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Happy Hour on the Fringe: Conversation with Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper

Posted August 16th, 2019

On this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, we chatted with Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper about their latest Fringe Festival offering, Pursuit of Happiness. Liska and Copper discuss how reality TV and the current state of American politics have influenced this part-dance, part Western movie, and part comedy of manners. Pursuit of Happiness, is one of the curated shows in the 2019 Fringe Festival, and it will be showing at the Mandell Theater on September 20th and 21st. 

Listen to the episode and read the transcript below.

Conversation with Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper

Raina: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. FringeArts is Philadelphia’s premier presenter of contemporary performing art. I’m Raina Searles, marketing manager here at FringeArts, and I invite you to pour one up and enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence.

Katy: And I am Katy Dammers, artistic producer at FringeArts. Today we’re excited to talk about the Pursuit of Happiness, a work by Nature Theatre of Oklahoma and EN-KNAP, that will be part of our Fringe Festival this September.

Katy: Today we’re pleased to welcome in the conversation, Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper from Nature Theatre of Oklahoma. Welcome!

Kelly: Hi.

Pavol: Hi, how are you?

Katy: Good! Thank you so much for joining us today remotely. I know you guys are not based in Philadelphia, so we’re excited that we can have this conversation. And just to start us all off since it’s Happy Hour on the Fringe, what are you guys drinking?

Pavol: I’m drinking a pineapple juice from this cleanse that I’m doing today.

Raina: Terrific.

Kelly: [crosstalk 00:01:17] And I’ve had a coffee.

Katy: Awesome. I’m drinking a big glass of water because we are in the midst of a heat wave in Philadelphia.

Raina: Yes, same.

Raina: So diving into Pursuit of Happiness, we’re going to talk a lot more about the piece and the history of the piece, but just for audiences contemplating coming to see the show, what can they expect when they walk in? What do you want audiences to know in advance about this work?

Pavol: Well they’ll walk in and see our set, which is kind of a saloon and they should come in … Ideally when you make a new piece of theater, you hope to undo people’s expectations.

Pavol: So whenever somebody always asks us what should people expect, it’s kind of a tricky question. You almost want to lie to people, because ultimately you don’t want to satisfy their expectations. So I don’t want to lie to you.

Katy: Well, and I know what you mean because I have seen the Pursuit of Happiness before. I thought when it premiered in the United States as part of Under the Radar, which is a festival every January at New York University’s Skirball theater, and I think the set is definitely the first thing that catches people, is that the piece is set in this kind of stereotypical western bar.

Katy: And then for the first couple of minutes it starts with these kind of, they almost look like shots or some kind of a drink being kind of swished across the long bar. And it really kind of sets up this dynamic relationship between the players.

Pavol: And then it goes off into its own universe.

Katy: Very much so and totally defied my expectations as someone who was familiar with the work of Nature Theatre of Oklahoma but didn’t know EN-KNAP and certainly didn’t expect the piece to ultimately end up in Baghdad where it does, so think people are really in for a series of adventures in this work.

Katy: But I wonder Kelly and Pavol if you can tell us a little bit about the background of the creation of this piece. It was created in 2017 with EN-KNAP, which is Slovenian [inaudible 00:03:40] you would think, probably most well known, most renown contemporary dance ensemble. Tell us a little bit about how you came to be connected with EN-KNAP, and what it was like working with them.

Pavol: Well the artistic director Iztok Kovač kept inviting us to come and work with his company for several years, and since we were working on Life and Times at the moment, we could never really see ourselves leaving the project.

Pavol: And then we were in Grads finishing the project, and we were kind of left with nothing to do for the next couple of years. And it just happens that Ljubljana is about an hour away from Grads, and so he came over and we talked and then he took us over there to meet the dancers. We fell in love with them and went from there.

Pavol: We went there for a couple of weeks and did the workshop with them to figure out if we were all a good match. And then we went home and we wrote the script and then came back and worked with them for two more rehearsal periods and created the show.

Pavol: And our focus changed after Life and Times. We’d been working on these recorded telephone conversations for 10 years and then we wanted to change direction and try something that we weren’t good at. So we really wanted to do writing, and because these people were dancers and had never really spoken on stage, we chose the most impossible task for them which is speaking as difficult language as possible. And at least one of the first part of the show is written in iambic pentameter, which we also had never written before.

Pavol: And so we just all tried to really challenge ourselves and take ourselves out of our comfort zone. And that’s what you get then.

Kelly: Yeah, I mean the surprise for us was we made it over the course of two years going back and forth many times and they kept us on our toes, because every time we went there and gave them something difficult to do and came back, they had kind of exceeded our expectations.

Kelly: The one thing dancers know how to do is work hard, and so they would work on the text in our absence and then we kept kind of having to reinvent the piece as we went and adding layers of difficulty.

Pavol: [crosstalk 00:06:20] I had to bring a lot of chewing tobacco to Slovenia because they learned how to speak, so we needed to somehow slow them down and make it more difficult. So most of them right now are chewing tobacco, real tobacco. So which at the beginning caused most of them during rehearsals to be fainting and passing out and throwing up.

Raina: Oh wow.

Katy: I’m curious if the idea for the themes in the piece came more from your end or if Iztok was originally thinking about these when he wanted to work with you.

Pavol: No, it came from our end. I mean after Life and Times, we have focused on going to a place and staying there for a while and really trying to figure out what is necessary for that particular place and making the work for the place and about the place.

Pavol: So we had made a film Nibelungen in the area where the story of Nibelungen happened. We went to Berlin and Cologne and researched and did work based on that research. And then we went to Austria to make our last film to work in the countryside and made the work about that.

Pavol: We had been traveling with our shows one week here, one week there, constantly just on the road and felt completely disconnected from the place and really wanted to … And it felt like we were just doing exhibition games where we just showed the work that we had made someplace else and didn’t really feel like it’s necessary or integral to the place or needed.

Pavol: So we wanted to change our lifestyle and go to a place, stay there, make the work there and about the place. So we went to Slovenia and really kind of tried to figure out what is needed here. It all came from us. We weren’t told what to do.

Kelly: Yeah, and of course we bring our own preoccupations with us and over the course of that two years there was a lot of stuff happening in America that unnerved us, and sometimes when you go and … We were living in Louisiana for periods of time and with that distance you kind of look at things differently than when you’re living there. We felt very American, and out of our context, we were kind of able to think about some of those issues.

Katy: I wonder if you can tell us a little bit more about the research process. Thinking about the pursuit of happiness, this myth that really undergirds so much of American consciousness. Both in the colonial era, which, I’m seeing located in an old city in Philadelphia, I feel like we see all the time, but also for people who live all over the nation. I think that sense of the American dream and you’re really successful when you’re doing what you love, which is something that one of the characters speaks about in the work. What was your research process like in digging into that quintessentially?

Kelly: Well I think for this piece, I mean it started out as more of a personal look at happiness and trying to find it. We were in a bit of a personal hole, and also I would be lying if I said that we did a lot of research and that this work comes out of research. I mean for us mainly we usually start with a meeting point and in this case it happened to be an old 1930’s book that somebody had given us called Cowboy Dances, which we kind of just took in our baggage, thinking that maybe a place to start is with dancers, with dance. And it’s these really hard to imagine descriptions of weird dances and we just kind of tried to wade our way through this language, but it happened to be with the dancers, but it happened to be somewhat western themed and I mean even the bar came from the fact that there was a ballet bar in the room.

Kelly: So the bar started as a B-A-R-R-E, and then as you go, these things kind of layer on top of each other and more and then you follow the ideas that kind of present themselves rather than starting from ideas.

Pavol: Almost after the fact, you figure it out when you’re making work. You try to stay as open as possible to your intuition and instinct, and you’re trying to respond to different types of information.

Pavol: I mean we did watch westerns and we did I think, especially Kelly who was reading a lot of theoretical books or articles on American identity, and myth of the cowboy and the outlaw. But when you’re in rehearsal, it’s a much more intuitive process and then you can talk about it afterwards.

Pavol: Then once you have hours of material, then you see what do you have and then you shape it according to something that you feel like is relevant to the world. And it becomes yet something else.

Kelly: Yeah, I mean and it starts usually from personal and also kind of just utilitarian, like what’s in the room, who’s in the room. Keeping your eyes open.

Katy: And I was really struck by one of the lines that the dancer says pretty early on in the piece, that “Happiness is always in the past, a mutated form of melancholy.” And hearing you all talk about the process of developing the work, it makes me think so much of it’s relationship to your larger body of work with Nature Theatre of Oklahoma and kind of this sense of, I can imagine you all when you finished Life and Times, that was touch a huge series both in its construction and the amount of time that you spent on it. That’s actually when you were last at Fringe in 2013 with the series, and I wonder what that sense of melancholy has with happiness, both in terms of your own progression as a company, but also more broadly. I’m thinking of even slogans like “Make America great again” that might refer to a greatness that America had in the past. Whether that was actually true or probably not.

Kelly: Definitely we had come to a point in our work where we kind of broke ourselves a little bit on this monumental piece of work that was 10 episodes long and over 16 hours in performance and we had such ambition for what we were doing, but it completely wrecked all of us physically, emotionally, mentally and we were definitely in the aftermath of that. Just thinking about at what cost.

Pavol: Especially when you make theater, we put ten years of work and our life and our health into the project and then you look at what is left and you end up with three bags of dirty costumes in your basement. That doesn’t feel like you’ve really accomplished much in ten years. So you really have serious existential questions about whether all of this makes any sense.

Pavol: We are American artists and we want to work in America and we want to be able to speak to this culture and be a part of the discourse, and when it takes such an effort … Now, thank God, Nick Stuccio and two others have brought the work of Life and Times to their festivals. But other than that, we don’t feel like our work here is what was relevant or really needed, necessary. And it might’ve been just self pity or it felt that way to us. And so we really, we we wanted to almost hide in Slovenia away from a kind of spotlight and just really focus on the work itself and where does the pleasure lie?

Pavol: It’s like we felt the same way we felt before we made No Dice, which also Nick brought through to Philadelphia-

Raina: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Pavol: Where we rejected any kind of ambition of success, but where we focused on just the work itself.

Pavol: No Dice was a new beginning for us and this Pursuit of Happiness was also a new beginning for us where we really ask these serious existential questions of why we make work and should we continue to do it.

Raina: So while you’re, you know, working on this piece that is centered around American values, most of your tour has been outside of the US. So in two years, what has the reception been in other countries?

Kelly: It’s not a surprise, but a lot of other countries do follow American politics. It’s not like whatever we do just happens here. We’re out there in the world and we do change things out there in the world for other people. And also this kind of political process that’s been happening here is also mirrored in many ways in places like Germany and Poland. And it’s happening everywhere.

Kelly: And so, I think they recognize themselves in it and it’s not foreign. It’s not foreign to them. It’s not like they’re looking at something that has no meaning for them.

Raina: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kelly: But for us it’s super important to do it back home. I feel grateful that we get to take it to Philadelphia.

Katy: Well I’m curious if you guys have any ideas. I got in New York almost two years ago now and so much has changed even in those past two years within American politics, but as you speak Kelly, really on an international stage as many countries, Brexit comes to mind in particular, are considering some of the same challenges that we are here in America. And I wonder, do you imagine that the work might be received differently now, 18-24 months later or might there be aspects of it that hit audiences differently or might-

Kelly: Yeah, there’s aspects of it that come into focus for me differently every time we do it. Certainly after the school shootings, after every school shooting, just the amount of guns on stage and the use of violence to kind of solve every problem rings especially strongly.

Kelly: But at the same time, you talk about how different things in the world change. Sometimes it’s also how many things in the world don’t change. I mean all of this stuff in Iraq, insert different country here, but the same story, the same thing going on, some kind of proxy war somewhere, so, the more things change, the more things stay the same as well.

[FringeArts Commercial Break]

Katy: Hey Zack, are you ready to party?

Zack: Always.

Katy: FringeArts is kicking off opening weekend of the 2019 Fringe Festival with a late night rager featuring the Illustrious Blacks, a dynamic, out of this world duo, fusing music, dance, theater and fashion.

Katy: Come join us on Friday, September 6th at 10:30 in La Peg.

Fringe Festival Kickoff Party 2019 featuring the Illustrious Blacks

Zack: That sounds great. Then halfway through the festival we’re throwing a halftime party with DJ Heavenly. It’s called Feels. Stripping back genres of themes, DJ Heavenly and a special guests do what feels right at this open format dance party.

Zack: That will be September 14th at 10:30 PM in La Peg.

FEELS: 2019 Fringe Festival Halftime Party with DJ HVNLEE

Katy: And then, to close out the festival, Johnny Showcase & The Mystic Ticket will be joining us on Saturday, September 21st at 10:30 PM with an electrifying performance you just don’t want to miss.

Zack: See you there.

2019 Fringe Festival Closing Night Party featuring Johnny Showcase

[End FringeArts Commercial Break]

Raina: You mentioned violence and I’d love to touch on that within the context of this piece, because there is this juxtaposition of the old time-y western bar fights and shoot out, but then also contemporary military activity in Iraq.

Raina: In what ways have you found that violence is interwoven into the ideas of what it means to be American and to this idea of the pursuit of happiness?

Kelly: I think what to me rings true to me personally or what this is the kind of violence of imposing your will upon other people, even if it has a kind of altruistic sense. Definitely for me, thinking personally about the company and imposing my own pursuit of happiness onto other people and dragging them along with me into my dream. Not everybody in the end wanted to travel the world and do this really difficult show night after night that we were doing. And in a similar way, one of the characters in this show kind of drags everyone else along into his dream, which becomes a kind of a nightmare, so.

Kelly: And in the way that the US sometimes with ostensibly good intentions kind of meddles in foreign countries in a way that-

Raina: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kelly: Doesn’t always have a happy ending.

Pavol: With good intentions.

Kelly: Yeah.

Pavol: We want to spread democracy.

Kelly: Yeah.

Pavol: So we’re going to beat you up into it. We’re going to beat you into having a better life.

Raina: Well, what was so striking to me when I found a piece originally is that the violence was received kind of in two different registers simultaneously, which I think speaks to really the American paradigm in a lot of different ways.

Katy: Yeah.

Raina: Some people when they saw the violence found it really funny, actually.

Katy: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Raina: You can tell that it staged combat, nobody’s actually getting punched. There are all these amazing sound effects-

Kelly: Right.

Raina: Who mimic cartoons and the blood that comes out in the latter part of the work is actually bright red streamers. And I think much of the work talks about the sense of the role of violence and its depiction in popular media, but also even in staged theatrical works. And I know that there has has just been a lot of discussion in the last two to three years about what it means to depict violence and who is being depicted in that moment, and I think in the Pursuit of Happiness, one of the things I think it’s been successful at is showing violence that is kind of unnerving in its depiction, where we’re not actually seeing blood and guts on stage, but in realizing how perhaps possibly comical it is, it at least made me very uncomfortable, which I think was kind of the point. I thought that was very effective.

Pavol: Thank you.

Kelly: Yeah, I mean it’s an interesting challenge and something that I think has preoccupied us in the last several pieces that we’ve made after this. Just how impossible it is to represent violence in the theater. It necessarily has to be theatricalized and it’s never convincing like it is on television or movies. You can’t make it look convincing, and so what do you with that kind of impossibility? I like it as just the potential for somehow pure theater or I like the unconvincedness of it.

Katy: Well it kind of gets me back to I think that one of the central questions is the work, which we touched on a little bit earlier, but what is the role of art, which is this awful hard question that I feel like we wrestle with every single day when we come to work, and then I’m sure you all do as well as you decide to recreate another work. Who do we create the work with? Why are we using it?

Katy: And I appreciated in the second half of the piece when we’re kind of moving into this nightmare as you described it Kelly, there’s a moment when it seems like, oh, this dance that’s happening might [inaudible 00:21:51] mechanism between NATO and Iraqi insurgent forces and then ultimately, that totally spirals into chaos, but it offers for a brief moment the sense of art as a way to sum up a very tangible problem, which I think art very rarely if ever actually does.

Katy: So as you continue to present this work, how have your thoughts about that [inaudible 00:22:17] shifted, if at all?

Kelly: Oh, I think we’re always kind of in this balancing act between our hopes for what we do and also just not being able to kid ourselves entirely, that it does do those things that we wish it does.

Pavol: Well I think the work itself is in a way a quest for relevance.

Kelly: Yeah.

Pavol: It’s a kind of desire to be part of the discourse to be, almost like in ancient Greek theater where the theater itself was a place where the society came to dream of itself and discuss the irrational in our life, whereas the irrational seems to be repressed. We’re repressing the irrational nature of life, whether it’s in politics or even on television, where it could be a part of the conversation, but probably 95% of all life is irrational. We don’t understand anything.

Pavol: We deny the fact that we don’t really know why we’re here and what we’re doing. And if aliens are watching us from outer space, they have no idea what the hell we we’re trying to even do. And we don’t, we just kind of convince ourselves that we’re doing something that’s important, whereas it may not be important at all.

Pavol: And that’s what we … Every day we go into rehearsal, trying to answer that question, why are we doing this? And then if it’s not important inherently, which as American artists, we always believe … Sometimes we work with people in Europe who have state subsidies and they’re told that art is important. But we don’t believe that because we are spending most of our year in our apartment, in our underwear at the bottom of society where nobody’s willing to even acknowledge that we exist or that art is important.

Pavol: So we certainly have our doubts, and so if we consider that it’s inherently not necessarily important what we do, we have to create that value.

Kelly: [crosstalk 00:24:25] performance, we try to do that. I mean, I think every night we’re trying to articulate what that is with an audience. What this can be good for and who needs it. That’s, in a way, part of the actor’s job.

Raina: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Pavol: It’s like we [crosstalk 00:24:39] always have to undercut the actors and tell them “Look, what you’re doing is nothing. It’s shit. You’re just kind of dancing around and prancing on stage like show ponies.”, In a good way. We’re not cutting them down psychologically, but to kind of convince them that to have that doubt.

Kelly: And-

Pavol: That’s why it’s always interesting for us to work with Americans because they know that. Every American person who’s tried to be an actor or performing artist knows that you’ve got to go out there and work your ass off in order for something to happen.

Pavol: Whereas Americans sometimes take it for granted that they’re on stage-

Kelly: Europeans.

Pavol: [crosstalk 00:25:18] Europeans, yeah … That they’re on stage and therefore it’s important. So we have to somehow create this existential crisis for them in order for them to be able to talk about these issues.

Kelly: And in order for them to really look out over the footlights and somehow express those doubts to an audience and to kind of enlist in their help in the search for that importance, or in that search for what it could mean tonight, not just in a rehearsal room.

Raina: Yeah. Well I think that that’s a really interesting transition to our final question. Thinking about what inspires you and specifically your highbrow and lowbrow inspirations as you go into the rehearsal room and start coming up with whatever your next idea is.

Pavol: For this particular piece I know I was reading War and Peace, especially the war sections, as far as highbrow is concerned. Lowbrow we were watching Spaghetti westerns and things like that in general for the work. I would say really horrible American television, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are our all time favorite and Survivor as far as-

Kelly: Yeah.

Pavol: Lowbrow. Reality television, which in a way was what Life and Times was based on, they’re just recordings of things that happen and then you shape them just like in a reality TV show in a series, so Life and Times, ten episodes, it was like a Big Brother TV series in a way.

Pavol: I personally find inspiration in literature. Proust, Tolstoy.

Kelly: Yeah. And I mean the highbrow stuff, I guess I was reading during this was a book on Grands Goulets and also this book of cultural criticism by David Warshaw that was … There was a great essay called The Gangster As Tragic Hero and also The Westerner. These were two essays on two different genres in American film, if we were thinking a lot about some making at that time.

Kelly: It was mainly about how the western could be seen as a genre that was interrogating kind of American morality, and that was interesting for me to think about. And the gangster film as well, that those were two kind of flip sides of American moral works. And both of them equally, horribly violent.

Raina: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Katy: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Katy: Well thank you so much for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on The Fringe. The Pursuit of Happiness will be presented at the Mandell Theater at Drexel University September 20th and 21st as part of the 2019 Fringe Festival.

Raina: In addition to the performances, we will also be screening Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s video Life and Times episode seven in partnership with Light Box Film Center on September 17th.

Katy: And if you want to hear more from Pavol and Kelly along with numbers of EN-KNAP, your community partners here in Philly, about what the pursuit of happiness means today, join us for a conversation at our Fringe Festival bookstore on Cherry Street Pier on Saturday, September 21st.

Raina: Make sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, and download the FringeArts app.

Two Friends Try to Be Disappointed by Each Other: Interview with John Rosenberg of Autopia

Posted August 14th, 2019

John Rosenberg’s very first show in Philadelphia after moving from California was a 2010 Fringe Festival production, Cheap Guy Hall of Fame, Class of 2010. Subsequent years garnered critical acclaim for his Hella Fresh Theater company, operating out of a converted paper mill in the heart of Kensington. John moved to Los Angeles in 2014, but he returned last year and has retaken residence at the Papermill. This Fringe Festival, he’s utilizing the art gallery at in the room next door to his theater, creating an imaginary art exhibit from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the 1970s. In Autopia a failed teacher runs into her former mentor at LACMA while waiting in line for tickets to the King Tutankhamun exhibit and the pair awkwardly reminisce as they wander around an exhibit of an obscure Chicana artist. We spoke to John about the play.

FringeArts: How did you get the idea for Autopia

John Rosenberg: I mean, the thing comes in bits and pieces and one thing leads to another.

I lived in Los Angeles from 2014 to 2018. It was great. My wife gave birth to our son Calvero McShane Wulfrose. I got to kick it with my sister at Ross Dress For Less. I also made one for real friend in my four years in Los Angeles, Her name was Leigh, we worked at UCLA together. We would go for walks on breaks and talk about our lives and such. So the play is kinda based on Leigh.

I have been interested in how people like to be disappointed by other people and let down. It reminded me of the group of teacher friends my parents had when I was growing up. They were really committed to education and the welfare of their students but the personal cost was tremendous. I watched their lives implode, including my parents’.

I always wanted to do a play about two people waiting in line and have the actors slowly shuffle across the stage for two hours. At first it was going to be Disneyland but it didn’t make sense so the art gallery of the Papermill [the Kensington artspace where Hella Fresh is based] will become Los Angeles County Museum of Art circa 1978.

FringeArts: How did you choose that setting?

John Rosenberg: I had a temp job in Los Angeles that was down the street from LACMA. LACMA uses stickers for tickets and people leave them on a street light outside the museum. On my lunch break i would go through the museum on a 45-minute tour, four days a week for like nine months.

With the idea of LACMA came the idea to have an artist create a real fake exhibition from 1978 to be the exhibition in the show. My friend Osiris Zuniga, a steel artist or metal artist or i dont know what the fuck you call her said fuck yes to the idea. Osiris deals in blowtorches and heavy metals and makes videos. She is creating an exhibition like LACMA would probably have been showing of a marginalized unheard of Latina artist in the late 70s.

So the play is about two teachers who try their best to be disappointed by each other and feel good about themselves because they saw the art of an unheard of Latina artist.

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Mapping the Refugee Experience: Kaneza Schaal and Christopher Myers on Cartography

Posted August 12th, 2019

How do we track where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going, especially when we must flee our homes? Cartography, by Christopher Myers and Kaneza Schaal seeks to answer this question. Inspired by conversations with young refugees in Munich, Germany, Myers and Schaal co-created a piece of theater that puts these migrants on stage and tells their stories.

This all-ages theater follows the struggles, hopes, and experiences of five young migrants from diverse backgrounds as they navigate the refugee process. The audience is also invited to share their stories, interacting with the stage from their cellphones. FringeArts talks with Christopher and Kaneza about their piece, which will be performed in Philadelphia September 12–15 as part of the 2019 Fringe Festival.

FringeArts: What inspired Cartography?

Christopher Myers: Cartography grew out of our work in Munich 2016 with young people who came to the city on their own from around the world.

Earlier that year, The New York Times had reported 30,000 people were arriving in Munich each day. We asked ourselves what we had to offer, as artists to this moment. The kids we worked came from Mali, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Eritrea, Nigeria, and Syria. They had crossed oceans in inflatable rafts, walked through forests, hid themselves in the holds of cargo trucks. At the end of our work together, when we asked the group, “What should we do next, what do they want from us?” they said, “We want a place to be seen.” They said that after spending so long having to hide, where invisibility was part of survival, being seen was the most valuable part of our time together. They said we should create places for kids like them to be seen.

Cartography is our answer to this request. The piece creates a platform for audiences to consider their own histories of movement, how we all place ourselves in the continuum that lead to this historical moment of the largest mass migration in human history.

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Happy Hour on the Fringe: Conversation with Tina Satter

Posted August 6th, 2019

On this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, we sat down with Tina Satter to talk about her show Is This A Room: Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription, which was made with her theater company Half Straddle, and is a verbatim staging of the FBI transcription of their interrogation of Reality Winner. Is This A Room: Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription, is one of the curated shows in the 2019 Fringe Festival, and it will be showing at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts this September 13-15.

Listen to the episode and read the transcript below.

Conversation with Tina Satter

[Music Intro]

Tenara: Hello, and welcome to Happy Hour on The Fringe. FringeArts is Philadelphia’s premier presenter of contemporary performing arts. My name is Tenara, and I am the Audience Engagement Coordinator at Fringe Arts. 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’re getting ready for the Fringe Festival. This September 2019, our city absolutely explodes with the performing arts all over the place. I’m really happy to say that tickets for our curated and independent shows are on sale now, so go to www.fringearts.com to grab your tickets and don’t forget to download the Fringe Arts app to start planning your festival schedule.

Tenara: Today, you’re going to hear a conversation that I had with one of our artistic producers, Zach Blackwood you know him well, and one of our curated Fringe Festival artists, Tina Satter. We’re presenting Tina Satter’s work, Is This A Room: A Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription. Tina Satter made this with her company, Half Straddle, and it is a verbatim presentation staging of the FBI transcription of their interrogation of Reality Winner. Reality Winner was arrested and charged with leaking evidence of Russian interference in our 2016 election. It’s a really, really fascinating, interesting, deeply troubling piece and we are really excited to be able to share our conversation with Tina in particular who, in parallel to this pretty pretty heavy tail, we also managed to talk about what I would argue is some pretty light things like the Kardashians and Harry Potter podcasts. So pour yourself a happy hour drink, pull up a chair and listen to our conversation with Tina Satter about her show, Is This A Room.

Zach: Hi there. Is this Tina?

Tina: Yes, it’s me. Hi.

Tenara: Hello.

Zach: Oh, my gosh. Hi. It’s so good to meet you.

Tina: Hi. Yeah.

Zach: This is Zach and Tenara at FringeArts and we’re so, so excited to be talking to you a little bit. So we understand that you’re in Wyoming?

Tina: Yes, I am.

Tenara: You want to say a little bit about what you’re doing there?

Zach: Unless it’s [crosstalk 00:02:23].

Tina: Yeah, I’m here because my partner grew up here and so we’re out visiting family for three weeks and it’s very, very different from anywhere I’ve ever been in my life. So I really like to come out here and sort of just hanging out, and then I’m working a lot when I’m out here, but I love a good working vacation. So that’s what I do out here, drive around in a pickup truck and then sit at the kitchen table and do my work.

Tenara: That’s amazing. Can you say a bit about what makes it so drastically different from anything you’ve ever experienced?

Tina: Yeah. I grew up in rural New Hampshire, so this is rural, but in such a different way than coastal stuff. The thing I always compare it to, and I don’t know if this will hold for people, but is if you’ve seen Friday Night Lights, the TV show, so that’s Texas. This is Wyoming and this town is called Worland, W-O-R-L-A-N-D. Worland feels and looks to me like Dylan, Texas, the town in which Friday Night Lights is set so I think that’s also part of my obsession. It’s just flat, flat, flat land and truly that thing, big sky country you hear about Wyoming, it’s so true. It’s like some way you’re kind of … A friend to me said, “Oh, I think you can see the sky everywhere,” and I’m like, “I know, but here it’s truly this thing.” And then the whole thing is just quite this extreme, extreme thing to me. It’s the opposite of New York in every single way. And there’s this very sleepy wide Main Street and cruising down that are just pickup trucks and people really wearing wranglers because they work on ranches.

Zach: Oh, I miss that.

Tina: Yeah.

Zach: That’s so restorative.

Tina: For me it operates totally in a restorative way because there’s no hustling to the subway. It’s getting into the very old pickup truck to drive five minutes away. But the other night there was Shakespeare in the park, too, so I got a theater hit in this tiny park. So, yeah, it was very lovely to sit on beautiful grass under trees with a whole bench of rancher’s wives and folding chairs watching this Shakespeare that had driven in from Montana so, yeah.

Tenara: I love that.

Tina: Yeah, it was fun eating pizza.

Zach: Things are not as idyllic here.

Tenara: What are you talking about?

Tina: Yeah, [crosstalk 00:05:04].

Zach: So it’s about 1,000 degrees. Our general first Happy Hour question is what are you drinking, but really we’re just drinking ice cold water here [crosstalk 00:05:12].

Tina: Yeah, I’m going to say same, I’m drinking ice cold water. I have a little leftover hot coffee and then I have in front of me a sparkling probiotic blueberry cherry drink, it says it has billions of live probiotics in it.

Tenara: Yeah.

Zach: So we’re here to talk a little bit about Is This A Room and Half Straddle and the relationship between Half Straddle and Fringe more broadly because Is This A Room is in the curated Fringe Festival and will be at the Annenberg Center for The Performing Arts the year of our Lord 2019. And we talked more about it in the intro and the outro, right?

Tenara: Right.

Zach: Okay.

Tenara: So I’m going to launch in with a content related question.

Zach: Sure.

Tenara: Which is that Reality Winner, who the subject of this play, is an actual real live human being and her story is currently unfolding. So I’m curious about how that affected the direction of the performance and the construction of this piece as a whole.

Tina: Yeah, that’s a wonderful question because something I have to admit was that we were … I’d come upon the transcript and read about Reality, I knew it was a real person. And then we spent a couple of months reading this transcript out loud with actors, me and Emily Davis who plays Reality, trying to figure out if there was something in this transcript script as a play and realized there was, and sort of started moving ahead with work.

Tina: So to me in retrospect, it felt really late in the game that I was like, “Wait, this is a real person. She’s alive, she has a family.” And all of a sudden I was like, “Wow, we do have to think.” I do have to think about this project differently, at least in how we just treat it and think about it going into the world, not necessarily on stage and it maybe wouldn’t even change what we did artistically, but it suddenly became something very important to think about that we were treating real content that had happened to a real person still alive.

Tina: And so I think the biggest thing that happened was that we ultimately became in touch with her mother who’s a really incredible and fascinating woman. And again, I think to the part of your question, it didn’t really ever affect anything direct totally because we were always going to straight forward this transcript and that was sort of be the bottom line like this happened and we’re going in an old fashion way to the script. This is the script of this play and we’re getting our information from here. But I think the important thing was being in touch with her mother, letting her know this is happening, that we were using the transcript and then just be in constant dialogue with her of, “Here is where the play is happening, here’s who’s playing your daughter.” That sort of almost dramaturgy that was outside the project was what I felt was important to tend to, if that makes sense.

Zach: Yeah, that definitely makes sense.

Tenara: Yeah.

Zach: The kind of social dramaturgy of the piece.

Tenara: Yeah, yeah. But what your question sparked to me was that moment. It was really this realization like, “Oh my gosh, this person’s real. It’s not a made up witch girl who lives in the woods that I’ve created everything about her in my brain.”

Tenara: Right.

Tina: Reality is real.

Tenara: I guess I don’t ask the next question in a means to provoke, but I am curious about in somebody’s artistic practice when they’re working on a piece that is about a real life person, did it feel like you needed to get Reality’s mother’s permission? What was that sort of negotiation around artistic license … or not even really artistic license because like you said, you’re working with an actual transcript. But I’m just wondering about the relationship between a subject that’s a real human being and then the artist who’s really fascinated by the themes of their stories and then sort of poking at what the story implicates, if that makes sense.

Tina: Totally, totally. So the thing was I had very naively not even considered that in the first stage of reading it. But I think it’s because really we kept being like, “Is this going to be a play? Can this project really work?” There was a mix of that for a long time sort of as an underlay, or sort of that thing I maybe always have as an artist often working in a “experimental vein” you’re like, “Is this really going to be something” and part of the process is that test.

Tina: So there was always that going, but then when I realized this doesn’t relate to the game, like, “Oh, she’s real. Yeah, and her family.” Literally this stroke of just weird luck that came is her mom got in touch with us literally within days of me sort of saying to Emily, “Wait, what do we do? Do I need to talk to her family?” I think her mom wrote an email to me out of the blue and said, “I heard this project is in the works.” And I read that first sentence expecting somehow my body was like, “She’s going to say we can’t do this.” And then her next sentence was, “I am so thrilled you are doing something about my daughter. I hope I can come to New York City. Are you going to record the show?”

Tina: So this very early correspondence that she writes to me eight months before it’s going to premiere in New York City originally, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, she’s just given me this huge gift of being in dialogue with me and also already sort of implicitly saying, ‘I love that you are doing this.'” And so then the next thing is that I then immediately wrote back and was like, “It’s wonderful to be in touch with you. We of course want you to be there. We always record our shows.” She did end up coming and that’s the whole sort of separate special story when her and the family saw the show in New York.

Tina: So then we just kept having back and forth in which I never ever said, “Do we have permission to do this?” But I would say, “I want to lay out for you what we are doing. We are using the transcript,” which had actually been a pretty loaded document to them in a way because they had wanted to keep that out of court if Reality had gone to trial. And so she was always very clear what we were doing and never said no, don’t do that at all. And the other thing that I think … I could do a whole podcast sort of on Billie Winner-Davis because she’s a really incredible human and she’s advocating for her daughter, but at the same time she is also advocating to the larger issues she sees operating around what has happened to her daughter.

Tina: And so one thing that felt important to me as the maker, even though this was real, was to be able to treat it as a script. Like I said before, our information comes from what we see on this page and to be able to stage it our way and not feel beholden to necessarily their family’s emotional truths of that day, which is a really loaded terrain to get into. But what’s so incredible about Billie is she is somehow implicitly … or not so much, she’s smart, implicitly let us do that. She never ever said something like, “Make sure you that Reality is shown in a good light.” I think somehow she trusted us from our back and forth. It turned out Emily Davis had grown up and had relatives really near to where Reality’s family is from in Texas.

Tina: So there started to be these sort of heartbeat connections between us and Billie that like allowed her to trust us and then us to trust her that she was would have let us make this thing and we were really trying to honor the transcripts. And as I had first written to her, I was deeply inspired of Reality’s story myself and in the transcript. And we always felt the strongest thing was to just show that conversation and the happens at that day and the transcript and let this story come out without sort of loading it either direction with any sort of political or editorial feedback about it, but let this event be restates and get into discourse that way.

Zach: Yeah, I think there’s a few different reasons that that approach is so, so resonant to viewers. I think part of it is just that in this whole 24 hour news cycle as we understand it. To really dig into one thing that happened with fidelity and thinking about it objectively in that way is still so powerful because we’re in a place where we’re data is subjective and truth is objective, likely due to larger things than just this administration and kind of the trajectory in American media more broadly. But it’s really interesting especially because your work in the past has really played with documentary and played with biography in a certain way, but this is just so kind of denuded in that way. It’s just-

Tina: Right.

Zach: … what happened on the page objectively up on its feet. And, yeah, I just think that that’s so deeply interesting. One question that we had is, so your primary source is the transcripts, but what other active research maybe bled into the process of creating this piece? What else maybe were you looking at and thinking about as far as maybe documentary and other kind of theatrical projects or what’s the secondary source in Is This The Room?

Tina: I know there’s a deep history of documentary theater, which I’m not very familiar with at all. And at a certain point, again, I had this realization, “Oh, I’m doing something that actually comes out of a lineage of a kind of work.” I tend to have as an artist and theater maker, a sort of naive approached like, “This is what I want to do and this is how I think I’m going to try to do it,” and then very closely working with whoever comes into the room with me. I’m not a big research kind of theater person no matter what the topic is. I know what I’m doing and then I’ve got my various, often secondary, sources which I’m collaging into something, but it’s very instinctual and developed its own poetics of what that’s going to be.

Tina: Of course this was a little different being this real life verbatim transcript, but I didn’t look to how other documentary theater had been made as whether I wanted to or not do that. I sort of was like, “I’m going to stick to this thing.” And I think it was partially, we were then making this project very fast once we realized this is the play we were going to make. And part of me is like, “If we’d had more time would I have spent a lot of time looking up things on the NSA and leaking and whistle blowing and the laws on that?” There was so much actual information, truly specific real intellectual information that is in this play at almost every sentence. But we didn’t go super deep into that and we also didn’t go to for super deep into Reality’s life.

Tina: If I had said to Billie’s mom, “Could I interview you about that day or could me and Emily?” I think they would have done that, but something about me wanting to get the information from that script, I’ve said that a couple of times. But we did do things like look at Reality’s Instagram, what had she been interested in. Not that we were going to fill up the play with that design-wise, but it was sort of … My works also are very interested always in aesthetics and especially sort of female or clear signifiers from … you know what I mean? That texture of personhood, we’re always really interested in. I don’t know, we just wanted that kind of thing to be in the atmosphere.

Tina: We did definitely read sort of news stories about the thing. And then the other thing, I’ll kind of get too long winded, but there is a lot of jargon in there. And so once we were really rehearsing it, once we cast it with the four actors we were going to do it, they as good actors would do, and I’m always kind of whatever, but they sort of want to understand what they were saying. And so then when Reality and the agents can banter around something called PKI passwords, shouldn’t we know what a PKI Password is? And so that meant doing our research into some security speak, some of which is hard to research a little bit and some which isn’t. So we started to sort of … informally as a group, the actors, me, our Assistant Director, Marianna Catalina, getting that stuff. Anything they would say, we want to know what this is, we’d all sort of each go do our like Google search due diligence on that and then come back and talk about what we thought it meant so they had context.

Tina: And then late in the process we met a documentary filmmaker named Sonia Kennebeck, who had made a movie called National Bird about young drone operators and Reality had been working in the drone system when she was in the Air Force. So this woman Sonia knew of Reality and she is now, I believe, making a documentary on Reality and her family. But before she was a documentarian, had been a journalist covering national security. So she came to one of our rehearsals and then I had a coffee with her and she was able to answer questions for me that I was not able to find answers to other ways like, where the guns showing the day the FBI pulled up to Reality’s house? Because this woman Sonia had gone to Reality’s trial, she’d been in the courtroom and so she was like, “No, that day their weapons were all concealed.” And we were like, “Would they have had FBI on their jackets?” And it’s a total case by case thing on these FBI raids or when they arrive at a house, it’s not standard. And she was like, “No, they didn’t.” We, of course, have taken artistic license with that sort of so we can make the show have its potency in the room. But she was able to offer some really interesting dramaturgical research directly to me about her knowledge of FBI space.

Tina: The most fascinating thing she told me, I assumed through this whole process, it would be very standard that they would record these things and having a transcript was the standard for an FBI interrogation, and she said it’s actually extremely unusual and that usually these things are just captured in notes that the FBI agents write up afterwards and that the fact that they recorded this as sort of very unusual. So we sort of got a gift in getting this transcript word for word as this young woman faces these 11 agents in her house.

Tenara: Why would they choose to record Reality’s interrogation? Maybe that’s the question that you don’t have the answer to and maybe we need to just go see the show, but-

Tina: Yeah, I don’t. Sonia knew a lot more of this space in an actual way than me. That was sort of up for debate among those people in that world. Did they want to make sure that if they were going to be alone with this woman in their house, they had that recorded? Was there something they thought she could say they could use in court? It’s unknown. Someone more involved in that than me would have that answer because it didn’t really at all matter to our show, I don’t think. Something was very interesting about learning that fact that then we were actually sharing something. It added even more relevance a bit that we are sharing this kind of conversation that is just in general, we’re not going to ever get to hear.

Zach: That’s so interesting. There’s all this fixed material in the show and the transcripts, but then you have to do things like design a set and-

Tenara: Yeah, I’m really curious about … I guess I shouldn’t be so bamboozled by this process. Almost all traditional theater is working from a script, but I think what makes me feel so excited about this is that you have a fixed document of a moment in time that genuinely actually happened so any decision to deviate from what’s on the paper, you’re really changing facts. I guess I’m curious about where artistic license popped into this process and what you felt like you could interpret and what you were like, “No, no, no. This is within the script and we just have to treat it like it’s sacred.”

Tina: Right. So we treat all the language sacredly. It starts when the transcripts starts and then we say every single thing they say and denote the redactions, the black stripes over the language that are in the transcripts. That’s all in there. And there was a period through the process I kept thinking we weren’t going to be able to keep all the text, that we would have to make cuts, because I was worried that it gets too repetitive because it’s this interrogation. And even after the big moment where she admits, which we don’t care to have be a secret, it doesn’t matter, they keep interrogating her.

Tina: So I was worried that there was this rhythmic setup that was going to be too hard and we might have just cut some sections. But the more we worked on it and refined our approach, the dream was to keep all this text in there. But as I was saying, the more we refined it and figured out how to play it and the four actors that are doing it got it in their bodies and in their mouths, we were like, “This could hold, we can hold with all of it.” So we say everything that was said in that house, that was recorded that day.

Tina: We made a big choice to not try to set it in any realistic way inside what Reality’s house should have looked like and we know that now. We know her house, what it looked like, we know that they took her to this one room. But from the beginning I thought I wanted to just have the language, but that we needed these actors sort of in this abstracted space because to me it was very much about hearing and watching people listening to each other in this kind of stark way. Just conversation that unfolds is what is highlighted and not be distracted by any other set or context for it. We could see if all the details that come out in the transcript can hold said among these actors on this stark stage.

Tina: So removing it from any realistic “set space” is one artistic choice. And then we have this very loose, but very specific choreographic movement they are doing on stage. Choreographed makes it sound like a dance, but they’re really just moving on the stage as often as in plays, it’s a very directed way they move. And that is something we just felt out and I felt out directorially to keep energy flowing on stage because we don’t know at all how they moved that day and probably didn’t move that much once they had her in the small room. We know she just sat against the wall. So those are the biggest choices, the artistic choices were that interpretation to set it not in any set and make up this kind of movement score for it.

Zach: Yeah, I’m also interested in … The first experience that I had as an audience member seeing the piece was entering into the theater and the kitchen and there being this wall of haze, probably the most haze I”ve seen outside of a haunted house environment. And I was wondering kind of about that choice, to me it really made me feel as though I was passing through some threshold, through some membrane and that was deeply interesting to me. I feel like I was listening differently in the haze, it was really effective.

Tina: Oh, that’s really neat to hear about the listening differently thing. Yeah, and very early on I was like, “I think I want the bare stage with audience on each side.” I had that really early in the idea process and then it was like, “Can we test that out and will it work when we load in,” but I had no ideas of haze. The lighting designer, I’m sorry, is someone named Thomas Dunn who’s wonderful and his idea was sort of what he was doing was lights to try this really, really hazing it up so that that could sort of fall away with the lighting he wanted to try. And in this first look, if one sees it you see that falls away and you’re left with Reality. And so we tested that and it became very exciting in the room and then the things you sort of just spoke about, Zach, we realized we’re operating. It has this immediately metaphorical thing of not necessarily making one hear more or differently, which the play is all about is hearing literally this transcript said.

Tina: So, yeah, that’s sort of where we came to with the haze because immediately once we opened it to audiences we realized it was doing something even more special than just the cool way it drifted from the lights, it was adding a whole other layer to what it meant to enter into this space. We were also always trying to figure out how to capture that feeling that Reality walks into this thing, not knowing it all what is about to happen and that in an hour from now her life’s going to be really different. So it also became a sort of way of her second-by-second trying to navigate through this foggy situation as it slowly comes to view, “Oh, these guys are here to like get something very specific out of me.”

Tenara: I really feel like we’re on a true crime podcast right now.

Tina: Yeah, that’s awesome.

Zach: [crosstalk 00:25:10].

Tenara: I just feel like we’ve got two hosts that are talking to somebody who has a wealth of information about the event and we’re just trying to figure it out.

Tina: Yeah, I have so much thoughts on it because I’ve been with it for so long I’m obviously-

Tenara: Totally.

Tina: Yeah.

Tenara: So we want to ask some highbrow and lowbrow influences.

Zach: Yeah, this is our current obsession part of the podcast. But kind of what are you obsessed with right now that you would say is … What are we calling foods that are good for us now, nutritionally dense? What is your most frivolous obsession at the present time?

Tina: My most high brow obsession, it’s something I’m truly obsessed with recently is this … It’s a podcast going right now called 13 Minutes To The Moon. Do you know about that?

Zach: No.

Tina: Oh, I’m obsessed with it so that’s an easy answer. It’s rolling out right now weekly and it’s about the Apollo 11 1969 moon landing with someone. And it’s like, “Duh. Yeah, that was a crazy big deal,” but I had not paid really one ounce of attention to it in my life and then actually how insane it was that we went and tried to do that. And so this podcast just breaks down when JFK says in ’61, “We’re going to get to the moon,” how crazy that was. But all the amazing science and risks and possibility at work in doing it, and I’ve kind of really gotten obsessed with this podcast and it’s kind of amazing. So, yeah, it’s about the moon landing.

Zach: It is on my list.

Tenara: Would you consider that to be nutritionally dense?

Zach: Oh, yeah. That feels dense.

Tenara: I don’t know. That’s for Tina to decide.

Tina: Well that’s what I wasn’t sure. Yeah, but I think for where I am right now, that’s my high brow obsession. Yeah, and I think it is. Yeah, it’s not Henry James, but it’s pretty intense, yeah.

Tenara: Do you have a low brow influence right now?

Tina: Well I was trying to think of my most immediate ones, but my ongoing one that’s a little shame-filled kind of is I don’t hate the Kardashians. Let’s just say that.

Zach: I need to rewind that track for me because I think what I like about your work, what I find really stimulating in your work is that it really does not try and make overtures to an intelligentia at all. It’s very much measuring itself by its own measures, and the language and the movement, it’s very … I don’t know, it’s not interested in what kind of norms are out there or something. And I am also a huge reality TV fan. What I’m trying to say is I feel validated by you also consuming this media. But one thing that it does do is it kind of releases expectations in some way and that’s really cool to me.

Tina: So I really like what you just said about my work. [inaudible 00:28:05] the norms are our own. For the record, I just think that’s what Peter Canon should do. It’s like we have this space, let me make what it maybe feels like inside us or not. So I just love that you said that and want to note that because I think that is what theater can always be doing. Yeah, and I’m obsessed with the Kardashians. I love sisters, I love a family that’s obsessed with each other dysfunctionally and they do all this amazing gestural stuff like the way they all eat these salads a certain way or they touch their hair a certain way because them have that hair sewn in, extensions.

Zach: They feel like Tina Satter characters.

Tenara: Yes, isn’t it research for you?

Tina: I don’t want to make a Kardashian Show, but I can’t help but see these sort of formal things in it that I do of course get excited by and I know that would be officially low brow.

Tenara: Tina, thank you so much for joining us today.

Tina: Oh, thank you for having me.

Tenara: And we’re really, really all thrilled to be back there with the show, very thrilled. It’s going to be special.

Zach: We’ll see you very soon.

Tina: Okay, awesome.

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 Fringe Arts app. Tickets are on sale now for our 2019 Fringe Festival, visit www.fringearts.com or call our box office at (215) 413-1318 for more information. And if you haven’t already grabbed a Fringe Festival Guide, you can drop by our building on the corner of Race and Columbus, or to La Peg, and get your copy. We’re also going to be spreading them all around the city, so make sure you keep an eye out for the 2019 Fringe Festival Guide. Thanks everybody for listening and we’ll see you at the Festival.

[Music Outro]

Channeling the Past: Eric Berryman on The B-Side

Posted August 5th, 2019

Three men—Eric Berryman, Jasper McGruder, and Philip Moore—listen to an LP of songs and speeches recorded in 1965 in segregated Texas state prison farms, singing and talking along with the album. This is not your typical piece of theater, but The B-Side: “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons,” A Record Album Interpretation by The Wooster Group is a powerful experience. The voices of the performers blend with those on the album, capturing the humor and sorrow and bringing the men on the album to life. Between pieces, Berryman provides context from the liner notes and a book by Bruce Jackson, the folklorist who recorded the original LP. FringeArts talked with Eric Berryman in May of 2019 about this deeply moving piece.

FringeArts: How did you discover this album? 

Eric Berryman: I was working on a piece some years ago on the Legend of John Henry, and found myself listening and searching for work songs, as John Henry in its original form was a slower tempo work song and not the faster tempo revival version that has become popular. In my quest to add some of the work song music to my tangible vinyl record collection I discovered Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons, never thinking it would become my next major project.

FringeArts: What appealed to you about it?

Eric Berryman: What I loved was that it wasn’t an album of just worksongs but a collection of more. Worksongs, blues, spirituals, preaching and toasts.

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Happy Hour on the Fringe: Conversation with Mimi Lien

Posted July 30th, 2019

On this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, we sat down with award winning designer Mimi Lien to learn about her inspirations for Superterranean, from seeing a rat disappear into the darkness of a subway to the immense structures, tunnels, and systems working all around us, as well as the human body’s place within it all.  Superterranean is one of the curated shows premiering in the 2019 Fringe Festival and performed by Pig Iron Theatre Company.  Superterranean will be at 2300 Arena this September 5–15.

Listen to the episode and read the transcript below.

Conversation with Mimi Lien

[Music Intro]

Raina: Hello, and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. Fringe Arts is Philadelphia’s premier presenter of Contemporary Performing Arts. I’m Raina Searles, Marketing Manager here at Fringe Arts, and I invite you to pour one up and enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence

Katy: And I am Katy Dammers, Artistic Producer at Fringe Arts. Today we’re excited to talk about Superterranean, a new work that will premiere in September as part of our Fringe Festival. Created by Philadelphia locals, Pig Iron Theatre Company in collaboration with lead artist Mimi Lien, the work is driven by Lien’s fascinations with urban infrastructure acting in concert with the human body. Today, we’re excited to be in conversation with Mimi. Welcome.

Mimi: Hi.

Raina: Hello.

Katy: Thank you so much for joining us. Mimi is currently living in Brooklyn, but commuting back and forth a fair amount to Philadelphia, so we’re excited to have her here with us today. And we’ll start with our first question. What are you drinking?

Mimi: I’m drinking Dark and Stormy with extra spicy ginger beer.

Katy: I love that.

Raina: Delightful.

Katy: That sounds amazing. It’s hot out so that sounds perfect.

Raina: Extra spicy.

Katy: I’m having a watermelon Margarita. And what are you having Raina?

Raina: I’m having a white wine.

Mimi: Very elegant.

Katy: Perfect.

Raina: Classic Happy Hour.

Raina: So to get started, you’ve been quoted as saying that you were drawn to holes, portals, pipes, partial objects and openings, which is very important to the design of Superterranean. Can you tell us more like what is it that you like about these places? What is your inspiration behind that?

Mimi: Well, I mean, I guess like, in the sort of thing that, sometimes when I’m, well often… Probably a lot of people see this, when you’re standing on the subway platforms, sometimes you see a rat. You know, well, we’ve seen a number of rats crawling around in the, in the tracks. But then sometimes it, you know, you see a rat dart into a little, a little hole that’s like perfectly sized for the rat. And it seems to know exactly where it’s going. It’s not just like, ‘oh, I discovered this hole’. Maybe I should go into it.

Mimi: And like, I just have always really loved, really loved that. And I think that, you know, that, that hole, which I don’t know what is on the other side of it, and it seems to suggest this kind of vast elaborate parallel civilization of rats that’s just underfoot. And I can kind of imagine the vastness of it, but I can’t see it at all.

Raina: So I guess, I guess, you know, tunnels, conduits, this suggestion of, of a kind of complexity and vastness that we can sort of sense with our bodies but can’t really visualize or comprehend. And I know that that has always caused a kind of like breathlessness in me. And, and curiosity.

Katy: So I know as part of the development process for Superterranean, you’ve worked with Geoff Manaugh from BDLGBLOG who’s a writer and scholar and kind of all around thinker, and done a number of different field trips to places like this.

Katy: What are some of the other systems that you’ve looked at as part of your research?

Mimi: Yeah, well, I mean I first met Geoff when I was participating in a studio that he led called Landscapes of Quarantine, at the storefront for art and architecture in New York. And, and so as part of that studio, we were examining different environments of quarantine of like, geopolitical, medical and biological. And I mean he, this is kind of a great resource for, you know, thinking about all of the different kinds of facets of, of architecture and design and how that impacts or civilization. I guess, and so we invited him. I initially started out thinking loosely about utopians as I was contemplating the beginning of this project. And Geoff has, actually had recently curated an exhibition about utopias and we invited him to yeah, talk to us a little bit about that.

Mimi: And while he was here, we also went on a field, a couple of field trips to, you know, I guess yeah, thinking about intentional communities or where a built environment dictated, you know, a certain kinds of human behavior within that. So we started out actually visiting the Arch Street Meeting House, and also we went to Ephrata, a religious community that’s like 40 minutes outside of Philly.

Mimi: And then maybe the most transformative one was going to visit a wastewater treatment plant down in southeast Philly. And that was just, I mean, super eye opening. I mean I had never had access to a facility like that. And then just the, just the, you know, sheer number of steps involved in the process of water filtration and the sheer like, acreage that that takes up. It’s like vast sluices and things like that. So that was really, I think, pivotal in terms of really the direction that this project went in.

Katy: Well, and that’s so interesting to think about cause it looks like you determined a number of different systems, some of which are very exterior and known. Like I think about the meeting house or an intentional community. It’s really built with that design and it’s not seeking to obscure it or hide it. Whereas like a wastewater treatment facility or even a subway, they kind of do their best to obscure those passageways so that you don’t see the rats running through or you don’t have to think about what happens when you flush the toilet and where it goes.

Mimi: Yeah, exactly.

Katy: How does that you know, come into your design?

Mimi: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I definitely feel like I started out thinking about systems in general and kind of worked from the outside in. And I think eventually I did start feeling that these more visible or overt systems were somehow less intriguing to me. And I found, well I guess at one point, Dan Rothenberg our director, co-artistic director at Pig Iron, just asked me what my obsessions were. And as I started thinking about that and relaying them… Oh, I found that a lot of them were of sort of, concealed spaces of tunnels and a lot of them happen to be like, underground or they’re places that were not meant to be like industrial spaces that are generally forbidden to the public that I found particularly enticing and sort of seductive in a way. And more and more I think about places that I’m drawn to like with my gut or with my body more than with my brain, in a way.

Mimi: And I think that that… Like, in a way, the process of working on this piece has been quite intuitive. And like, sort of following, following my nose. But now I’m sort of thinking of it as like, following my gut. I was like, I think I’m after a particular, visceral sensation of space, or a visceral experience of space. And the kinds of spaces that I have been obsessed with are those that affect me bodily. And I’m trying to figure out, you know, how do we make that in a performance context? Or how do we talk about that in a performance context.

Raina: Yeah. I, I’m really curious cause this kind of leads very naturally into a question of what should the audience expect to experience when they come see the show? What can we tell them ahead of time to kind of prep them and let them know what you’re, how what you’re thinking transits into this performance?

Mimi: Well, I guess I can start by saying that, we’re not really considering it like theater, theater. I guess we’re calling it visual theater. Like it’s pretty… It’s, it’s pretty out there. Like, you know, I’m, I’m, I’m sort of feeling the air with my hands right now, which you can’t see. But I’m like, I feel like what we’re after… What we’re, what we’ve made so far and what I think we’re gonna continue to make is stuff that you don’t quite… It’s not, it’s certainly not narrative. It’s definitely very visual. I think spatially, I think one thing we’re trying to figure out is like how, how do we focus the audience’s attention on a space? Although I have decided that it’s not an environmental. Like it’s not a performance that the audience walks through.

Mimi: I think, you know, as I was saying like, Oh, you know, I want to create the kind of experience that you feel that’s really been in your body. That is, you know, often thought of this something that maybe you’re in an immersive experience and it’s not, it’s not that, actually. I guess maybe one challenge that I set out for myself is, is there a way for me to try to evoke that sensation without, without actually walking through it? We did this workshop a couple of months ago and maybe one of my favorite things that an audience member said after it was that, ‘oh, I kind of like, although I didn’t touch anything, I kind of feel icky’.

Mimi: And there is, yeah, maybe I’ll say that there’s some fluids. There’s some like, soft substances. You know, we’ve been, we’ve been sort of curious about, I don’t know, this basic relationship between the human body and it’s like softness and squishiness, in relation to these hard structures made out of concrete and steel and this sort of peculiar relationship between the soft squishy features that created these massive, harder structures.

Katy: Well, and I wonder if that makes sense as it comes out of your development and the devising process where often, in a more traditional theatrical context, there would be script with media story or at least a thematic. And then they’d come to you as the set designer, and then after that is all creative and say, ‘put this in an environment’. But, this working process has been the opposite.

Mimi: Yeah.

Katy: So you have kind of developed the environment or the stage space and then they are devising the theatrical work within that.

Katy: Like how has that flipped process helped for you?

Mimi: Yeah, it’s all pretty, it felt pretty crazy and intense. I mean, definitely I found myself thinking like this is probably, you know, like we’re playing, right field. Like when you’re sitting there facing the blank page of like, what, this is going to be about? You know? Because certainly as a set designer, I’m most often responding to something. Like whether it’s a script or a piece of music or a poem or you know, it is definitely, you know, a kind of response as opposed to making the first scratch.

Mimi: And I think there’s a lot of, you know, I think throughout the years I’ve definitely had a lot of impulses. Like, oh, like you know, I see a, I see a landscape, or I see a photo and be like, that would be an amazing set for something.

Katy: Mm-hmm(affirmative)

Raina: Mm-hmm(affirmative)

Mimi: But also knowing that this is a piece that I’m making with Pig Iron, and that particular ensemble and the way that they make stuff.

Mimi: I’ve also sort of… Trying to think a little bit about, well, not every space is gonna have like, like vibrate in a particular way with that ensemble. So there’s also trying to calibrate a little bit. And what, what that, what that kind of, what that environment would be. But yeah, and at the same time thinking about something that is both aesthetically and spatially captivating to me, but also thinking about what would have dramatic potential as a performance piece.

Katy: Yeah.

Raina: So how does this process differ since you’ve worked with Pig Iron for a number of years? How has that relationship grown and changed over the years and how do you feel like this project is taking it to a new level?

Mimi: Yeah, I mean it definitely as a designer working with… I mean Pig Iron was the first ensemble company that I had worked with. I mean, it was pretty early on that I did my first show with them, which was Love Unpunished in 2006. And at that time I think had been doing theater for like two years and it was my first encounter with working this way. So, I mean it definitely, even, even, you know, other Pig Iron pieces that don’t start with the set design, the design enters the picture very early and is part of the room as the piece is being made.

Mimi: But I guess the difference is that with those pieces, there’s already an idea, even if it’s a very vague idea and just to kind kernel or a distant early germinating seed. But I’m still responding to that idea. So I guess the biggest difference was that, you know, I was coming up with that germinating idea.

Katy: I wonder if we can also talk a little bit about Philadelphia as a site, or more broadly, all of the research that we did to come up with the final site for the performance, which is, you know, the Fringe Festival, for all our listeners out there, like takes place all around the city. Some things happen in our theater here at FringeArts, but many things including super training, take place offsite. And so we thought a lot about, you know, is it going to be in a proscenium theater, is it going to be in a warehouse? And kinda ended up somewhere in the middle. And so we were thinking, can you talk to people who weren’t part of that process. What was that like and how did that affect your design?

Mimi: I think I said a little bit earlier about this piece not being an environmental piece that the audience walks through. So definitely, as we started thinking about making this piece that’s going to start with the design and, and all of my, you know, known interests in like in you know, three dimensional space being a really powerful tool. And wanting the audience to experience three dimensional space. And a lot of my designs and you know, and in the past have been like 360 degree experiences and designing a space that the audience enters. So that, you know, that’s certainly something that I thought about.

Mimi: But then, you know, for some reason I had this gut feeling that I wanted to make it in a kind of more proscenium relationship for the audience. Or I didn’t want to make a site specific piece. I guess I was interested in the role of design or the potential for design in a, in a word neutral laboratory container.

Mimi: So I feel like a site specific experience is great, and really powerful, but like, the site is doing so much of that work. And I, I guess I wanted to challenge myself to see what a design from scratch could do. So I sort of wanted to start from scratch and therefore, I thought maybe, you know, the neutral space of a proscenium theater is where I want to make it. And you know, and I do kind of love prosceniums for the very fact that you can then break it.

Mimi: So we set about, you know, trying to find the proscenium space, but I also knew that I wanted something that I, that had a pretty big volume of space, so I wanted to, I wanted to be able to shape the volume. Yeah. I mean, and you know, we’ve looked at, you know, armories and navy yards and you know, these kinds of spaces.

Katy: So many different spaces. Yeah.

Mimi: But, but there’s all, you know, there’s all sorts of logistical considerations and-

Katy: For sure.

Mimi: You know, some of them were actually like too tall, you know, I’m like, if I want to build something that feels like it fills the space, if the space is big, then that doesn’t really work for us.

Mimi: So we’ve, we’ve landed at a venue that I didn’t think, you know, I didn’t imagine we would be in.

Katy: It’s a venue we’ve never worked at before and it’s 2300 arena. It’s actually usually a wrestling space or an event space. But it kind of fit the bill in a really unexpected way for this piece because in some ways it’s a blank space so it essentially looks like a black box. And yet we are kind of creating a proscenium feel within it. So I’d like to think it’s the best of both worlds. But every site has its own challenges and specificities.

Mimi: Yeah, for sure. Yeah. No, I mean it turns out that this space has like an 80 foot by 80 foot footprint that we could, you know… With, you know, very few columns and so we could basically kind of place the audience wherever we wanted inside it and really create our own container potentially to be broken.

Raina: So I’m curious, in conjunction with Superterranean, you’re also working on an installation at Cherry Street pier. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that’s going to be and what that’s gonna look like?

Mimi: Yeah, so we’ve been talking a little bit about this like feeling of of a, of a gut, like a visceral response to architecture. And I guess I was inspired recently by… I went to see a Bruce Nauman exhibition at PS1 in New York. And I’ve always loved his work so much. You know, a lot of them are like corridors, like very long skinny corridors if you go down, and I think I even made a piece that was sort of in an homage back when I was in Grad school. But you sort swished your way around this very skinny corridor and peered into this space within. So like I was… You know, so for the performance or the show, you know, in some ways I guess we’re creating a visual theatrical work that speaks to particular spacial sensibilities. But I, I was interested in maintaining this frame and this proscenium relationship.

Mimi: And so with the public artwork I thought, well this is my opportunity to actually, to have someone move their body through a space and orchestrate that experience in a particular way. We looked at a couple of different sites and I mean this piece did really want to be very site responsive but, but I did always have this notion of going into a very enclosed space. Because I knew it was going to be, probably is going to be on an outdoor site. And so there’s this, you know, sort of larger, broader idea of this public artwork somehow how funneling the person from an exterior to an interior space.

Mimi: From an open air to an enclosed space and, and essentially like a gradual awareness of your… You know, I guess I have this hypothesis that when you’re in a really, really enclosed space, like a really tight space and maybe a dark space, like I’ve always imagined this as being quite a dark space, that it’s like an inside out experience. Like maybe you feel like you’re entering some part of a body or like you, you sense that in, innards of your body a little bit more when you’re, when you’re in a space like that. You like sense your breathing or your heart rate a little bit more. I guess because you know, your senses are being limited in a way. And so if you’re in an anechoic chamber, you probably hear the sound of the blood rushing through your ears a little bit, and you kind of imagine the capillaries that the blood is rushing through and you’re inside this kind of tiny artery. And so there’s this kind of conflation of body and architecture.

Mimi: So I was just interested in exploring that idea on whatever site we ended up in. And, I first made a proposal for one site but that ended up, you know, it was like infra-structurally challenging because it’s like underneath the Ben Franklin Bridge and I-95. These days it’s really hard to build an enclosed structure underneath an interstate highway.

Katy: Yeah, we learned so much about the security system at the state, the local and the city level.

Mimi: Yeah. I mean it’s actually, I kind of suspected, I mean in my brief foray into the public art world, definitely these considerations of what people might do in a public space, which is interesting. That’s, that’s sort of not unrelated to the, to the project at hand. But anyway, we’ve ended up at Cherry Street Pier, which is a very different vibe from being like underneath a bridge anchorage and like a rumbling highway. And so I kind of wanted to respond to that a little bit. So, I think the project has become a little bit more whimsical. There’s also a Little Baby’s Ice Cream truck is there at the end of the pier and maybe like that’s part of the experience.

Raina: Just walk through a tunnel and get a free ice cream.

Mimi: Well, get the ice cream and then walk through a tunnel and then eat the ice cream while you’re inside the tunnel and feel it going down your esophagus.

Katy: Yes. Yes.

Raina: I wonder also about the sound bleed because Cherry Street Pier is this really vibrant place. People are like walking and talking outside. So that is also very different than what the sound would sound like underneath a bridge. So do you plan to shut that sound out? Is it like a space that you enter in and you’re kind of closed off audibly from the world as well?

Mimi: That is my hope. I’m been working with a composer and sound designer named Lea Bertucci on Superterranean, but she’s also done a lot of the sound installations and things like that all over the world. She actually made this amazing sound installation in… There’s a bridge in Germany that has like, enclosure, sort of flat, tunnel like space that goes right under the road bed of the bridge. And so she made this sound installation inside that space. She’s really cool. So we are collaborating on this public art work as well. And so there’s gonna be a sound component, which I hope and imagine will drown out the existing surrounding and that you’re going to enter into this kind of other sonic world.

Katy: Well, we are so excited to see both when you’re hear in September. I think to finish after the conversation we always ask everybody what’s your low brow and your high brow inspiration? Could be for Superterranean or more broadly.

Raina: Well, I already mentioned Bruce Nauman, but I guess this is maybe similar. I guess Donald Judd… when I went to, I went on a trip to Marfa, Texas and saw a bunch of Donald Judd works out there in the, in the grasses of Marfa. And have, it’s just really stuck with me.

Raina: And can you tell us a little bit more about Donald Judd?

Mimi: Yeah. So Donald Judd is a sculpture, visual artist. I think he would, he would… He did not want to be called a minimalist, although I think a lot of people described his work is somewhat minimalist. But I feel like a lot of his work straddles the line between sculpture and furniture. And I actually recently went on a tour of his apartment slash studio and Soho and so that, he had this building in Soho and like one, one floor was the studio and then a couple other floors he lived on with his family. But he also designed and built a lot of the furniture, so his entire living environment was totally curated and very crafted and a lot of people describe it as minimalist. I actually noticed recently that the Cherry Street Pier, there’s some chairs and tables at Cherry Street Pier that seem a little bit inspired by Donald Judd.

Mimi: Yeah, but I guess I’ve always been really inspired by the crossover between his art and life. That’s, that’s just something that’s always inspired me. But also this particular work in Marfa. I can’t even remember the title of it, but it’s like, there’s like a hundred aluminum boxes that are displayed in this huge former airplane hangar and they’re all like, all hundred boxes are exactly the same dimension and they’re made out of the same aluminum. They’re like three foot by three foot cubes. But then on the inside they’re all divided in a slightly different way. Like divided into two compartments or three compartments, or with a horizontal shelf or with a vertical divider.

Mimi: And it’s a very cold work, you might say. Like it’s, the aluminum and it’s like hard corners and everything. But, I oddly fell up very motional or moved by it and, I don’t know, I’m like, maybe it was something about the, the human attempt to like discover all of the possibilities of dividing this box. Or like there’s some sense of effort or labor and it’s meticulously done.

Mimi: So, I don’t know. That, I talked about that piece a lot with our factors as we started working on this piece. Low brow? Maybe, well, I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I’ve been, I’ve tried to watch Battlestar Galactica.

Katy: Mm-hmm(affirmative) We have some fans of that at our office.

Mimi: For the past like, seven years. I mean, I didn’t even start watching it until the entire thing was over. But it’s taken me like seven years, and I still haven’t finished watching. I just watch it like a tiny bit at a time when I have, when I have the time. But that’s certainly an example of a sort of insidious system of sorts.

Katy: Yeah.

Raina: Yeah.

Katy: Totally. Cool.

Mimi: Awesome.

Katy: Well, thank you so much for joining us, Mimi. So great to have you on the podcast.

Mimi: Thank you for having me.

Raina: Yeah. Superterranean will be presented at 2300 Arena September 5th through the 15 as part of the 2019 Fringe Festival. So we hope to see you all there. make sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram and download the FringeArts app. You can also visit us at fringearts.com.

[Music Outro]

‘Us the Children of History’: Blanka Zizka on There

Posted July 23rd, 2019

At first glance, Etel Adnan’s book-length poem There: In the Light and the Darkness of the Self and of the Other, isn’t a natural candidate for adaptation into a play. There are no clearly delineated characters, or dialogue, or plot.

But the Wilma HotHouse Company of actors and its innovative director Blanka Zizka aren’t known for easy, conventional, or boring theater. A diverse group of local actors who meet regularly for artistic training and bonding, HotHouse uses diverse theatrical texts to explore the emotional core of language and relationships.

Etel Adnan’s poem was the very first piece of writing the company read when it began in 2015. As part of the 2019 Fringe Festival, Wilma HotHouse adapts There into an evocative theater piece co-created by Blanka Zizka (Wilma’s artistic director) and visual arts pioneer Rosa Barba. FringeArts’ guide editor Christopher Munden spoke to Blanka in June of 2019 about the meanings and context of this seminal work of contemporary poetry.

Blanka Zizka

Christopher Munden: When did you encounter the poem?

Blanka Zizka: Etel is a close friend of Theodoros Terzopoulos, the director of and Ajax and Antigone [which the Wilma produced in 2013 and 2015, respectively] and he suggested that I read her work. And it was sitting on my desk when I started to work on HotHouse.

One of the reasons for HotHouse was to bring people of different histories and experiences together, and to work as a community, as people who care for each other and create together even though our experiences are very different. So I was thinking that I couldn’t find text that I could work on, because so much of the texts nowadays are written out of identity.

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Happy Hour on the Fringe: Conversation with Blanka Zizka

Posted July 19th, 2019

On this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, we depart from our usual watering hole (the FringeArts office and join the founder and President of FringeArts, Nick Stuccio, to toast The Wilma Theater‘s Artistic Director, Blanka Zizka, on her newest production,  There: In the Light and the Darkness of the Self and the Other, adapted from the poem by Lebanese-American poet Etel Adnan, with visual art by renown artist Rosa Barba.  There is one of the curated shows premiering in the 2019 Fringe Festival and performed by Wilma’s Hothouse Company.  There: In the Light and the Darkness of the Self and the Other will be at The Wilma this September 11–22.

Listen to the episode and read the transcript below.

Conversation with Blanka Zizka

[Music Intro]

Nick Stuccio: Welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe, I’m Nick Stuccio, I’m the President and Producing Director of FringeArts. I’m here with Blanka Zizka, the Artistic Director of the Wilma Theater, the amazing Wilma Theater, and we’re gonna talk about There, help me Blanka, There… colon…

Blanka Zizka: So it’s There: In the Light and the Darkness of the Self and of the Other.

Nick: In the light and the darkness of the self and the other. Awesome. Before we start talking about There, of course this is Happy Hour on the Fringe, we gonna talk about what we’re drinking, and we’re at the Wilma, above Good Karma Cafe, right? Well, we’re above…

Blanka: We are above Good Karma Cafe.

Nick: Awesome. We’re looking down upon Good Karma Cafe in your awesome new office…your now windowed office…and we both happen to be both drinking the same thing. We’re drinking a couple of martinis, they’re fantastic, and we’re actually….

Blanka: Do you remember those like, those martini lunches? It used to be like in [the] 1980’s. I’m really old….

Nick: I’m close…I’m close.

Blanka: But, you know there was like, people who always had…not me, but…

Nick: I was gpomg to say….

Blanka: People, people. Those people out there used to have martini lunches….

Nick: In the other world; the for-profit world.

Blanka: Yes. Yes.

Nick: Here in the nonprofit world, we did not, except when we went to Europe on trips, I would have a beer with colleagues, which is awesome. I never actually had a martini for lunch, but dammit, it’s a tradition we should try. Anyway, so that’s what we’re drinking, we’re drinking a delicious San Pellegrino, today. So, Blanka, we’re very excited to have There in the festival this year. Very interesting…I’m very excited to hear about it…how it’s going. But, before we talk about There, I wanted to get some context from you. You and I have talked about this a lot, and I am your number one fan in this endeavor with the Hothouse Company. So, I want you to talk about the Hothouse…give us some context, it’s very, very cool…this company of actors that you’re holding, that is getting particular training, and you’re building this kind of unique, theatrical aesthetic. I actually read that on your website about the theatrical aesthetic you’re building, but what I didn’t read was what kind of particular aesthetic, if you can characterize that. Talk about Hothouse and talk about where you’re headed with it.

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Two Men, a Bench, and a Radio: Hermes Gaido on Un Poyo Rojo

Posted July 15th, 2019

Hermes Gaido is the artistic director of Un Poyo Rojo, a non-verbal theatrical work that uses movement to explore different relationships between two men. Meeting in a locker room, the Argentinian performers Alfonso Barón and Luciano Rosso interact and communicate entirely without dialogue. The duo draws on a wide range of movements to express different emotional possibilities, incorporating elements of dance, sport, and theater. After a decade of performances throughout Latin America, Un Poyo Rojo makes it’s U.S. premiere September 19–21 in Philadelphia for the 2019 Fringe Festival. FringeArts talked to Hermes Gaido in May of 2019 about this piece’s themes and continuing evolution.

FringeArts: What inspired Un Poyo Rojo?

Hermes Gaido: The desire to work with friends. At that time Luciano Rosso, Nicolas Poggi, and I lived together in the same house in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

FringeArts: How has the company and performance evolved over the years?

Hermes Gaido: It was created in 2008 and the premiere was in 2009. After two years of doing the show, Nicolas decided to move to another country, and we had to find a replacement. We saw Alfonso Barón on stage and decided to include him in the project.

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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.

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HPFS Splash: Never Change, Philly

Posted April 16th, 2019

Continuing our HPFS Splash blog series, we’ll be taking the tops off the metaphorical fire hydrants* and spilling out the information you want to know from our High Pressure Fire Service (HPFS) artists about their HPFS shows, local inspirations, and living in Philly.

Today’s big question: What do you hope never changes about Philadelphia?

Jess Conda as bartender at Fergie’s Pub

“Fergie’s Pub. The place has kept its welcoming, rock and roll authenticity through all of the gentrification in Center City. The Fergie’s attitude IS Philadelphia. It was here before Craft Beer was cool and it ain’t going anywhere. Hell, the place had an entire 26 story condo literally built around it and stayed open the whole time. Now THAT’s True Grit. It’s also where I cut my teeth as a bartender and have had the most one on one conversations with the widest range of people in the city. A bar is a tiny stage, and while I was coming up and waiting to get more work as an actor, I was learning about real life working there…[I don’t want] anymore diner closings. We’ve lost too many already. The day the Melrose or Broad Street Diner closes, that’s it, I’m outta here.
–Jess Conda, A Hard Time

“Rittenhouse Square and Christ Church. And walks along the river in several places, West side, East side and along 24th street and the bridges that are lit at night. And the Rowing Houses on Kelly Drive that are lit at night. And the sculpture gardens.”
–Marcia Saunders, A Fierce Kind of Love

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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.

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HPFS Splash: Gritty Edition

Posted April 9th, 2019

Continuing our HPFS Splash blog series, we’ll be taking the tops off the metaphorical fire hydrants* and spilling out the information you want to know from our High Pressure Fire Service (HPFS) artists about their HPFS shows, local inspirations, and living in Philly.

Today’s big question: What are your thoughts on Gritty?

“He’s ugly and he’s orange.  Someone said he looks like Elmo on speed.”
–Erin McNulty, A Fierce Kind of Love

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HPFS Splash: Philadelphia Favorites, Bonus Edition

Posted April 4th, 2019

Continuing our HPFS Splash series, we’ll be taking the tops off the metaphorical fire hydrants* and spilling out the information you want to know from our High Pressure Fire Service (HPFS) artists about their HPFS shows, local inspirations, and living in Philly.

Today’s big question: What’s your favorite Philly…?

Park

“Parallel and Jurassic”
–The Berserker Residents, Broccoli, Roosevelt and Mr. House!

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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!

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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?

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HPFS Splash: Disconnecting with a Good Book

Posted March 28th, 2019

Continuing our HPFS Splash blog series, we’ll be taking the tops off the metaphorical fire hydrants* and spilling out the information you want to know from our High Pressure Fire Service (HPFS) artists about their HPFS shows, local inspirations, and living in Philly.

Today’s big questions: Where do you like to disconnect, and what are you reading?

Favorite Places to Disconnect:

“The Korean Spa”
–Alice Yorke, The Appointment

“Best Buy”
–The Berserker Residents, Broccoli, Roosevelt and Mr. House!

“My room in my pajamas”
–Jess Conda, A Hard Time

“My deck which overlooks the whole city.”
–Alex Torra, The Sincerity Project #3 (2019)

“Outdoors, listening to music.”
–Michael McClendon, A Fierce Kind of Love

“The shower”
–Camae Ayewa, Circuit City

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HPFS Splash: Making Art in Philadelphia

Posted March 19th, 2019

Continuing our HPFS Splash blog series, we’ll be taking the tops off the metaphorical fire hydrants* and spilling out the information you want to know from our High Pressure Fire Service (HPFS) artists about their HPFS shows, local inspirations, and living in Philly.

Today’s big questions: How has Philadelphia inspired your HPFS piece, and why have you made Philadelphia your home?

“I grew up in Philly. I love that it feels both intimate and grand…A Fierce Kind of Love is inspired by the intellectual disabilities movement in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. It’s all about what was an untold civil rights story happening here. Philly TV news vet Bill Baldini’s in it, as well as grassroots activists like Eleanor Elkin and Leona Fialkowski.”
–David Bradley, A Fierce Kind of Love

Photo by Johanna Austin

I moved here 7 years ago to be part of the first class of Pig Iron’s grad program. I stayed because, especially then, it was easy to be an artist here. Not only was it affordable, but people who weren’t involved in the arts were interested in them. That last bit is still true. A lot of the [The Appointment] is derived from time I spent in Philadelphia clinics observing doctors and patients. There are whole passages that have come from texts that doctors are required to pass out to patients and/or recite to them. Some of it is the lived experiences of the patients in those clinics who are my neighbors and friends.”
–Alice Yorke, The Appointment

“You know what separates Philly from other cities? A couple miles of cheese steak infested corn product. Philadelphia powers our house, our Broccolis and our Roosevelts.”
–The Berserker Residents, Broccoli, Roosevelt and Mr. House!

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HPFS Splash: Philadelphia Favorites

Posted March 14th, 2019

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be taking the tops off the metaphorical fire hydrants* and spilling out the information you want to know from our High Pressure Fire Service (HPFS) artists about their HPFS shows, local inspirations, and living in Philly. Today’s big question: What’s your favorite Philly…?

Life Hack

When UPS puts packages in my garbage can so people don’t steal them.”
–Alice Yorke, The Appointment

“Saying a calm ‘thanks for waiting’ to people.”
–Jess Conda, A Hard Time

“Charging your phone at the Apple Store”
–Camae Ayewa, Circuit City

“Drop the Facebook, invest heavily in bedding.”
–Alex Torra, The Sincerity Project #3 (2019)

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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.

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