’s a famous person from another country, and I was pretending to be that person but it was more complicated than that.

Tenara: He’s pretty famous for being pretty mean and angry.

Ben: And that show was about 90 minutes long, and she made it through 35 or 40 minutes of it, which is pretty good!

Tenara: That is pretty good! Which is your favorite kind of show to watch, Sydney, is it one where your parents are on stage or one where you get to watch with your parents in the audience?

Sydney: With my parents in the audience. [climbing on Ben] Okay! Grab on! Pull it off!

Ben: What’s your favorite show that you’ve ever, ever seen?

Sydney: Um, Elaina’s show that I went to with Nana, it was cool.

Ben: That was cool? What was cool about it?

Sydney: STOP IT.

Ben: I’m doing what you told me to. You’ve gotta be more specific about your instructions.

Sydney: STOP IT.

Ben: But you have to tell me what you want.


Ben: Oh. Well, thank you for communicating that. I can’t read your mind. What was your favorite part of Elaina’s show?

Sydney: My favorite part was when Elaina got to be in there.

Tenara: Seeing Elaina onstage?

Sydney: Uh huh!

Ben: If Elaina hears this she will melt. I think Elaina liked having you at the show too.

Sydney: Now pull up!

Ben: You want me to pull up now? Sydney, I have one more question for you.

Sydney: What?

Ben: Who’s your favorite character to pretend to be?

Sydney: Ummm…Elsa.

Ben: I knew you would say that.

Tenara: Elsa from Frozen?

Ben: Can you show us some Elsa?

Tenara: Oh yes please yes please.

Ben: Can you show us some Elsa?

Sydney: Yes.

Tenara: Elsa’s the one with the magical powers, right?

Sydney: Yes.

Tenara: Okay. I saw that movie once or twice.

[Sydney goes to her costume drawer to prepare for Elsa]

Ben: So Sydney’s favorite thing to do right now is costume changes. On an average day she changes into probably 10 outfits and costumes. It can get up to 20 or 30. It’s constant.

Tenara: How many costumes do you have in there, Sydney?

Sydney: A lot!

Tenara: A lot. How many costume changes have you done in a row?

Ben: I guess Bienvenidos was a lot of costume changes. Cause most of the Team Sunshine shows weren’t costume heavy until Bienvenidos. So that was the most costume changes I’ve ever done in a long time.

Tenara: So I asked Sydney what her favorite thing about getting bigger was and she said it was getting stronger, but I want to ask you what your favorite thing is about getting older.

Ben: That’s a harder question from this age. I don’t know that I am getting stronger. For me personally – and I don’t think this is going to be true for everybody, but I have felt like a parent since I was 14.

Tenara: Are your siblings younger?

Ben: Yeah. But – we didn’t get along, it wasn’t like that. It was just something in my brain that self-categorized as like, parent for a long time before I had a kid, and so for me getting older and having Sydney has been living into an identity that I already secretly was in. For the listeners, Sydney has arrived in a princess dress on a tricycle. Are you gunna do some Let It Go?

[Sydney changes her dress again]

Tenara: And we’re back to another costume change.

Ben: Yep, another costume change. That dress was just for that entrance on the tricycle. Mission accomplished.

Tenara: So, growing into this role of a parent.

Ben: Yeah, I feel like I was meant to be 35 and a parent.

Tenara: This is your golden age?

Ben: I wonder. I wonder what will come next. I don’t know, I’ve always known I wanted to get here. To like, 35 with a 3 year old. I’m like, this is right. So I don’t really know what comes next.

Tenara: Wow. I feel like a lot of people don’t have that experience – like, they might be 35 and have a 3 year old and they’re like, wow how did I get here? Or at least that’s the cultural narrative.

Ben: Yeah, that is the cultural narrative. I don’t feel that way. I was like, how do I get to here? And I had a strategic plan, and it worked. But I think that’s also just what I bring to the table. Perhaps unusual.

[Sydney re-enters in an Elsa dress]

Tenara: Wow, that Elsa dress is beautiful.

Ben: That one’s common.

Tenara: When I was Sydney’s age, my Elsa dress was a Snow White dress, and I did birthday parties number 2, number 3, number 4, and number 5 in that Snow White dress.

Ben: Amazing. When I was Sydney’s age, I didn’t care about costumes at all, and would wear whatever was presented to me. But apparently my mother always used to say that I was going to be an executive or a director because I would never play by the rules presented, I would always adapt them and tell everybody how the rules should change.

Tenara: What do you think she’s going to be? When she gets older? If your mom can say what you were gunna be.

Ben: Maybe a gymnast – she lives to climb and jump, she lives for it. But I think – honestly, she’s incredibly observant, she just notices so much. She’s incredibly argumentative – she like gets the loopholes. She sees systems. Honestly, I think lawyer would be a great fit. She’s very observant. And she can really pick your argument apart. She’s very compelling. But I could also see her in journalism.

Tenara: I was going to say – observant, maybe science.

Ben: Yes, also science. We do lots of experiments. I could see her in science, or engineering. She likes to build and she likes to construct things. Really, anything but the arts would be great.

Tenara: Maybe this is a reductive question, but what kind of life do you hope she leads? What kind of person do you hope she grows up to be?

Ben: I mean, I hope she’s as brave and confident and powerful as she is now. I hope the world doesn’t break her down at all. Cause she’s doing pretty darn well. But when I say that I hope she’s not in the arts, I only mean that if the state of the arts in this country continues. I mean honestly, I wouldn’t advise young people to go into the arts right now.


Ben: We’re going to have a tiny bit more conversation.

Sydney: NO.

Tenara: I know, it’s so boring.

Ben: It’s boring. Such is the way. Grown-ups like to talk to one another. It’s how we play. Weird, huh? Will you sing a little bit of Let it Go?

Tenara: Please, please, please, please, please?

Sydney: When you guys go into the Mudroom House.

Tenara: Then you’ll sing?

Ben: Good negotiating.

Tenara: What if I go into the Mudroom House, Dad stays here with the microphone, and you sing?

Ben: If Tenara goes into the mudroom, then will you sing a little bit of Let it Go?

Sydney: Yeah.

Tenara: Okay cool I’m gunna go to the Mudroom House right now. Okay I’m in it!

Sydney: She’s the Anna and we’re the Elsa’s.

Ben: Perfect, let’s sing Let it Go together.

[Sydney brings Ben a glove.]

Ben: Thanks for this glove.

Sydney: Put it on.

Ben: This glove does not fit me.

Sydney: I think it will, try it on.

Ben: Um…what if I just put in on my fingers like this?

Sydney: No, I think it can fit you.

Ben: That’s as much as it’s gunna go on, sweetheart.

Sydney: No, I know it can fit you. I know. Try it on.

Ben: Baby, look at how big my hand is and look at how big this glove is.

Sydney: Okay, I’ll try to help you.

Ben: I really appreciate it, I just don’t think it’s a matter of desire, I think it’s a matter of physics.

Sydney: Let’s try together. Put your thumb in.

Ben: I don’t want to break this glove, sweetie.

Sydney: It’s not gunna break. It’s not gunna break, honey. You have to be in there.

Ben: That’s as much as it’s gunna go. I promise you.

Sydney: No, it’ll go more if we do something.

Ben: I have 35 years of glove experience and I’m telling you –

Sydney: Okay THERE’S your glove on.

Ben: Perfect. Alright, should we sing together?

Sydney: No I can’t, I have to put my glove on. Or maybe you’ll be an Elsa without a glove.

Ben: All that work and you just took it right back off?! Okay, I’m an Elsa with no gloves.

Sydney: You’re the partner Elsa.

Ben: Okay. I’ll always be your partner, Elsa baby.

Sydney: Thank you, partner Elsa.

Ben: You’re welcome.

Sydney: We will always make ice and snow for people except our sister Anna for people to play on and our sister Anna.

Ben: That’s very kind of us.

Sydney: We will always do that.

Ben: Even when you’re old?

Sydney: Yeah.

Ben: Okay.

Sydney: You will still be my partner Elsa.

Ben: Great. Ready to sing?

Sydney: Yes.

[Sydney and Ben sing Let it Go from Frozen.]

Sydney: Hey, where is she?

Tenara: I’m here, I’m playing with the cat but I’m listening. Do you want me to stand up?

Ben: Yeah, you need the audience. Let’s just go to the chorus! Do you know what the chorus means?

Sydney: No.

Ben: It means the ‘let it go’ part. Ready? Let it goooo. What are you doing, kid? For the listening audience at home, she’s in a full Elsa dress, including tiara and gloves. She’s using her ice powers to freeze Tenara. And I think she’s looking for her tricycle, though it’s not clear.

[Music Outro]

Tenara: Thank you for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe. Make sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, and download the FringeArts App! There’s still a couple more chances to catch Pig Iron Theatre Company’s new piece, A Hard Time, running through May 12th. Buy tickets for this and for Team Sunshine’s The Sincerity Project at www.fringearts.com. Thanks for listening!

Happy Hour on the Fringe: Conversation with Shana Kennedy and Sierra Rhoades Nicholls

Posted April 26th, 2019

In anticipation of our Hand to Hand festival in partnership with Circadium School of Contemporary Circus, Katy and Raina sat down with Circadium’s Executive Director, Shana Kennedy, and first-year student, Sierra Rhoades Nicholls, to discuss the future of contemporary circus. Shana and Sierra walk the hosts through their personal introductions to the circus arts, the intense training required to pursue a professional career, the importance of Circadium’s professional program for the growth of American contemporary circus and how opportunities like the first-year student showcase, Circadium Springboard, is preparing students to succeed in the circus world and beyond. Read more about Hand to Hand June 28–July 1 and Circadium Springboard on May 25. Listen to the episode and read the transcript below.

Conversation with Shana Kennedy and Sierra Rhoades Nicholls

Raina: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. FringeArts is Philadelphia’s premiere presenter of contemporary performing arts. I’m Raina Searles, Marketing Manager at FringeArts.

Katy: And I’m Katy Dammers, Artistic Producer here. We invite you to pour one up and enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence. Here at FringeArts, our new work series dedicated to local Philadelphia artists, called High Pressure Fire Service or HPFS for short, is in full swing. By the time this episode is making its way to you, Pig Iron Theatre Company’s A Hard Time will be opening soon, and you can still buy a three show HPFS subscription for the final three shows through June. But today, we’re looking ahead. Coming up this summer we’re presenting the second annual Hand to Hand Circus Festival in partnership with Circadium School of Contemporary Circus. Today we’re out at Circadium’s campus in Mount Airy and are joined by Shana Kennedy, executive and founding director of Circadium, and Sierra Rhoades Nicholls, a current student at Circadium. Welcome, everybody.

Katy: Welcome.

Shana: Thanks, glad to be here.

Raina: So for Happy Hour on Fringe, we always have to ask, what are we all drinking? I’ll start. I’m enjoying a nice Poland spring water.

Katy: I have the chai tea today. And Shana, what about you?

Shana: I’m on Vitaminwater Zero. That is my drink of choice.

Raina: Which makes sense. We’re all healthy. We want to be hydrated. Excellent.

Shana: Very important.

Raina: And we’re a little bit between classes, but it’s really exciting to be here and to see people in the space and moving around. So we’re really just excited to be talking with you about Circadium and what you’ve been able to do here. But to just back up a little bit, you got your start in performance and so what was that like, finding circus in the United States when you were growing up?

Shana: Sure. So I’ve been doing circus in some capacity for a very long time. It did start when I was young, but the old days, gosh, it was such a long time ago. In the 1980s and 90s when I was growing up, I was growing up in Massachusetts, where the only circus to be found was traditional tented shows that would come around and set up their tent with their elephants and clowns, and spangly bikini clad aerialists and all that stuff. And every year it would come to town and I would just get so excited about it and leave feeling like, oh, I’m going to do this, I want to be this. But there was no clear path to do anything like that.

So by that time, I was graduating high school in the mid 90s and picking up little skills here and there, juggling, unicycling, on my own. There’s a little juggling club at MIT in Boston that I was attending to meet some other jugglers and I really wanted to pursue circus. To do that, I had to go out of the country. So I left in the middle of my college career to go to England where I spent a year training at Circomedia in Bristol. That was an eye opening experience for me. The European countries are much further ahead than we are in the grand scheme of contemporary circus.

And so I was able to see not only that circus was this really new and different art form, but that there was a lot of contemporary work that was being made with circus. It wasn’t just about the traditional images that I had from home. So with that new information, I came back to the States and started teaching and performing whatever capacities I could find. Back then there was a lot of just freelance gigs and I was doing everything from stilt walking and juggling and aerial performances and anything I could do to make a living as a circus artist. And I started teaching, also, as just a side thing to support my career. And my husband, Greg, is a professional juggler and he actually, his career has gone really quickly uphill. So in those years he was getting much bigger gigs, doing a lot more traveling and corporate work and big touring shows. And so I was following him along those things as well.

So in all that time I was really getting a sense of what the circus landscape looked like in the United States. And it was not great. Like there were big traditional shows that were shutting down or losing their audiences and the artists that were remaining were really just scrambling to get gig work. The capacity to create new theatrical contemporary circus work just wasn’t seen here. And people mostly blamed it on lack of funding. Well, you know European countries, they get funding for that sort of thing, we don’t have that here. So with all that, it became clear as my circus school was growing, the recreational circus school, that we really needed to create some pathway or a true pathway for professional artists who wanted to take the circus into the next level.

And that would not only help the artists here and the young people that want to do this, but also the art form as a whole. To move the art form forwards, this is what we needed to do. And so around 2013, 2014, I started forming groups of people from all over the country to talk about it and saying, what would this look like? How would this work, what are the obstacles? And we formed Circadium in, I think it was 2013 that we incorporated the school as a nonprofit, formed the board of directors and started planning the launch of the school. So it was a long exciting journey. In that time I really felt like I got a lot of chance to see so many parts of the country, so many different types of circus education that exist right now. And it gave me a lot of information about how I wanted to start this school.

Raina: Thank you for joining us during your busy class schedule, Sierra. We’d also love to hear from you about how you got your start in circus and how you found your way and how you ended up at Circadium.

Sierra: I was born and raised in Missoula, Montana and I started gymnastics when I was eight years old. I started as a competitive gymnast and found that I really did not like competitions. They were stressful, and we did the same routine every time, and it just wasn’t for me. So I transferred to a different gym in my home town, which was called Bitterroot Gymnastics. And I stayed there for a decade, and every year Bitterroot Gymnastics put on a show. And so that’s where I started doing acrobatics and that’s where I started dancing and I didn’t even know what circus was, but we were doing circus without really knowing it. So when I was 16, a friend of mine went to ENC for auditions and that’s the circus school in Montreal. And that was the first time I heard about circus schools at all because in Montana, we’re pretty isolated from the circus world. There’s one circus company there. It started when I was 18 years old, I was a part of it for a year. And so at 16 I decided to start pursuing circus arts.

And luckily in my hometown there was a woman named Holly Rollins who was in Cirque du Soleil O. And she was an aerial hoop artist. And so she taught me aerial hoop and I auditioned the next summer for ENC summer camp in Montreal. And I got in and I went there, and it was a two week program and it was the most fun I ever had in my whole life. I got to try all sorts of circus things that I’d never even seen before. I got to do German wheel, and I got to see Russian cradle, and I got to see all of these amazing other parts of circus. So at 18 when I was about to graduate, I auditioned for ENC for the full time program and I didn’t make it in. And I applied for a couple of traditional colleges, but just decided that I needed to pursue circus while I was young and while I still wanted to do it.

So I moved to Maine and I attended a full time training program at Circus Maine and they are now out of business, sadly. But I stayed there for a year and a half and studied hand balancing under Cory Tabino, as an apprentice. And then I auditioned for 10 circus schools when I was 19 and 20, and I went to Europe and I did all of these different auditions and all these crazy application processes and I learned so much and I failed a lot, but I succeeded a little too. And I ended up in Circadium, and I’m really glad I’m here.

Raina: I wonder, Sierra, if you can tell us a little bit about the variety of training that you experienced. Both in the States, in Canada, at the École Nationale de Cirque, the ENC that you mentioned, and more broadly in Europe. I think Circadium offers something that’s very unique here in the States.

Sierra: Yeah, absolutely. So my training as a competitive gymnast, when I was very young, it was quite traditional and really intense. I was eight years old and going to four hour long practices of gymnastics and expected to pay attention and strictly point my toes and everything that a competitive gymnast has to do. And then the program that I did for a decade was a little bit more lenient. It was a lot more fun. We messed around a lot more and we discovered new movement pathways and I really didn’t think about what I was doing as an art form until I was probably 17 or 18. For me, it was just a sport, an after school activity I did. It pretty much dominated my life, but I didn’t think about it as art until I started to transfer into circus. And when I moved to Maine, I had my world rocked a little bit because I was coming from a quote unquote recreational program of, we practiced like 12 hours a week. And then when I started the full time training program in Maine, it was 30 hours a week and I was exhausted.

And the hand balancing training was unlike anything I’d experienced so far. I was two hours of handstands, one on one, and I was pretty much on my hands for the whole two hours. I didn’t know if I was going to make it, but I did. The training at Circus Maine was very focused on the physical. It was very much about improving your technique and we did have theater, but not nearly as much as Circadium offers theater. It wasn’t traditional circus necessarily, but it’s potentially more what you would think about as a circus school and then when I auditioned in Europe, I experienced a new different kind of training that I didn’t know about and that was just an extremely artistic sort of evaluation.

I auditioned at Cnac in France, which is their national circus school. I remember feeling completely out of my comfort zone because we had to do this really contemporary exercise and be really fully committed into our theatrical presence and that was challenging and different, but I also thought it was really amazing because it was something I hadn’t felt or experienced before.

And then Circadium is also different. This audition, when I did it, was the most fun one. It was the most welcoming by far. The audition starts with a welcome dinner, which is just something no other school did. I auditioned in Finland and their audition started with a three mile run. So it’s a very different kind of culture here. And I think American circus now I feel is really still searching for its voice. You know, we had the golden age of circus, we had all the huge, the biggest and the best circus tents and all of these things that just are a little bit obsolete to the general public now. And so we have to find a new way to be grand and be great and be relevant. And I think Circadium is really at the forefront of that. And we’re excited, as the students here, to be at the forefront. And the training here is very, very artistic. We do a lot of theater every week. We do a lot of dance every week. And our training is physically exhausting, but it’s also mentally, emotionally, so full of life and challenges. And it’s great.

Katy: I wonder if we can back up for a brief moment for our listeners, and talk about what contemporary circus is. One of the reasons I love circus so much is that particularly in America, I feel like everybody has a connection to it, but it’s often grounded in nostalgia, which can be very powerful and enticing. But in America often it’s the three ring circus, the big top, the clown, the aerialist, but contemporary circus, which does have more roots in Canada and Europe and Australia, is pretty different from that. And I wonder if you can talk about that for folks.

Shana: Sure, I’d love to. And yeah, I’m noticing especially now, there’s a lot of circus nostalgia going on in the world and I do think it has something to do with the closure of Ringling Brothers and all that. But you’re seeing movies and shows and all kinds of things are these throwbacks to this traditional circus imagery, which I love as much as anybody else. I think it’s a beautiful history that we have, the circus in this country, but because it’s such a strong history, in some ways it has kept us from seeing circus as anything else. And that’s what you see, an interesting example is Scandinavia. Scandinavia does not have a very strong historical circus culture. And so when they started talking about contemporary circus, people were like, okay, sure. Like there was no baggage with it.

Katy: This is all there is.

Shana: Right. The idea that circus could be something that is relevant and modern and has more creative capacity just hasn’t been seen enough in this country. But we’re beginning to see it. So people often think when they hear contemporary circus, oh, we’re talking about Cirque du Soleil. And in fact Cirque du Soleil is not I would define as contemporary circus. Cirque du Soleil is what we call new circus, which came out of the 1970s and 80s, and that also included Big Apple Circus and a few other big companies that were trying to really take the stylistic and aesthetic choices of contemporary circus and make something different there.

They kept the format of tent, acts, clowns. Like some of the standard formats remained in new circus, but they did play a lot around with different music and costumes and just choices of presentation. Contemporary circus is the next stage of that and that is where we’re seeing almost all of the rules of circus being broken and played around with. Contemporary circus is often shown in a theater. It’s often shown in other alternative venues, site specific works, outdoor works, those would all be contemporary circus. And contemporary circus mainly needs to have something else besides circus tricks to hold it together. So there can sometimes be partnerships with other art forms. You’ll see a lot of blends with circus and dance or circus and theater or circus and puppetry, there’s all kinds of blends that are happening, but the main thing is it needs to be trying to say something. It needs to be trying to communicate an artistic concept. Sometimes that’s a very abstract artistic concept, sometimes a very clear narrative concept, but it is treated as a piece of artwork that has a similar research process, development process, influence from other people. It goes along a much more … a pathway that you’ll see in modern dance or in modern theater than what was traditional in circus. So it’s really exciting for us as artists because we are … In some ways we feel like in surface we’ve always been inventing the wheel, always been doing things from scratch for the first time, and now we’re learning that actually these other forms have been doing these things for a long time and we can learn from them. And we can learn from their processes. So contemporary circus is super exciting and we are especially excited that that’s being seen more here in Philadelphia. That’s very neat.

Katy: And Philadelphia is actually the home of the first American circus. So it’s exciting for us to have this history but also push towards this more contemporary way of seeing it. And I wonder if, Shana, if you can talk about how Circadium, particularly your accredited academic institution, is paving the way forward for people. And what people might expect to see at Springboard, which is the student showing included as part of the festival.

Shana: Great. Well, as you can imagine, circus in history was passed down in a family way, so if you wanted to become a circus performer you had to learn it from your parents or your grandparents. And then there was the concept of running away with the circus that happened in the golden age of circus. We could run away and join the circus. But circus education is a relatively new concept. Circus education, it actually began in Russia in the 1920s, 1930s, they were the first school to develop a circus school, that happened in Moscow. That evolved into circus schools in Europe and Canada, but still not til much later. We’re talking about the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s as these schools are becoming established. It’s made this entirely new way for people to approach circus. You don’t have to have a history, you don’t have to run away. You can do circus because it’s something that interests you and something that excites you. In our time in the United States, there’s actually two or three hundred schools of circus in the United States that all the students are at a recreational level. If you’re a kid or if you’re an adult that wants to just try stuff for fun, there are schools like that in almost every city in the US now. Everything from pole dance studios that have maybe a silks class, to after school circus programs that are part of regular schools. The whole gamut is there. There’s some really wonderful, amazing recreational circus schools, but still we want to take that next step like, okay, I love this, I want to do this professionally. There has been no place to do that in the US. There are a few other schools that offer what are called pro tracks, and they’re intensive trainings where you can go for nine months or a year. There’s one offering a couple year program now. They will allow you to just do that more, right? But none of them still approach what is real higher education. Higher education has lots of components to it, higher education means you’re getting all different types of classes, that you’re having many more ideas to bring into your practice. It means having a level of accountability to the accrediting bodies, to the state that offers your diplomas. All these things are checks to make sure that you as a higher education institution are really meeting the needs of students.

Now we formed Circadium as a vocational college, which means that our levels of accountability are much more on the professional front. They want to see that we are preparing students for jobs, which is quite tricky in circus. So as our students graduate next year, with our first graduates in 2020, we’re going to be really carefully tracking their professional pathways, to make sure that we can show we’re really doing what we say we’re going to do, which is to make sure students can leave here and work. So that’s how that’s going. Circadium is in its second year of operations right now. It’s a three year school, so that means we have first year students and second year students in the building right now. And our class three will start next year.

Raina: And you are teaching them things like entrepreneurship and bringing in your own … like the business side of circus.

Shana: We are. We teach a good number of academic classes and all of them are tied to circus in some way. So that’s everything from music and writing and theater to some of these business classes. We do everything from photography and stage tech to web design and business planning and financial management.

Katy: So Sierra, how are you feeling about the vocational focus? So much of Circadium is preparing you for a job after graduation. What are your dreams, in the next two years when you graduate?

Sierra: That’s a great question. I applied for 30 circus schools and auditioned for 10 and I knew that I wanted to go to a full time program that was going to end with some sort of degree or the vocational professional training. And I’ve actually started an initiative called CSAW, which is Connecting Circus Students Around the World. We have partnered with CircusTalk and our goal right now is to collect ambassadors from every circus school internationally. And so what that will do is just make information about circus schools just more accessible because especially in the United States, for me, coming from Montana, I only knew about three circus schools in the entire world. There are so many more and it’s just difficult to find information right now. And part of that is because in Europe, every country is so much closer together and so they just know a little bit more. So we are in a way more isolated here. And then part of it is just that circus and circus schools are a little bit newer than other art forms and other schools. And so we don’t really have a great way to access information about them yet. So I’m really passionate about helping circus school information become apparent for future me to be able to type in a Google search like we do for everything else in life and find actually the answers that you need. So that’s part of my dream here and that’s something that I’ve already started to do. And then, yeah, I think that in a lot of ways Circadium is preparing us to become artists and to start on our own and to struggle and to fail, to keep going anyways. I didn’t know it before, but I know it now that I am passionate about American circus in particular. And so I do think I would like to stay here and try to start a small company and change the way that America views circus in whatever way I can. I don’t know if I will succeed in that, but it’s time. It’s time for the US to have a bigger, louder circus voice and to have companies that are from here, and we’ve already started in some ways, but there’s so much room to grow. And I’m excited to start that.

Katy: Tell us how Springboard comes together. What is the process of creating the end of year?

Photo by Raina Searles

Shana: Circadium Springboard is the end of year show for our first year students, so this is the end of the first nine months of Circadium and it’s been a really eye opening year for all of them. They’ve tried so many different things they never expected to try, and we want to reflect that in the show. So every Friday the students do presentations here and presentations are mostly theatrically based. It’s often some kind of theatrical concept that they have to perform and then they tend to bring contemporary circus into it from there. And the pieces that we show in Circadium Springboard are a collection of those works that they have then refined over the course of the year. So it’s a fun, eclectic mix of pieces that all come from somewhere very new for them. It was important to us when we created the show that it was not about a recital of students’ individual best circus skills. No, that’s not what we want to see in the show. We want to see them getting out of their comfort zones a little bit and trying some new things. So whereas their audition pieces, getting into the school, were much more what they brought here to us, this show is what have you learned in the last nine months.

Raina: So for you, Sierra, what things have you learned over the past nine months and what are you bringing to the table for your Circadium Springboard piece?

Sierra: So the Circadium Springboard is, Shana mentioned, I think, going to be a compilation of our Friday presentations. And Friday presentations, we do every single week and they are theatrical exercises to help us improve in what we’ve been learning in theater class. But also just approach our art in a new sort of way. That is, it’s very easy as a circus artist to pick a three minute song and just put every trick that you know into a three minute act and then you have an act and it’s great, but it’s just like everybody else’s. And so the Friday presentations really push us to think about things from a new perspective and use other artistic tools like rhythm and composition and animals and elements. And so those are all things that you’ll see in the Circadium Springboard show. We are bringing back our best Friday presentations and we’re changing them and stringing them together. And one of the rules of the show in the creation process is that there aren’t any solos. Our entire school experience is extremely ensemble based, so it makes sense for our show to be ensemble based as well. We live and breathe together as the students here and it’s important that we support each other, but it also just opens up so many different avenues for expression when you have other people on stage. And so I think it’ll be exciting to see exactly the way that it gets put together. It’ll most likely be different from what you’ve seen from quote unquote circus.

Raina: Is there anything that you were really surprised to learn or really challenged by?

Sierra: Everybody has their challenges in the first year of this program, I think, and for me, I came into the school really, really knowing what I wanted to major in, minor in. Or so I thought. And I had been training in handstands for about two years really intensely. And I just wanted to keep doing that and I didn’t get to. The program starts at a very generalist focused way, which is really fantastic because it forces you out of your comfort zone and makes you learn new things. So coming into the school I could juggle three balls and now I’m working on five balls, and I had never touched a unicycle, but now I can ride a unicycle. And I didn’t really ever think about walking on a tight wire cause I just didn’t think I would want to. But it is a lot of fun. And now I can do that. So I learned things that I wasn’t really anticipating to learn, and at first was a little bit reluctant to learn, maybe. But I’m really grateful that I did, now, because it’s just opened up new ways to express myself and new techniques and it’s helped me with my hand balancing and just with life in general, to learn things that you didn’t really think you’d want to, but then get the most that you can out of them.

Raina: Awesome. And then I think our final big question is we would love to know from you, what are your highbrow and lowbrow inspirations when you’re making work?

Shana: That’s a good question. I was on tour with Cirque du Soleil for a number of years. My husband had a contract with them and so we got to tour around the world with Cirque du Soleil. And what I learned from that is that Cirque is such a giant scale operation that they can do amazing things that no one else can do. And so when we sometimes dream about the biggest capacities in production, in lighting, in staging, if you had all the artists you could choose from and all this support you could choose from, you’ll see that in Cirque du Soleil. And one of my favorite Cirque du Soleil shows is O in Las Vegas, because it’s a transformative world that they make for you there. That’s something they can do when they have a theater permanent in Las Vegas, that’s just for them, it’s full of water. It’s an amazing, amazing production.

So lately I’m finding much of my inspiration from some of the smaller companies that are doing really unusual things. There are quite a few in Quebec right now who I just love the work they’re doing. And we’ve got a few Australian companies here recently too, who are doing exciting stuff. I see shows all the time and so it’s hard for me to pick one or two. What have I seen recently? Gravity and Other Myths is a wonderful show that we saw recently. On a small, even smaller scale than that … as a solo show, the new Almanac show xoxo moongirl is going to Edinburgh Fringe this year and it’s wonderful. Definitely recommend that. For me what is most inspiring I think about circus is not one or two highlights but just the range that is coming out right now. There’s so many different ways people are thinking to present circus.

Raina: Awesome. What are your highbrow and lowbrow inspirations?

Sierra: So for me The 7 Fingers based out of Montreal is one of my favorite companies and I really respect and admire the work that they’re doing. The reason for that is two years ago now, I had auditioned for ENC in Montreal the third time and for ECQ in Quebec the second time and I didn’t get into either school again, and I was feeling so lost and frustrated in the circus world and I was coming back from doing a gig in New York and on the way we decided we were going to stop and see this 7 Fingers show and I was just coming into it like, whatever. I was so done with circus and I thought I would just quit and go to normal college, and call it there, and I saw this show, Cuisine and Confessions, and I just knew I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop doing circus after I saw that because it was the first time for me that I saw something and I was like, that’s it. That’s what I want to do.

Because I’m motivated artistically through auditory medium a lot as well as through text. And it was one of the most theatrical circus experiences I’d ever had. And one of the most real and honest ones as well. The show is just about the people and you could tell that what they were saying was hard and vulnerable and true. It just was really amazing. And so I decided not to quit circus, to keep trying and keep trying and I’m glad I did. That show really changed my life in a lot of ways. Other than that, yeah, text is always inspirational to me. Like I made a handstand act based off The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. And the newest work I’m working on is from Kate Tempest’s album Let Them Eat Chaos. I just think that circus can be really transformed through story and some of the best stories are written down. And so that’s a great source of my inspiration for sure. Other than that, David Stark, who I grew up with, the gymnastics owner of my gym is one of my greatest inspirations in life. He was really one of the first male figures I had who was strong and steady and just guided me through so much, and through the 10 years I spent there, showed so many incredible examples of leadership and of kindness and was always just steadfast as the helm of the gym. And they’re succeeding so much right now and it’s so great to see. So he’s definitely an inspiration for me as well. And my mom.

Raina: Yes, shout out to moms. [laughter] Well, thank you so much for joining us.

Shana: I’m so glad you came out here and I’m glad you get to see a little bit of the school in action today. There’s a lot of great classes happening right now, we have dance and I think juggling happening in the building, and many artists in residence training. So do take a look around before you leave.

Katy: A reminder to everybody to make sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, and to download the FringeArts app. The Hand to Hand Circus Festival presented in partnership with Circadium is coming at the end of June, and you can catch Springboard as the prelude to the festival in the end of May.

Happy Hour on the Fringe: Conversation with Jess Conda, Jenn Kidwell and Betty Smithsonian

Posted April 12th, 2019

On this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, Jess Conda and Jenn Kidwell, two-thirds of the artistic team behind A Hard Time, sit down to chat with comedian Betty Smithsonian about what’s so freaking funny. They chat about what men should do at talkbacks, what audiences can expect at A Hard Time, and why people (men) believe that women aren’t funny. This episode contains explicit language.  Listen to the podcast or read the full transcript below.

Feature Photo by Jauhien Sasnou

Conversation with Jess Conda, Jenn Kidwell, and Betty Smithsonian

Musical interlude

Tenara: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. FringeArts is Philadelphia’s premiere presenter of contemporary performing arts. I’m Tenara, the Audience Engagement Coordinator here. I invite you to pour one up and enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence. Here at FringeArts we are getting ready for the Berserker Residents upcoming family-friendly piece Broccoli, Roosevelt, and Mr. House! which opens TONIGHT. Come on by with the whole family for this spectacularly silly show about fun, adventure, and friendship. Tickets are available on our website at fringearts.com. But today, you’re going to hear a conversation between three fantastically funny comedians: Jenn Kidwell and Jess Conda – two-thirds of the trio of Pig Iron Theatre’s newest show, A Hard Time, opening at FringeArts on May 1st. Jenn and Jess sat down with legendary comic Betty Smithsonian, also known in Philly as Beth Eisenberg, whose claims to fame are vast and who organizes and curates the amazing comedy night The Bechdel Test Fest. Jenn, Jess, and Beth talk about A Hard Time, what’s so funny, and what men at talkbacks should do.

Jess: And the safe-word is: cut that, don’t you dare fucking put that in the interview.

Betty: Yeah.

happy hour on the fringe

Betty Smithsonian at Blue Heaven 2019. Photo by Kevin Monko.

Jenn: In my “interview.” Get that out of my “interview.”

Betty: Yeah, the safe-word is “these are new, is that a new stain?”

Jess: I love it.

Betty: Alright everyone, welcome to the podcast interview moment, this intersection of essay podcast and real conversation. I am Betty Smithsonian and I am joined by two fantastic individuals who are:

Jenn: Jenn Kidwell.

Jess: And Jess Conda!

Betty: Heyo! Today we are going to be chatting about something that we all know is the most non-controversial thing ever – women and comedy. Tell me how your show is going to fix the world. Tell me in ten seconds or less.

Jenn: This is what I was thinking this morning – I keep going back to this thing that our director said – our director who is a man. His name is Dan Rothenberg.

Betty: I know Dan!

Jenn: Yeah, everybody knows that guy. That guy.

Jess: That scalliwag.

Betty: I saw him falling asleep at a show once.

Jenn: That just means he likes it. So Dan said – he was relaying this quote that ‘women are afraid that men are going to kill them. And men are afraid that women are going to laugh at them.’ And I was thinking this morning that ultimately perhaps this show gives male-identified people – gives the patriarchy an opportunity to laugh at itself. And notice how silly and idiotic it is.

Betty: The patriarchy.


Betty: The patriarchy! So that’s fantastic, can’t wait to see the show. Go on and remind me what the name of this show is.

Jenn: It’s called A Hard Time. But the official title is Jess Conda, Jenn Kidwell, Mel Krodman Want to Give You A Hard Time.

Jess: Duh duh duh da duh duh.

Betty: Beautiful.

Jenn: *laughing* How do you spell that?

Betty: Is this a noir piece? Where is this piece living? What’s happening in the show?

Jenn: It’s not noir!

Jess: It’s like a pastiche, which is a snobby word for collage, of different things that are funny to us until they’re not funny. So we kind of were inspired by vaudeville and quick change and the way like, our bodies can morph into different characters. You know, cause we’re all trained in this kind of clown way.

Jenn: Yeah like using your body.

Jess: But also like what can this body do, can this body take on all these different identities over the course of the play.

Jenn: And is that funny?

Jess: Yeah, and is that funny?

Jenn: But it starts off with this sort of – so some men got together and defined comedy as the benign violation theory. It’s their theory about comedy. And we open the piece by discussing this benign violation theory, and then we sort of put it into practice in this Vaudevillian, quick-change manner. And then we continue to put the theory into practice in a long, drag sequence in which we are playing three drag personas. Two of them are Len and Stan. And I pointed at Jess when I said Len because Jess is Len, and I am Stan.

Betty: So you’re talking about what is going on in this show.

Jenn: Yes. This is what happens in this show. We start off with the benign violation theory –

Jess: SPOILER ALERT – that was the first forty minutes of the show.

Jenn: But just to say actually there’s a throughline which is: what’s so funny?

Betty: Yeah, so tell me that. What do you think is the issue right now with women being called out for either being too sensitive around comedy or women being called out for not being funny? Tell me what you think of that?

Jenn laughs

Jenn: Do you call somebody out for not being funny? I feel like, the call-out – I always attach that to politics.

Betty: Well, I guess like people saying that women aren’t funny. That is a thing that people have said. Men specifically. For a long, long time.

Jenn: I mean, they also say that women aren’t powerful. But that’s not true! Why would I believe them?

Jess: That is funny.

Betty: So what do you think about this show proving that thing that you just said? Do you think it’s possible to create theater that can unravel that very frustrating thing? I am a comic, I hear it all the time that women aren’t funny. So tell me how your show could unravel that. What do you think about it personally, not even just your show?

Jess: I’m going to go back into something I was tapping at, and this is just true for me – about my body. Which is that sometimes, I think that women get labeled as unfunny, because you’re too caught up in my damn body. And that’s a complicated thing that we maybe can’t unpack as a society in a play. But I think there is something in the way in which my/our bodies are revealed to this audience over and over and over and over again where hopefully my body becomes fucking irrelevant by the time I’m through. That’s just how I feel. I think that that’s one key that we offer to the audience.

Betty: And this concept of making your bodies into – like you were saying you morph into things in this show, and you’re kind of pulling apart that concept with that through-line?

Jess: There’s a lot of shapeshifting in the show.

Jenn: Can I go back to something – what you said, ‘I feel like maybe people don’t think women are funny because they’re so caught up with my body,’ meaning like they can’t even listen to what you’re saying because they’re so focused on appearance? Is that what you mean?

Jess: Yes. I think there is a –

Betty: Like the first thing that a female brings to the world is their body and the second or third or fourth thing is what they say, or the space that they take up outside of that. I think it’s part of the reason why we see some comics who have different shaped bodies have to do different kinds of comedy, right? The people that on the planet would be considered less average body shapes, and bigger shapes would have to do a different kind of comedy.

Jess: Or what are you looking at when you look at this? I’m doing a stand-up and you have to like rank my tits for five minutes before you maybe listen to what I say. And that is part of why the drag piece is kind of important to me because it’s just like, watch our bodies do this, now this, now this, now this, now this, and like, have you listened? Have you taken my tits out of the equation of your listening? Cause I don’t need to be sexualized when I do public speaking about whatever I might be public speaking about.

Jenn: I think, I appreciate what you’re saying and I think that the drag section works in a couple different ways. It works in the like, how about we take my tits out of the equation, or like, all of the ways that you want to sexualize me as like a woman out of the equation because we’re playing these dudes – I mean, they’re not calendar guys. I don’t know. The other way that that section works is this thing that you were trying to say which is like, how are you hearing me? We might actually be saying lots of the same things, so how is the humor working now that we’re inhabiting these other bodies? And also don’t forget that we’re still here. So actually all of this stuff is being said by and written by women. We just decided that the mouthpiece for this section is going to be these dudes. And then there’s more, but that would be spoiler alert.

Betty: What do you think is funny?

Jenn: I have no idea how to answer that question. You mean, just in general, in life?

Betty: Yeah, what’s funny to you?

Jenn: I’m trying to think of the last funny thing that happened today…

Jess: We’re just gunna cut that part out –

Jenn: Yeah, edit that out! “What do you think is funny?” “Uhhhhhhhhhhh…..um. Stuff.”

Jess: We do make each other laugh a lot. Have you ever done that game with kids? Or adults? The theater game where you have two partners facing each other and you have to like make the other person laugh?

Jenn: Just like, do whatever you can do?

Jess: Like I would say a funny word and then you would say a funny word?

Jenn: Yeah, I think so. In like clown class.

Jess: I’m just thinking about that.

Betty: Have you ever done the game where you look at someone and you just have to just start fake laughing together? And then turn that into fake-crying?

Jess: Oh yeah. The membrane is so thin between laughing and crying!

Jenn: It’s true!

Betty: Well I guess I want to know what’s funny because I want to know what drives this show for you as you build something comedic. So you’re playing in a space and the thing that makes you laugh, or delights you is the thing that you’re doing, and then you have this like other social thing that you’re trying to push out there, so that’s why I’m wondering what’s funny to you.

Jess: I wish Mel Krodman, who is a comic genius, was here.

Jenn: She’s in Atlanta.

Jess: She’s in Atlanta. I mean, there’s general weirdnesses that are delightful to us. And I’m talking about like when we first started rehearsing basically we sourced this gigantic amount of – I’m going back to vaudeville – a giant amount of vaudeville costumes and put them in the rehearsal room. And we just followed our bliss in terms of inventing these characters and a lot of that is based on like stupidity, just like what tickles us in this stupid way. I’m thinking of our French teacher in grad school. She would say, ‘That is so stupid!’ and that was like the best compliment you could get in art school. So stupid things are funny to us. Mel has this real talent for being like, these teeth and these eyebrows and this belly and this cape make me wanna go, wooooo, and it’s just because it’s so pleasure-based, so that’s kind of the practice.

Jenn: You have a talent for those one-liners that are so wise but also just like everything gets distilled in just a few words.

Jess: Well, Len is dumb. Len is kind of a base man. But the maker is smart, so he gives me a vehicle to the kind of like, to have some dead air.

Jenn: But there’s some real wisdom there.

Jess: Yeah.

Betty: Do you ever feel – so I’m faced in comedy to be super clever, we have to be super clever, we have to always be at the top of our intelligence, we have to create and craft these words and these kinds of concepts and things that are the smartest. But the way I do it is more towards this, because I feel like that’s where you get people to really open up, to get them to laugh at something that they don’t realize is the funniest thing. It kind of shuts off their brain center a little bit and they react to the fun.

Jenn: I think it can be visceral. It’s visceral at times.

Betty: Mm. Yeah. So, if you could wave a magic wand and have someone who’s leaving your show have a thought in their bodies because of what they just saw, what would it be?

Jenn: Uhhh…I kind of would love for people to be like, I think I have to go throw up right now…but like enjoy it.

Betty: YES! Yes!

Jess: I mean, it would be nice – I would like to have a talkback where the old white men in the audience said nothing. But like, in a way where they were checked in but they didn’t want to speak first, or perhaps at all.

Jenn: That’s what the magic wand really does. It says: ‘you don’t have to say nothing.’

Jess: Right?! Like if they were like, ‘perhaps this is a gentle time in my life to allow listening to enter.’

Jenn: ‘Let me unburden myself from the feeling that I need to insert myself.’

Jess: Can you sing that again?

Jenn: ‘InSERT myself.”

Jess: No, what’s the song?

Jenn: You don’t have to say nothing, just sit there and be quiet.

Jess: But like if they really meant it! If they were like, ‘ahh…I can free myself from all this…. penetrating.’

Betty: Yeah, yeah, that’s what’s up.

Jess: That would be amazing.

Jenn: *impersonating a pastor* And every man becomes a wide receiver!!

Betty: A wide receiver for like a football team?

Jenn: I don’t actually know what wide receivers do.

Betty: *impersonating a pastor* Every man becomes a titan!

Jenn: I was just thinking like instead of constantly pushing themselves, you know it’s like, they expand, take it all in.

Betty: So they can check their privilege and really check in?

Jenn: But we don’t even have magic wands. We have magic vagina lips.

Betty: Yeah! Some of us do! I can’t wait to see your show. Is there a talkback for your show?

Jenn: We were just talking about that today.

Jess: We have to talk about that, I think there will definitely be. I think it’s nice to have a chance to put discussion in the room after a performance. I mean, all that said about how I want all the men to be quiet, but still be in the room and engage with the material.

Betty: Have the two of you ever done work before that’s tried to shift the understanding around gender on the stage? Or at least leave your audience with a new understanding? Have you done theater for social change before? I mean, I know nothing about the two of you except for a little bit. Where does this rank in terms of on your road of work?

Jenn: I tend to do politically charged work that sometimes makes people throw up.

Betty: Nice.

Jenn: Or faint.

Jess: Send emails.

Jenn: Oh yeah, send emails. Respond.

Betty: Did you get emails from a show you did?

Jenn: Oh yeah. I once had somebody watch something I did and when we were doing the talkback, and this individual stood up with no question, but just told me in no uncertain terms how much he hated what I had just done and how terrible it was. He was like, ‘I don’t know what you are, if you’re a man, a woman, a lesbian.’ It was beyond.

Betty: Was that the worst moment – well, I won’t say worst – was that the most intense review you’ve ever gotten?

Jenn: Noo…

Betty: Alright then, what was the most intense review you’ve ever gotten after a show?

Jenn: I’ve been accused of pornography, I’ve had an entire campus of students hate me and everybody else associated with the show. And they’re still mad, I think! I mean, that’s just such a long story. Somebody on the faculty just quit not because of our show, but I think our show kicked off some things on that campus that, uh…so yeah.

Betty: You shook it up! You jostled it!

Jess: I was recently called some things by the local press that were motivating.

Betty: What local press? Is there still local press?

Jess: I just like the phrase, you know, the local press.

Jenn: They were motivating?

Betty: Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

Jess: Well, yeah! I was doing a cabaret in the Fringe with the Bearded Ladies, and the reviews came out, and one said, ‘the half-screamed, half-bleated vocals of Jess Conda proved particularly inept.’ Bleated like a sheep.

Betty: Oh shit!

Jess: Baaaa.

Jenn: Baaa.

Jess: And the other one said ‘I wish I had skipped the self-indulgent Jess Conda’. Cause I do a lot of rock and roll singing in my underwear.

Jenn: I would say – a gentleman asked us – accused – it was an accusation. It was a j’accuse.

Jess: Oh! Are you going back to the very first question of our talkback in our works in progress showing?

Jenn: We had a work in process. He said, ‘I have a question. I mean…is metaphor dead?’ Right? That’s what he said. Is metaphor dead.

Jess: It was like louder and grumpier though. I HAVE A QUESTION.

Jenn: Yeah. ‘I have a question. I mean. Come on! Is metaphor dead?’ And then were we like – ‘do you mean, did we kill it?’ Is that what we’re getting at here?

Betty: Did you watch the murder of metaphor here?

Jenn: What did we say?

Jess: I’ve kind of erased that question.

Betty: I have a question. In terms of like why we make work and what the reviews say or don’t say, what is for you the ultimate point of doing this show?

Jenn: It’s pleasure. It’s fun.

Jess: Yeah.

Jenn: And it allows me to ask myself questions about like my point of view and how I’ve been conditioned, how I’ve been gendered or accepted a gendering of the world. How am I feeding into the patriarchy, what am I doing to buck up against it?

Jess: I do think humor is a rad vehicle to have conversations that are important but can maybe feel too earnest in other mediums. You know, I’m thinking about the funniest thing that I think happened this year was Michele Wolf’s White House Press Correspondents dinner bit. In the way that humor can be the thing that lets us say all this shit that if we were just doing some kind of autobiographical monologue play perhaps would be tedious for all. Perhaps. But you know, comedy is this boat that allows us to be like, ‘this is stupid. This is so stupid. This is so pleasurable, this is so stupid, stupid, stupid.’ And this is also so fucking stupid and it’s actually not funny anymore. And I think it’s just a medium to have these kinds of harder talks.

Jenn: It’s the truth-telling medium, and I think that is why tears and laughter reside so closely. I mean, I’m a big proponent of this. You know, just peeking over the fence of comedy is devastation. And that’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about the patriarchy. That’s some real suffering.

Betty: Yeah, just to plug one of the things that I do –

Jenn: To anal plug it?

Betty: Just to anal plug one of the things that I do is an event called Porn Stash, which is a panel of comics where we look at porn and review different –

Jenn: Like a mustache? Or…

Betty: And a stash of porn.

Jenn: A stash of porn!

Betty: It’s a double entendre, I guess. We always have sex educators in the audience just to be there, but it’s all about sex education and sex positivity and we’ve been doing the show for a couple years, our goal is just to shift – by getting somebody to laugh, their mouth is open, which connects directly to their brain, and we can just throw the stuff in there, and it kind of jostles in there while they’re laughing. Like if you can get their mouth open laughing, you can insert in the bigger things, even if it’s just questions or curiosities or whatever. It sits in a different place, because you suddenly have all this access to the ‘HA!’

Jess: You mean something clinical’s happening when you’re laughing?

Betty: A hundred million percent.

Jess: I believe that.

Betty: It shifts a part of open mindedness that removes all barriers.

Jess: Boi-oi-oi-oing.

Betty: Well I think we’ve said it all – what do you guys think?

Jess: I think there’s plenty of material to cobble together into a piece!

Betty: I think women are funny, I think people are funny, I think men are funny, I think that we can do more, we have to do more–

Jenn: Anybody who would make a statement like, ‘women aren’t funny’ – I’m like, what? I just want that person to look themselves in the mirror with a finger in their butt –

Betty: I mean, are you in the comedy community? I’m about to bring you into some groups with specific comics where their main goal is to continue to make sure people know that women are not funny, that women can’t be funny, that women are not as funny as men, and there’s like incredible comics in this city. We’re talking Mary Radzinski, Chanel Ali, Michelle Biloon, who are phenomenal comics, who do not get booked as often as the most mediocre, straight white dude fucking two years out because there is this overwhelming sense that men are funnier than women. Or that audiences want to see male comics over female comics. So the reason that I’m saying it is because for some reason there’s a community out there that doesn’t fucking think it.

Jess: That’s so stupid.

Jenn: If you wake up in the morning and you think to yourself in any semblance of rational sense that women aren’t funny, you need to take your dominant hand and put it on your genitals. Take a finger from your other hand and stick it up your ass. Open your mouth. Thank you.

Betty: Well, you two are in the theater world, I think core, and then music and then comedy and clown and all that stuff. I do a bunch of shows every month and am always looking for comics to come on up and do a bit, a character, a song, even if it’s just chatting with the audience. There are stages with microphones filled with a bunch of people who think that women aren’t funny. So, when y’all wanna come down and fucking shake your shit out, I got a mic for you.

Jess: That is so kind!

Jenn: That is kind! We might take you up on it.

Betty: And when can I come see your show?

Jess: Come through! It’s May 1-12.

Betty: Dan is the director, and you three are the writers, and who is the lighting designer?

Jenn: Amyth. Justin Hicks on sound, Meredith Ries is on scenic design, Jack Tamburri on the Dramaturgy. LeVonne Lindsay on costumes. That’s a heavy lift.

Jess: That is a heavy lift, she’s doing great.

Betty: Where is the show? It’s going to be at FringeArts?

Jess: Right here at FringeArts.

Betty: Well, I wanna thank y’all for doing this, and please come to the Bechdel Test Fest –

Jess: Yo, thanks for all you do man, in the trenches, getting the funny to the people.

Betty: I’m in those other trenches in the other side of the stream, but I want to jump into your brook once in a while and you can come into my pond.

Tenara: Is metaphor dead?!


Betty: I also think we should start a Facebook group that’s just the bad reviews and emails and everything –

Jenn: Let’s start a WhatsApp group, cause I quit Facebook, because…fuck Facebook.

Betty: Yeah, dude, I’ll do a WhatsApp.

Tenara: You know, Facebook owns WhatsApp.

Jenn: FUCK.

Betty: Fuck!

Jess: Oh no.

Tenara: Thank you for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe. Make sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, and download the FringeArts app. Visit FringeArts.com to purchase tickets for A Hard Time, which runs May 1-12. We’ll see you soon.

Happy Hour on the Fringe: Conversation with Brad Wrenn of The Berserker Residents & Christa Cywinski

Posted March 29th, 2019

On this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, Bradley Wrenn, part of the The Berserker Residents and Christa Cywinski, Director of Trinity Playgroup, sat down to talk about the planning and playing behind Broccoli, Roosevelt and Mr. House! and the connection between learning, playing, and building a show for a family unit to enjoy.We took a field trip to record at Trinity Playgroup, so you may hear the sounds of…well, playtime! Listen to the podcast or read the full transcript below.

Conversation with Bradley Wrenn and Christa Cywinski

Brad: My name is Bradley Wrenn and I am one of the ensemble members of the Berserker Residents. We’ve been making work together since 2007. Me and two other ensemble members – Justin Jain and David Johnson make up the Berserker Residents. And we’re making a show called Broccoli, Roosevelt, and Mr. House!.

Christa: That’s a good title. I am Christa Cywinski and I’m the director of Trinity Playgroup. Trinity’s a small little non-profit preschool for 2-5 year olds. I’ve been here for 20 years, the school’s been here for 50 years. We’re excited to be celebrating our 50th anniversary.

Brad: Wow.

Christa: So I’m curious about the name of your show. And you mentioned a little bit about being a clown troupe, I’m curious about that?

Brad: Yeah. The way we make work is by investigating something we’re interested in and following it to a logical end. Oftentimes that will be the show. All of our shows are always live events, meaning that we’re always acknowledging the audience, they’re always in the room with us. Oftentimes we will cast them. So we did a show in 2008 that was a scientific lecture, and so the audience was at a scientific lecture. We did one that was a sci-fi futuristic one and the audience was the last of humanity and we were trying to save them. They’re oftentimes there, in the room with us, and we acknowledge them. It’s sort of using theater’s superpower, one of the super powers of theater, that the people are actually in the room with us. We can’t beat movies when it comes to effects and visuals and stuff like that, but we can beat moves in that we’re here with them, experiencing something with them and making it very live. And I think actually in our last three shows, we’ve stripped more and more of that way and thought about how much control we can give to the audience and let them dictate or provoke us? It gets scarier and scarier. Because with the audience, the more control you give them, the more you let them be the main character in the show, the more you don’t know what’s going to happen. And so it gets scary.

Christa: Especially with a child audience.

Brad: Yeah!

Christa: So is it always for kids? This one is for ages 5 and up.

Brad: No actually, all of our shows have been for adults so far.

Christa: So you could go in some really different directions from Broccoli all the way down the tunnel with the kids.

Brad: Yeah, yeah! Our last show that we did was called It’s So Learning – it was actually all about industrialized education and sort of the mechanisms of education. The audience came in sat in little chairs and were given back-packs for the show, and we sort of put them through a whole sort of American education in about 70 minutes.

Christa: Like gum under their seats.

Brad: Precisely. Yeah, and specifically exploring some of the trauma around that, some of the hard things about school. Essentially, the show was about your experience in education, and viewing it through that lens, being like, oh I remember Lord of the Flies, I remember having anxiety around tests, I remember being promised these things and not knowing why I was working for these things and the reward and the punishment and all that. But then, both of my collaborators have kids at this point.

Christa: Okay. Makes sense.

Brad: So we’re always up for a challenge, so obviously giving with an audience of kids, giving the reins of the show to kids is really scary. That’s where we headed, and we’ve been working on the show for six, seven months. We’ve done a lot of showings.

Christa: So do you think of it as an improv group?

Brad: No, no.

Christa: So how do you give the reins away?

Brad: So right now the show is just a series of what I would just call bits at this point, or lazzis.

Christa: What are lazzis?

Brad: It’s an Italian word that means like, little schtick.

Christa: Okay. Lazzi. Sounds like a good food.

Brad: I know, right? Sweet Lazzi. So for example, there’s a moment in the show where we have enormous boxes of colored ping-pong balls and we say we’re going to play a “video game,” and we give the kids the ping-pong balls and let them throw them at Dave. And it just becomes—

Christa: That is gunna–yeah. A lot of laughter there.

Brad: Yeah. And we’re sort of saying like, how far can we go in that direction, of just like – it’s a playground, and it’s chaos and we don’t have control. And then sort of riding that line of can you then regain control after that?

Christa: You definitely can.

Brad: So we do improvise, that’s how we build our shows, we’ll improvise and say, oh that’s fun, we did that, let’s script that. And now let’s put it back on its feet and improvise some more. And then we’ll script that. That’s the cycle of how we do it.

Christa: And you try it out on your collaborators’ kids?

Brad: Oh yeah. I mean we’re a little limited. The showings we’ve done, like four at this point. We’re just like, how can we get some kids in a room? But at this point it’s very much like trying to find the boundary of how much play and free flowing whatever’s happening, and then we have a structure that we sort of go from place to place, but it’s a real give and take. We’ve done a super scripted children’s show but that’s not what we’re interested in with this one. We’re interested in something that says yes to the proposals in the room.

Christa: Mhm. Yeah, we’ve done shows like that here, where the troupe will take a few ideas from the kiddos, like a character, where they’re going and what problem did they have, and then just do a whole show from there.

Brad: Yeah, yeah. And I think, you know, it’s like a pendulum of how free and how open it wants to be, and also there’s a thing where it has to be fun for us. If it’s not fun for the three of us, we know that we’ll start hating it and then it won’t be fun for anyone.  So it has to be fun and it has to be joyful for us to do because I think sometimes when things are so open, it becomes chaos and you’re like, ah, this isn’t fun. It’s just crowd control. So finding that pendulum is important.

Christa: The kid audience though, you have experience with this audience, it gives you a lot. I can’t imagine it not being fun performing to the young audience.

Tenara: But I feel like so much of art and clown school is locating play in adult bodies.

Christa: Right. Right.

Brad: Yes. I mean, that’s 90% of the work.

Tenara: Exactly.

Christa: But kids go there super naturally. Right? Like, ‘jump into the pond!’ Okay, this is the ground and that’s the pond. They go there in a second. You have to like, leave a lot of stuff behind to put yourself back there.

Brad: Yeah. It’s wild. We went and studied with this provocateur clown teacher in France named Phillipe Gaulier, at his school. And essentially, all he cares about is pleasure on stage. He says nothing else matters but pleasure on stage and joy. But it is wild to see an adult get up in front of a group of peers and just fail to find that play, over and over, or comes with too many ideas, or comes with a desire to be clever. I mean, instantly it dies and it’s not watchable. And that’s why watching kids play tag is oftentimes more entertaining than theater because they are actually just purely alive and joyful and they just –

Christa: They hide in plain sight!

Brad: Yeah! And they find stupid games, and the inventiveness is just infinite! But with adults we start to edit ourselves, and we start to be clever, and are just “funny”. We want something from the audience, whereas a child who’s playing is just in the moment and present, and so is so watchable. Trying to get to that weirdly becomes work.

Christa: I mean, we’re just part of their play world, right? We’re facilitating play, we’re putting out offerings, we’re observing. Lots of observing, lots of listening to the really funny things that they say. And looking for those little sparks of what interests them and offering them something else, repeating things.

Brad: Do you think there is an age, or do you see it – what’s the oldest here?

Christa: The oldest would be almost six by the time they leave us, but in the beginning of the year, I’m gonna say 1 ½ to 4 ½ years old.

Brad: And six is like first grade, right?

Christa: Like, kids with late fall birthdays might be six when they’re going to kindergarten. Folks can stay here until entering kindergarten.

Brad: I just am curious about when it becomes hard to play. When it becomes – and maybe it’s not until teen years, maybe that’s when you start to become self conscious.

Christa: You see changes across even just our age group though. But in terms of being self-conscious a little bit, you see a little bit of oh, I don’t want to do that even creeping up in the Pre-K year.

Brad: Being aware of your peers? Like I don’t want to do that because I’m worried of what people will think?

Christa: Yeah. I think you see a little bit of that, you just see a little bit of I know that people are thinking something, so I’m going to showman a little. You start to see that awareness changing in this year before kindergarten, so it’s early.

Tenara: And doesn’t it develop alongside, you know, like, they talk about parallel play when they’re toddlers, just playing next to each other, and as they start to integrate play with each other they also start to integrate that awareness and testing boundaries of what people think?

Christa: Absolutely.

Brad: I mean, and that’s the thing about getting in front of an audience, it’s such an odd thing because the best clowns that I know don’t care what the audience thinks. It doesn’t mean they don’t want anything from the audience, they’re just present and there and open. But they’re present the way an animal is or in the way a very young child is makes them instantly so captivating. It’s like getting rid of judgment and just trying to find that fun and joy.

Christa: There does seem to be personality types where it’s easier to keep connected to play. So you don’t have to teach kids how to learn, or how to play. Everything they’re doing in terms of experiencing the world and playing is how they’re figuring things out. You can offer things, you can scaffold things, you can be part of it in a social piece, but you don’t really have to teach them that if you put water in this, this becomes the cup, you know? They’re just going to start experimenting. The toys with no explanation are better, with no beginning, middle, and end of how you have to use them and no like, this is what this is for. You can put out a box and they’ll just start making ramps and putting things in it, turning things upside down, they learn by just being hands-on, trying things. Then they start to watch each other , help each other do things a little bit, getting ideas from each other. You see that sort of brainstorming camaraderie develop. A little bit later comes the competition.

Tenara: When does that start?

Christa: I think you start to see it pretty young.

Brad: When you say competition do you mean like footrace? Like a competition for resources? Or like, ‘that’s mine?’

Christa: A little bit of both, yeah. I mean at this point with our kids, they’re young, so it all makes sense and it’s developmentally on target but there is a bit of, oh, I gotta do that the fastest, I gotta do that first, gotta be in the front. You know, they’re all still building their ego-strength.

Brad: That’s so interesting.

Christa: And then that sort of settles out again, those are just stages.

Brad: Peaks and valleys.

Christa: Yeah. Yup.

Brad: It’s something that we’re after with this show, like we’re looking at how to allow organic games to come up in a performance, like not even plot and narrative, just for organic games to come up. Like with the ping-pong balls. But there’s also this interesting thing in that making the show, we’re very cognizant that we’re not making “just” a kid’s show, we’re making a family show. We’re making a show for a unit. We saw a show in Edinburgh that really just bowled us over, because it was made for a unit. It wasn’t like, come drop your kids off in the front and then you go in the back. It was a show for a family unit.

Christa: That sounds fun.

Brad: Yeah. There’s something about if you just let play happen, the adults in the room get anxious? They’re like – ‘who’s in charge, what’s going on? This isn’t curated enough! It’s gone off the rails!’ So we’re cognizant of the adult presence, to be like, ‘hey, we’ve got this, this is supposed to happen here. Now we’ll get things back on the rails.’ And something incredibly virtuosic and composed will happen. And then we’ll let some organic play come into it. Doing that pendulum of keeping an eye to the adults in the room is really an interesting tight-rope.

Tenara: How do you get them to play with their unit?

Brad: I mean, one of the things that always works – always works – and we’ve done it and it works even in an adult context is that you go and get a dad. There’s something about the status of a dad. You can make fun of a big dad. And dads will then be performing for their kids, and it becomes this weird thing of bringing a dad up on stage work. Doing something really silly with that dad and making him really silly causes a whole audience to lean forward. It’s weird. There’s gender involved with that, there’s status involved with that, there’s family dynamics, but I’ve seen it work so many times. Pulling a dad up and putting a tutu on him. Dr. Brown, this clown we saw in Edinburgh literally takes a dad and turns him into a soccer ball and kicks him around the stage. And the dad does it because the dad wants to make his kids happy.

Christa: You gotta connect with the right dad though!

Brad: Yes, you’re totally right. There’s a particular kind of dad. You have to pull the right dad, you have to think and be looking for that dad in that moment.

Christa: My dad.

Brad: It makes the whole audience learn forward. It’s wild. It works. That causes that family unit to lean in.

Christa: I mean, the kids laugh a lot here when teachers get pulled into things, whether it’s like, ‘alright, Heather, show us your dance moves!’ or like ‘put on the firemen’s jacket!’ Whatever it is.

Brad: Yup. And I think there’s a whole way to access a whole new kind of audience participation by modeling an adult doing it first. And then you bring a kid onstage and let a kid do something. That’s its own narrative arc. You have to do it in a way that doesn’t feel forced and that takes really good care of everybody. It’s not great when a person gets pulled onstage and is not taken care of and is just sort of forced to do something really uncomfortable. Whereas with working with audiences and playing with an audience – it feels organic and the person should always know what to do. They always know what the right answer is. And know the right way to play. And know that there’s no wrong way to play. You have to set that up. Or you just give them a very narrow path to walk on – like, hey, can you make the sound of a cow? Boom! Of course they can! There’s no wrong. I think that’s the biggest thing, that’s the anxiety with play.

Christa: Definitely with kids a little bit older, but not in the beginning. There’s definitely no wrong at the beginning.

Tenara: So I’m curious, this is a question for both of you. For you, Brad – is there an age group that you have found in the showings of this piece that is the sweet spot for those kids, before the anxiety sneaks in? Or is it really just about setting up this culture with the unit? And Christa, is there – in what age do you see that ‘there’s a wrong answer, so it’s safer to not play’ start to happen? Is it developmental or is it external?

Christa: Oh. Both. For sure both. Because you can foster an environment that says it’s all okay, or you can foster an environment with a lot of limits. And that will change the nature of the way somebody grows. But I would say for almost all the time that we see kids in this school, they’re still pretty not rule bound, in terms of they’re taking risks, they’re just doing it. Not thinking, just doing it. In terms of like their play outside of their school settings, I think they’re probably still pretty open for a while too.

Tenara [to Brad]: Have you found that there’s an age where it’s harder to reach them?

Brad: Well, the showings we’ve done tend to run with younger kids, like two, three, four, five year olds, just because that’s the age of my peers’ kids. Which is not actually the group that we’re making the show for. We’re aiming a little older than that with five plus. It’s harder to get a group of just nine year olds. And also I think the other thing is because Justin, Dave, and I have all done children’s theater in other capacities, and performing for a group of kids with like five teachers is so different than performing for kids with their families. It’s a totally different audience and a totally different beast.

Tenara: How is it different?

Brad: I mean, a group of kids where the ratio is five adults to 35 kids are a frenzied beast, just like ‘Wahhh!’. I mean they’re easy to pump up but it’s a little like going to a concert with that group. With a group of kids with their adults, it becomes much more timid, and there’s also a lot of checking in with your unit.

Christa: But we all have different personalities in our family unit than we do out there in the school world or the work world – whichever world you’re in. So it’s different sides of ourselves get shown.

Brad: Yeah, yeah. And so I think it’s tough in making a show because it’s hard to get access to that thing. I mean, we’ll do showings up until the day we open at Fringe, but we probably won’t get the audience we’re going to have at Fringe until we open.

Christa: But then so why is that the age group that you’re shooting for? Not because it’s what you think is the sweet spot. You just want to try it with this group?

Brad: We just saw some shows in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival like 20-30 kids whows, and kids shows made for 5 and under – there was one that worked, and they did like every little bit in the book that you can think of for that age group. Cover your head with a blanket and have the person behind you sneak up, and they all go ‘he’s behind you!’

Christa: Oh they love it.

Brad: Yeah, they love it, and it works.

Christa: The slapstick.

Brad: Yes, and like, the peekaboo type stuff, yeah. But we knew that that wouldn’t be fun for us. For the three of us. We want to do something that was just a click up, and then there was something about this show that was called Dr. Brown and the Singing Tiger that was for more like a family unit, a little bit older, and it just felt really special for a unit. And we were like – I don’t know what that is, but I want to try and crack it. And I think that’s the thing that we’re interested in. We wanted to make a show that winks just a little bit to the adult not in a double entendres way, but more in the way that’s like, come along and play the way you used to.

Tenara: What is it about a family unit that is the thing that has the heat for you guys in this piece?

Brad: I guess there’s a way that there’s an audience built inside of a family unit. There’s parents watching kids and kids watching parents while they’re sitting next to each other, that becomes this force of kids watching the show, parents watching the show, kids watching parents – it’s just so interesting to me. When we’re setting up the audience at front, we thought, oh let’s put cushions down at the front, but then thought no.I want people to be sitting next to each other. I want whatever your family unit is, I want the adult/child mix that comes to the show. That is really important to me. And I think it’s harder.

Tenara: I imagine it’s harder also because of the culture around family programming specific to this country. Like, it doesn’t surprise me that it was in Edinburgh where you saw that done successfully.

Brad: Yeah, I think you’re totally right, I think there’s a way in which children’s theater in the United States is thought of as not important programming. It’s often seen as like, ‘oh well, then we’ll just do a family show.’ We’ll just put some funny costumes on and flounce about and that’ll be enough. But in Edinburgh there’s a real value behind that stuff. I mean there’s more value on family programming in general in Europe, but I think there specifically children’s shows are – well, there’s a lot more rigor in making them.

Tenara: Well I’m sort of curious about the values that foster the family programming culture of Europe. Are they the same that foster the kind of education systems that tend to have more success in those countries? Or are they’re coming from different places?

Brad: I mean, the cynical part of me says – this is really the cynical part of me – there’s just more value on art in, specifically in Scotland. I think there’s able to be more rigor around children’s programming because it’s just valued as important, so there’s more resources, more rigor, more time spent, and so you get something that is better crafted.

Tenara [to Christa]: I think a lot about something that you said to me once, which is that all preschools should be play-based, and so it’s so funny that Trinity Playgroup’s supposed ‘niche’ is that they’re a play-based preschool. But isn’t that what learning is at that age anyway?

Christa: Right. Yeah, I mean it’s – there is a little rush to ‘prepare.’ There’s this idea of preparing. You know, preparing kids for school. You know, I can’t speak for other places outside of here, but certainly we know that kindergarten is more like what first grade used to be, and so that trickles down to us. And what parents are thinking about is involved of course.

Tenara: Have you seen that trend change since you started working here?

Christa: I have. However, you know, as things change they swing. So you know, now people are swinging back, thinking more about outdoor classrooms and different, more experiential school set-ups, even all the way through into high school, and different ways to create great schools and so I feel like, it got pretty sort of – the expectations were pretty high on young people for quite a bit. But I think they’re swinging back a little.

Brad: What is a non play-based preschool?

Christa: Well, there are a lot of schools that will, in an effort to follow standards, have really specific curricula for kids. I mean, there are schools that sit everybody down and we all make this at this time, these are the parts that you use to make it. It’s out there for sure. It looks like this, this is what the outcome should be.

Brad: Like, it looks like a sun and it should have a smiley face on it.

Christa: Yeah, like, here are the pieces already cut out.

Brad: So is everything here guided by the child’s sort of curiosity and what they’re after?

Christa: Not everything. No, because, I mean, the teachers are well-informed about child development and they think a lot about what things to introduce at what time. They’re orchestrators in the scene and they’re paying attention to what kids are interested in, and they’re putting out things related to that interest. The kids are moving around the space with whatever is out and available to them, the kids are moving around like, oh I want to go there, I want to go there, so that’s driven. But it’s not that they just walk in and everything is put away and they just go for it. The teachers are part of that process and creating the invitations for play.

Brad: Yeah. I mean, it’s not dissimilar from what we’re doing, and the stage we’re at right now with this piece. Where we’re just like, we have an idea and a provocation and we’re going to put it in front of the audience, and then we’re going to do our best to just be present and just be curious about what’s going on. And we have an outcome that we probably do imagine but if something else happens, that’s okay.

Christa: Oh, you’ll always be surprised.

Brad: Yeah, and to be open to that I think is the real fearful thing, the anxiety of like I want to control and I want it to go a certain way. But it’s always better if you just stay in the moment and just follow what’s in front of you. When you’re listening to your audience or your classroom.

Christa: Or to anybody in your life!

Tenara: Yeah, well there’s that too. Hopefully we carry that into adulthood!

Happy Hour on the Fringe: Conversation with Cecily Chapman on Public Practice Works

Posted March 15th, 2019

On this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, hosts Zach Blackwood and Tenara Calem chat with FringeArts ambassador and Le Super Grand Continental (2018) dancer Cecily Chapman. The trio discuss the importance of public practice performances and Cecily goes into detail about her personal experience as a performer in a large-scale production. The conversation acts as wonderful insight for people interested in getting involved in the 2019 Fringe Festival participatory piece, Úumbal: Nomadic Choreography for Inhabitants. Learn more about Úumbal and how to participate in the Step Library here!  Listen to the podcast or read the full transcript below.

Conversation with Cecily Chapman

Tenara: Hello, and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. FringeArts is Philadelphia’s premiere presenter of contemporary performing arts. I’m Tenara. I’m the Audience Engagement Coordinator at FringeArts.

Zach: And I’m Zach. I’m an Artistic Producer, here. We invite you to pour one up and enjoy our conversations with some most imaginative people on this plane of existence.

Tenara: Here at FringeArts, we’re getting ready for The Appointment by Lightning Rod Special previewing on Wednesday, March 20th and running through March 31st. Make sure you visit fringearts.com to grab your tickets for this spectacular show exploring misogyny, hypocrisy, and absurdity surrounding the abortion debate in America.

Zach: But today, we’re talking to a very special guest, Cecily Chapman, one of our FringeArts ambassadors, and dancer in last year’s public practice dance piece, Le Super Grand Continental. Welcome Cecily.

Cecily: Thank you.

Zach: One of our first questions we always ask. What are you imbibing? What’s your beverage today?

Cecily: Ah, sparkling water. It’s my go-to beverage.

Zach: Spicy water.

Cecily: Spicy water. Yeah, that’ll do.

Zach: We have a young friend that calls it that.

Cecily: Like a child. Yeah, that makes sense.

Tenara: Yeah, that makes a little bit more sense. And now that I’m thinking more about it in the context of a child’s brain, it actually is a perfect description.

Zach: What are you having tonight?

Tenara: I’m also having spicy water.

Zach: I’m actually having spicy water. I’m having a Turmeric Ginger Tea. [crosstalk 00:01:33]. It’s very, very good. It’s sometimes too spicy. And we’re gonna get too spicy today on the podcast, right?

Cecily: Ooo spicy. I am ready.

Zach: So we’re to talk to you kinda about your experience in public practice work. You got to participate in Le Super Grand Continental. Are you willing to tell us a little bit about how Le Super Grand Continental worked, as though we’ve never heard of it.

Cecily: It was like we spent the whole summer preparing for a two-day weekend performance for the first weekend of the Fringe Festival, and it was like 150 may 200, normal, regular, Philadelphia area people who are not professional dancers learning a 30 minute piece. It was ranging from little five-year-olds to like probably close to 80. I don’t know. I have no idea. Like at some point, you don’t ask people their age.

Tenara: Correct.

Cecily: But it was all of us together practicing twice, sometimes much more than that a week to get our dance steps down and it was fun event.

Zach: And were you costumed for that?

Cecily: We could choose our costumes. There were no real limits as long as we could move in them, and it wasn’t advertising anything. But there were people in just their regular jeans and t-shirts, and dress things or whatever, and then there were people in sequins. I had a sequined shirt on top. It was very bright and red. There were people with tutus. There were multitude of different costumes per se, but that was our chance of being creative and letting our own personalities show to a certain degree ’cause in a group dance you’re supposed to be doing all the steps, all the same steps that everybody else is doing, so it’s nice to be able to at least show some of your personality.

Zach: And what was your experience with dancer performance before jumping into Le Grand?

Cecily: So, I actually did the first Le Grand. I’ve taken dance classes and things, but not anything that I can really remember where I was like I’m a dancer. I did do a musical theater camp at one point.

Tenara: Heck yeah.

Zach: I was reading about that. So Cecily’s an amazing stand up performer in town and also a storyteller, and some of Cecily’s stories are so so good WHYY has published the transcripts of them, so you can definitely look those up and check them out. I looked them up and had a great time reading about them. What was the title of the piece, I had a nightmare time at musical theater camp, or-

Cecily: Oh, I don’t remember what the title was.

Zach: When you talked about turning over and looking at the 10-year-old boy in the face, like it is so so fantastic. No more spoilers. Check it out yourself.

Tenara: So what was it like for you returning to Le Super Grand after you did it in 2012? So, it was like six years have gone by and then you came to not exactly the same piece but something similar.

Zach: There’s some old people, some new people. [crosstalk 00:05:23]

Cecily: I was excited to sign up again to do it because my memory said that it was great experience. And I only say that because physically I’m six years older, and all the things which I’m still young and I look at [crosstalk 00:05:46] but my body is different than six years ago, so that is the only thing that came to mind. But I was excited because I do like the idea of meeting people from my community per se, like people I might see on the bus, or might see at a performance, or wherever I am, and getting to have some form of connection with them. And it was really nice to see a couple of my friends from six years ago return because some of them I hadn’t stayed in contact with, but as soon we saw each other, it was like “Yes! I’m so happy you’re here,” and basically kinda like an old friend like you just picking up where you left off, almost literally, ’cause we left off dancing and we’re picking up dancing.

Cecily: So, that was exciting to have like a portion of people that were familiar and even a couple of the instructors were familiar. So, it was nice to know that there were people who remember our previous performance, had some energy about it. And then, there were a lot of new people, and so it was a chance to kinda meet new people and I’m not the most social person, so I’m sure coulda connected way better, but like to me it was nice to just be in our room or a huge ice rink with people every week, a couple times a week coming together. We’re in different stages of our life and different ethnic and different all the things. All the things we can come up with. So, it was really good to kinda see that happen again. My body was just like, “you forgot.”

Cecily: I was told that this piece was a little bit more challenging than by one of the instructors. They said it was a little more challenging than six years ago. So, my body my not be lying to me and my memory. But it definitely felt, I was like, I’m actually working out, and like a couple times in a week. There’s some fun contrast and similarities.

Tenara: Yeah, when I was hanging out at rehearsal, some people told me like the main, similar to you, they end up find a sense of community and connection with everybody around them, but originally they wanted to do Le Super Grand in order to build in exercise into their week. So, they like literally did it at first because they were like, “Oh, I will just be moving for two hours twice a week.”

Zach: And I think a lot about my experience, I was a marching band nerd in high school. And to get with all those people to learn the drill, [inaudible 00:09:14], to get injured together in some cases, to share nasty moldy water bottles together, it feels almost you share in this joy but almost bodily trauma in a certain way that’s not bad, it’s just [crosstalk 00:09:35]. There’s something in that sense of shared accomplishment that’s like, it compounds my personal sense of accomplishment in a certain way. And its’ funny, I see so many Le Grand dancers around town like at the Whole Foods. Last night at the Rosenbach Museum, I saw a person, who I won’t name ’cause this is being recorded. And Yeah, it just makes me feel like I have friends all over in certain way.

Tenara: Do you run into people?

Cecily: I have. Yes. I’m also at this weird stage in life where I don’t know where I know people from. So, it’s like do I know you because you know me from [inaudible 00:10:11]. Do I know you from some other, like the bus. Or do I know. But I have seen some Le Super Grand people in my travels and things, and some of them recognize me, some of them don’t because there’s some many of us, like you might not remember everybody.

Zach: The other day I was just walking up the street and Sarah Gladwin Camp rides by on her bike and just goes, “Hey, looking forward to the next one.”Just like that. Just so funny like it just it feels like, it makes the city feel smaller to me in a certain way and that’s exciting. When you’re looking at the first Le Grand opportunity back in I guess this is 2012, when you’re reading through the description, what made you say this is for me and I can do that?

Cecily: So, I honestly don’t really remember what … I think my mom sent me an email and it was just the idea that as long as I could move, I could be a part of it. So, auditioning and all the things, it … the pressure of being like a perfect dancer, and I didn’t have to worry about that.

Tenara: So, the pressure to be like a perfect dancer was off and-

Cecily: Yeah, so I think also at that point in my life I was just kinda more willing to try something new, try something different. I don’t really remember. It was six years ago.

Zach: Were you new at comedy then?

Cecily: Yes, I was very new at comedy then.

Tenara: Do you feel …or I’m sure there is a difference, but maybe you can speak a little bit about the difference of being a participant in these big, large-scale performances versus being an audience member watching a performance.

Cecily: Well, I think in some ways when I watch a performance I want to be a part of it to a certain degree and usually it’s, “I wish I could do that.” And so, I think there’s just a certain amount of aw in seeing people moving their bodies or any creative form that either not using or just haven’t got to a certain level of using. So, it’s always fun to see people performing and then when the opportunity comes to being able to be a part of something, it just seems right because now I’m getting to do what I have wanted to do when I’ve been a spectator. So, if it happened again and I was physically able to do it again, I would still do it and not be a spectator.

Zach: I watched all three performances from different places each time. Like one time I was up high on the steps of the art museum, another time I climbed up weird sculpture and was on top of that, that was fun. And I just felt this immense sense of like pride. Right? ‘Cause I was there in some rehearsals, I did a lot of recruitment for this, and I felt proud of everyone who was dancing, but I felt more proud broadly of the city and I just don’t know that there are … It’s funny they take this piece all over the world, and what’s interesting to me is I feel like Philly, it’s just very like–

Tenara: It’s very different.

Zach: Like it … something just locks into place. Philly, especially it’s such a big, small town in a certain way. The footprint of the city, geographically is kinda teenty, but there’s so many people here, and there this kind of … There’s this thing that I don’t feel like you have in New York anymore where you run into everybody you know all the time here. And sometimes it’s great, and sometimes it’s like ugh, there’s my ex again. [inaudible 00:14:09]. There’s someone I ghosted. What do they want from me? You know, but it’s just, it felt like there was this immense interconnectivity that I don’t know [crosstalk 00:14:22] but was foregrounded.

Tenara: Yeah, it was just so celebratory. It was really infectious. I was there doing, essentially recruitment for this year’s public practice performance. I was like basically like if this seems interesting to you, write down your name and email address, and we’ll send you information about next year’s show. It won’t be the same thing, but it will be something very similar and I can tell you that the number of email sign ups we got after the show, like tripled the number that we had right before the show started because you can’t watch that without being like oh my god that was amazing. I wanna do that. I wanna be a part of the crew.

Zach: So what advice do you have for people who might consider being in the large scale public practice piece in the future? Maybe in their decision-making or how to prep for a hot, sweaty rehearsal process.

Cecily: Okay. So, first with the decision making, I know a lot of times, there’s a audition type situation and it’s not really an audition as much as it’s showing you that you can do it. So, I would suggest people not take it so seriously as like oh my gosh this Broadway show. I have to get all the steps. And just know, be mindful of your body, but also in this kind of situation, know that there are people who are going to be faster at getting the steps, who are going to be more limber, and more all the things, and there are going to be people who are not gonna be good as you in picking things up and all that, and by the end of it, we’re all doing the same thing.

Cecily: So, it might take you longer. It might take you a much shorter process, but the overall, the ending is gonna be great. So, definitely go to the auditions or whatever they’re being called. And information sessions just so that you can kind of see what was being offered. For me, I think I, at some point, mostly towards the end, I wasn’t present. So, I was kinda like get this over with at some point.

Zach: In the dress rehearsal and then in that performance also.

Cecily: In the dress rehearsal, we got rained out of. And then, the actual Sunday performance, we were rained on, and for me, it was not fun. I was not interested at all and pictures prove that. It feels like all the pictures that are of me captured my inner thoughts. [crosstalk 00:17:34] But at the end, what I wanna say is don’t let the positive be the memory, but the positive be the present. So, if I do it again or something like it, I would hope that I would be able to be present and experience the joy that is around me and just being proud of myself that put in this work and you know, be able to celebrate and dance in the rain even though I really, really, really, really hated it.

Zach: There were so many audience members who stayed in the rain.

Cecily: Yeah, it was an amazing idea. [crosstalk 00:18:19] It’s great for the movies. You know. It’s a great scene to inspire people and yeah, the audience members were great.

Tenara: It was cold.

Cecily: It’s was cold and it was-

Zach: And you had to lay down [crosstalk 00:18:44]. And at that point, that was it. I was just like feeling for everybody at that point. [inaudible 00:18:52]

Cecily: But there’s so many people around me that were excited and so I kinda wish I would’ve been excited too.

Zach: And now it’s like a competition, right? ‘Cause we got rained on in 2012 too.

Cecily: Yeah, that was different though ’cause it was a mist. It was more of a … it was actually kinda nice like you weren’t drowning from looking up into the sky [crosstalk 00:19:17]

Zach: It was a torrential downpour. I’m from Florida like hurricane season and I was like this is real. Generally, I’m like “Ooo, people whine about rain here”, but like that was powerful.

Tenara: So, one more question for you. You know, I’m wondering where public practice work like what it does in terms of representation that feels different from traditional theatrical performances or performing arts where people often find that there’s a gap between who they want to see on stage and who’s actually on stage.

Cecily: Representation is such a weird kind of thing for me right now ’cause usually what I was telling you I do, just so that people know, I’m a black woman, cisgender, so when I walk into room, I know who is there and so, I’m always aware of how many black people, how many women…like I’m counting in certain sense. And I do that just about any space I’m in. When I’m in like certain parts of the city, it’s like well it would make sense that I’m the only one. But then there other spaces where it’s like well there should be more of us here because of where it is like that kind of thing.

Cecily: So like, there’s certain percentage of black people in this country, but then when you start going down to the certain percentage of black people in Philadelphia and those things, then it’s like there should be more in certain areas. So, my experience with community space is I think generally everyone was represented with this last performance and I think continuing on, in general, I think there’s a lot of possibility for representation in the fact that there would be at least one. But I don’t know if that’s accurate and I think there’s a certain amount of people trying to make it be more accurate. But in some way, you’re always gonna miss the mark.

Zach: I feel that. Yeah, it’s interesting. For me, as like a black person and queer person, and all the kind of ways [inaudible 00:21:58]. When I go to see traditional theatrical work and there’s maybe somebody who looks like me and whose identity or the identity that they’re taking on in that space is like man, and I think to myself, what a jackpot in a certain way, thinking about all of the training that you have to do, all of the opportunities that have to line up. It’s almost like the planets have aligned, and here it’s this person on stage who in some ways is speaking to me and I think where public practice work has an opportunity, and a unique opportunity, is that it says come as you are and we’ll teach you the skills you need. What you need is enthusiasm. We need your living human body and we’ll get there together. And I think what we’re really thinking about a lot as we go into this second year of this three-year initiative to a large-scale public practice work each year, is how do we take any further?

Zach: ‘Cause right, looking at what the barriers are implicitly to being able to participate in something like this. Maybe you just won’t four hours a week to commit to this. You know, maybe you need childcare, maybe you need more of a travel stipend, maybe you need a different level of engagement that you can touch the piece from. Where not having to be there four hours at all where generally, it is prohibitive of you to give up that much of your time from a financial perspective, from a body perspective, and how can you participate in other ways? So, we’re thinking a lot about kind of [00:23:21] level of engagement up to the four hours a week, and then you dance with us forever, but what if you were just able to I don’t a portion of the dance to us, or to be there the day of the performance in some capacity other than dancing. You know, maybe you don’t need to be there for all of the rehearsals, but you get to hold a speaker that plays the music that they listen to. And we’re thinking about all those things as we go into this next year’s project.

Tenara: What a great setup to talk about next year’s project. You were in the meeting where I mentioned it?

Cecily: Right.

Tenara: So you have heard a little bit about this. So, we are bringing a Mexican artist named Mariana Arteaga to Philadelphia to bring piece Úumbal: Nomadic Choreography for Inhabitants to the United States for the very first time. It’s the U.S. premiere. We’re so excited about and Úumbal does every single thing that Zach was just mentioning. There are three phases to the piece. The first is called The Step Library, or in Spanish, La Pasoteca, and it’s inviting Philadelphians who love to move, who love to dance, who are the first to get up and dance at a party, who have a gesture that’s very special to them, who like just love moving their body to come to a Step Library event with 10 to 30 seconds of dancing and bring their music with them and literally show us your favorite move. We film it. We put on a website and then, Mariana choreographic team look at all those moves and weave together a choreography that then 20 to 25 Philadelphians are invited to develop with her.

Tenara: So, that’s phase two. And phase three is sort of the model of Le Super Grand, it’s a 100 Philadelphians who are learning this choreography that was developed by Philadelphians and donated to by Philadelphians, and then performing it as processional through the literal streets of Philadelphia in September. It’s exactly what Zach was saying. We wanted to create opportunities for people who don’t four hours a week, who maybe they’re in a wheelchair, and learning this kind of choreography would be very prohibitive to them.

Zach: Maybe they just don’t wanna hang out with all these new people. I think there are people who sometimes that’s enjoyable in small doses.

Tenara: Yeah, exactly.

Zach:  I’m trying to think about all of these different ways people might’ve been shut out from the process we had last year, and growing on it. And next year, who knows.

Tenara: Yeah. For real.

Zach: Next year, have everybody in a space shuttle. We’re gonna put people on the moon. Just trying to figure out what the next level up from there is how to zoom out further and do something that that says something else about Philadelphia.

Tenara: Yeah, so if folks are interested in donating a dance step. The dates are April 6th, 7th, 13th, and 14th. You can find information about the step library at https://uumbal.fringearts.com. And you can also poke around on that website and find out just like all the ways you can be involved through all different phases of the project which will really be in development from April to September, so we’re in it for the long haul, my friends. Cecily, thank you so much for joining us.

Cecily: Yeah, thank you. And you guys are doing great work and I applaud you.

Zach: Oh, thank you.

Tenara: We applaud you.

Zach: We applaud you and where can people applaud you doing some comedy stuff?

Cecily: I am all over Philadelphia and the country. I’m doing festivals and things, so you can check me out on cecilyalexandria.com or @Cecilythegreat on the Instagrams and things.

Zach: And you can follow us at fringearts.com or @FringeArts on everything in the whole world. Make sure to register for the step library and find out about the ways you can get involved with Úumbal. Thanks guys.

Cecily: Thank you.



Happy Hour on the Fringe: Conversation with Alice Yorke of Lightning Rod Special & Elicia Gonzales

Posted March 1st, 2019

On this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, Alice Yorke, lead artist of The Appointment and Co-Director of Lightning Rod Special and Elicia Gonzales, Executive Director of Women’s Medical Fund, sat down to talk about the research and rehearsal process Lightning Rod Special went through and what the American abortion debate really means for issues of health care, education, race, and more. Listen to the podcast or read the full transcript below!

Conversation with Elicia Gonzales and Alice Yorke

Alice: Hey Elicia, I’m Alice. I’m the Co-Director of Lightning Rod Special and the lead artist on The Appointment.

Elicia: I’m super happy to meet you again. So I’m Elicia.  We met before, from Women’s Medical Fund. I’m the Executive Director there and excited to be able to talk with you some more.

Alice: Yeah, me too!

Elicia: So we worked together, I guess last fall?

Alice: Yeah, just over a year ago.

Elicia: Right, and I was newer to this role then. I think a lot of stuff has changed since then. Can you just refresh me on a snapshot of what that first encounter looked like for y’all?

Alice: So, summer and fall of 2017, we were working on this show The Appointment which then was called Unformed Consent. We had been developing it in longer processes for maybe a year or two before then, and so summer/fall of 2017, we knew we wanted to do a public first-draft showing. But the more we were working on it in isolation, the clearer it was to me that that was the wrong way to be going about it. There are people and organizations that do the work that we’re talking about, and I really wanted to be like, boots on the ground and find out what was going on in there. So in conjunction with our development processes, I got connected to Susan Schewel, who used to be the Executive Director at Women’s Medical Fund, and so she and I had a couple conversations about the project. And they invited me to come listen to the help-line, and she gave me a bunch of books and DVDs to watch –

Elicia: She’s thorough.

Alice: Yeah, I had to find a DVD player. She was a great resource and then she put me in touch with people at Philly Women’s Center. They let me come in and tour their offices and shadow patients and chat with their doctors and really get to see what happens in an abortion clinic from the time you walk in to the time you leave. Which was super, super helpful, and both of those experiences are now directly – sometimes even word for word – in the piece.

Elicia: Oh wow. I don’t think I realized that sequence of events.

Alice: Yeah, it was really helpful. I got to come in twice, I got to sit and observe the waiting room, and then be in a patient advocacy consultation, which is an opportunity for both the patient to check in with the clinic about how they feel and ask questions, and then for the clinic to check in with the patient about how they feel and make sure they’re clear about what’s going on.

Elicia: I’m reminded of the book Shout Your Abortion, edited by Amelia Bonow and Emily Nokes, which just came out. The book takes you through the stories of folks who have had abortions, and it’s really beautiful because it’s not just monolithic, right? It’s like some folks wanted it, some folks had to have it, some folks would have carried to term, some folks were super happy, you know all these different reasons. I think there’s still such a mystery around what happens when you go to get an abortion, and/or there’s all these assumptions based on what’s in the media or what we hear being spewed from these ‘amazing political figures’ who don’t ever need to access an abortion. So the work that you’re doing I feel like is just really valuable – like, to be able to interpret what happens in that clinic setting for folks is really powerful.

Alice: Yeah, I mean because so much of the show is satire, it does have a lot of dark humor to it. And every time that we started working in the clinic world, we were like – that stuff isn’t full of satire. That dark humor, that satire – that doesn’t feel good here. We don’t want that here. Because one of the goals of the project is – I mean, similar to Shout Your Abortion – is reducing stigma, is getting people to talk about it, is asking people to be more aware of what goes on, we were like, those scenes need to be no filter. They want to have very little theatricality, no humor other than the humor of what happens when two people sit next to each other in chairs, you know.

Elicia: Yeah, like chair farts and stuff.

Alice: Oh yeah, chair farts. Like, I’m uncomfortable, you’re uncomfortable, you’re very comfortable, you’re like talking on the phone – like all that stuff can be very funny, but without satirical layering on top of it.

Elicia: Right, like without gratuitously poking fun at a thing.

Alice: Yeah. The first time we did the abortion scene in our rehearsal room, it was like the wind changed a little bit. It was like everybody was just like, oooh.

Elicia: Yeah, we’re actually here for that.

Alice: We’re here for that. And in the way that we make work, we just create so much material and so little of it ends up getting in the show. Sometimes you rarely know right away, but we made the abortion scene and we were like, oh, so, that has to go in. That has to go in the show.

Elicia: Right, because unless you’re the person that’s getting that abortion, you’re not ever necessarily going to be in that space. I worked at Planned Parenthood back when I was a little puppy, and I asked them if I could see an abortion. I just felt like if I’m out here telling people about the procedure, I need to be informed. So I went to a couple of procedures at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Denver, and I really watched the whole thing up close, cause I need to be honest with people, you know? I think what happens sometimes in an effort to be “right” we sometimes skirt over the fact that, no actually – if left untouched, right, this thing would probably possibly maybe turn into a full-fledged fetus, and then later on from there, maybe a baby, right? At that moment it was the same thing, the wind kind of changed. I’m curious to know from you – someone who’s done a lot of thinking about the prep and the portrayal, did you feel as though you were placing significance to the procedure that may or may not actually be felt by the person getting the abortion?

Alice: Oh my god that’s such a huge part of the thing that we talk about when we’re scripting. I feel like there are so many narratives around getting abortions, and so many of them are not what’s really going on –

Elicia: Or not told by the person getting the abortion –

Alice: Right, exactly – which is what’s so great about Shout Your Abortion, right, it’s so powerful because you hear people telling their own stories. Those stories are oftentimes glorified in either way. Either it’s horrible, demonized, what’s-going-on-in-that-crazy-room, or it’s like, hearts and flowers and like Lisa Frank. Like, If These Walls Could Talk, that HBO show?

Elicia: Oh god. Yeah.

Alice: Yeah, so it felt really important to be like, how do we just show? When we showed the piece in August, the character who’s getting the abortion doesn’t say very much. Just the facts, name, date of birth, does this hurt, look over here, you know like, there’s very little story, which was really purposeful. As soon as you start giving that character any backstory, then like, boom the audience is going to box her away, and box away by proxy anyone getting an abortion. They’re going to see that I’m a middle class looking white woman, and they’re going to think that this narrative is only about middle class looking white women and abortions.

Elicia: But what’s really cool too is that you leaving it open to interpretation reminds people remember that this is actually just about health care, y’all. You know? It’s not about this ritualistic, witches-in-a-dark-cave, coven conjuring whatever. This an actual medical procedure. Is it different than getting a tooth filled in? For sure. We shouldn’t actually even be having this conversation, right? It’s crazy. It’s a medical procedure, people need to be reminded of that on a constant. There was a study done not too long ago that found by and large that the connection to abortion for most folks is a hyper politicized, hyper negative, a demonized kind of thing and completely divorced from the fact that it’s actually health care that we’re talking about. So the fact that y’all are showing abortion in a sort of this-is-what-it-is, non-scripted, non-skewed way is super cool.

Alice: Thanks. What felt important for me to learn is that having an abortion is just as risky and just as safe as carrying a pregnancy to term.

Elicia: Oh my god, yeah. I mean, and then you still have to carry that child for eighteen years, you know? And maternal mortality in Philadelphia, especially for black women, is just awful, and nobody wants to talk about that. I keep plugging Shout Your Abortion because I feel like it’s just so powerful. One of the editors, Amelia said that nobody wants to talk about abortion in this country, because it’s a reminder of everything else that we don’t want to talk about in this country. You know, sex, religion, rape, racism, like all the things. And I was just like, oh my god, that’s it, that’s it.

Alice: I feel like that’s just put into words something I’ve been trying to communicate about this process in the show – it’s not an isolated issue, you know? We don’t want to talk about abortion because then we have to talk about neighborhood safety, then we have to talk about accessibility to food, to education, to sex education. It just feels so easy for us to box it off in our minds and be like, that’s bad and we don’t touch it, we don’t talk about it. But actually it’s the same as looking at white feminism and looking at intersectional feminism. Right, like let’s widen the scope a little bit. We can recognize that finding equality for women is not an isolated issue. We also have to look at finding equality for people of color, for trans people, for gay people, we have to look at finances, we have to look at class, etc.

Elicia: Yeah, I know. For real. All of these issues are intersected. It’s like, “if your feminism isn’t intersectional, it’s white supremacy.” It’s just a reminder that the work is still happening, we have work to do, and at Women’s Medical Fund, we’re grappling with that really intensely right now. Since 1985 we’ve existed as this fund, and it’s pretty radical, right? I mean we’re literally putting our money into the hands of the folks who can’t afford to get an abortion. Folks who are making less than $8800 a year. Since its inception, WMF has existed in a pretty straight-line kind of way. We generate revenue, we raise money, and put it directly into the hands of the folks who call the help-line. We are able to help so many people, but not nearly as many as the number who need our services. The former ED you mentioned – Susan Schewer – she was very visionary and recognized that funding abortions is critical but doesn’t go far enough. Why is it that 80% of the people who call the help-line are black and brown folks? Why is it that the folks who are calling the help-line are making so little money and have all these other complicating, intersectional oppressions that are affecting them differently than other folks? What do we do with the fund to address how abortion is connected to racism, classism, all the isms. Like, how might people walk away from your show and say, ‘Oh yeah, lack of abortion access actually is a manifestation of the racism in this country.’

Alice: Right. And for me as an audience member, if I already accept that I care about the rampant racism in this country, then can I also get myself to care about lack of access to abortion, reproductive healthcare, sex education? I remember hearing many years before I heard the words intersectional feminism someone call it ‘open door or closed door feminism.’ That your feminism could be closed door where you just care about rights for women, and for much of history, that meant upper-middle-class white women. Or, it could be an open door. If I am an open-door feminist, that means I also care about LGBTQ issues and it also means I care about POC issues. And see how they’re all connected.

Elicia: The metaphor of the door also means that you’re actually being invited in, there’s an intentionality to it. These conversations aren’t just going to magically happen, people aren’t just going to magically say like, ‘let’s talk about racism in America!’ Someone has to open the door and invite you into this space, and we need to be sitting at this table and having these kinds of conversations. I think that term is great. I’ve never heard it put that way before.

Alice: Yeah, it’s always really stuck with me, again because I think it felt inviting. You know, and it carries on into what we’re trying to find with the programming that we’ll do around the show. How can we make spaces for audience members, like you said, to sit at a table together? They’re being handed an opportunity to watch someone have an abortion onstage. How do you feel about seeing a group of people in a waiting room, waiting to get an abortion? How does that make you feel about your place in the world?

Elicia: Yeah. Even if you’re not a person who has ever needed to have an abortion or have access to an abortion, you probably have at one point or another felt fearful, or uncertain, or just in a hurry to get this damn thing over with, right? As an audience member, it’s important to remember that there’s so much you have to do first before you get to the scene where you see the abortion. You have to walk through all these scary people outside. You might have had to leave your kid somewhere that’s maybe scary. Most of the people who call our help-line already have two kids at home. Maybe you’ve already had to fight with your work to get the day off, or lie to somebody to get there. And in the state of PA, you have to wait 24 hours. Because you haven’t already thought about your decision long enough, right? If you’re under the age of 18, you have to get your parental consent – not notification, consent. If you don’t get their consent, you have to go in front of a judge and get that person’s consent. By the time you get to the procedure, you’ve already gone through hell and back. I’m hoping that audience members are able to connect with that level of struggle in some way, or notice that absence of the struggle that they may encounter in living their day-to-day lives.

Alice: One of the things we looked at are the informed consent materials. So many states – too many – have mandated informed consent materials that are written by the state, by politicians that have to be given out to patients before they come in. And I’ve read through maybe let’s say half a dozen of those materials, and it’s just – they’re so pejorative, they’re paternalistic, you can tell that they’re written to minimize the patient’s life experience and intelligence. They often refer to a fetus as a baby, already – like your seven week old baby – just stuff that is so coded. There’s a ton of really blatant misogyny and paternalism in it, and then there’s also such deeply internalized misogyny too. Like the fact that the government thinks that someone hasn’t thought about it before they’ve come to the doctor’s office? Like what do you really think is going on here?

Elicia: Right, and it’s just also like, it reminds me again about whose body it is. The fact that you even think that you have any say over what somebody does with their body, period, whether they want to have a child, whether they want to transition their gender, whether they want to have a tattoo, whether they want to have ten kids, whether they want to wear nothing and walk down the streets in Philadelphia – all of these things that people feel like they have the right to tell somebody else what they can do with their very own bodies really only is about certain bodies in this society, right? It’s not all bodies, it’s certain bodies. If audiences are coming to your show because they already feel concerned or passionate about this issue, my hope is that they leave there feeling impassioned to actually then do something about it. It’s not just enough to feel uncomfortable, or inspired, or relieved. What do you hope will happen when folks see your show and then do after?

Alice: I mean, that was a big part of why when we did this show in the summer/fall of 2017 that I wanted to have you and the WMF, and folks from Philly Women’s Center come and speak. It felt really important to contextualize the work, and to say – cool, we’ve just seen a piece of theater that deals with this issue. You might be feeling something, you might not, you might leave and walk into the night, that’s cool. But in case you are feeling something, here’s more information. Here’s information about what Women’s Medical Fund is, what Philly Women’s Center does, what the restrictions are in Pennsylvania. If you care, here’s where to sign up for those email lists, here’s an opportunity to toss in your change. If you care, here’s an opportunity to sign up to be a clinic escort.

Elicia: And because of that, you were actually able to impact the patients directly. I know that you guys made that $5,000 contribution in order to be able to help people actually access the very same thing that folks were there to see, so it worked! It wasn’t just this thing that happened in theory, it was in real life practice. You practiced a model that worked. I don’t think a lot of folks necessarily root their work – whether it’s political or legislative or artistic – in community. How is it actually affecting and impacting communities? How might it be led by communities? I was really appreciative not only that you reached out that first time, but that you were also open to hearing,  how it landed on folks. That’s scary! You were so vulnerable and open to the feedback!

Alice: Yeah! I mean, I remember you emailed me and we got together to talk about how the show felt for you, with really specific questions. It was cool for me as maker, especially because the show wasn’t a fixed entity, and frankly won’t be a fixed entity after March either. I got to see  how it was landing. Because it’s satire, some of the discomfort is on purpose, but if it’s not quite landing, then we still have work to do. You talked about the people who are coming to this show – I feel like I have always really been interested in the theater-going public on an East Coast city. Most of us are lefty-lefties. But I continue to be really interested in the show being an open book.

Elicia: Yeah. Your show is an open door.

Alice: I hope so. So if you don’t necessarily think abortion is the right choice for you or your family or your community, I still welcome you to come to the show.

Elicia: Right. I also welcome you to find someone in your community who hasn’t had an abortion. You know? Everybody that we know has had an abortion, has been impacted by somebody’s decision to have an abortion, or will be impacted by that, so it’s not an isolated incident that happens to the poor girl in the corner. So, there’s that too.

Alice: I heard this amazing story last summer when I was working on the show. Someone told me about a mom’s group she was a part of in the early 80s. One of those groups where they all just had their first kid and wanted to be in a room together. There are thirteen women in the room, and somebody posed the question – who here has had an abortion? There were thirteen women – one woman didn’t raise her hand. One.

Elicia: It’s part of our lives! This is fascinating – I just learned that in Cuba, up to about six or eight weeks or so – so still pretty early on in the pregnancy – they don’t even call it abortion. They call it “menstruation regulation.” They say, “I’m here to regulate my period.” It took some time for American doctors and health care providers who were studying in Cuba to figure out what they were talking about, because so many people just kept coming in for menstruation regulation. It’s just a reminder about how politicized and alarmist this thing is that’s actually just a normal part of our lives.

Alice: The history of the politicization of abortion is crazy. It’s preposterous.

Elicia: It’s preposterous! And it’s also on purpose, it’s not an accident. All of this stuff is intentional, it’s all designed to keep folks in certain positions of power and to hold other folks away from that power. None of this is an accident, you know, I just really continue to look forward to figuring out creative ways of reminding people that that’s not just me saying, “Abortion! Abortion! Abortion!” But we have your show with dancing fetuses and whatnot, so that could be fun.

Alice: Yeah, that’s the hope! A way to shout, “Abortion!” that’s fun.

Elicia: And doesn’t harm.

Alice: And doesn’t harm, right! And like, if someone feels like it harms, I mean, my email is on the booklet. I would be happy to talk with someone about why they felt it was harmful. After the first draft showing, I did have people reach out to me and say they felt personally harmed by it. I’m so grateful that someone would take the time to do that. Not only because I’m making a piece of art that I don’t want to harm people, so now I can think about how to fix that, but also because we have an opportunity to talk human to human about what just happened and also what’s going on with you that you saw something that was harmful.

Elicia: I also think that that is an unintended harmful consequence unlike what’s happening right now in cities, especially in Philadelphia, around crisis pregnancy centers that are deliberately and maliciously lying to people about their options. They are not medical professionals. That is a very different level of harm in our communities that is violent, malicious, and actually intentional. Right? So – I just had to put that out there because I think unintended consequences that harm, that’s just going to happen no matter how well you try to control for that, and in fact like you said there can be true growth and healing when those things happen. But when it’s an organized effort to harm on purpose, on that scale, and actually getting money to do that – that’s where we have a problem.

Alice: On our next next podcast.

Happy Hour on the Fringe: Interview between ADAPT activist Tony Brooks and A Fierce Kind of Love cast member Shawn Aleong

Posted February 14th, 2019

We’re back! On this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, A Fierce Kind of Love cast-member Shawn Aleong and ADAPT activist Tony Brooks sit down and talk about living with disabilities in an exclusive world, and the missing history of disability rights advocacy. The podcast episode is now available online or you can read the full transcript down below.


Interview between ADAPT activist Tony Brooks and AFKoL cast member Shawn Aleong

Tony: Hi, I’m Tony Brooks. I live in West Philadelphia. I am an advocate and activist for people with disabilities and a member of ADAPT.

Shawn: Why don’t you tell people what ADAPT is?

Tony: ADAPT is a grass-roots organization of activists and advocates for people with disabilities. Now why don’t you tell people who you are.

Shawn: Hi, my name is Shawn. I am a Temple University student studying legal studies with a minor in real estate. I am also a disability advocate. When I say justice for all I mean justice for all.

Tony: Be it black, white, green, blue. I think what people don’t understand is that everybody has a disability in the first place, you know that, right?

Shawn: Well, I tell people that society has the disability, because they fail to recognize people’s abilities. No matter if you have cerebral palsy, down syndrome, or what have you, we all have an ability. Sometimes societies fail to realize that.

Tony: True. People don’t understand disability or its history – that is one of the problems ADAPT is trying to solve. You remember when the ADA was signed in 1990 by the late George H. W. Bush? He signed it with Justin Dart, a disability activist, and everybody on the White House lawn? But many people don’t know that before the ADA, we just had ADAPT and the Gang of 19. They were the first 19 people with disabilities who broke out of nursing institutions with Reverend Wade Blank. We actually just celebrated the anniversary of the original Gang of 19.

Shawn: Congratulations on your Gang of 19 anniversary!

Tony: No it’s yours too! It is yours too. You see, I just recently got disabled maybe four or five years ago. When I got disabled I noticed that the first thing that happens to you is you are stigmatized.

Shawn: Yes. Very often. As soon as people figure out that you are just a little bit different, they will shut you out.

Tony: Too true, man. We are trying to fight that with ADAPT. We work with an independent living center called Liberty Resources to try and progress our people.

Shawn: Yes, Liberty Resources. Your President is Thomas Earle. I know Thomas Earle very well. Good man, very good man.

Tony: He’s the CEO of Liberty Resources.

Shawn: Liberty Resources is one of the staples in the disability rights movement just like the Institute on Disabilities. I learned most of my advocacy skills from a program at the Institute called the Academy for Adult Learning, which is now Career Studies. When I tell you the Institute has been a major staple in my adult life, it has – I learned how to advocate for myself. That’s why I’m here today because of what the Institute and my mom gave me. The support. We have to make sure that people are educated about the history of the disability rights movement so they can help support us. Like people like Justin Dart, the father of the ADA. People like –

Tony: Ed Roberts, the activist at the University of California.

Shawn: Yes, Ed Roberts. Civil Rights Leaders like Roland Johnson who created the organization Speaking For Ourselves – he was a great advocate for people that have disabilities, who were trapped in institutions. I play him in A Fierce Kind of Love. I like playing him because I can relate to him. Even though he had struggles, he never gave up. All that he’s been through – it just was a stepping stone. And of course then, ADAPT – y’all do a lot. Y’all do protests, y’all stop buses, y’all stop trains.

Tony: Yeah we were the ones who started the curb cuts, which are the concrete ramps that are on the corner of curbs and crosswalks. It wasn’t for mothers rolling their prams, or deliveries to pull their carts across, it was for us – people with physical disabilities. And it’s not just physical disabilities – I see invisible disabilities on us all as well. That’s why I said earlier that everyone in the world has a disability, even if they don’t have it yet. I just met a lady in Denver last month for the anniversary of the Gang of 19, and she told me, in this world, we have two passports: passports that we use to fly around and go wherever we wanna go, and the disability passport. It is when you get the second passport, the disability passport, then you shall see the struggles in life. And it is true. I was born and raised in Ghana. But I came here, I got into a motor-vehicle accident, and this is where I landed. And I noticed immediately how stigmatized I became.

Shawn: Society has always tried to progress on every issue. And I love that dearly, but it seems like when it comes to people with disabilities, it seems like we try to progress but yet –

Tony: We are being dragged down.

Shawn: Right, right! But here’s what I tell people – you have people with disabilities in every culture, in every ethnic group, in every movement –

Tony: In every home.

Shawn: From the Jewish community to the Christian to the LGBTQIA, you have people with disabilities all over, but we need to get to a point that society just looks at us as people. Just normal people. That’s all we are. We cannot sit here and call this a great country until people recognize that it takes everyone to make this a good country. It takes all types of backgrounds, and all times of abilities. And see that’s what I’m trying to get at – I’m no better than you –

Tony: And I’m no better than you. You know, the word inclusion just came to my mind.

Shawn: Inclusion is key. Inclusion is key.

Tony: Inclusion even amongst ourselves. We should understand ourselves in the disability community. They have divided us, they have forgotten that each and every person has a disability. It may be that you are born with it or along the way as you’re growing up, your disability comes along.

Shawn: That’s right, that’s so true.

Tony: But you were right, we are everywhere. Roland Johnson and Ed Roberts, Justin Dart, Reverend Wade Blake, they all came from different backgrounds, and they all wanted to create accessibility. Ed Roberts created independent living centers. That was the same time when Wade Blake was fighting for disabilities also. They did have assistance from other communities, other activist communities. The Black Panthers were some. Reverend Blake got his start with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and marched with him on Bloody Sunday over the bridge in Selma. When Blake came back to Denver where he was like helping in a nursing institution, he didn’t love the way those with physical disabilities were ignored while the abled bodied people could go into the park and enjoy themselves. So he got them together and asked them, what is your interest? What do you want? They said they wanted to leave. So, in 1978, after the first 19 were liberated from the nursing institutions with Reverend Blake, they decided to focus on accessibility for transportation. That is when they were fighting with the buses – leapt in front of the buses, held down the buses for 2 days.

Shawn: Right. And that’s why it’s so important that we educate. Educate people, educate communities, educate corporations so that we can get jobs that we want to work in. And it’s very important that we educate politicians so that they can write policies that benefit all people.

Tony: America had a disabled President!

Shawn: Yes! Yes! Yes!

Tony: America had a disabled President, and no one ever remembers that! The late George who signed the ADA needed assistance, he needed a wheelchair, he needed a companion. They talked about his dog for four days, about the career that the dog had with George, and I’m sitting back, watching all this and twisting my head to the side and saying, really, you would rather talk about a dog than the life that signed the American Disability Act into law – they didn’t really talk much about that. It was really sad. They might have said “he was the one who signed the ADA” but they didn’t explain what it really was.

Shawn: Yeah. How many people do you know who know where the curb cuts originated from? How many people know what the ADA really means? About sensory lighting? ADA friendly buildings?

Tony: How many people think about the labor it takes for us to leave our homes? We leave our homes at five in the morning to get ready to go to work, which is 3 or 4 miles away from where we live. You have to get to work at 8 o’clock to start working at 9-5. They said, okay, for the first four hours go, you have fifteen minutes to rest and get energy. At 12 or 1pm, you go for a 30 minute break, around 3:30 or 4 o’clock, you get another fifteen minute break, and in between this time, they have told you I am going to give you $7.50 an hour. That’s the wage rate in America. The outside world cannot believe that. Especially for a country that is being called the first world, even though it’s not being called that anymore! After the election, I turned on the television and I saw an orange face, yellow hair, a beak, and it said: U.S. AMERICAN PRESIDENT. As if we are not already fighting enough. When we have natural disasters, the disabled community is ignored. We have to educate the government about that. The only thing they want to do is help the people they see as physically healthy. But the disabled community is always forgotten about. That Shawn and I just came to the table to have a conversation – that is what the government is supposed to do too. But they won’t.

Shawn: Educate, advocate, and keep up the good fight. We got to keep on pushing.

Tony: Oh yeah.

Shawn: Togetherness is also the key, because look at back in the day when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for everyone’s civil rights. He had a whole sea behind him! And backing him up. And see, that’s what we need to do today.

Lisa [Sonneborn]: So we’re talking a lot about inclusive societies. I would love to hear from each of you what that looks like – Shawn for you, or Tony for you, what is your vision for a truly inclusive society?

Tony: My vision is a community of inclusion of all kinds of disabilities, be it physical or invisible. We all have a disability, the only way we can have included communities is understanding each and every one’s disability. That for me is a community of inclusion – understanding individual needs. Be it a physical, or invisible disability, it’s all part of the community where we live and work in peace.

Shawn: My idea of an inclusive community is no more institutions, jobs for everyone, people with disabilities wouldn’t be judged when they talk or when they make a noise – just looked at as normal people. And live in the community and work in the community, We need affordable housing, good paying jobs, good support systems and a good community. That’s how I believe that we can all be as one.

Happy Hour on the Fringe: Meet the Hosts

Posted December 21st, 2018

On this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, sat down with…ourselves! Get to know the hosts of Happy Hour on the Fringe: Raina Searles, Zach Blackwood, Katy Dammers and Tenara Calem, as they discuss the how this podcast came to be and where it’s headed, goals for 2019 as an organization and individually,  and how they all got to where they are now. Listen to the episode and read the transcript below.

Feature Photo by Sabrina Carter

[Music Intro]

Raina: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe.

Zach: FringeArts is Philadelphia’s premiere presenter of contemporary performing arts.

Katy: We invite you to pour one up and enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence.

Tenara: This week, we’re chatting with ourselves.

Zach: We’re the most about imaginative people.


Katy: So today, we’ll go around and say who we are. And this is an exciting opportunity for us to reflect on the past year and to dream about what might be coming in 2019.

Zach: What are we drinking?

Tenara: And for you guys to get a better sense of who your hosts are.

Katy: Yeah.

Zach: That’s important.

Raina: And what we’re drinking.

Tenara: Yeah.

Zach: What are we drinking?

Tenara: Coffee.

Zach: It’s 11:00 AM.

Tenara: It’s 11 in the morning. [chuckle]

Raina: I’m having some Raspberry Zinger Tea.

Zach: Having a Peach Sangria Tea from Kari’s Tea shop in the food hall at The Bourse.

Katy: And I’m drinking water.

[laughter] [overlapping conversation]

Raina: Gotta stay hydrated. Yeah.

Zach: I like this first question because it reminds me a lot of the seminal question from a podcast by one of our Blue Heaven artists, Cat Cohen. Blue Heaven is a Comedy Festival at FringeArts running February 1st and 2nd. And it’s on her podcast Seek Treatment, and she says, “Who were you, who are you, and who do you wanna be?” But our version of that for today’s purposes is, “Who are we, how did we get here, and what do we do now?”


Katy: So, Zach what do you think of that?

[overlapping conversation]

Katy: I feel a little attacked by that question, personally.

Raina: Tell us about yourself.

Zach: Who am I? Oh gosh, I’m a triple air sign.

Tenara: Is that true?

Zach: Yeah, yeah, a Libra sign, Aquarius Moon, Aquarius rising.

Tenara: I always forget that Aquarius is an air sign ’cause it’s aqua.

Raina: Yeah.

Zach: It is.

Raina: It does make sense.


Tenara: If we’re thinking Latin, it’s like water.

Zach: Yeah, it’s an air sign.

Tenara: Okay, got it.

Zach: Yeah. I am the artistic producer here at Fringe, one of two, with my close friend Katy Dammers. How did I get here? Circuitously. I would say that’s how you get into any programming position, is you luck out, [chuckle] and then you work really hard, and then you continue to luck out. I was here initially in 2013, as what was then called the Neighborhood Fringe Coordinator, it was a temp position. I was here for a little bit, then I went on to the Kimmel Center in a role in their programming department. I just kept in touch, a little bit.

Tenara: Hot tip.

Zach: Hot tip, keep in touch.

Katy: Yeah.

Zach: Rule of culture number… [chuckle]

Tenara: Keep showing up.

Zach: Keep in touch. Yeah.

Raina: We’ll be giving out some job advice on this podcast.


Zach: Yeah, my thing was like, I kept in touch with Carolyn, our managing director. Really, as the rest of the staff just kind of moves and shifts and undulates like, “Find a person who seems like they’re not going anywhere and talk to them.”


Zach: You know? And that was Carolyn for me, and we just kept in close contact. And then when a position in the programming department here opened up, I applied. Actually, this was so bad, from the desk at my last job. It was a bad day. And [chuckle] I just, I needed something different, and after the election, I really was less interested in commercial presenting and really wanted to fully believe in everything that we were doing. That’s not a read at all, it’s just…

Tenara: Yeah, no shade to our friends at the Kimmel.

Zach: No, no, no, I loved that job. And I learned so, so much there, and I had the best boss in the whole world. Best bosses. But, no, I just wanted to move in a different direction and work on art that was more directly aligned with my personal aesthetics and taste level, which is selfish, but I wanted it. And what do I do now? Whatever, whatever is best.


Zach: This is looser. No, I mean, whatever is appropriate, I think. I have a vision for where I’d like to see this institution and our programming go, and I’m following that. And really, it’s more representative of the Philadelphia community and that’s what I want.

Tenara: I love it. I know you didn’t need my permission or my approval or anything, I just wanted…

Zach: Katy, who are you?

Katy: Yeah? [laughter]

Zach: What’s going on?


Katy: I’m Katy, I work with Zach every day, all day, as the other artistic producer here.

Zach: Late into the night.

Katy: Our role really is a 24/7 job, which is amazing. We live it and love it and breathe it. I am new to FringeArts. I just got here in the middle of August and so thrilled to have moved to Philadelphia, and I’m still learning a lot about this community. But I’m really moved by the vision and the mission of FringeArts, and I’m glad to be helping to chart its way forward into the new year. But previous to my time here in Philly, I was the assistant curator at The Kitchen and also their archive manager. So, The Kitchen is a small non-profit performing arts center, with a gallery space in New York City, in the Chelsea-based neighborhood. And I was there for five years, working in a variety of different capacities, curating exhibitions, organizing performances, and then also managing their vast archives. And in addition to that, I also worked independently with a number of choreographers as their manager, and all around administrator, some of which I still do now. So, yeah, that’s me.

Tenara: You have a dance background, correct?

Katy: I do, yeah. So, I studied dance and art history and music growing up. And I still dance now but not publicly so much anymore. Although, I am in Trust Your Moves. And by the time this comes out, our final concert has probably concluded, but you guys should all check it out. It’s an amazing Queer Choir in West Philly that Emily Bate runs, that I have really loved being part of, this fall.

Tenara: My gosh. We gotta go see it.

Raina: Yeah.

Zach: Yeah.

Katy: Yeah. It’s gonna be great. [chuckle] Tenara, who are you? How did you get here?


Tenara: I’m Tenara. How did I get here? I think I tripped and fell into this job, is what I’m gonna say. But that’s like how I usually arrive anywhere.


Zach: But with intentions and aspirations.

Tenara: Yeah, yeah. It was a situation where I won’t get into the thorny details, but last year, I was in a mid-20s crisis transformation, and I was having a respite from Philadelphia. I was in Providence, Rhode Island for a couple… Several weeks and then I was abroad, and I knew I was coming back to Philly, but I had literally no idea what I was gonna do when I got back. But while I was in Rhode Island, this audience engagement coordinator position floated to my job board spheres, and I was like either I’m super qualified for this job or I’m super unqualified for this job. There’s actually no middle ground. And so, I just, on a whim, applied and I didn’t have very high expectations of getting the job and then I did get the job. So… [chuckle]

Katy: And we are so happy you did.


Zach: Tenara’s a super star.

Katy: Yeah, Tenara, what do you do?

Tenara: Yeah, what is my job? That’s such a good question. The audience engagement coordinator position is grant funded through the William Penn Foundation’s New Audiences/New Places grant. And so, it encompasses a lot of different things, but essentially, my job is to be the bridge between new audiences and communities in Philadelphia who either historically have not been very connected to FringeArts or we just don’t know what FringeArts is, or have always wanted to be, but I haven’t always found the right route or pathway into our institution. And so, that kind of engagement and partnership takes many, many, many different forms, but my main role is to facilitate all of that, yeah.

Katy: Amazing.

Tenara: Raina…

Zach: Raina. What’s gucci?

Raina: Well, I’m Raina, I am marketing manager at FringeArts. I have been here for just about two years, but that’s actually counting an internship, so I actually started off in the programming department because even though I studied marketing in college, I felt like I wanted something different and also reading the job description for our programming internship, it’s all about organization and working with artists, and all these things that I was like, “Yeah, that sounds like so up my alley.” And so I did and I worked a lot on the fringe festival, especially for independent artists and recruiting all of the artists that we were gonna be working with last year in 2017. And I loved it. And I fully expected to leave without a job. And then the marketing coordinator position opened up while I was still an intern here, so I had a few little nudges to apply and I did, and ended up getting the job. And it was really exciting because I was going over to a new department but I was able to talk about how my experience of working with artists and also my experience kind of coming from the marketing side of business, but also, having had experience on the artistic side, really melded together really well.

One of the reasons I love FringeArts is because we’re able to support so many independent artists. And since that was kind of my whole thing, when I started, I do still have a special affinity for all of the artists who are making their own work, and using this as a platform to really build their voice and build their name in the Philadelphia community. I mean, I’m definitely in the 30+ show range. The number goes up if you count digital fringe shows.

Tenara: Oh yeah, Raina beats most of the staff. Well, maybe with the exception of the two of you.

Raina: Well, they see shows all year around.

Zach: Yeah.

Katy: We do.

Zach: Yeah.

Katy: But during the Fall festival we’re often here or in other theaters, managing the shows as they happen. So, I think Raina still probably sees more shows than we do.

Zach: Yeah, you definitely beat us during the festival.

Katy: ‘Cause we’re…

Raina: It’s so much fun.

Katy: Stuck in rehearsal.

Raina: Yeah, I love the Fringe Festival. [laughter]

Zach: Me too.

Raina: But yeah, so what I do now, we have a pretty small department, so my job is marketing and everything that that encompasses. If you see our print materials, if you see our emails, it’s coming from over here.

Tenara: And boy, do you see our emails.


Zach: If you’re listening to the podcast, you’re definitely… You’re at a deeper level of engagement. You’re reading…

Tenara: Oh yeah, you like our emails, right?

Zach: Yeah.

Tenara: I can’t imagine a person listening to this podcast who doesn’t get our emails.

Zach: We’re talking to them right now. They’re… This isn’t one-to-one.

Katy: We hope that you will sign up for our email subscription list. If you’re not already on it.

Raina: Yes.

Tenara: Yeah, well, I just… I mean that because the easiest way to get our emails is by coming to see one of our shows.

Zach: Mmm-Hmm.

Raina: Yeah, so…We do have some amazing shows.

Katy: So…

Zach: Woo! [laughter]

Katy: One the other many things that Raina does as part of her job was starting this podcast, right?

Raina: Yes, so I do have to give a shout out to Hallie Martenson…

Zach: Hallie Martenson!

Raina: She is currently the Director of Communications and Development at Pig Iron Theater Company and so we’re still working very closely with her. And previously, she actually worked at FringeArts and was the first person to get this podcast off the ground. If you listen to some of our earlier episodes, she’s gonna be the host. So, that’s the voice that you’re hearing. And so, this summer, we really wanted to revamp the podcast, bring it back, since she left and really give new life to it. And so now, we actually have this lovely rotating cast of four different hosts. And really, we’re so excited for where this podcast is going. We have some big ideas, we started off talking to a lot of the artists that we presented this past year, and it’s been really great to be able to talk to them about the work that they’re doing and get different perspectives on how they think about their work. But we have some real exciting goals for 2019.

Zach: Yeah, yeah. I definitely would love to see this podcast kind of break out of some of the promotional ways that we framed it previously, and just to be completely transparent, that’s generally because those artists were already in our space. [chuckle] So, we could sprint downstairs to a dressing room and be like, “Excuse me, can I bend your ear for a moment?” But we’re now I think more interested… With that accent. I think now, we’re still interested in all those people’s perspectives but we have some space to kind of expand and to really maybe bring some of our arts and cultural peers into this space, talk about what they’re doing and the way that they’re presenting practice works. I think that we’d be very interested to speak more broadly with larger groups of artists, maybe to cede some space in this podcast. Maybe have one of us moderate a discussion of a larger group.

Zach: We’re interested in the idea of having a cohort of people who maybe see all of the shows in the High Pressure Fire Service presentation series and sit in this space and talk about them as they happen. So kind of following one group through multiple shows and really getting to know some more broad and diverse perspectives.

Katy: We hope that will give people an opportunity to think about the ecosystem of the Philadelphia Arts community at large. So, for those of you who haven’t tuned into previous podcasts, High Pressure Fire Service is a new festival, that we’re debuting this coming year and it will run March through June, and it’s with only Philadelphia based artists across a variety of different disciplines. So we hope that by inviting different people into the room to look at those works, not only can they talk about the content and the artists that we’re working with and their practice, but also situate it within a larger history of our town, of the community as it works here, and what Fringe has done being part of that community for nearly 25 years and how our role has changed.

Zach: And we’re still happy to announce here on this podcast that all of those recordings will be taking place at the 11,500 square foot Wawa at 6th and Chestnut. We’re kidding, but it just opened today. There was a parade.


Tenara: Also something we’re excited about with this podcast is, like Zach and Katy, were saying that this is a space for practitioners to be reflecting on our programming and on this ecosystem that we are very much a part of, both artistically, but also just organizationally. We FringeArts are a non-profit organization that exists in a city full of non-profit organizations that are doing incredible work, both as artistic institutions, and otherwise, and so we’re also hoping that the podcast will be a space for our community partners that are invested in our work just as much as we are to come in and share their perspectives on what we do and what they do.

Tenara: We actually already did one of those podcast recordings with the Director of Arts and Culture at Puentes de Salud, Nora Litz, and Reverend Danny Cortes, who is the Executive Vice-President of Esperanza, which is a massive organization in the Huntington Park neighborhood of Philadelphia. It’s doing incredible work, increasing the quality of life for their Latinx communities there. So more podcast episodes like that, I’m sure will be on the horizon.

Zach: Yeah, I think it’s important to all of us to situate this podcast and this institution in the city of Philadelphia. As we continue to bring in a lot of international arts and cultural opportunities for people, I think it’s always important for us to keep our feet on the ground in Philadelphia.

Tenara: Yeah, we’re not in a vacuum.

Zach: Yeah.

Raina: Well…

Tenara: Recognizing that as important.

Katy: Yeah.

Zach: I think as we move into 2019 here at FringeArts, I think that’s a big kind of driving force in a lot of ways. We’re definitely thinking internationally as well and checking with our peers, but one thing that’s so, so exciting is High Pressure Fire Service and what we’re doing there.

Tenara: Yeah. What a great segue.

Raina: Yeah, I know, I’m really excited about our programming for the spring. The shows we have, and that will be affectionately called HIP-FIZZ, for High Pressure Fire Service. They’re all so diverse, just on the topics that they touch on, where the artists are coming from.

Zach: The forms that they’ve used to build these pieces, the kind of territorial frameworks or sorry, performative frameworks, are all just really, really cool. And kinda bend our understanding of performance in Philadelphia in cool ways.

Tenara: Yeah.

Katy: And are also moving in exciting directions. We’ve thought of this series as a platform to really support the people that are here in our local community, but also to share how excited we are about them with the broader country and internationally. So, we’re so pleased that we’re able to provide important development support and commissioning funds. So that artists like this can then take their show on the road, whether that is to New York or to the Edinburgh Fringe festival or to other communities here within Philadelphia.

Tenara: Yeah, and like you were saying Zach, about, we’re not choosing between Philadelphia and our international partners, it’s actually, we can maintain our rootedness in Philly and still be very connected with the international artists and presenters that we work with, and in fact, we don’t have to sacrifice one or the other in creating spaces for cultural and international exchanges. So great for a Philly and for us.

Zach: Yeah. Listen, it’s not all service, like selfishly, I’m really excited for all of these shows. I’m so, so excited for the Blue Heaven Comedy festival, to have Michelle Buteau and Jaboukie Young-White and Cole Escola and Erin Markey with Emily Bate, all in our space over two days. It’s just a lot of activation, and it’s really us reaching deep into the alternative comedy scene, kind of nationally, and supporting this next wave of great American Voices in comedy.

I think it’s cool that we’re in that space and it’s cool that we’re thinking about the way that the Fringe dial and the Fringe aesthetic can in some way be expanded or… I guess more realistically, what we’re recognizing is that there’s a Fringe on every genre in every form and you dive in and you really learn about that form and those things tend to be, those spaces, those experimental and alternative spaces, tend to be where there’s a lot of innovation happening, and tend to be where there’s a lot of marginalized people and that was all important to me in building that card.

Tenara: Yeah, Fringe being a place where people are pushing on a boundary and the boundaries of form, the boundary of style, etcetera. That’s all in our programming.

Raina: One thing I will say I’m also really excited about are our accessibility and our diversity equity and inclusion efforts, it’s something that we are really focused on and are trying to find ways to incorporate more not just in providing audience services. So, having shows that do include ASL interpretation and audio description services, but also making sure that we are representative of… Making sure that we represent on the stage, what we also wanna see in our audience.

Zach: Yeah.

Katy: Totally.

Raina: And I know that our present team has been working so hard on that, and in really bringing in a diverse amount of artists and not just racially, or gender, but really across all bounds. One of the first shows in High Pressure Fire Service is “A Fierce Kind of Love,” which features a mixed ability cast. This is actually a re-mounting, so it had first come out of 2016, but we’re so excited to be able to bring people into our space who have maybe never been here before. And really make sure that our space is as accessible as possible for anyone coming through our doors.

Tenara: Yeah, and access is not just on the lines of race, of gender, of disability. Really, like you said, who hasn’t been in our space? Who has traditionally felt unwelcome in our space? We are starting a new teen volunteer program. We don’t have an education department, but we’re really committed to making sure that we are accessible to young people who wanna get involved and who care about the kind of programming and the kind of aesthetic that we’re curating. So we’re working with the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance and the Stamp program to start this new teen volunteer program. We have two teen council members who are spear-heading that program, and they are literally just the best and smartest 15 and 17-year-olds that I’ve ever met in my life.

Zach: Yeah.

Tenara: I was never that good when I was that age.

Zach: We’re thinking about how this space is welcoming to those audiences who are parents as well. I really think that accessibility, the more you dig into it, the more there is. It’s the paper fortune teller. You just open it up, and there’s just more and there’s more and there’s more. There’s just so many more communities and constituencies that we can open the doors to.

Tenara: And the recognition that it has to be integrated into literally every corner of what we do, where we are, who works here. It can’t be one additive of our programming. It has to be an integration into everything that we do. Otherwise, it’s not gonna be effective.

Katy: And it’s not solely external, either. It is really grounded in the hard questions that we’re asking ourselves as a staff, as an organization. So much of that is visible in the programming that we present and the ways in which we relate to audiences. But we have a Diversity Equity and Inclusion Committee here within our organization that’s formed of different staff members, and that has been embraced by our board. And we’re also working to build an advisory board that will help to serve us as we continue to move along and try to seek best opinions and best practices and advice from members of the community, so that we’re guided both from within and without as we move forward.

Zach: So those are kind of institutional New Year’s resolutions, but I think it might make sense for us to, given that this is a year-end episode, talk about what you wanted to accomplish in 2018, maybe personally or professionally, and what you’re looking forward to you for yourself in 2019. I’m not going first.

Raina: I can go first.

Katy: Should we go counter-clockwise this time?

Raina: Yes. Let’s go counter-clockwise, based on how we’re sitting.

Zach: We’re in a circle team.

Raina: We’re in a circle. Yeah, well, so it’s funny. On my 2018 New Year’s resolutions, I wrote a brief list just in my notes on my phone. One of them was take on more responsibility at work.

Zach: That worked out.

Katy: I would say that’s probably happened.

Tenara: And then eventually you became the sole person working in the department.

Raina: Yeah, there was a 7-month period where I and our lovely communications coordinator at that time, Hugh Wilikofsky… Who’s now over in development. So yeah I achieved that goal.

Tenara: The universe was like, “I see you and I raise you.”

[overlapping conversation]

Katy: Props to Raina for that incredible work and hard dedication in that transition period.

Tenara: Yeah.

Raina: Yeah, and Zach, too. I don’t know, maybe this is on your list…

Zach: I don’t remember that time.

Raina: Blocked it out. Yeah, it has been such a crazy year. I did so many things I didn’t expect to do, but also things that I was like, “Well, thank goodness. I like doing this.”

Zach: Do you remember when we did Fashion Machine in January?

Raina: That was so different.

Zach: That was this year.

Raina: Yeah.

Zach: That was 2018, and it’s just… That was a show that we presented a…

Tenara: That was such a good show by the way. I just wanna say. I came to that show as a patron of FringeArts and a lover of theater for young audiences, and I was blown away.

Zach: It’s a really special show. But it’s so wild to look back on this last year, because it simultaneously feels like it has passed in the blink on an eye and it took all year. So it’s interesting.

Raina: Yeah. The Fringe Festival went by so quickly. I felt like I was working towards Fringe Festival for so long. Then it happened and I was like, “Okay we did it.”

Zach: Absolutely.

Raina: Yeah, I’m so excited for 2019. We do have a whole bunch of new staff members. I’m no longer a department of one/two. I’m really excited to be working with our new marketing and communications director, Claire Frisbie, as well as Tenara and the rest of our new staff as well. On a personal note…

Tenara: Yeah, tell us your personal New Year’s resolution.

Raina: I’m just gonna plug this. I’m starting a quilting business. I said it was gonna happen this year, but it’s happening in 2019.

Tenara: I will definitely commission you for a big old quilt.

Raina: Yeah, they’re t-shirt quilts. It’s not just any old quilt.

Zach: All of your old beaver tees.

Raina: Very specific. It’s something I started after I graduated college, I made a college quilt, and then I made myself a high school quilt cause I was like, “I have too many t-shirts and I don’t wanna pay someone else to do it.”

Zach: Do you wanna make me a dog quilt?

Raina: I mean if you have… You actually… Zach is wearing, and has a lot of, dog head shot tshirts.

Tenara: It’s an aesthetic.

Raina: Yeah.

Zach: I have 15.

Tenara: It’s very Pinterest over there.

Zach: Pin who? Tenara, why don’t you talk to us about what you’ve accomplished.

Tenara: This is such a good exercise. I love questions like these. But yeah, in 2018, I felt really strongly that… I was working in early childhood education at the time, and I just knew that though I love working with kids and don’t necessarily wanna stop that work. I’m still teaching Improv at Philadelphia Improv Theater, which is really fun and exciting, to the babies, the little babies. I didn’t wanna stop doing that work, but I also knew that I wanted to be working more directly in my field and industry. I had no idea how that was gonna happen, which was kind of that aforementioned mid-20s crisis mode, where I just…

Zach: Your Saturn return.

Tenara: Yeah, my Saturn return, absolutely. I left my job at the pre-school blindly and threw myself off the ledge and just was like, “Here I go. Adventure Time.” But now I am working more directly in my industry, which is very, very exciting, so I feel good about that. My personal New Year’s resolution for 2019… I really haven’t thought about this enough, I probably should have but I just think I would really like to be able to run five miles without stopping.

Tenara: I feel like that’s totally achievable.

Katy: Absolutely.

Tenara: I run two miles without stopping now, so it’s fine.

Katy: And Tenera’s an amazing biker, you have so much stamina already.

Tenara: But biking and running are just so different.

Raina: Yeah, you can sit when you’re biking.

Tenara: You can sit when you’re biking. [laughter] Also I’m always riding my bike to arrive to places and running is very different than that. But yeah, that’s my low-ball New Year’s resolution. Katy, what about you?

Katy: Well, I’m thinking back to my 2018 resolutions and it’s funny you bring up Saturn return because as many of you know, Zach knows so much about astrology and I know very little, in fact, probably zero, but I learned briefly about what the Saturn Return was and it was calculated to be sometime in the next year and a half for me at the beginning of 2018, and it really freaked me out, and I was like, what is that? What is it gonna mean? .

Tenara: For listeners at home? What is the Saturn return?

Zach: It’s when Saturn is in the same place it was at the time of your birth and that happens generally around on your 27th year. It’s a reset in a certain way, to reflect a lot and for some people it is when your quarter life crisis happens.

Katy: So for the friends that I was drinking with who told me about this phenomenon, they all describe really traumatic things that happened to them, they were all my friends from the Cunningham company and for many of them, it had been when member’s passed or when they had a serious injury when they broke up with their significant life partner. So I was convinced that something really awful was going to happen, but instead I moved in to Philadelphia and I’m so happy about it.

Tenara: Well that’s so good. I was shielding myself I was like, oh no, oh no, oh no.

Katy: No, I just wanted to say I never could have imagined that this would have been where I ended up at the conclusion in 2018, but I’m really happy to be here and if this is my Saturn return and I have super lucked out. I’m so happy about that. I think my goal for 2019 is actually take an improv class, and I don’t even know that you taught that.

Tenara: Oh my gosh, Katy let’s talk.

Katy: So we definitely have lots to discuss. I have never done theater before or improv or anything in that way, so it’s gonna be totally outside of my comfort zone, but with our new Comedy Festival coming up, I’ve been inspired by Zach who’s taken improv classes and I know that I’m someone who will have a greater appreciation of the form, even if I do it in the smallest worst, most amateur way, it will just help me to understand it a little bit more and so I’m happy to do that.

Zach: That’s so cool.

Tenara: I’m so excited for your showing.

Zach: Katy’s gonna come back in here, we’re just gonna quip all day. It’s gonna be the worst. What did I choose myself in 2018. I was really making joke resolutions at that time, because I was playing in my head with the idea of what’s a resolution that no one would ever want you to accomplish or a resolution that means that if you accomplish it has a negative effect on your life.

Tenara: So what was it for you?

Zach: Mine was to marry someone in 2018, who I met in 2018.


Raina: You still have two weeks.

Zach: No, ’cause I changed it in July because I thought that, that was interesting and then the show Married at First Sight was casting in Philadelphia. So I was like this is it, this is so subversive and then I’ll write a book of poetry about it. I was really in that space and then I made a different choice to hit 2000 tinder matches this year, because the idea of hitting 2000 tinder matches and still being alone felt so, so funny and like a weird accomplishment threshold, like open channel, kinda feedback loop type thing.

Tenara: I’ve definitely hit that.

Zach: Me too! So I did it this year, I did accomplish it, it felt good, whatever, we traveled a lot. For 2019, I don’t know, I would like to document art, both my own and the things that I’m seeing, the things that we’re presenting here more rigorously. I’d like to keep a better record of what performances I saw, of what readings I was a part of, when I wrote kind of getting a better sense of my own practice. So that doesn’t feel random or shocked any it feels like maybe a laser, but I wanna keep up with my acupuncture practice. I had a great first acupuncture appointment.

Tenara: Zach, and I talk about this for so many minutes.

Zach: I want to tell you I was walking home like from my acupuncture appointment still feeling very just unsettled by like, oh my God, this is what it feels like to release years and years of pain from my musculature. It felt like in the Claritin commercial and they kill, the sepia tone.

Tenara: I resonate with that so much.

Zach: It really moved me.

Tenara: Hot tip, everybody check out acupuncture, West Philadelphia Community Acupuncture is a sliding scale acupuncture clinic.

Zach: There are lots of sliding-scale acupuncture clinics in Philadelphia and we will not endorse any of them.


Tenara: Oh really, we’re not okay. Well, I go to West Philly.

Zach: Yes, there are lots of great ones. Guys, I think we have to do some lightning round here.

Tenara: Yeah.

Zach: Yes, so Katy what work do you do outside of FringeArts.

Katy: Outside of Fringe, I work with two choreographers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Reiner, that work together, they’re dancers and artists living in New York City and I am their general manager so I handle all of their tours, administrative things, development, website, I do it all and I’m also a writer, I do mostly non-fiction. Whether it’s criticism or particularly historical pieces that look at history as it relates to the performing arts.

Zach: Tenara, what work do you do outside FringeArts.

Tenara: I am also a writer but I don’t write non-fiction. I am a first year playwright, at the Foundry Emergent Playwrights Lab with Play Penn. I also am one of a trio of podcast hosts for the podcast Sarah, Sarah and Sara, now available… No, I’m not gonna do that. And I, this is really stressing me out, this lightning round. I also make some of my own theatrical work. Raina.

Raina: I am a patron of the arts and a citizen of Philadelphia. I love seeing things and doing things around the city. As I mentioned, I quilt, a lot and I also am taking a little bit of a lull from acting and what not, but I might get back in to.

Tenara: Also you do an aerial yoga.

Raina: Yeah, I do aerial yoga, it’s so much fun.


Zach: What do I do outside of here? I love home cooking, I think that’s very, very important to me. I like to spend hours and hours and hours learning how to cook new things, pickling, canning. All of those things. And then, I… Yes, I am also a person who writes poetry. I…

Tenara: A poet?

Zach: Yes, I don’t like to call myself a poet, actually.

Raina: What a poet thing to say.

Zach: I generally would say I make poems or that I make poems and stories, poetry and story telling. I also do a little bit of comedy but it’s boring and there’s…

Katy: That’s not true, audience members, that’s not true.

Zach: A very serious world in which I will release a book in 2019, and it’s happening.

Tenara: Yes, that was what I was… Yeah, I was so excited for you to get there.

Zach: Yes, everybody’s… Is miming book hands at me like I don’t know that I’m doing a book.

Tenara: I just wanna make sure that you say it.

Zach: Yeah, but it’s a book primarily about a practice of seeing performance and refracting that through personal experience, through personal narrative. And it’s also about Bravo television programs, specifically reality TV shows, like “Vanderpump Rules” and “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” It deals with violence and queerness.

Katy: So now, last lightning round, let’s do high-brow/low-brow inspiration.

Tenara: Oh, my gosh.

Katy: Tenara?

Tenara: Oh. Oh, man, okay. My low-brow inspiration is probably “The Great British Bake Off.” Yeah, just in every… It inspires me in all aspects of my life.

Raina: Isn’t that high-brow because they’re British?

Tenara: No, it’s really not, though.


Zach: Have you ever seen “Geordie Shore” or “Love Island?”


Tenara: Oh. So yeah, it just inspires me to bake more and to just be a kinder person. So I think that that’s really important. My high-brow inspiration… This is really quite a question, but I just have a lot of amazing mentors and practitioners who are doing community engagement in the arts and they have thought so much about ethical and effective practices of how to make that happen organizationally and also, as independent artists. And so I am just… I continue to be deeply, deeply inspired by their work, and love just… I’m very lucky to have a position in this organization where part of my work is to just talk to them and listen to them about what they do and take copious notes about what they do, and ramble on with them on the phone.

Raina: Need to perfect the lightning round. [laughter]

Zach: I know, I’m so sorry. Low-brow, “Great British Bake Off”; high-brow, my friends who are doing some comparable work. Go.

Raina: Okay, low brow is two. It’s Shakespeare, ’cause I’m putting him in… Definitely low-brow, but I love him. And then other one is “The Bachelor,” entire franchise. Shoutout to “Bachelor in Paradise.” High-brow, I’m gonna say is FringeArts and also, actually all of the Philadelphia theater community. ‘Cause I kind of am on this binary where I’m like watching trash TV and then I go see like really thoughtful topical pieces in theater and I’m like, “This is not an aesthetic, this is just… ” We’re all over the map.

Zach: Okay. I only picked poets, really, for high-brow, which is… Sorry. My high-brow inspiration’s Sam Sax, Jason B. Smith, Morgan Parker, Kimberly Drew, Aziza Barnes and… Yeah, that’s them.

Tenara: Low-brow?

Zach: Low-brow… Oh, you guys know.My low-brow is huge, it’s like an iceberg. I… “Vanderpump Rules,” absolutely; “Vanderpump Dogs”; “Sexy, Unique, Restaurant”; Charli XCX, AG Cook, anything about Twitter culture, sci-fi… And I’ve never been more excited for any film than I am for Godzilla: King of Monsters.


Zach: I wept during the trailer.

Katy: I love it. Okay, high-brow. For me, it’s really been our international partners, Zach and I have opportunities throughout the year to travel to see other festivals around the world. And so we went to Complètement in Canada this year, which is a circus festival, and then I went to two different festivals in France. One which is in Paris and then the TNB Theatre Festival in Brittany, and both of those were deeply inspirational. Not only thinking about their government and funding structures that are very different than ours, but also the amazing art that’s coming out of those areas. Low-brow, for me, is Instagram, which I love paging through. And also, musicals, which I don’t necessarily think has to be in the low-brow category, but compared with what we do, sometimes ends up there and I love them very deeply.

Raina: Awesome.

Tenara: Wow.

Zach: Broadway found wig-less.

Tenara: I wanna talk to you more about categorizing musicals as low-brow, ’cause… Not in the comin’ at you way, Katy, but just because that is my instinct as well, but I just know so many people who would disagree.

Zach: Who would absolutely disagree.

Katy: Totally.

Zach: But Sondheim is very, very far away from “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

Tenara: I would agree with that.

Raina: Well, this sounds like a discussion for another podcast episode.

Zach: Next time on “Happy Hour on The Fringe,” Broadway: High-Brow/Low-Brow.

Raina: Thank you so much for joining us through this journey through our journeys to FringeArts.

Zach: Send us your new year’s resolutions, we wanna know what you’re committing to professionally, artistically and low-browing-ly.

Raina: Yeah. Comment on Facebook and Twitter with the #HHOF, for “Happy Hour On the Fringe.”

Katy: And if you don’t already follow us, make sure to follow FringeArts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and on our app.

Katy: Until then…

Zach: Thank you for joining us.

Tenara: We’ll see you in 2019.

Zach: Have such a good New Year’s, everybody.

Raina: Happy New Year.

Zach: Punchy little episode.

Tenara: Yeah.

[Music Outro]

When an Ensemble Becomes a Family: The Cast of Pa’lante Stops by Happy Hour on the Fringe

Posted November 9th, 2018
[spreaker type=player resource=”episode_id=16164001″ width=”100%” height=”200px” theme=”light” playlist=”false” playlist-continuous=”false” autoplay=”false” live-autoplay=”false” chapters-image=”true” episode-image-position=”right” hide-logo=”false” hide-likes=”false” hide-comments=”false” hide-sharing=”false” ]

“Pa’lante is one thing we have in common. From childhood, we know, the LatinX people know that pa’lante means struggle, that you’ve got to move forward every day, that you have to work hard in order to have a tomorrow…”


Throughout the year, First Person Arts provides a platform for Philadelphians to share their personal stories, but every November, the year of programming culminates with the First Person Arts Festival, two weeks of first-person accounts of love, loss, pleasure, pain, and everything in between. Gabriela Sanchez, Philadelphia native, actress, and founder of Power Street Theatre, will be bringing the stories of a diverse group of LatinX art makers to the First Person Arts Festival stage with her show Pa’lante.

Ivan Vila, Virginia Sanchez, Alexandra Espinoza, Rachel O’hanlan-Rodriguez, Diana Rodriguez, Tony Mendez, and Erlina Ortiz join Gabriela in sharing their personal experiences in this piece of devised theatre. Pa’lante is about how members of the LatinX community find themselves “navigating Latinidad, navigating legacy, navigating tradition, navigating the five senses” and “how people navigate moving forward with their bodies and their spirit.”

Over wine, Ivan, Gabriela, and Virginia tell Happy Hour on the Fringe hosts, Raina and Tenara, more about what the audience can expect from Pa’lante. They give us a BTS look at the process of creating the show—how the cast came together, what it is like to be a part of a diverse ensemble telling “multidimensional and intergenerational” stories, their new extended family, the common threads that connect the individual stories, and what ‘pa’lante’ means to them.

Listen to Episode 16 of Happy Hour on the Fringe above or on our Spreaker page.

Come see Pa’lante Nov 11 & 12 at FringeArts. Tickets available at FringeArts.com.

Happy Hour on the Fringe: Circa Contemporary Circus’ Libby McDonnell & Nathan Boyle

Posted October 11th, 2018

Libby McDonnell and Nathan Boyle from Circa Contemporary Circus stop by Happy Hour on the Fringe to chat about their breathtaking show Humans.

Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin

Circa Contemporary Circus, one of the world’s leading performance companies at the forefront of the new wave of contemporary Australian circus, has been wowing audiences around the world since 2004. The company is known to use extreme physicality to create breathtaking performances that straddle the worlds of circus, dance, and physical theatre. Last month, Circa traveled all the way from Brisbane to close the 2018 Fringe Festival with a dynamic exploration of what it means to be human. Before wowing Fringe Festival audiences with their performances of Humans, Circa’s associate director, Libby McDonnell, and senior acrobat, Nathan Boyle, sat down with host of Happy Hour on the Fringe Zach Blackwood at the Annenberg Center for Performing Arts. They gave him a peek into the creation of Humans and their current tour of the piece.   To learn more about Circa Contemporary Circus visit circa.org.au. Let us know you think of podcast, and check back next week for a new episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe.

[spreaker type=player resource=”episode_id=15930814″ width=”100%” height=”200px” theme=”light” playlist=”false” playlist-continuous=”false” autoplay=”false” live-autoplay=”false” chapters-image=”true” episode-image-position=”right” hide-logo=”false” hide-likes=”false” hide-comments=”false” hide-sharing=”false” ]

Happy Hour on the Fringe with the creators of Variations on Themes from Lost and Found, Ishmael Houston-Jones and Miguel Gutierrez

Posted September 28th, 2018

FringeArts’s signature podcast, Happy Hour on the Fringe, is our chance to relax, have a drink, and get to know the inner workings of our favorite artists’ minds. Grab a drink of your own and join hosts Raina, Zach, and Katy for the laughs and conversation every Wednesday.

Ishmael Houston-Jones and Miguel Gutierrez returned to Philadelphia to introduce Fringe Festival audiences to Ishmael’s friend and collaborator, John Bernd, in their profoundly moving Fringe Festival piece Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and other works bHappy Hour on the Fringe Logoy John Bernd. In the piece, the duo took excerpts of dance performances created by John Bernd in the last seven years of his life and reimagined them to create an entirely new work that captures the vitality of John’s vision, demonstrates how his influence lives in modern-day dance, and serves as a blueprint for what his work might have become. 

Now, the collaborators stop by Happy Hour on the Fringe, and tell our hosts Katy, Raina, and Zach more about the life, legacy and work of the dancer, choreographer, artist, and friend and how the dance and gay communities are still affected by and mourning the loss of so many artists to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Grab a drink and listen to the conversation below or here.

[spreaker type=player resource=”show_id=2728674″ width=”100%” height=”200px” theme=”light” playlist=”false” playlist-continuous=”false” autoplay=”false” live-autoplay=”false” chapters-image=”true” episode-image-position=”right” hide-logo=”false” hide-likes=”false” hide-comments=”false” hide-sharing=”false” ]