FringeArts Blog

On the Record: Rebecca Wright on Applied Mechanics’ Latest Performance

Posted June 22nd, 2018

Philadelphia’s Applied Mechanics established itself as a Fringe Festival favorite with half a dozen shows between It’s Hard Times at the Camera Blanca in 2009 and Feed in 2016. The company will be absent from the Festival this September, but the cast of its latest offering, This Is On Record, draws heavily from 2018 Festival stars: Annie Wilson will feature in Meg Foley’s The undergird, Thomas Choinacky is part of Simpatico Theatre’s 4Solo show, and contributing writer Mary Tuomanen will appear in the Bearded Ladies’ Do You Want A Cookie?

This Is On Record displays Applied Mechanics’ signature immersive style, transforming 3,800-square-foot Glass Factory performance space in Brewerytown to tell six intersecting stories simultaneously. The show investigates the construction of cultural narratives through the lives of six different people as their paths intersect across time. FringeArts spoke to company member Rebecca Wright about the play, which opens tonight and runs through July 1.   

The cast of THIS IS ON RECORD: Alison Ormsby, Annie Wilson, Brett Robinson, Thomas Choinacky, Anita Holland and Daniel Park.

FringeArts: How does the format of the show contribute to its meaning and to the audience’s experience of watching the performance?

Rebecca Wright: This is a piece about the construction of cultural narratives and the various biases and circumstances that shape both the stories we tell and those we inherit. The parallel narrative immersive structure—where many stories are unfolding simultaneously and the audience is free to watch who and how they want—highlights how subjective storymaking is, as well as the question of how much we can and can’t control about what we see and inherit. Multiplicity is also really key here: there is not, in fact, ever one story—there are always multiple perspectives—and the structure of our work reflects this quite literally.

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John Jarboe Gets Nostalgic with an Exploration of Mister Rogers

Posted June 19th, 2018

John Jarboe and the Bearded Ladies Cabaret will provide a highlight of the 2018 Fringe Festival with Do You Want A Cookie?, which uses live performance to trace the long history of cabaret, from Weimar Germany to 21st-century drag shows.

Before taking a bite from the poison cookie, don’t miss Jarboe performing as Mx. Rogers, an updated version of the friendly face you remember seeing on your childhood television set. You Can Never Go Down The Drain is a show that honors Rogers’s prolific songwriting career and presents the lessons in these songs—some that stuck with us and others we have long forgotten—in a new format for a grown-up audience. The show, which opens this Wednesday at the Wilma Theater, is a chance for adults to come to terms with their beliefs when confronted by life’s realities.

“Like so many of Bearded Ladies shows, You Can Never Go Down The Drain is a poison cookie of sorts,” says Jarboe, artistic director of the Bearded Ladies. “It uses that nostalgia and power of Mr. Rogers, sing-a-long, and enormous costumes to seduce the performers and the audience into some hard questions about being human.”

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People are Strange and other revelations from Josh McIlvain

Posted June 13th, 2018

FringeArts superfriend Josh McIlvain wears many hats in this week’s performance People are Strange and other revelations, serving as writer, performer, and producer. He is joined by performers Tara Demmy and Marissa Kennedy, and by writer/performer Nik Menotiades. This team of creators delivers a show that is at once funny, thought-provoking, and utterly bizarre.  

When describing the performances in People are Strange, McIlvain explains: “I think one thing that unites them is that they all involve fuckups to varying degrees, and they all have a lot of humor, though the tones and styles of the piece are varied enough to keep it interesting.”   

The show consists of four short solo performances set in different rooms of the Da Vinci Art Alliance in Bella Vista. It is a collection of moments, of the seemingly insignificant encounters of life. The audience will move between rooms of the art gallery to view the series of distinct yet cohesive performances. “As the show is made up of four separate places, we are able to create four different performance spaces,” says McIlvain. “These aren’t radical changes, but there is a pleasure in these little shifts between areas, and for the audience to be led to a new room or even part of the same room, and to encounter the next performance.”  

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Join The Crossing on a Musical Journey

Posted June 6th, 2018

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

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

Donald Nally. Photo by Becky Oehlers Photography.

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

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

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Sam Tower Straps On Her Director’s Helmet For Simpatico’s Red Bike

Posted June 1st, 2018

Sam Tower is a longtime Fringe Festival favorite, having participated in at least six Festival shows since 2009. Her newly renamed production company, Ninth Planet produced Festival hits 901 Nowhere Street (2016) and Strange Tenants (2017).

This month, she’s teaming up with Simpatico Theatre as director for Red Bike, a play written by Caridad Svich that follows an 11-year-old child who, while riding a bike, discovers a world bigger than they could have imagined. We asked Sam about the play, her directing, and her newly rebranded company.

FringeArts: How did you become involved in this project?

Sam Tower. Photos courtesy Plate 3.

Sam Tower. Photo courtesy Plate 3.

Sam Tower: When Allison Heishman became the new artistic director of Simpatico Theatre, it was clear that her talents as a producer and director would support the community-centered mission of the company, and that she would continue to bring imaginative, socially driven new work to Philadelphia. Well, she decided to waste NO time in getting a new season up on its feet. She approached me as a director for Red Bike, and upon my first reading of Caridad’s play I was shook/enthralled/conflicted/inspired… all the things you want to be when beginning a new artistic process.

FringeArts: What appeals to you about Caridad Svich’s writing and this play in particular?

Sam Tower: The play is direct address from the perspective of “The Kid”, an 11-year-old. “The Kid” is a detailed storyteller, and also a dizzying narrator, taking you down winding curves and tunnels of memory, fantasy and vulnerable confessions of the pre-adolescent person. The play is cyclical, raw and poetic, and the language is so vibrant — dreamy and cutting at the same time. On first reading, I was already seeing three bodies in space as The Kid and hearing percussive musical scoring inside my head — that’s when you know you have to go for it. I quickly brought Jordan McCree and Andrew Nittoli of ILL DOOTS on board as live musicians to score this Kid’s epic afternoon on their bike.

FringeArts: How does directing this play fit into your other work?

Sam Tower: Caridad has written, “Writing for live performance is about writing for the body. It’s all in the body,” which speaks to my artistic process so directly. The rhythm and physicality of the body are integral in the work I make with actors. Athletic physicality is a vessel to be filled, a container for our deepest rivers of unexplainable expression. Those experiences must be held somehow. And in this play, they live in between the details, in lives in the long strings of broken words, they live in the music, and in the body.

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Taking Care: Nell Bang-Jensen on Pig Iron’s new show

Posted May 30th, 2018

“I was thinking about what happens in domestic spaces that is often hidden from plain sight but could benefit from being brought into the open”

Pig Iron Theatre Company is well established as Fringe Festival favorite, with Pay Up (2005, 2013) Welcome to Yuba City (2009), Cankerblossum (2010) and A Period of Animate Existence (2017) among its many memorable offerings. The company’s interim associate artistic director, Nell Bang-Jensen is a prominent figure in the Philadelphia theater world committed to expanding the boundaries of theater production and consumption. She uses models of community engagement and social practice to reimagine the way theater can include and represent the diverse community it serves.

Bang-Jensen has brought her interest in community involvement to Pig Iron Theatre’s new show The Caregivers, a play created by and starring caregivers from the neighborhood surrounding Pig Iron’s headquarters in Old Kensington, where it is on show this weekend (shows are FREE but “sold out” and waiting list–only). The involvement of real caregivers in every step of the process allows authentic, lived experiences to be revealed, and shines a spotlight on underpaid, often invisible members of the community. We spoke with Bang-Jensen to learn more about the inspiration for the show as well as the joys and challenges of putting caregivers, creators, and actors together in one room.

Nell Bang-Jensen

Nell Bang-Jensen

FringeArts: What inspired The Caregivers?

Nell Bang-Jensen: I’m serving as interim associate artistic director of Pig Iron through a grant from the Theatre Communications Group . One of my focal points of the last eighteen months was observing and working with theaters around the country (and abroad) that have radical approaches to community engagement. I think sometimes theaters use the term “community engagement”  as a blanket term that really just means trying to diversify their audiences. I’m more interested by models of civic and social practice, which go beyond questions of how to make specific productions more inclusive and accessible, and ask more broadly: how is a theater actually serving its community? How could it be? It requires us in the theater industry to step back and think more deeply about  what the form of theater specifically is primed to do.

I knew I wanted the culmination of this grant period to be making a piece with citizen artists who were both driving the content and also performing.  Pig Iron’s neighborhood [what’s known as Old Kensington] is largely residential and I was thinking about what happens in domestic spaces that is often hidden from plain sight but could benefit from being brought into the open. I also took stock of what organizations were around and noticed that almost all of them had to do with giving care: there is a Visiting Nurse Group, Hospice Center, and Children’s Crisis Treatment Center all within a few blocks of Pig Iron.

I’ve always been interested in the topic of caregiving in general, in part because babysitting and nannying were my go-to side jobs when I was starting out as a theater artist. I was always struck by the intimate acts that strangers perform for each other in these roles, for what is ultimately a financial transaction.  Many of the bonds I formed with families were intense and long lasting, and yet we don’t have many labels in our society to describe these tangential, non-familial relationships of care.

On the other end of the age spectrum, I was very close with my grandfather, who passed away three years ago. I was born on his 65th birthday and we made an effort to celebrate every shared birthday together until he died. I remember being in a hospice center with him as he died, feeling completely helpless, and being overwhelmed by the proficiency and competence of the hospice workers. They were able to provide for him in ways his family members, including myself, could not. These acts of care are profound, and yet people who perform them (who are, unsurprisingly, mostly women) are some of the lowest paid workers in our society.

FringeArts: Do you remember where you were when the idea for the show came to you?

Nell Bang-Jensen: That our capitalist society places so little value on the work of literally keeping people alive is fascinating (and utterly depressing) to me.  I was thinking about all of these things and was out getting coffee one day and came across a banner at the Lutheran Settlement House (half a block from Pig Iron). It was advertising their CARES program, a support group for informal, unpaid family members who are caring for vulnerable relatives. It was the final sign I needed that this topic was worth pursuing in this neighborhood.

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You can be Le Super Grand

Posted May 21st, 2018

Do you want to be a part of a grand Fringe Festival show? Here’s your chance. Audition next month to participate in Le Super Grand Continental, one of the world’s most infectious art events.

Le Grand Continental® Philadelphia Museum of Art Plaza, Philadelphia Fringe Festival

Photo by Sylvain Émard Danse

The 2012 Fringe Festival kicked off with a large scale performance unlike anything Philadelphia had seen before. One hundred and fifty volunteer dancers of all ages and backgrounds assembled at the iconic Philadelphia Art Museum steps and twirled into a rhythmic human kaleidoscope of celebratory dance. Le Grand Continental was a joyous and intoxicating spectacle, one that united people from across Philadelphia’s diverse communities and was praised by the Philadelphia Inquirer as “fantastic… it left the audience cheering for more.”

Since then Le Grand Continental has travelled across the globe, gathering together hundreds of dance enthusiasts to perform its sensational choreography, which combines festive line dancing with the fluidity and expressiveness of contemporary dance.

“In every city the reaction is the same,” says Montreal’s Sylvain Émard, the mastermind behind this acclaimed work. “No matter the culture, the participants experience the same excitement and emotions. Same for the audiences. There is an obvious sense of pride to achieve such a challenge. It also allows the people to somehow reconnect with the city they live in.”

This year, the Fringe Festival will be ushered in once again Sept 8 & 9, 2018, with Émard’s unifying work, but with one key difference. As the title Le Super Grand Continental suggests, this time around Émard and his team are doing it bigger and are looking to gather 200 dancers to realize this remarkable performance, which features whole-new choreography.

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Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium Peels Back the Layers of This Absurd World

Posted May 18th, 2018

“The absurd is not in man…nor in the world, but in their presence together”—Albert Camus

Each Fringe Festival, the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium’s entry into the Fringe Festival is one of the first shows on the schedule and one of the most frequently performed. After several years exploring the works of French avant-garde playwright Eugene Ionesco (Rhinoceros [2014], Exit the King [2015], The Chairs [2016], Bald Soprano [2017]), the absurdist theater company switches its 2018 Fringe Festival attention to Tennessee Williams with a staging of his seldom-performed The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, September 4–23,  at The Bethany Mission Gallery. First though, IRC pads their Festival budget this Sunday, May 20, with a special one-night performance of Raw Onion 2018: Comfort Food.

The cast of IRC’s Raw Onion 2018: Comfort Food.

An annual tradition  at L’Etage Cabaret since 2008, Raw Onion stages commentary pieces from satirical magazine The Onion.

The show traces its history to acting classes in the early ’00s. “We began testing out material from magazines: editorials mostly, to see how the thoughts on the page held up/could be adjusted slightly for drama and comedy,” says Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium artistic director Tina Brock. “One of our favorite characters was the alter ego of Herbert Kornfeld, an employee in the accounts receivable department at Midstate Office Supply [in a fictitious Onion column]. A guy in class worked up one of Herbert’s monologues, it was ridiculous. We continued to test out this material in class, figuring out how to activate the words that were written to be read.”

IRC contacted The Onion for permission rights to perform pieces from the commentary section. Now the challenge lies in selecting material to illustrate the current gestalt, where real-world headlines feel drawn from the pages of The Onion.

“Since the election, selecting material for the IRC seasons (both Onion and regular mainstage season) has become a different challenge,” explains Brock. “Since the daily news is far more absurd than anything the IRC could present, the question becomes what is the response to that, as opposed to illustrating the thing. It would be a daunting task to outdo theatrically the current political situation.”

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Songs of Rivers Tempesta di Mare Has Seen

Posted May 16th, 2018

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

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

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

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Mission Complete: Playwright Collective Orbiter 3 Launches Its Final Show

Posted May 15th, 2018

After producing six world premieres by local writers, playwright collective Orbiter 3 brings the curtain down on its three-year project with one final play, L.M. Feldman’s A People.

“The scale of this show makes for a fitting end,” collective member Douglas Williams tells FringeArts, as he considers the company’s coda, which runs May 16-June 2, 2018, at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. “It’s a huge sprawling show, both in terms of story and production.”

“These are qualities producers often shy away from,” adds Emma Goidel, another founding member of the collective, “and ones Orbiter 3 set out to embrace.”

L. M. Feldman

Goidel and Williams are two of creative theatermakers who form Orbiter 3. They are joined by playwrights Emily Acker, L M Feldman, Sam Henderson, James Ijames, and Mary Tuomanen — some of the best-regarded theater writers in Philadelphia — and led by artistic director Maura Krause, with associate producer Erin Washburn and company manager Cat Ramirez. Over its lifespan, Orbiter 3 has produced a play by each of its playwrights, from James Ijames’ Moon Man Walk in June/July 2015 to Sam Henderson’s The Brownings (a presentation by FringeArts) in November/December 2017.

“You can judge for yourself if you think each individual production was a success,” says Williams, looking back on the company’s output. “But, in my book, they were each artistically daring and brought a new story to Philly’s stages that audiences would not otherwise have been able to enjoy.”

Several playwrights used the opportunity to produce plays unlikely to be staged by mainstream companies. Whiting Award–winner Ijames launched Orbiter 3 with a quasi rom com that inhabited a world completely populated by African American characters. Goidel’s A Knee That Can Bend looked at a circle of queer friends in Senegal. Williams chose to use an ensemble devising process to create Breath Smoke, a piece billed as “more narrative mixtape than play.” Mary Tuomanen’s Peaceable Kingdom featured a cast of eighteen.

“Outside of a theater like The Wilma, or Walnut Street, you’re not seeing a show like that get produced in Philly, and certainly not a world premiere by a local playwright,” claims Williams. “I’m just so proud we were able to take those risks and put those stories and performers on a Philly stage.”

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Death of Kings and Patriarchy: Revolution Shakespeare Reads Richard II

Posted May 11th, 2018

Whet your appetite for Revolution Shakespeare’s September show and help smash the patriarchy with a non-cis-male staged reading of Richard II, this Monday, May 14, at the Painted Bride Arts Center.

We’ve all heard the story: In Elizabethan theater, women weren’t allowed on stage, so all the female roles in all Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed by male actors (though exceptions were made for Gwyneth Paltrow). These days, some theater companies choose to revisit those troglodyte times by staging all-male versions of the Bard’s canon.

Revolution Shakespeare is not one of those companies.

For its large-scale Fringe Festival show this September 12-22, the company will present Troilus and Cressida with few, if any, actors who identify as male. The production revisits last May’s “Revolt against the Patriarchy” staged reading of the bleak Shakespearean tragedy. Monday’s reading of the beautifully poetic historical drama Richard II is also billed under the same banner.

Revolution Shakespeare presented “all-female” versions of Shakespeare’s oeuvre for several years, but they redubbed the series Revolt Against the Patriarchy “to be less binary, open it up to other voices and also rock the political a bit,” says Rev Shakes artistic director Griffin Stanton-Ameisen.

“When doing any classical text, I worry about the ways misogyny is coded into the storytelling and the language itself. Even though Shakespeare is my all-time favorite playwright, doing his work can feel irresponsible at times,” adds Hannah Van Sciver, who plays the titular poet-king in Monday’s reading. “This cast and artistic team allow me to worry a little bit less about that, as we’re actively combatting it through our casting.”

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A Séancers Syllabus

Posted May 10th, 2018

Photo by Julieanne Harris

This weekend, Nigerian–American curator, poet, and performance artist Jaamil Olawale Kosoko brings his latest work to FringeArts. Informed by the deaths of all his immediate family members, Séancers collapses lyrical poetry, movement forms, and discursive performance to explore how the American racialized body uses psychic, spiritual, and theoretical strategies to shape shift through loss and oppression.

Kosoko’s artistic practice is in many ways guided by his voracity as a reader and, in the case of Séancers, many of the works that inspired the piece were also pertinent to his grieving process, to seeing his loss in a greater context of cultural erasure and systemic oppression of Black people in America. At the top of a recent episode of Terrible, Thanks for Asking, he offered, “I think of a quote by James Baldwin: ‘You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.’ And I think really situating myself inside of being bookish has allowed me an understanding to know that my story is not particularly unique.”

Below is a list of texts and works that inspired Kosoko to make Séancers—a mix of Black theory, poetry, performance art, and video art—along with links and quotes (some direct, some contextual) to help spark your own exploration into these illuminating sources.

 

Mumia Abu-Jamal and Cornel West, “The Empire Files: Black Radical Tradition”

 

James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket (Viewing and Reading)

“If Raoul Peck’s fiery documentary I Am Not Your Negro piqued your interest in all things James Baldwin, then try this movie as a companion piece… This 1989 documentary is full of archival footage, recordings of Baldwin reading his work, old interviews, photographs and memories from friends like Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka. Although some scenes, like a recreation of Baldwin’s fight with his father, haven’t aged gracefully, the documentary’s focus on Baldwin’s personal and creative life humanizes this literary legend.” Monica Castillo, The New York Times

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Wake Work: An Interview With Jaamil Olawale Kosoko

Posted May 7th, 2018

Photo by Leni Olafson

Nigerian–American curator, poet, and performance artist is far more acquainted with loss than a person his age should be. At 34, he is the only living member of his immediate family. In a recent interview with the podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking, he detailed his tumultuous upbringing and the devastating losses that have marked his life. Kosoko is quick to note that his story is not extraordinary, that the pain and hardship he’s experienced is far more common than some might care to acknowledge. However, what is unique about Kosoko’s story is his ongoing journey towards “post-traumatic enlightenment,” which has seen him allowing grief to inform his artistic process and letting his work inform his healing process. “In grief work, you may know that in order to help someone move beyond a hard moment, there’s this idea of a transitional object,” he notes in the episode, adding, “That’s really what my creative work is doing for me.”

This weekend, Kosoko will bring his latest work, Séancers, to FringeArts and as the show’s title suggests it is one that approaches loss head on. Presented as a literal séance, complete with a different guest artist/theorist who helps frame the witnessing of each performance, it explores the ways in which the American racialized body uses psychic, spiritual, and theoretical strategies to shapeshift through loss and oppression in surreal and fantastical fashion. “I’m thinking a lot about trying to heal, strategies of survival that have been embedded in black thought, black life, really since black people landed on the Americas—about larger societal traumas and my own personal traumas and how they’re engaged in this dance,” Kosoko shared in a recent The New York Times profile. In this way, Séancers reaches beyond personal loss to encompass cultural loss as well, particularly those that relate to rituals, to old modes of congregating among African-Americans that Kosoko sees as extinct or dying.

Recently, FringeArts caught up with Kosoko to learn more about the theories and art that informs Séancers and what audiences can expect to witness.

FringeArts: What made you think up the title Séancers?

Jaamil Olawale Kosoko: My previous piece #negrophobia was described as a kind of séance as I toured it throughout Europe over the past couple years. It felt like a natural progression to lean more into themes of paranormal activity, loss, and resurrection as it relates to Black identities. Of course I’m also thinking a lot about Black theory, which has been incredibly healing and informative for me as a way to come to terms with personal and societal trauma. Black conceptual technologies such as fugivity (Fred Moten), afro-pessimism (Frank Wilderson), and intersectionality (Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw) have given me a deeper intellectual framework to ground the ideas and metaphors that are situated inside my new work, Séancers. Lastly, the work has literally become a way for me to stay in close relationship to my dead family. I’m the only living member of my immediate family.

Have a listen to an interview I recently did here.

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Vender Una Fantasia: An Interview With Alex Torra

Posted April 13th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Revelatory Hours: An Interview With Elizabeth Huston

Posted March 26th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Klaus Rudolph

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

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

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

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Always the Same and Never the Same: An Interview with Jérôme Bel

Posted March 7th, 2018

Photo by Herman Sorgeloos

This Friday, Jérôme Bel is returning to Philadelphia with his 2016 Fringe Festival smash hit Gala, a performance featuring 20 dancers, from professional dancers to first timers—including children, teenagers, pensioners, and people with disabilities. Back in 2016 we spoke to Bel about working with a new cast and creating a piece which anybody can understand and learn within a few days of the performance. In advance of this one-night-only remount, we’re reaching into our archives to share his insights.

FringeArts: What was the initial inspiration for Gala?

Jérôme Bel: I was giving a workshop for amateur dancers in a suburb of Paris. I immediately thought that it would be very interesting to put on stage people who are not skilled in dance, people who are very different—old, young, good dancers, bad dancers, terrible dancers.

FringeArts: How did you develop Gala’s basic structure?

Jérôme Bel: 1, Amateurs are not traveling, they can not go on tour, because they have their jobs or they have to go to school if they are young. So my idea was to have a local cast in each city where the performance would be invited. 2, Amateurs can not rehearse a lot because they have a job, so the piece should be rehearsed very, very fast. 3, Consequently I found a very simple structure that anybody can understand and learn within a few days in order to perform the piece.

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The History of Cherdonna Shinatra: From Name to Fame

Posted February 23rd, 2018

Photo by Lou Daprile

This weekend, Seattle-based dancer and choreographer Jody Kuehner, aka Cherdonna Shinatra, will take the stage in all her queer drag glory for Clock that Mug or Dusted. It’s sure to be a wild ride, one filled with live installation art, dance, birthday cake, found objects, and a commentary on all things queer feminism. While getting ready for Ms. Shinatra to perform, I feel it’s important to discuss where her stage name derives from and the journey she has gone through to make it to this point.

The first artist in her name is none other than Cher, the Goddess of Pop, known for songs like “I Got You Babe,” and she’s “got” the queer community on her side. Cher has become a gay icon, in part through her son Chaz, but also for her sense of style and fashion. Drag queens—specifically Chad Michaels and Charlie Hides from RuPaul’s Drag Race—have imitated her, feeling that her struggle and story relates to their coming out processes. Madonna, the other half of Cherdonna’s namesake, is another another legend worth talking about. The Queen of Pop, known for bestsellers including “Like a Virgin,” is also considered a gay icon. She was introduced to the queer community as a teenager, and since then, has been a welcome presence. Like Cher, many drag queens have imitated her, seeing her journey to stardom as very similar to their struggles. And then we have Frank Sinatra who, while not necessarily a gay icon, was a legendary singer known for classics like “My Way.” Adding his name at the end of her stage name cements Cherdonna Shinatra as the legend that she is. In discussing the origin of her character, she also offers, “I feel like Cherdonna is an extension of myself in a way that’s not like an ‘other’… For me it’s a heightened version—more or less myself, or my less censored self.”

Courtesy of the artist

Cherdonna’s work has been shown in every major venue in Washington State and all over the country, but she hasn’t always been alone in the spotlight. From 2008-2013 she performed with Ricki Mason, also known as drag king Lou Henry Hoover, as “The Cherdonna and Lou Show.” The character of Cherdonna started with Lou in this cabaret-style series of performances which often included dance, theater, drag, burlesque, glitter, and featured celebrity impersonations, including an infamous Sonny and Cher routine. Both artists would transcend their queer identities with how they presented themselves on stage—Cherdonna with her long legs, platform heels, big blonde hair, and copious makeup and Lou as a petite drag king wearing a neat mustached face and all. In a 2016 interview, Kuehner commented on her and Mason’s stage duo’s gender play, noting, “We’re both queer people, and we had started diving into more work about gender and gender play… Over the last six years, it’s been diving in more. I got hooked, and just felt there was so much to explore in it.” Kuehner performing drag as the gender that she identifies with is a revolutionary concept, as it transcends what the audience expects from drag.

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Laughing in the Face of Inequality: An Interview With Beth Eisenberg

Posted February 20th, 2018

Beth Eisenberg is one of the organizers of Philadelphia’s Bechdel Test Fest, a comedy festival highlighting our city’s funniest women, trans, and non-binary comedians and performers. Founded in 2016 to help foster a more inclusive comedy community in the face of gender inequality on Philly stages, the annual festival has continued to expand with each iteration—in duration, in number of performers, in stage sizes—and this year is no exception. Spread out over three nights at three different venues, the 2018 festival offers audiences around the city a series of diverse showcases, highlighting a wide range of comedic forms including stand-up, sketch, improv, clowning, and much more. Each evening also ends with a free open stage event for open-mic standup, performance pieces, and improv jams. FringeArts will be hosting the festival’s second night, March 3.

The festival’s continual growth speaks to the ever-present need for greater inclusivity in comedy, and it’s heartening that, as our cultural conversations around gender discrimination continue to develop with more verve than has been seen in many years, so too do platforms that are actively working to upend this universal inequity. It’s vital work that, as Eisenberg is quick to acknowledge, has been happening in our city long before the festival’s genesis, but it seems now more than ever comedy fans are eager for more diverse offerings. Thankfully, Bechdel Test Fest is here to provide.

FringeArtsHow did the Festival come about?

Pictured: Heather Raquel

Beth Eisenberg: Almost three years ago there was an uproar about diversity on some stages. Few women being cast. Few women being asked to create or direct. Most spots in comedy locally and nationally were pulling from the all men’s clubs. Initially, there was a post in the all female identifying Facebook group, Improvaries, sharing the feeling of exclusion and isolation around a recent audition that cast primarily men. Though this issue wasn’t a unique occurrence, it was from that moment that an energy was generated around making a space for female identifying performers in the city.

Everyone rallied. Everyone shared frustration. And lots of individuals shared about how other cities have successful females festivals. So it was the right time and interest from the group was there. That group is comprised of comics from all spaces and theaters, backgrounds, experience, ages, etc.

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Making a Radical Mess: An Interview With Jody Kuehner aka Cherdonna Shinatra

Posted February 7th, 2018

Courtesy of the artist

Cherdonna Shinatra is a drag queen who’s not a drag queen. Not in the way we’ve come to expect, anyway. She’s the alter-ego of Jody Kuehner, a Seattle-based dancer and choreographer, and a queer woman. That last bit makes Cherdonna—a simple, brilliant portmanteau of icons Cher and Madonna—a bit of an anomaly in the world of drag, as does her penchant for dipping her creative toes in the worlds of performance art, experimental theater, and contemporary dance.

Over the last several years Cherdonna has evolved from a cabaret performer with her former artistic partner, drag king Lou Henry Hoover (played by dancer Ricki Mason), to one of Seattle’s preeminent boundary pushing performance artists. She’s created evening length performances like Worth My Salt and more recently Kissing Like Babies; she regularly performs with drag artists like former RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant BenDeLaCreme, Kitten LaRue, and the aforementioned Hoover; and she recently “crashed” a production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House at Washington Ensemble Theatre. And that’s simply scratching the surface.

Her solo piece, Clock That Mug or Dusted, rolls strains of all her artistic endeavors into one. Then through some paint. And maybe a birthday cake. Kuehner has described the work as a “conceptual and inspirational homage to feminist performance artists” and an artistic dare to “find what present day queer/drag feminism might be.” It’s a search left open-ended by the show’s improvisation-friendly structure and reflective of Kuehner’s own avoidance of easy categorization. We caught up with her recently to learn more about the piece’s origins, its challenges, and why she’s looking for a “might be” rather than an “is.”

FringeArts: What made you think up the title Clock that Mug or Dusted?

Jody Kuehner: The title came out of a drag saying that you’ve “clocked” something, meaning you’ve noticed something you like or dislike or generally want to bring attention to. This work is largely improvisational so the idea of noticing things as they come, “clocking” every moment is central. Giving “face” aka “mug,” means giving attention to. Dusted coming from the idea of putting on your face, “being dusted,” and also it’s used as a word to mean being under the influence or even death—“turning to dust.” All these layers are in the work.

FringeArtsHow was creating Clock That Mug or Dusted an artistic leap or creative challenge to you?

Jody Kuehner: Using so many materials continues to be a creative challenge. Not knowing exactly how they will play in the space or what I will be inspired by, it changes with every show. The materials add a whole new cast member to the piece. I like the risk in that. It’s an unknown.

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

Posted January 22nd, 2018

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

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

FringeArts: What was the first idea behind Sp3?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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