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

Posted June 7th, 2019

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

Listen to the episode and read the transcript below.

Feature Photo by Bob Sweeney

Conversation with Camae Ayewa aka Moor Mother

[Music Intro]

 

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

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

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

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

Camae: Yes.

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

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

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

Camae: I’m drinking a spice chai.

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

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

(Laughter)

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

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

(Laughter)

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

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

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

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

Tenara: Mm hm.

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

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

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

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

Tenara and Raina: Mm hm.

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

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

Tenara: Mm hm.

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

Tenara: Yeah.

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

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

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

Raina: Really?

Camae: Yeah.

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

Camae: Definitely!

(laughter)

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

Tenara: Do you still play basketball?

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

Tenara: Wow.

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

(laughter)

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

Camae: Oh yeah, as a kid, yeah.

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

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

Raina: Okay.

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

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

Camae: Cool! That is so cool!

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

Camae: You gotta sign up two more people.

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

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

Raina: Yeah.

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

Tenara: Yeah.

Camae: Why not?

Tenara: Yeah.

Raina: Yeah.

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

(laughter)

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

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

Tenara and Raina: Hmm.

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

Raina: Ben Franklin is everywhere.

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

Raina: Mm hm.

Tenara: Yeah.

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

Raina: Mm hm.

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

Tenara: Right.

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

Raina: Mm hm.

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

Raina: Mm hm.

Camae: So…in mainly housing.

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

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

(laughter)

Tenara: Whoops.

Camae: You know what I mean?

Tenara and Raina: Yeah.

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

Tenara: Right.

Raina: Mm hm.

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

Raina: Mm hm.

Tenara: Yeah.

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

Raina: Yeah.

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

Tenara: Mm hm.

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

Raina: Okay.

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

Raina: Mm hm.

Tenara: Yeah.

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

Raina: Yes!

Tenara: Yeah!

Camae: That kind of thing.

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

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

Tenara: Mm hm.

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

Raina: Yeah.

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

Tenara and Raina: Mm hm.

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

Tenara and Raina: Mm hm.

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

Tenara: Yeah.

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

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

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

Raina: They psyche themselves out…

Camae: Yeah…

Raina: …even if they do hear about it.

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

Raina: Yeah.

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

Tenara: Right.

Camae: You know what I mean?

Raina: Yeah?

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

Tenara: Yeah.

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

Tenara: Hmm. Cool.

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

Tenara: Yeah.

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

Camae: Mm hm.

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

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

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

Tenara: Mm hm.

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

Tenara: Yeah, totally.

Camae: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Camae: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

Tenara: …is the box.

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

Camae: Mm hm.

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

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

(laughter)

Raina: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

Raina: Wonderful.

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

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

Tenara: Okay, cool.

Camae: And hopefully, some library will take it.

Raina: Thank you.

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

Raina: Yeah.

Tenara: Thanks, Camae!

Raina: Thank you!

[Music Outro]

Who’s Who in High Pressure Fire Service, part two

Posted April 2nd, 2019
by Raina Searles, Marketing Manager

In March, we kicked off High Pressure Fire Service (or more colloquially, HPFS, pronounced “hip-fizz”) with an incredibly moving production chronicling the disability rights movement in A Fierce Kind of Love, produced by the Institute on Disabilities at Temple University, and we followed that with a thought-provoking musical satire about the American abortion debate, The Appointment, by Lightning Rod Special. In just a couple weeks, we’ll kick off a highly interactive show made for a family unit and exploring the line between play and performance, Broccoli, Roosevelt and Mr House! by the Berserker Residents. But today, we’re talking about the final three shows in HPFS: where you’ve seen these artists, what to expect in their work, and breaking down Who’s Who in High Pressure Fire Service…part two.

Coming up this May,  A Hard Time by Pig Iron Theatre Company opens at FringeArts. Long time Fringe fans will recognize Pig Iron from many of their notable devised works presented by FringeArts. Most recently, they produced A Period of Animate Existence in the 2017 Fringe Festival. Other recent works include Swamp Is On (2015), 99 BREAKUPS (2014), Pay Up (2013), Zero Cost House (2012), Twelfth Night, or What You Will (2011), and many more going back to the origins of the Fringe Festival in 1997!

What makes A Hard Time stand out, however, is that this is the first production with female lead artists and with lead artists who are not one of the Artistic Directors of Pig Iron Theatre Company. Jess Conda, Jenn Kidwell, and Mel Krodman are no strangers to the FringeArts stage though. Jess Conda is a cabaret and performing artist who was mostly recently seen on our stage in the cabaret extravaganza, Do You Want A Cookie? by the Bearded Ladies Cabaret in the 2018 Fringe Festival, but you may have also caught her in 1812 Productions’ Broads this past February. She has also joined us onstage for Get Pegged Cabaret in the past, 99 BREAKUPS (2014) and Pay Up (2013) with Pig Iron, and as a band member of the popular group Red 40 and the Last Groovement. In Philadelphia, she’s also a Teaching Artist at Wilma Theatre, has performed with a multitude of organizations including BRAT Productions, Arden Theatre, and Shakespeare in Clark Park, and she is a two-time Barrymore nominee for Outstanding Ensemble in a Play.

Jenn Kidwell has collaborated with a number of past Fringe artists and is notably not only a company member of Lightning Rod Special, but is also the lead artist on their work Underground Railroad Game, which won an Obie Award in 2017 for Best New American Theatre Work and was hailed as one of the 25 Best American Plays Since Angels in America. She was last seen on the FringeArts stage in Geoff Sobelle’s HOME in the 2017 Fringe Festival, and was also seen recently in Sans Everything with Lighting Rod Special and 99 BREAKUPS with Pig Iron.

Mel Krodman is also a familiar face, especially if you came to see THE TOP at FringeArts in 2017 from No Face Performance Group. As a company member of Pig Iron Theatre Company, Mel was also seen in A Period of Animate Existence (2017) and Swamp Is On (2015), and she has choreographed a number of works with collaborator Kelly Bond, appearing in the Independent Fringe Festival (Elephant (2010) and Colony (2012)) and our season programming as well (JEAN & TERRY: Your Guides Through Dark, Light and Nebulous (November 2016)). Mel is also in another High Pressure Fire Service show, which leads us to June…

¡BIENVENIDOS BLANCOS! or WELCOME WHITE PEOPLE! Photo by Kate Raines

Team Sunshine Performance Corporation (TSPC) will be producing the third iteration of their 24-year series The Sincerity Project. This work, The Sincerity Project #3 (2019), will feature the same cast as the first two productions and follow the lives of the performer-creators as they change and grow every two years. Dedicated to creating opportunities for people to share in the pleasures and difficulties of our collective contemporary experience, Team Sunshine was last seen on the FringeArts stage in April 2018 with their bilingual production ¡BIENVENIDOS BLANCOS! or WELCOME WHITE PEOPLE!, and in 2017 for The Society of Civil Discourse, a co-production with The Philly Pigeon. The cast features Mel Krodman (see above), Benjamin Camp (Founding member of TSPC), Makoto Hirano (Founding member of TSPC) , Aram Aghazarian, Jenna Horton, Mark McCloughan, and Rachel Camp and is directed by Alex Torra (Founding member of TSPC).

These performers come from all over Philadelphia every two years to put together the next iteration of The Sincerity Project, and where are they now? Benjamin has performed with a number of groups around Philadelphia (Pig Iron, Shakespeare in Clark Park, etc) and was lead artist for TSPC’s Punchkapow, Terrarium, and Zombie Defense. Currently, he is also a realtor with The Kelly Group, selling houses to artists all over Philadelphia. A former US Marine, Makoto is currently a dance and theatre artist who has created over 20 original roles and collaborated with artists such as Bill Irwin, Thaddeus Phillips, and also Pig Iron Theatre Company. In addition to co-founding Team Sunshine, he also created an art duo, Gatto+Hirano. Aram is currently on the faculty at the Pig Iron School and has performed with the company as well (Swamp Is On (2015), 99 BREAKUPS (2014), Pay Up (2013)), co-founded Strange Attractor Theatre Company (Sans Everything (2017)), and has also performed with Lightning Rod Special and SwimPony Performing Arts in the past. A performer as well as a writer for thINKingDANCE, Jenna has collaborated with a wide range of artists including past Team Sunshine works, Annie Wilson, The Berserker Residents, SwimPony, Applied Mechanics, Lightning Rod Special, Shakespeare in Clark Park, Chris Davis, and The Bearded Ladies Cabaret.

THE TOP

Mark is one half of No Face Performance Group with Jaime Maseda (recently seen in The Appointment last month) and performed THE TOP (2017) at FringeArts. They are also a writer and visual artist, with poetry awards from the American Poetry Review and L+S Press. Rachel is a theater and teaching artist who has performed across the city with Philadelphia Theatre Company, Opera Philadelphia, Arden Theater, 1812 Productions and more, and she has been nominated for 5 Barrymore awards, winning Outstanding Supporting Performance in a Musical for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Theatre Horizon. And finally, director Alex Torra is a Swarthmore professor, a 2018 Pew Fellow, the director for all of TSPC’s major works, a regular collaborator with Pig Iron Theatre Company, and he has received fellowships from the Independence Foundation, the Philadelphia Live Arts Brewery, the Princess Grace Foundation, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and NY’s Drama League. The cast of The Sincerity Project #3 (2019) has touched just about every corner of Philadelphia theater.

In late June, we’re excited to close out High Pressure Fire Service with a new work that’s part musical, part choreopoem, and part play, Circuit City by Camae Ayewa, stage name: Moor Mother. Camae is a prolific poet and noise musician who has made Philadelphia her home and is taking on the housing crisis, highlighting the connections between public and private ownership and technology through original poetry and live music by the Irreversible Entanglements and the Circuit City band.

Camae is co-founder of Black Quantum Futurism Collective, a literary and artistic collaboration with Rasheedah Phillips, and Rockers! Philly, an event series and festival focused on marginalized artists. As Moor Mother, she has released more than a dozen EPs since 2012, and just recently became one of the newest members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, a group whose work she’s long admired. She’ll be featured on their upcoming album We Are On the Edge later this year. In her music and her public work, Camae sees herself as an archivist of black memory against erasure, and this work will be no exception. You can get a feel for Moor Mother’s musical style by listening to her 2018 album, FETISH BONES.

We’re excited for such a creative and collaborative cohort of artists to be joining us at FringeArts this May and June. Click below for more information on each show, and make sure to purchase a subscription for the best deals on tickets! You can also check out our blog post: Who’s Who in High Pressure Fire Service, part one.

A Hard Time
Pig Iron Theatre Company
May 1–12, 2019

The Sincerity Project #3 (2019)
Team Sunshine Performance Corporation
June 4–8, 2019

Circuit City
Moor Mother
June 20–22

HPFS Subscriptions:
15% off tickets to 3-4 performances / 30% off for members

Single Tickets:
$31 general / $21.70 members
$15 students and 25-and-under
$2 FringeACCESS members

HPFS: A Commitment to Philadelphia

Posted February 25th, 2019

With the opening show in the new High Pressure Fire Service series kicking off this weekend, FringeArts Artistic Producers Zach Blackwood and Katy Dammers share what HPFS really stands for and why we’re pumped about the next few months of programming at FringeArts.

A HISTORY

HPFS philadelphia

Photo by Robby Virus

In 1903, he FringeArts building at the intersection of Columbus and Race Streets opened as the nation’s first High Pressure Fire Service system, its name carved on the east and west façades. Water was pumped from the Delaware River via a six-foot diameter pipe into the brick edifice and then funneled out to more than 900 fire hydrants from Girard Avenue to South Street. This innovative system allowed firefighters to shoot a two-inch stream of water 230 feet in the air and led to a significant decline in fire-related deaths and damages. With this reassurance, insurance companies subsequently dropped additional charges on tall buildings, and Philadelphia’s downtown area entered a renewed period of urban growth and architectural advancement. Though the pipeline from the Delaware has long since been capped and decommissioned, a spidering pathway of pipeworks still connects our building to a huge swath of the city: to cafés and community centers, taverns and libraries, and inevitably several cheesesteak spots.

A NEW PRESENTATION SERIES

With High Pressure Fire Service (HPFS), we are affirming an investment in artists living and working in Philadelphia. We believe there’s something special about this city—something tender and grumpy and people-powered. Over four months this spring, we are excited to present five new works and one expanded remount—pieces that exemplify the ways in which these artists are deepening and expanding their practices. Through residency support, commission funding, technical advising, programmatic counseling, and community engagement, each artist has approached this opportunity uniquely.

Suli Holum and the Institute of Disabilities at Temple University open High Pressure Fire Service with an expanded version of A Fierce Kind of Love, their multidisciplinary dramatization of the intellectual disability rights movement in Philadelphia, by incorporating new oral histories and contextual information in this multifaceted show that puts accessibility first. Following their Obie-Award winning theater-work Underground Railroad Game, Lighting Rod Special’s new piece The Appointment considers bodily autonomy and the navigation of reproductive rights in ways alternatively hilarious and sobering. The Berserkers are creating a work for audiences of all ages for the first time, employing their clown and physical-theater training to engage children and adults alike in Broccoli, Roosevelt and Mr. House!. A Hard Time is the first Pig Iron Theatre Company production created by artists other than their artistic directors, with Jess Conda, Jenn Kidwell, and Mel Krodman taking the lead in a comedic cabaret that reveals the violence and absurdity of gender-based expectations. Team Sunshine Performance Corporation reflects on their commitment to long-form performance practice as they present the third iteration of their 24-year project The Sincerity Project.  Moor Mother employs a theater-based work for the first time, bringing her interdisciplinary practice in music, poetry, and performance to consider housing insecurity entitled Circuit City.

The breadth of the work in HPFS exemplifies something concrete and intangible about what we value: a bootstrapping sensibility, a rebellious empathy, and a fructifying density in the footprint. In the last ten years, our city has emerged as a particularly generative environment as young artists are drawn by training opportunities at our many universities and newer artistic programs like Pig Iron Theatre Company’s graduate program and Headlong Performance Institute. Upon graduation we have seen artists continually commit to living in Philadelphia—drawn equally by its frontiers and its gritty spirit. We hope that this program will provide a valuable opportunity not only to survey the wide perspectives of this inaugural group of artists, but to also consider the state of the Philadelphia arts ecosystem at large.

Through conversations and companion programming for each presentation we will also consider the relationship between these artists, their work, and the city in collaboration with organizations including the Free Library of Philadelphia, Women’s Medical Fund, Puentes de Salud, and Smith Memorial Playground among others. These works and artists are poised to tour and develop beyond the city limits, embracing the nimble and flexible nature of the work created at FringeArts and grounded in the DIY-ethos that rings in the air here specifically.

As much as High Pressure Fire Service is a platform for Philadelphia artists to stretch themselves, it is also a call for us to challenge ourselves and our institution. We are committed to doubling down on our dedication to local artists, investing in relationship-building across the many communities of our city, and working to make FringeArts more accessible and welcoming. This first year is just the beginning, and we look forward to the ways this festival will grow and change to include an even broader range of artists and collaborations in the future.

Zach Blackwood and Katy Dammers
Artistic Producers at FringeArts

Featured Photo by Robin Barnes

Happy Hour on the Fringe: Phyllis Chen & Nathan Davis talk In Plain Air

Posted September 21st, 2018

FringeArts’ signature podcast series Happy Hour on the Fringe is back with International Contemporary Ensemble‘s Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis.

Phyllis Chen at an In Plain Air workshop.

During a residency at Christ Church, composers Chen (known for her work with hand-wound music boxes and toy pianos) and Davis (a percussionist fascinated by the mechanics of instruments) immersed themselves in the sound-making possibilities of the church’s newly installed organ, bells, and open spaces, as well as the history and public role of the venerable institution. The resulting compositions form In Plain Air, presented this weekend in partnership with Christ Church Preservation Trust as part of the 2018 Fringe Festival.

In this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, the pair chat with hosts Zach and Katy about In Plain Air, the organ that will outlive us all, and Nathan’s security record.

Listen to the episode here.

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Performances of In Plain Air will take place on September 22nd at 1pm, 3:30pm, and 6pm, and on September 23rd at 3:30pm and 6pm. Tickets are available at FringeArts.com or through the FringeArts app.

In Plain Air Will Close the Fringe Festival on a High Note

Posted September 19th, 2018

The 2018 Fringe Festival signs off this weekend on a high note. And a low note. And all varieties of notes in between. A free multi-movement program by International Contemporary Ensemble, In Plain Air takes listeners around the historic Christ Church campus in five daytime performances September 22 and 23.

Created by composers Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis, In Plain Air celebrates the installation of the brand new C.B. Fisk pipe organ at Christ Church. It features work performed on the impressively huge new instrument, the centuries-old church bells, and all manners of other instruments. It’s the perfect project for Davis, a percussionist fascinated by the mechanics of instruments, whose work brings out the acoustics of sound-making devices and the physicality of playing them. Davis talked to FringeArts about the pieces that make up In Plain Air and the process leading to this weekend’s performances.

FringeArts: How does this project fit into your larger career?

Nathan Davis: I have long been fascinated with instruments, such as the organ, that place intermediary mechanical steps between the performer and the sound production. Ten years ago I wrote a piece for Phyllis called “The Mechanics of Escapement” for toy piano and clock chimes that are played by pulling long cords. And other pieces of mine explore the relationship of distance, separation, and communication. This project takes that one step further: the organ is a vast mechanical instrument. My work here is partly on the components of the machine (air, bellows, valves, keys, etc.) and their correlation with the instruments that the organ emulates.

FringeArts: How does it fit into International Contemporary Ensemble’s mission?

Nathan Davis: The project is closely tied to its multiple missions of creating and commissioning new work, building new audiences, and connection with place.

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Of Arms and the Man They Sing: Interview with Donald Nally

Posted September 15th, 2018

The artistic director of contemporary choral group The Crossing, Donald Nally has served as chorus master at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Welsh National Opera, Opera Philadelphia, and for many seasons at the Spoleto Festival in Italy. He’s been music director of Cincinnati’s Vocal Arts Ensemble, chorus master at The Chicago Bach Project, and guest conductor throughout Europe and the United States, most notably with the Grant Park Symphony Chorus, the Philharmonia Chorus (London), the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, and the Latvian State Choir (Riga). Along with The Crossing, he won the 2018 Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance with Gavin Bryars’ The Fifth Century.

This Fringe, Nally and The Crossing bring their singular choral aesthetic to the Fringe for one-night only, in a new program featuring a world premiere by composer Ted Hearne. Nally spoke to FringeArts about Of Arms and the Man.

FringeArts: What inspired the use of the Virgil quote as the title? Do you remember where you were when that idea came about?

Donald Nally: The Park Avenue Armory asked me to develop a program for their ornate historic reception rooms.  Being the Armory, I got thinking about how the military has changed since those rooms were built; how it was a point of honor for the aristocracy that today mostly avoids it at all cost. So here are these beautiful rooms and they are a kind of monument to what we actually do in war: rich older people throw young people at a problem….So, we sing, and we do so about arms and about people: “Of arms and the man I sing.”  And, it’s a journey, so the first line of the Aeneid captures the whole thing well. I liked the program so much I wanted to bring it to the Fringe because you don’t need elegant 19th-century rooms to ask these kinds of questions: life, war, wealth, death, purpose. In fact, the clarity of FringeArts Theater is going to be a great environment for this musical discussion.

FringeArts: What themes or qualities unite the pieces in this program?

Donald Nally: The concert takes a look at life and war and life during war from a number of angles.  Some of it is national pride, some of it is grief, some of it is anger. Of course, I do not know quite what Ted’s new piece will be, but it’s going to fit into this overall theme of how we agree or disagree across nations and continents and what we’re actually doing when we act on those alliances or arguments.

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Happy Hour on the Fringe with Donald Nally of The Crossing

Posted September 13th, 2018

FringeArts continues its signature podcast series Happy Hour Hour on the Fringe.

The Crossing. Photo by Becky Oehlers Photography.

In this episode, Donald Nally, co-founder and conductor of The Crossing, joins hosts Zach and Raina to discuss the choral group’s unexpected origins, his brand spanking new Grammy hat, and The Crossing’s Fringe Festival show Of Arms and the Man.

Of Arms and the Man presents an enticing program of choral pieces performed by the 24-voice ensemble under the direction of Nally. In keeping with The Crossing’s mission of presenting new works for choir, the program features a world premiere from 2018 Pulitzer Prize finalist Ted Hearne—the nation’s preeminent composer of works of social advocacy—and a rare live performance of David Lang’s “depart.” Catch the Festival performance September 16 at 8pm at FringeArts, 140 N. Columbus Boulevard.

Listen now to the the wide-ranging conversation about the show and Meg’s signature performance technique.

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Revisiting Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. With a Bear.

Posted September 6th, 2018

This my excavation

In 2006, musician Justin Vernon left North Carolina after two breakups: with his band and longtime girlfriend. Broke, heartbroken, he drove back to his home state of Wisconsin and spent a cold autumn and winter in his father’s hunting cabin. There he cut wood, drank, and wrote and recorded one of the finest, most emotionally moving, rawly authentic albums of this young millenium.

That’s the story.

It’s one that playwright Doug Williams and director Maura Krause wanted to explore and flip over. “We’re both music obsessives, and the story behind Bon Iver’s first album is a modern music legend,” says Williams. “But there are larger questions about the ‘broken male genius’ that feel really primed to be pushed back upon right now.”

These questions get a outlandish treatment in the pair’s world premiere Fringe Festival show, Bon Iver Fights A Bear, which opens tomorrow. “We figured, if we’re really trying to tell this story in the most outrageous way possible, we gotta have this talking bear narrate it and sort of call bullshit on the mythology of the whole thing,” says Williams.

“We want to explore the ways in which we romanticize the story of the white-male-genius-type that retreats to the woods to get over his heartbreak,” adds performer Emily Schuman, who plays Bon Iver, hipster beard and all. (The moniker was taken from French for “happy winter,” a repeated greeting in cult TV show Northern Exposure.) “Really, he was just a 24-year-old kid who was trying to figure himself out but ended up doing something incredibly honest.”

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Kick Off Your Fringe With Johnny Showcase!

Posted September 4th, 2018

There’s more to the Fringe Festival than just the awesome array of shows listed in our Guide. Each night, after the Fringe it’s the after-Fringe at the FringeArts headquarters at Race Street and Columbus Boulevard. Performers and audiences alike congregate at La Peg and the Haas Biergarten for drinks, games, DJs, and pop-up entertainment.

The Festival launches this Friday with the annual FREE rager, the Festival Kick Off Party with popular 10-piece band Johnny Showcase, a joyful sexy psychedelic dance funk experience, complete with heavy jazz fusion elements.

An absurdist soul outfit based in Philadelphia, Johnny Showcase is an innovative, joyful tour-de-force that toes the line between performance art and a psychedelic soul revival. Carrying the torch of funk-rock pioneers like Funkadelic and Frank Zappa, the group has gained a massive following and become something of a funky Philly folk hero legend.

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2018 Festival Spotlight: Family Friendly Fringe

Posted August 24th, 2018

The Fringe isn’t always adults only! Everyone is welcome at these fun, engaging performances suitable for the whole family.

Chichi Chip (an ode to the Gnarly)
Philly Kerplop
An interactive performance featuring hip-hop dance and a live marching band, taking place in Philly’s iconic LOVE Park. Philly Kerplop’s display of humor and daring physical dexterity will activate the park spaces in ways that feel both familiar and awe-inspiring.
More info and tickets here

FIGMAGO
Meg Saligman Studio
FIGMAGO is part art installation, part room escape, and all parts wonderfully immersive. Enter the mind of a muralist as you explore secret passages and mesmerizing art to discover a mysterious mural that comes to life. YOU become the artist as the story unfolds. Hands-on and phone-free fun for all ages!
More info and tickets here

Garden of Vessels
Sina Marie (I Am a Vessel Youth Initiative)
Welcome to the future of the pop-up garden phenomenon. Imagine a garden where imagination and technology fall in love, cultivating the minds and innate abilities of the youth to a full bloom. Visionary Sina Marie creates an interactive experience. A diaspora from the underground up! We welcome you to…the Garden of Vessels.
More info and tickets here

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Sorority of Storytelling: Sisters Combine Choreography and Bodypainting in Paprika Plains

Posted August 22nd, 2018

Natalie Fletcher and Jessica Noel are two talented creative sisters, but they’ve never performed on stage together… until this Fringe.

Fletcher, winner of the inaugural season of the body painting reality competition show, Skin Wars, will team up with Noel, a dance-theater artist who directs performance/education space and performance company Philly PACK, in an interdisciplinary storytelling performance inspired by singer Joni Mitchell’s 1977 album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. Paprika Plains will run September 21 and 22 at 7 p.m. at the Philly PACK garage in South Philadelphia.

Natalie Fletcher bodypainting.

“This collaboration is something we’ve wanted to do for a while, but the timing was never right, until now,” said Fletcher.

Fletcher and Noel spent their childhood in Amarillo on the plains of West Texas and the sisters’ production tells a story of two sisters growing up in West Texas, finding their individual paths, but always coming back together with a common language: love. Lily Blaines-Sussman, a member of the Philly PACK company, will dance as the young dancing sister, and Noel will dance as the adult. At various times throughout the production, the dancers will pause and Fletcher will come in to the performance, painting the dancers, the backdrop, while pushing the story along.

“We are attempting to tell a story with choreography and bodypainting,” says Noel. It’s a truly interdisciplinary Fringe performance: There is also a sculptural installation, theatrical lighting elements, and live music—Philadelphia musician Heather Blakeslee of Sweetbriar Rose will play Joni Mitchell covers as the audience enters.

“We want to transport the audience to a very specific world as soon as they enter,” adds Noel. “The world is Joni Mitchell and paint. Heather and the bartenders will be painted by Natalie before the show starts. The whole project is somewhat of an installation.”

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Happy Hour on the Fringe with Heiner Goebbels

Posted August 21st, 2018

FringeArts signature podcast returns with the first episode in a new series of enthralling Festival-related shows.

Frankfurt-based composer and director Heiner Goebbels has had his work produced around the world including his native Germany, Switzerland, England and New York. He taught for nearly 20 years at the Institute for Applied Theatre Studies in Giessen (1999–2018) and served as president of the Theatre Academy Hessen for twelve years (2006–2018). He was the artistic director of the International Festival of the Arts Ruhrtriennale for two years and and received the first appointment for the newly established Georg Büchner Professorship in 2018.

His works Stifters Dinge and Songs of Wars I Have Seen will be produced in Philadelphia in the 2018 Fringe Festival September 7 –9.

Listen now to the conversation between FringeArts president and producing director Nick Stuccio and world renown composer and director Heiner Goebbels covering Goebbels’ seminal works and long career.

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Pipeline of Fun: Ants on a Log Reach Kids through Humor and Music

Posted August 15th, 2018

Folk duo Ants on a Log (Julie Beth and Anya Rose) write music for children and other childlike people, songfully advocating for positivity, social justice, and silliness. They have been featured on XPN’s Kids Corner, at the Philadelphia Folk Fest, and on radio stations around the globe. In 2016 the Ants performed their debut musical Curious: Think Outside the Pipeline, using the power of eco-feminist music and humor to encourage families to stay “curious” about alternatives to fossil fuels.

Julie (a music therapist) and Anya Rose (an elementary science teacher) reworked their musical for the 2018 Fringe Festival show Music for Children and Other Curious People, performed on two dates in Fishtown and West Philadelphia. The pair spoke to FringeArts about creating a fun, socially conscious work for kids.

FringeArts: What do you like about creating theater and performing for kids?

Ants on a Log: Ants on a Log gives us an outlet for our silliness, and it’s a fun challenge to create something that is appealing to both children and adults. We love performing for kids because they are excited and curious about everything, which is how we think adults are too, but only in those rare moments when it’s deemed socially appropriate. Silliness aside, theater and music feel really important right now. This is how ideas are spread. It’s no accident that our songs are so catchy: we want you to accidentally memorize how to change the world for the better.

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The Inappropriateness of Words: An Interview with Heiner Goebbels

Posted August 6th, 2018

Heiner Goebbels is a prolific German artist, composer, and director who has created compositions and theater works for ensembles and orchestras around the world. His work often defies easy characterization, using unconventional musical composition and theatrical staging to push the boundaries of contemporary performance art.

This year’s Fringe Festival will feature two of Goebbels’s pieces: Stifters Dinge, a performative installation with no actors, only machines, sounds, and whispers, and Songs of Wars I Have Seen, a musical composition performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Tempesta di Mare, interspersed with text from Gertrude Stein’s World War II memoir Wars I Have Seen, recited by the members of the orchestras. Stein’s text, which uses plain language to describe her own experience during the war, is juxtaposed with orchestrations that span centuries of musical styles, played on modern and period instruments. FringeArts asked Goebbels about the many sources of inspiration for the piece, as well as the relationship between the two works he is presenting in this year’s Festival.

FringeArts: How did you encounter Gertrude Stein’s writing?

Heiner Goebbels: The first experience I had with the meditative musicality of her prose was when Robert Wilson recited some paragraphs of her book The Making of Americans during the funeral service for German author Heiner Müller. It was a moving encounter with literature, which is so hard to describe: a novel, a poem, a litany, an incantation? And with other excerpts of this book I created my music theater work Hashirigaki in 2000.

FringeArts: What inspired you to adapt her memoir into Songs of Wars I Have Seen?

Heiner Goebbels: I got the idea to work with some of that text for my opera Landscape with distant relatives, which I created in the context of 9/11, because of the difficulty and the inappropriateness of personal words when trying to talk about an experience of violence and disaster.

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Thinking Out Of The Music Box: Phyllis Chen on In Plain Air

Posted July 2nd, 2018

Christ Church recently completed the installation of a state-of-the-art C.B. Fisk pipe organ in its historic home, one of the oldest buildings in the nation. In a world premiere performance at this year’s Fringe Festival, musicians from International Contemporary Ensemble will explore the physicality of the grand organ, the lasting power of its sustained notes, and the tangibility of its vibration throughout the space.

In Plain Air is composed by Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis. A founder of International Contemporary Ensemble, Chen has worked extensively with toy pianos and other miniature mechanical objects, but the massive organ presents new challenges due to its enormous size and complex mechanics. Chen spoke to FringeArts about the inspiration behind the piece, the distinctive quality of the Christ Church organ, and the significance of working inside one of Philadelphia’s most historic buildings.

One portion of this work will be made entirely from crowd-sourced music box compositions created at a music box-making session this weekend, July 8, at the Philadelphia Magic Gardens. Chen will guide Philadelphians as they create their own music box piece by punching out holes in a paper strip. These compositions will then be joined from end to end (exquisite-corpse style), creating a grand music box composition to be unveiled in the Christ Church courtyard prior to entering the church as part of In Plain Air. 

FringeArts: How does this project fit into your larger career and to International Contemporary Ensemble’s mission?

Phyllis Chen: I have been a pianist since I was five but this has been my first opportunity to explore the organ. I can still remember the first time Parker (the Christ Church organist) walked us through the innards of the organ while it was still being constructed…all the pulleys, levers and Rube Goldberg-esque design that took such engineering and craftsmanship to create. As a composer I have gravitated towards cheap, miniature and small objects as musical instruments, so working with this new state of the art organ has been a new direction for me, despite it being in the keyboard family.

As a pianist, the organ has always been a bit like a mythical instrument to me for its large range and coloristic possibilities. For example, there are low sounds of the instrument that can be physically felt in the space for its powerful vibrations. As I enjoy playing and composing for small instruments, finding the organ has begged me to think more about the place in which it lives and how it is part of its surroundings. This has led me to think of ways of incorporating the community and the performers into the space itself.

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Join The Crossing on a Musical Journey

Posted June 6th, 2018

Coming up in the 2018 Fringe Festival is Of Arms and the Man, a performance by Grammy-winning choir The Crossing. The show will explore ideas of life during war and the alliances and enemies that can be formed across national borders. It is a discussion through music about life, death, and purpose.

Before presenting this new work at Fringe, The Crossing will kick off the summer for the ninth year in a row with The Month of Moderns, a festival of new music led by conductor Donald Nally. The festival’s theme this year, life journeys, arises from the need to look inward, to reflect, examine one’s own life, and speak out on the current political environment.

Donald Nally. Photo by Becky Oehlers Photography.

“When I was a child, I was fascinated by how sad cows’ eyes seemed. I wondered if they were lonely,” says Nally on his inspiration for this year’s festival. “I no longer wonder that; they are animals, like us, and of course they are. I thought we might make a season about that.”

The Crossing, a world-renowned vocal ensemble, sings new music that reflects the values of our time and the issues facing the modern world. Every year, the choir unveils world premieres and performs music unlike anything the audience has heard before. Working with new pieces allows the members of The Crossing to explore the music and to freely interpret the notes and lyrics, creating a truly unique experience for both performers and audience members.

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Songs of Rivers Tempesta di Mare Has Seen

Posted May 16th, 2018

The 2018 Fringe Festival features Songs of Wars I have seen, an intriguing theater/music work by composer Heiner Goebbels inspired by a World War II memoir by Gertrude Stein. The composition will be performed (and spoken) by musicians from two local ensembles. But while the Philadelphia Orchestra will be familiar to most Festival-goers, baroque orchestra Tempesta di Mare remains less known.

This weekend provides an opportunity to get to know the classical ensemble, as they present their Spring program in concerts at Penn’s Landing and in Chestnut Hill. The program, River Music: Bach & Telemann on Water’s Edge, includes pieces by J.S. Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann, Baroque heavyweights whose compositions figure prominently in Tempesta’s seasons.

“This music is powerful and evocative, and it tells fascinating stories,” says Rafael Schneider, who works for the orchestra. Telemann’s piece “Hamburger Ebbe und Flut” (Hamburg ebb and flow) premiered in 1723 at a large hall overlooking the Port of Hamburg, a location Schneider compares to the Independence Seaport Museum overlooking Penn’s Landing and the Delaware. The Seaport Museum will host Saturday night’s concert, an event which also serves as the centerpiece of Tempesta’s annual gala. This festive gathering includes boat rides along the Delaware, a cocktail hour with signature drinks, a meal, and a post-concert dessert reception with the artists.

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Vender Una Fantasia: An Interview With Alex Torra

Posted April 13th, 2018

Cuban President Raúl Castro’s second term is coming to a close and as such he’s preparing to vacate the office, making good on the two-term limit he set back in 2013. Though he intends to remain on the National Assembly and retain his position as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba (the country’s only legal party), for the first time since 1959 someone other than a Castro will rule the island. On April 19th, Cuba’s National Assembly will undertake the historic vote to decide just who that someone will be. The following day, as the reality of that outcome is settling in with Cuban citizens, those of us here in the island’s not-so-friendly neighbor to the north will have a chance to settle into some theater seats and get an irreverent, pointed examination of our nations’ contentious relationship.

Jenna Horton and Benjamin Camp. Photo by Kate Raines, Plate 3 Photography.

¡BIENVENIDOS BLANCOS! OR WELCOME WHITE PEOPLE! will receive its world premiere here at FringeArts on April 20th through the 28th. This new, original play from Team Sunshine Performance Corporation has been years in the making, and a true passion project for the ambitious company’s co-founder Alex Torra. Serving as the show’s lead artist and director, he was spurred to create the work in part because of his complicated relationship with his Cuban heritage. However, as the project has grown, it’s expanded its concerns far beyond the personal to encompass the long history of cultural exploitation and outsider ignorance Cuba has suffered through. Case in point, I’m embarrassed to admit just how recently I became aware that Cuba’s aforementioned vote was happening so soon. Live and learn.

Recently, we spoke with Torra to learn more about the origins of this bold, lively new play; the long journey to making it a reality, full of trips to Cuba and visa nightmares; and what audiences can expect to see onstage once the rumba beat starts.

FringeArts: Where did the title ¡BIENVENIDOS BLANCOS! OR WELCOME WHITE PEOPLE! arise from?

Alex Torra: Back in 2015, I had an opportunity to travel to Cuba for the first time. It was a super intense and difficult trip for me – for many Cuban-Americans, we only understand Cuba through the things our parents tell us and from photos or videos. To see it with your own eyes is a whole different experience.

I was really taken aback by how many of my interactions were tourism-based, and how much of the culture I was seeing was focused on getting (at that time) white tourists to have a great time and spend money. I kept having the strangest sensation – that Cuba was selling itself. I saw this phrase “Rentar Una Fantasia” on the back of a taxi. It clobbered me. Cuba has opened its doors to tourists, and now, tourism serves as one of the largest sources of revenue for the country. Cuba openly caters to tourists, and especially tourists from wealthy majority-white nations, to come and partake of the island and culture. It’s for the sake of survival, for sure, but it makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Idalmis Garcia. Photo by Kate Raines, Plate 3 Photography.

In my research, I discovered that this is a recurring theme in Cuban history. There is desire/repel quality to the way Cuba has dealt with foreigners. It goes as far back as La Conquista, where the Native people of the island, at some moments, welcomed Spanish strangers to the “New” World before they were enslaved, tortured, converted, and poisoned by European sicknesses. Then, in the 19th and 20th Centuries, Cubans, who had achieved independence from Spain had begun to welcome Americans. The Americans, in the early 20th century, used Cuba as a new marketplace and the island, especially Havana, became a kind of playground for the mafia, Hollywood, and tourists. When Castro came into power, many Cubans were happy to see the Americans go, but then the country became reliant on the Soviet Union. After the fall of Russian Communism, Cuba opened up to tourism for the first time in 40-50 years, welcoming European and Canadian tourists, and now, Cuba has opened up and is welcoming American tourists.  It’s a powerful and complicated story, of both revolting against these outside forces and also welcoming them in.

FringeArts: How has your identity and relationship with your heritage informed the piece from its conception?

Alex Torra: It was the starting place for the project. We’ll see how much of this finds its way into the final performance, but a big complication for me is my white Latinoness. I present white (some say I “pass” as white), but I’m part of a Latinx minority group. As a first generation Cuban-American, I was encouraged to find success by my parents and community, and so I set out to do that. Along the way I deleted my Miami accent, I went to theatre schools that focused on American and Euro traditions of theatre where the work was made for primarily white audiences, and I worked hard to fit and succeed. I “whitened.”

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Revelatory Hours: An Interview With Elizabeth Huston

Posted March 26th, 2018

“New means change the method, new methods change the experience, and new experiences change man… Whenever we hear sounds, we are changed, we are no longer the same, and this is the more the case when we hear organized sounds, organized by another human being; music.”

Coming from most, these words might not ring as all that profound, but coming from Karlheinz Stockhausen—easily one of the most important figures in the development of 20th and 21st century music—they take on a much greater resonance. One would be hard-pressed to find another composer who did more to challenge and retune the ears of musicians and listeners alike in the last century than the enigmatic genius, but the kind of change to which he was referring wasn’t one of alteration, but one of revelation. To him, music was a prompt for self-discovery. “I think [music] is only a means, it’s like a spiritual food, and it will be used by certain people who discover a certain identity of what they are and what’s there vibrating. They choose more of it, they like it—liking means, as I always say, remembering. When I like something, then I discover something that I have been before, that is profoundly already within me. It resonates, like a piano that you hit,”  he offered towards the end of a 1971 lecture.

This April, FringeArts will present Stockhausen’s KLANG, a day-long performance of the storied composer’s final, unfinished work, and the presentation is sure to provide attendees with hitherto unseen and unheard sonic experiences. In fact, this presentation will be the first time anyone will have the opportunity to hear the work in its entirety in a single day—all 21 completed compositions of the intended 24. Charting the soul’s journey from the body into the afterlife and featuring music that ranges from intimate chamber pieces to head-spinning electronic explorations, the program provides audiences space to reflect on time, spirituality, reality, and the meaning of mortality. As captivating as so many of KLANG‘s pieces are, at its core the work is deeply meditative, reflecting Stockhausen’s philosophy of music as a tool for self-discovery and, in turn, transformation.

Recently, we caught up with Elizabeth Huston—harpist, educator, curator, and co-organizer of the presentation—to learn more about the background of this landmark work, how this presentation and its assembly of collaborators came together, and what audiences can expect at this all-day event come April.

FringeArts: How did the idea of performing KLANG with these collaborators come about? 

Photo by Klaus Rudolph

Elizabeth Huston: In 2014 I had the idea of planning a performance of all of Luciano Berio’s Sequenzas for the 2014 Fringe Festival. The Sequenzas are 14 different pieces written by Berio over the course of his career (1958 to 2002). I noticed while researching the pieces how Berio’s “voice” changed and evolved while Berio grew as a composer, even though each piece of the series keeps his distinct voice and perspective. I decided to search for more sets of pieces like that, and found quite a few, which resulted in me starting my Composit series. The second performance was all of Davidovsky’s Synchronisms, and this will be the third.

Stockhausen’s KLANG is a little different. Instead of being pieces written over the course of Stockhausen’s life, they are the last pieces he wrote (2004-2007). He died hours after completing the twenty-first Hour of KLANG, making this his final opus, the culmination of his life’s work. Since this piece was intended to be composed of 24 Hours, it is especially poignant as a reminder that we all die with unfinished business.

These pieces are notoriously challenging and dense, so I knew I needed collaborators on many fronts. Joe Drew worked with Stockhausen personally and knows his work intimately, so I am running my ideas by him to ensure an authentic communication of Stockhausen’s vision. MusikFabrik also knew Stockhausen personally, and they will be coaching our other performers, ensuring the highest quality performances possible. Stockhausen assigned each of the twenty-one parts of KLANG a specific color which is important to communicate. Thomas Dunn was a perfect fit for lighting design as he is known as a painter of light and can use colors incredibly effectively in his lighting. Finally, these pieces are very theatrical and musicians are not always the best actors, so we roped in Adrienne Mackey to push our performers to embrace the duality of these pieces and bring them to life.

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An Uncanny Approach to Presence: An Interview With Megan Bridge and Peter Price

Posted January 22nd, 2018

Sp3 is shorthand for “space, pulse, pattern, and presence,” four abstract concepts from which storied Philadelphia multimedia dance theater company <fidget>‘s latest show grew from. Developed over the last two years, this interdisciplinary work, utilizing music and movement, obliquely grapples with the increasingly post-human nature of modern living, where technology is wedged between us all, disrupting our interpersonal relationships as well as our relationships to time and our environment. The show seeks to disrupt this interference, positioning the notion of presence as something radical.

Recently we spoke with <fidget> co-founders and co-artistic directors Megan Bridge and Peter Price to learn more about the concepts behind Sp3 and the development of its music and movement.

FringeArts: What was the first idea behind Sp3?

Peter Price: Sp3 is shorthand for space, pulse, pattern, presence. So the initial kernel of the work came out of discussions around those somewhat abstract concepts. We knew we wanted to make a work in a way we have not in some time—mostly set choreography to composed music.

Our last large piece was to preexisting music by the late great composer Robert Ashley, and much of our collaborative practice involves improvisation of both music and dance. So it had been some time since I wrote a piece of scored music of significant scope and Megan choreographed to it.  We began by thinking about the different ways these concepts map to sound and to the body. What does pulse mean and how is it articulated musically or by a dancer? What does playing with pattern do compositionally or choreographically?

Megan Bridge: Peter and I were having brunch (sans kids . . . rare!) on the day after Dust closed at FringeArts, and we were discussing our next projects. We knew that Peter was going to be the lead artist on our next collaboration, and after making Dust I was really excited again about music coming first and letting the body be moved by sound, treating sonic material as a physical phenomenon in the space, and figuring out what it does to the other material that occupies that same space.

In terms of the evolution of the work, I’d say we started very abstract, just playing with material, but as stuff started to stick we realized it had this dark, uncanny vibe. The mood of the piece started to feel very related to our perception of the world around us right now—tension-filled, edgy. So for me the biggest evolution is witnessing that mood and subtle narrativity weave its way into the work.

FringeArts: How is Sp3 structured? What does that structure enable you to do?

Peter Price: Part of the original conception of the piece for me was that the music was going to be continuously pulsed over for about an hour. So the historical models would be the classics of “pulse-pattern minimalism” like Terry Riley’s In C or Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. As we developed the piece that conception evolved and much of the first half of the piece is now concerned musically with non-pulsed dark atmospheres. The second half of the score remains continuously pulsed and unfolds in six main sections. Each of these sections, though sharing tempo and meter, has their own characteristic sound world and compositional approach to rhythmic pattern. A major concern compositionally is exploring the balance between novelty and redundancy so that the perception of the passing of time changes from section to section even if the clock time of the pulse does not.

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