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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.

Jess: OUR FRIEND 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 Reese is on scenic design, Jack Tampuri on the Dramaturgy. Lavonne 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?!

Jenn: TAKE THAT!

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.

When an Ensemble Becomes a Family: The Cast of Pa’lante Stops by Happy Hour on the Fringe

Posted November 9th, 2018
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“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…”

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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.

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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.

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