FringeArts Blog

Making Art in 2017: Noa Schnitzer on “The Currency of Belief”

Posted August 16th, 2017

Noa Schnitzer. Photo by Heather Dawn Sparks.

Name: Noa Schnitzer

Show in 2017 Festival: The Currency of Belief: Trapeze and Spiritual Comedy

FringeArtsTell us a bit about your show. Where did the concept develop from? What are some questions you are tackling?

Noa Schnitzer: I am engaged in exploring the intangible elements that make up the gap between who we are and who we want to be (as a solo entity and as a community). To begin illuminating this gap is to understand where we come from as individuals. In this show, religion and gender are put under my artistic microscope. I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community and decided to stop practicing at the age of 18. Over the years, prayers from this past pop up in my mind and stay with me for days. The fact that 15 years later these prayers have an  involuntary voice in my mind got me thinking about the strength and significance of prayer, practice, and identity in community. In The Currency of Belief, the voice of prayer holds space for the hidden seams in this one life I am exploring, my own. Through these illumination a question arises: is there anything that prayer is not?

FringeArts: How have your interests in or approach to art making changed in the last year? Have you found yourself taking anything new into consideration?

Photo by Abigail Bell, Michelle Bates and Heather Dawn Sparks.

Noa Schnitzer: I am more proactive in reaching out to people that I want to collaborate with. The thing that I always need to practice accepting is that my art is important, and while conventional parameters of success are an amplifier for my ego, I am the main amplifier of my ideas.

FringeArts: Tell us about an instance from 2017 where your interaction with art—either as creator or audience—provided some much needed solace or refuge from outside troubles.

Noa Schnitzer: It was at a Drum Like a Lady jam. LaTreice V. Branson has an amazing life force and it resonates through the community she invites around her. It is both powerful and humbling to feel the undeniable rhythm that everyone in the room was creating. Dance is my language and music, the pen strokes. We have reached a scary time where we need one another and we need the feeling and practice of being connected. The Drum like a Lady community creates this. No matter where a person is in their life the sound of a drum holding a RHYTHM awakens an inner essence.

East Meets West, Old Meets New: The Dreamlike Beauty of Hua Hua Zhang’s Experimental Puppetry

Posted August 16th, 2017

Hua Hua Zhang with a puppet from White Nights

You enter a room and are surrounded by translucent white. There are strange, undulating formations, and a strange, ghostly light filters down from a hidden source. You feel as if you are on the surface of the moon. Welcome to White Nights, the newest production by Hua Hua Zhang of Visual Expressions. Hua Hua has been working in puppetry for over thirty-five years, creating productions that are both unique in their style and dazzling in their beauty. She aims to combine Eastern and Western art in her work, as well as old traditions with contemporary styles. Her work breaks the boundaries that have defined puppetry for generations, combining it with poetry, visual art, dance, theater, and music. White Nights is an experimental work, a series of dreamlike scenes that can be interpreted in a multitude of ways by the audience, all aiming for a path toward peace of mind. There will be a half-an-hour preview of the show during the 2017 FringeArts Festival. The final show will take place in November.

The series of images in White Nights makes use of individual characters, some of them curious, others in love, others lonely. It will take place in the large gallery space of the Asian Arts Initiative. The setting is a giant desert, based on the Chinese poem Night. The audience will sit on the ground, around a small “pool of water,” and will be surrounded by pods that will serve as Chinese lanterns and shadowy silhouettes from Chinese ink paintings, as well as other symbols of a moon and a sun. The puppeteers will perform around the audience, who may interact with their movements. Musicians Bhob Rainy and Gamin Kang will also be present on the space, playing live music and interacting with the narratives. There will be four puppet performers who have been trained in the style developed by Hua Hua. The performers use the stylized movements of traditional Chinese performance, but use the puppets in an entirely different way, showing their entire bodies and moving with their objects. Interactions between the performers and the audience, and between the puppet performers and their puppets, cause constant questioning of their roles: the performer wonders, “Am I manipulating this puppet, or is the puppet manipulating me?” while the audience asks, “Am I watching the show, or am I a part of it?”

Curious Figure at the 27th Annual National Puppetry Conference

The characters in the show find themselves in the middle of a desert, and explore their environment, which changes throughout the show. There is a paper woman, a rose, a fairy, three masked persons, and a lonely “figure,” who has a magical dance with a balloon. These characters are reminiscent of The Little Prince: they are isolated from any recognizable society, however, they are familiar to us. “I don’t want to tell the audience what to believe,” says Hua Hua. “I want each person to interpret it on their own. I think contemporary art needs the audience involved, being a part of the creation, being a part of the journey, connection with their own journey, instead of just me.” Hua Hua creates each of these puppets herself in her home studio. She created the lonely “figure,” who has no name, when she, herself, was feeling lonely, and like many artists, used her craft as a cathartic motion. “The moment I feel that, I do the sculpture. I made the whole figure simple, with just one leg. When I’m making the piece, I don’t realize the origin. Art can release you, and tell you, you have something to show. It’s kind of a ghost—intuition, or instinct.” She follows the character of the puppet that she’s created to build the scene. “Sometimes, when I’m first creating the sculpture, I have no story, but my sculpture tells me the story. If I see, he’s a little sad, I follow the sadness, and I get a sad story.” Another puppet she made appeared as if he was looking for something. “This is the curious puppet, and he is a dreamer. I wanted to explore immigration. We dream. We dream about America, we dream about it being beautiful and creating freedom. He’s so curious. That is where I come in. I’m curious! What does this country look like? What is it like to be an artist, with a freedom of expression?”

While Hua Hua is highly skilled in both the creation and performance of her puppets, she was not able to fully express herself when living in China. “It was very controlling at that time, twenty years ago. I wanted to be an artist, but they assigned me as a performer. I wasn’t even a sculptor, but I wanted to make sculptures and paint.” She was able to make visual art after coming to the United States. She had trained at the Beijing Academy of Performing Arts, but in 2000, joined the University of Connecticut for a Masters of Fine Arts in Puppet Art. At the time, it was the only program of its kind. As a student, she was able to start sculpting and painting, and her professors found that she had an innate talent for making visual art. “I didn’t even know I had it inside of me.” She began creating puppets and developed an individual style, using the entire body to interact with the puppet. Later, she attended a workshop with

Hua Hua in her studio

legendary puppet artist Albrecht Roser. “I wanted to manipulate the puppet, and I wanted to learn how to control it, but he said, ‘Everybody, listen. Sometimes, you have to listen to the puppet, the puppet will tell you.’ It was very spiritual.” His work influenced hers, and she found that after creating a puppet, the goal of the puppet performer is to follow the whims of the character inside that object, rather than manipulating it completely. “I’m performing, but still, I feel it through me. I give the transition for the soul for the object.” Their entire body is often visible, unless occasionally hidden by long sheets of fabric that still move dynamically with the angles of the performer.

This is where Hua Hua Zhang’s shows become remarkably interdisciplinary. In order to be effective as one of her puppeteers, you must be highly skilled in dance and theater, as well as puppetry. She trains many of the performers that work with her, and is currently training the three that will be in the show. She trained many dancers for a long time, but then found that it was much better to train actors. “The movement is very stylized. You need to make sure you see, you think, you react, and then see again. You have to have both dance, and thought. I was working with theater, and it was a journey.” One of these performers is Elizabeth Weinstein, a Philadelphia-based movement artist, educator, and doula. Another is Travis Daniel Draper, who is trained in physical theater and animation. The third is Jeanne Lyons, who is an interdisciplinary performing artist. Both Jeanne and Travis study at the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training, while Elizabeth completed her study at the Headlong Performance Institute. Hua Hua enjoys working with actors like them immensely, who are still relatively new to the world of performance, and are excited about the unique opportunities that puppetry has for the theater.

The production combines all of these elements with original music. Again combining east and west, old and new, the two musicians will play their work live. Bhob Rainey (also composing for the Fringe Festival curated show Hello Blackout!) is a sound designer, who is also an award-winning composer. He uses electronics in much of his music, and will be intertwining these sounds with that of Gamin Kang. Gamin is a South Korean musician, who is one of the most celebrated traditional musicians in her country. She is the yisuja of the Intangible Cultural Asset Number 46 for two instruments, the piri and the daechita. She also plays a Korean oboe called the taepyeongso, and the saengwhang, a very ancient wind instrument. Bhob will perform on the drums at a point in the show, dressed as a demon and surrounded by additional demons. Gamin will be in the Fairy’s Dream scene, interacting with a giant flower. A fourth puppet performer, Chad Williams, will be intertwining his more traditional puppet style into the show. “He has a very standard, American hand-puppet style. I want to experiment by putting it into my Eastern show, and blend them together.” His puppet, however, will be minimalist, and he will be experimenting as well, using his full body to move with the puppet.

Three puppets from White Nights

Hua Hua is constantly working at the edges of these disciplines, and pushing forward the boundaries of puppetry and its potential. “I want to honor the tradition of puppetry as well as take a risk to push the limits of traditional puppetry into the contemporary. Most people see puppet art with a narrow vision,” she says. “Puppetry is considered entertainment for children, that can be performed by anyone.” While she does performances for families, they are much more traditional, and are not at all experimental in the way of her more avant-garde works like White Nights. Puppet art crosses the limitations of time and space, allowing us all to explore the furthest reaches of imagination and opening us to endless creative possibilities.” In order to explore its potential, she says that people must understand that puppetry is all about movement, not just in the hands. She teaches through the stylized performance art of the Chinese theater. “I teach my students that their feet are the connection to the earth, and sending the energy through their body to the puppet, to give a soul of puppet life.” Her puppets are not controlled by strings, or stuck onto poles. Instead, they are sometimes in the forms of masks, or large beings suspended on various sticks. While they look simple in form (albeit complicated in the detail on their faces,) learning the performance to master their technique takes time and practice.

Finding the “soul of the puppet” is the ultimate goal for her puppet performers, again asking themselves if they are controlling the puppet, or if the puppet leads them to move. This ambiguity is what drives much of her work, including the premise of White Nights. She was inspired by an ancient Taoist philosopher, Zhangzi. “He had a dream that he had become a butterfly, and derived pleasure from flying. After he awakened, he asked whether he dreamed he was a butterfly, or if the butterfly was dreaming that he was a man,” she says. “This ambiguity is explored throughout the show by blurring the line between reality and dream.” While her art acts as a meditation on her life experiences, it aims to do the same for anyone watching the show. “The show connects my life experiences and the experiences of others with today’s society, issues, and concerns. It connects with audience members, giving them inspiration to explore their true selves and, hopefully, find balance and inner peace.”

White Nights
Hua Hua Zhang/Visual Expressions

$10 / 30 minutes

Asian Arts Initiative: Dance Studio C
1219 Vine Street

Sept 19 at 7:30pm + 9pm

TICKETS + INFO

– Isabella Siegel

Photos: Richard Termine (second photo,) Hua Hua Zhang (sixth photo)

Making Art in 2017: Michael Osinski on “Great Again”

Posted August 15th, 2017

Name: Michael Osinski (Director, Co-Creator)

Company: The Antidote

Show in 2017 FestivalGreat Again

FringeArtsTell us a bit about your show. Where did the concept develop from? What are some questions you are tackling?

Meghann Williams. Photo by Johanna Austin.

Michael OsinskiGreat Again is a response to an article—I can’t remember the source—which claimed the last time America was truly great was the year 1958.  This was before the election, when we thought we were on the brink of electing our first female president. We didn’t realize how many Americans were hoping for a return to the seemingly idyllic 1950’s. I wondered what it would be like to create something that ONLY took inspiration from things that happened or premiered in the year 1958.  I think the very first thing we did was figure out how to stage the opening credits from The Donna Reed Show in a South Philly row home.

That soon prompted the question, what would happen if we tried to live like it was still the 1950’s? What would happen if we tried to make America “great again?” What gets omitted from our memory when we wax nostalgic? We remember The Donna Reed Show as this portrait of the perfect American family, yet when we watched the episodes with a 2017 eye, we saw just how misogynistic they were… and how far we haven’t come since the 1950’s.

But Great Again is still a comedy. For me the show feels like attending a dinner party thrown by your two crazy neighbors who really really like the 1950’s. And we bake an apple pie during every performance, so at the end of the show, everyone gets a piece of pie. Hence our tagline: “Come for the misogyny. Stay for the pie.”

FringeArtsHow have your interests in and/or approach to art making changed in the last year? Have you found yourself taking anything new into consideration?

Michael Osinski: We’ve actually been creating Great Again for the past year—myself, Lena Barnard, Matthew Hultgren, Peter Varga, and Meghann Williams. It helps that we staged it inside a cast member’s house, so we could incorporate the actual architecture into our rehearsal process, rather than adjust to a different performance space. We also held two in-process showings—complete with lights, sound, and other technical elements—in November and May. I’d never done that before, but now I wish I could always do it.

Peter Varga. Photo by Johanna Austin.

I think getting audiences in early is crucial when you’re creating something that doesn’t adhere to the traditional standards of dramatic storytelling. When we create a weird world, and we spend weeks living inside that world, we lose perspective. And we should never be creating art in a vacuum. We can’t just create something bizarre because we were moved to do so and call it art. We’re always creating work for others to witness and enjoy and interpret. I may not want to create something that’s easily digestible—sometimes I want my audiences to solve a puzzle—but I still want the audience to want to solve it.

FringeArtsTell us about an instance from 2017 where your interaction with art—either as creator or audience—provided some much needed solace or refuge from outside troubles.

Michael Osinski: I spent six weeks in Chicago this summer teaching 134 high school seniors and theatre lovers at Northwestern University’s Cherubs program. We took them to see Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Taylor Mac’s Hir, starring ensemble members Amy Morton and Francis Guinan. It was inspiring enough to see two talented and committed actors at the top of their craft, but it was even more inspiring to engage my students in discussion about all the play’s issues afterwards. It’s good to know that theatre can still provoke that kind of positive discussion. And if those students are any indication of America’s future, then I have a bit more hope.

Filipino Folkdance, Contemporary Ballet, and Motherhood: Annielille Gavino Kollman’s HERstory

Posted August 11th, 2017

Annielille Gavino Kollman in HERstory

What do you get when you combine modern choreography, folkdance polyrhythms, and a baby? The dances of Annielille Gavino Kollman strive to bring together eastern and western styles, while incorporating many other disciplines, and using a group of dancers diverse in both race and generation. Her newest work, HERstory, is a three-part production that investigates the theme of motherhood and culture, and is supported by the Small But Mighty Art Grant. Originally from the Philippines, Annielille’s dance is about her homeland as a mother, and acts as both a celebration and portrait of the women there as well as around the world. She first learned dance as a folkdancer, and now incorporates the styles from her country into contemporary movements. Much of the work is autobiographical, expressing Annielille’s experience as a mother and as a Filipina woman, but it also includes the backstories of the other dancers, who contribute vibrant rhythms by clapping, stomping, and yelling. It also includes spoken word through poetry written by the dancers and Lenora Howard, film projection by Jasmine Lynea Callis, and music composed by Maya Simonee. The work is powerful, dynamic, and beautiful, telling the story of motherhood in an entirely new way.

Annielille was born in the Philippines, and lived there until coming to New York after college. She attended the Alvin Ailey school of dance in 2000, which was a multicultural dance company, which catered to minorities who were often overlooked in the world of ballet and modern dance. She left the country “on impulse,” but she also left to escape extremely difficult circumstances. She was tired of being silenced as a woman, and of experineces of abuse by men.  “I was too vocal. I think that was the problem for them. I was too strong to be a submissive wife.” She had been dancing since she could remember, and was a highly skilled folkdancer. “It was just a way for me to get out of the country, so I just followed that, because I was good at it. It became cathartic to me, too, so I just kept doing it.”

After studying at Alvin Ailey, she danced around the United States for different companies, touring in Colorado, and then in Texas. Later she moved to Virginia, where she found very little creative dance, and a society that was less accepting of her than they had been in New York. “It was very segregated,” she says. “Being in a place where I saw Confederate flags every day of my life, I started to make art. I became a political artist at first, and more of a performance artist.” She had her daughter, and started teaching her dance. “When I didn’t have an outlet for dance, I started teaching her texture, colors, and letters through dance.” She also started choreographing for a Filipino folk dance group, where she began teaching her folk dances. She moved to Philadelphia two years ago, which was a welcome change. “I liked the grit, and a little bit of a faster pace. I love the row houses, and the little streets, where people can connect easier than in wider, suburban space. I feel more at home in cities like this.” Once in Philadelphia, she started dancing for Kun-Yang Li/Dancers, and soon, creating her own projects.

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Tall Tales: An Interview with Clayton Storyteller

Posted August 10th, 2017

Clayton Storyteller hails from Brunswick, Georgia, and has been telling stories for decades in the south, and now, in Philadelphia. He joined Toastmasters after graduating from Georgia State University with a degree in Anthropology, while working for a bank. He earned a Distinguished Toastmasters (DTM) certificate, and is a former member of the Southern Order of Storytellers, as well as two-time state finalist in the Humorous Speech Contest in ’87 and ’88. He spent his high school years writing dark poetry, and now writes his whimsical tales in rhyming verse. He worked as a performer in Las Vegas, backpacked for two months around Europe, and is a two-time USDA Nutrition Study guinea pig. In his Fringe Festival Show Don’t be Cruel to Your Puppy…Lemme Give YOU A Twisted Tale, he has prepared three different programs of stories, each a mix of all kinds of tales. “Program A has westerns and ghost stories, B has science fiction, and C has darker, grittier, more violent tales, plus strange romances,” says Clayton. “Some tales are wilder, some milder, but they have no political or philosophical point, save entertainment.” Each program ends with his signature tale, “A Safe Sex Story,” which will also be available as an illustrated chapbook. He’ll be telling stories beginning before the official Fringe Festival kick-off on September 5th, and will continue to tell them every night afterwards until September 23rd, from 5:30 to 6:10 pm at the Philly Improv Theater – audiences can come and hear his wild stories as an appetizer before the many events at the Philly Improv Theater and many locations in the nearby area. He hasn’t been to Philly since passing through on a 7th grade school trip, “a half-century ago.” I talked with Clayton about his life and work, and how he happily ended up as a newcomer to the 2017 Fringe Festival.

FringeArts: Where were you born? Where did you grow up? Were there storytellers in your family? 

Clayton Storyteller: I was born in Tampa. We moved some miles south to Bradenton when I was a toddler, then at age eight up to metro Atlanta, where I spent most my life (so far). I’ve been in Brunswick, GA for last twenty years and enjoy it immensely.

My southerner father went to Detroit for work and married a Michigan bride. We didn’t have any Deep South or Appalachian tradition of storytelling in our family. What fostered my love of stories was my mother, who was an avid reader and passed that on to my brother and me. Erle Stanley Gardner was her favorite author. A golden memory of my childhood was looking at black-and-white photos on a wooden stereopticon in the loft of an old library.

FringeArts: How did you learn to tell stories, and when did you start telling them?

Clayton Storyteller: Literature was always my favorite class. In my five-grade high school I wrote dark, dreck poetry—copies of which fortunately no longer exist—and funny stories. I was flattered when I was an 8th-grade “sub-freshman” and a 9th-grade girl in my science class (name sadly disremembered) liked one of these stories enough to copy it front and back on a piece of paper during a study period. Our friends in the desks around laughed at this, but she scribbled on, repeating, “But it’s so funny!” This was some nonsense about a blackboard named Charlie who was actually green — and the silliness goes on from there and is also now lost. That was the girl’s only interest in me — alas!

I was a shy kid. My interest in actually telling stories started when I joined Toastmasters in the mid-80s. I also joined the Southern Order of Storytellers about then, which had several “cluster group” meetings in metro Atlanta neighborhoods, where aspiring storytellers could practice stories and get feedback. I started writing my own stories for storytelling, eventually working into all verse tales.

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Moving Against the Tides with Olive Prince

Posted August 9th, 2017

Olive Prince and Brandie Ou in Silencing the Tides

“In watching the tide and the ocean, I think a lot about how it slowly and suddenly shifts. You have to look at it closely, but it totally changes, from the beginning of tide to the end of tide. And I hope I do that with this space.”

Olive Prince founded her dance company in 2008, and since then, has been devising, creating, and teaching highly dynamic works of art. Olive Prince Dance (or OPD) works are often site-specific, such as past productions in the Magic Gardens and in the Iron Factory. For this year’s festival, however, the show is held in the Ballroom Philadelphia, and she is working with visual artist Carrie Powell as a conceptual collaborator for the show. Carrie is building a sculpture that will create an entirely new type of space for the dance. The show, called Silencing the Tides, is a work that exists under and around a large sculpture fabricated from clothing. The show is based on the idea of free will, juxtaposed with messages and metaphors from nature. She evokes strong images of the ocean’s tide, many of the ideas growing from the feeling of sand and the changing nature of the waves. The dancers sway between working together as large forces, and breaking out into their own movements. Sometimes calm, sometimes violent, they may break down barriers as if they were bodies of water, or they may escape each other as if they were sand.

Olive and Carrie are close friends, and the idea for Silencing the Tides grew out of conversations they had together last year. “We’re both artists, and we’re both mothers, and we often spend time together with our kids talking about art.” Carrie often writes poetry and creates drawings to go along with the ideas. She started making drawings that looked like piles of laundry. They talked together and started thinking about ideas of free will, as well as the forces of nature. Olive was drawing inspiration from literature she was reading, including “The Things they Carried” by Tim O’Brien:

“They did not submit to the obvious alternative, which was simply to close the eyes and fall. So easy, really. Go limp and tumble to the ground and let the muscles unwind and not speak and not budge till your buddies picked you up and lifted you into the chopper that would roar and dip its nose and carry you off to the world. A mere matter of falling, yet no one ever fell.”

She also brought in pieces of The Venerable Bede, from 703 CE (“The most admirable thing of all is this union of the ocean with the orbit of the Moon…the sea violently covers the coast far and wide…unwittingly drawn up by some breathings of the Moon.”) as well as Johnathan White and Mary Oliver’s short story, “Swoon.” “I had this really strong image of free will,” she says, “and going against the tide, and so we started exploring that.” Eventually the conversation between Olive and Carrie became the basis of the work. These conceptual conversations combining ideas from movement, visual art, poetry, are integral to the creation of new work, and it has become a defined process that they call in-the-round reciprocity.

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The Making of Ghost Rings: Interview with Tina Satter

Posted August 8th, 2017

“There had to be a real patience and generosity on their part. But that kind respect and assuming the best intentions of all involved is always the key to a collaboration as full-on as this was.”

Tina Satter is the artistic director of the Obie-winning theater company Half Straddle. Her work has been described by The New York Times as a “vitalizing blend of coziness and estrangement, weirdness and familiarity.” Her new show, Ghost Rings, coming to the 2017 Fringe Festival, is no exception. Drawing from events of her own life, she uses the format and flow of a pop concert to create a work of theater. On stage the band is made up of two women singers, an additional musician, and Satter herself on drums. Also present are two puppet “Private Inner Beings,” Deer and Seal-y. As the two characters grow up, the show examines their intense relationship, and the oscillating dynamics within deep connections between two people. We had a conversation with Tina Satter about her inspiration for Ghost Rings and the process of putting it together.

FringeArts: Do you remember how the title Ghost Rings came into being? Do you remember where you were?

Tina Satter: Yes, in 2011, I was at a three-day silent writing retreat in upstate New York facilitated by the incredible playwright Erik Ehn. It was through the Pataphysics Playwriting Workshops. I generated some writing there that I’d had no pre-plan for, and it was taking shape in its earliest forms as a conversation between two young women, I didn’t know yet if they were sisters or friends or romantic partners —and in this early writing they were discussing basic things like borrowing a sweater, but then also asking each other dark existential questions—and in that first writing I remember having this thought that there was this kind of candy these girls would eat—I imagined it as pale purple circles and I called the candy Ghost Rings. And then I must have left the retreat titling all that early writing, draft, whatever it was, Ghost Rings, because when we showed the earliest versions of it at CATCH in June 2012, the whole thing was then called Ghost Rings.

FringeArts: Can you discuss the basic creative and narrative starting point for the show?

Tina Satter: Well, I had this very early writing of these two girls discussing these banal and existential questions, and in this very early draft they also each had these inner animals – one girl had a Deer who was their corresponding inner animal, and the other had a Seal. [Initially we called these animals “Spirit Animals,” but having come to realize that this was very culturally insensitive, we’ve reconceived of these inner animals of each girl as “Private Inner Beings” that still manifest as Deer and Seal-y]. But I wanted to play with the idea that these weren’t actually cute, cuddly animals—but that they were kind of crass, and direct, and not necessarily mean, but maybe didn’t always offer great advice, that they sort of actually operate like “mean girls” and that the deer in particular wanted to talk about sex and stuff.

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Whispers from the Wall: The Silk Graffiti of Aubrie Costello

Posted August 4th, 2017

Walking down many streets in Philadelphia is like wandering an art gallery for graffiti. The tags of artists like SAGA, KAD, and LAZZ fill the walls with a calligraphy that has become a unique Philly handstyle. These, along with colorful street art projects, have made the city a vibrant center for the growth and evolution of graffiti, some even becoming three dimensional installations. You may spot some of these words made of flickering strands of fabric hanging from a wall, a fence, or a bridge. This is the work of “silk graffiti” artist Aubrie Costello, who uses long strips of Dupioni silk to write phrases around the city. Although the pieces are often large, they feel intimate, like their speaker is whispering to passersby. Some of her work is hung on the streets, while other pieces reside in nature, and others still have migrated into gallery spaces. This year, she is collaborating with dancers Jess Noel, Leslie Davidson, and Fatima Adamu in an interdisciplinary production, Show Me What You Want Me To See, or SWMYWMTS. The dance performance will take place inside a gallery with its walls covered in silk writing. An accompanying film by Lendl Tellington follows the trajectory of a romance between Jess and Leslie in the apartment of Victoria Prizzia, which is similarly filled in Aubrie’s silk calligraphy. This is interspersed with a separate story of love lost, performed by Fatima in a cemetery, as well as shots of more silk words and phrases fill a forest in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. The work is also a collaboration with composer Josh Hey, who has created ghostly and powerful original score (with a few surprise musical guests!) This interdisciplinary performance is in an intimate gallery space, accompanied by a screening of the film. The curves in the silk are mimicked in the movements of the dancers, bringing through its ephemeral but powerful emotive voice.

Silk graffiti by Aubrie Costello in Gravy Gallery and Studio

Aubrie grew up in the quiet Pine Barrens, and went to a public school where the arts were nurtured. Without much to do in their area, the kids in this town chose to make art. “There were a lot of graffiti artists, and skate kids, and musicians that are in Philadelphia now in bands. So I guess we all had that deep itch to make stuff, and now we’re in a city that is more nurturing for that.” Aubrie’s father was a woodworker, who did everything with his hands. “He would even hand draw all of his estimates and specs and documents. He didn’t do anything on a computer.” Aubrie herself absorbed the love for “do-it-yourself” aspect of a project—if given the choice, she also prefers a more analogue approach to her work. She went to the Moore College of Art and Design in 2003, where she began studying fashion design before transitioning to a major in Drawing and Painting. While she loved drawing and making her own clothes, she couldn’t enjoy the business aspect of fashion. She threw herself instead into creating art installations, and began investigating new ways of using silk. One such installation involved a huge pile of high heeled shoes, bound, or “mummified,” in silk. She would cover the gallery wall with drawings that would mirror the installation. While she was at Moore, professors would often wander into students’ studio spaces to check out their work and give them advice. One such offering was from a professor who taught fiber arts, which she had never even taken. “She came into my studio one day, and I was using silk very differently. I was stretching it on canvas stretcher bars. She said she liked it, but she said ‘You’re not letting the fabric speak for itself.’ And that was one of the things that stuck with me, I actually think about that to this day. Sometimes I want to do more to the fabric, but then I think back to what she said. The fabric alone can have its own emotive quality.”

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Voice + Body: Interview with Michael Kiley

Posted August 1st, 2017

Sound designer, composer, and performer Michael Kiley makes music that is enticing and beautiful in its complexity, called “dramatic and beguiling” by The New York Times., Kiley is no stranger to using technology to synthesize new sounds and rhythms—in Close Music for Bodies, however, he aims to do just the opposite. Instead, the show (coming to the 2017 Fringe Festival) eschews any technology, or even any instruments apart from the human voice. Also experienced in sound installation work, Kiley has designed an immersive experience of sound, but this time, the speakers are the performers, and the audience becomes part of that community of sound. Kiley is also a music educator; he teaches using his own practice, called “Personal Resonance.” His approach is woven into this new work, focused on the effects our bodies have on our voices, and the effects our voices have on other bodies as well as our own. We got the chance to have a conversation with Michael about how this new piece came to be, and what we may, or may not, be able to expect!

FringeArts: Do you remember how the title Close Music for Bodies came into being?

Michael Kiley: I was running. I wanted a title that represented what the piece is in a literal sense, yet also make people curious.

FringeArts: How would you categorize this performance?

Michael Kiley: I call it a voice piece. Sometimes I call it a voice piece with movement. It is immersive. It is educational. It is participatory (if you like). I always end up explaining the whole thing before people understand what I’m getting at. There is no real elevator pitch for it.

FringeArts: How do you talk to your collaborators about it?

Michael Kiley: I usually talk to my collaborators first about my voice practice, Personal Resonance. I explain that my primary goal with teaching is to have the student understand that the real beauty and benefit of voice has nothing to do with how you sound, and everything to do with how your voice can make you feel physically—and therefore mentally. Once someone understands how to control that physical sensation, their voice becomes as accessible as breathing. My goal with Close Music is the same. I hope to, through the mediums of performance and education, create a space where a community of performers and audience feel free to access their voices together, without judgment or fear, with the simple goal of doing something that feels good.

There is no real venue for secular, public acts of group voice in our culture. The corporatization of music, and the heavy influence of technology on singing performances has driven us to feel like our voice has to be perfect all of the time. The result is that most people don’t sing. And for those who do, it is usually during some kind elevated performance, where the goal is to be impressive.  I hope to dismantle that expectation in my own small way, and change people’s thinking into understanding that simply making sound is one of the healthiest things that we can do.

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Puppet slams, Faust, and Ghost Stories: Interview with Leila Ghaznavi

Posted July 31st, 2017

Leila Ghaznavi in the 2016 Puppet-delphia Fringe

Leila Ghaznavi is the founder of Leila and Pantea Productions, a theater company with an unconventional approach to contemporary drama. She puts her training in mask and puppetry to use in her productions, often using light and shadow as tools for storytelling. The daughter of an Iranian immigrant—and a Daughter of the American Revolution—her multicultural background often comes through in her original plays based on social issues. One of these plays is Silken Veils, which was nominated for the Best New Work award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Her work is often interdisciplinary, combining puppetry and theater with her wide range of other skills, including aerial dance and clown. “When creating work, I pull from my toolbox whatever I need to tell the story the story I want to tell,” says Leila. “I’m always interested in how to tell a narrative story but in a different way.” This year, she is producing three different shows in the Fringe Festival. The Puppet-delphia Puppet Slam brings puppeteers from Philadelphia and beyond together for a night of whimsy, beauty, and raucous fun. The other two shows couldn’t be more different. In one, she partners with Broderick Jones, a New York based puppeteer, to create Ubu Faust, a literature-based but rambunctious one-man-show. In the other, she is reinventing The Turn of the Screw by creating a minimalist set that makes use of darkness as a shadow of mystery to tell the story. I had a chat with Leila about how she came to work as a puppeteer, and what it’s been like producing all of these shows for the 2017 Fringe Festival.

FringeArts: What has it been like producing so many shows for this year’s Fringe Festival?

Leila Ghaznavi: Leila and Pantea Productions is producing three separate events for the Fringe this year. A ghost story called, The Turn of the Screw, written by Henry James and adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, a raucous puppet farce called Ubu Faust created and performed by Broderick Jones, and the second Puppet-delphia Puppet Slam, which is a cabaret composed of short puppet works, from the poignantly beautiful to the bawdy and comedic. The puppet slam will feature both local and out of town artists.

The Turn of the Screw

What makes all three shows Leila and Pantea Productions is the use of puppetry and the delving into how to use shadow and light as a story telling mechanism. The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story with a minimalist set. Light and shadow create a world that is unseen but literally haunts the stage. Ubu Faust is the complete opposite, a one-man puppet show from New York City-based performer Broderick Jones, it mishmashes puppetry and literature together to create its own unique, irreverent identity. Poetry has always been a prevalent theme in my own work, so I was excited by this chance to present a new artist to Philadelphia that takes these great works of literature and creates his own unique spin! I first premiered the Puppet-delphia Puppet Slam two years ago and it was a great hit! What I love about puppet slams is that you never know what you will see. They are a smorgasbord of puppetry and the short acts involved can range from little gems of beauty, to down-in-the-gutter dirty, to witty and charming. We are currently pulling together the acts for the slam. It will be a mix of local Philly artists and out-of-towners.

This is actually the first year where I will not have a lead role performing in the Philadelphia Fringe, because I will be touring to the Edinburgh Fringe in August. So instead, I decided to produce three shows and appear in Peculiar Works’ Floydada show instead! Although, I will definitely be in the Puppet-delphia Fringe Slam, so keep an eye out for me!

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