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Describing Ourselves

View of Philly from Le Bok Fin

In a recent interview with FringeArts CEO Nick Stuccio, The PEW Center for Arts and Heritage asked how mobile technology has changed outreach and audience relations for Fringe. “The availability of information at our fingertips at any time,” says Stuccio, “has raised the bar on the sophistication and depth of context materials we need to offer. Audiences know more and seek to know more about what they want to consume or have consumed.”

God he’s right. My mobile phone has me reading more reviews, previews, interviews, and overviews than ever before, and I wonder if this is a good thing. Recently I was reading Jerzy Peterkiewicz’s biographical introduction to Witold Gombrowicz‘s Three Plays, where he concludes that the Polish playwright/novelist/journalist “tended to over-explain” himself. Gombrowicz enjoyed a minor vogue in Philly, with a major production of his Operetta as a curated Fringe show in 2009 and a Pig Iron adaptation of one of his novels the same year, followed by a few productions in the Fringe regular.

Gombrowicz wrote meticulously in his Diary, a weekly column for Polish literary journal Kultura. Alongside pieces of poetic prose and to-do lists, he included essays and op-eds, fulminating against the Polish literary establishment (among many other things). He used the column to outline his philosophy, and to cement his own place in the future of philosophy and art, basing these predictions on patterns he had recognized in history. The present, of course, was not quite prepared for him.

Basically, he wrote his novels and plays, then interpreted them for us. And Peterkiewicz believes that this constant self-editorializing eventually hurt Gombrowicz’s career and his reception. “Gombrowicz was so much preparing himself for the hostile world that he tended to over-explain himself,” Peterkiewicz recalls. “Sometimes he seemed to forget that words too have their built-in obsolescence. They corrupt the sincerity that pushed them out.”

And then just yesterday, before I saw Nick’s interview, I read about Peter Zadek’s 1958 production of Jean Vauthier’s Captain Bada, where the young German director had an actress speak a single line, “Where is the exit here?” 300 times. Lots of audience members left, apparently, some responding that they knew where the exit was. Reading this, I couldn’t help but think that if someone were to do that today in Philly, they would announce it first. Everyone would know, going into the show, that there was a line which, in a slight tweak of the original script, would be recited hundreds of times, and that the director is “not sure if people will leave,” but “that’s not a part of the consideration for the moment.” Maybe they “hope people will have diverse reactions to the moment.”

Discussion is vital to theater, and previews, press releases, and interviews can comprise a key part of that discussion. But in attempting to answer to the increasing demands of mobile media, and intensifying “hype” trends in entertainment, artists struggle to define the unique selling point of their production in tweetable statements. Some things, when revealed out of context, come across as gimmicks. And reduced to that level, they lose their ability to be compelling, insulting, moving, beautiful, or strange.

Julius Ferraro is a journalist, performer, playwright, and administrator based in Philadelphia. He is co-founder of Curate This, has served as theater editor of Phindie, and writes for thINKingDANCE, Philly.com, The Smart Set, and the FringeArts blog. His recent performances include Micromania, The Death and Painful Dismemberment of Paul W. Auster, and The Mysteries of Jean the Birdcatcher with {HTP}, On the Road for 17,527 Miles with 14th Street, and his Phindie Fringe Bike Tours. With the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program’s Restored Spaces Initiative he coordinates community-led environmental arts projects.

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