Real Talk

The Audience Impact

100 philadelphia

Nick Stuccio is a founder and the current president and producing director of FringeArts, and curator of a significant portion of Philadelphia’s preeminent performing arts festival. It is fair to say that Fringe, with its 19-year history, has exerted a tremendous influence on the theatrical flavor of our city, and we were very excited to talk to Nick about how the organization is growing and changing past its teens, particularly in the realm of audience-building.

-Julius Ferraro, co-founder

CT: When I first mentioned Curate This to you, your first question was “Who’s the audience?” Why is knowing the audience on the top of your mind?

Nick Stuccio: Who are we making art for? That’s very important to us. What are our goals as a presenter?

We have to be careful about being too insular. I’ve been with FringeArts for twenty years, and I was a professional dancer for ten years before that, and there has never been an epoch of time in which the artist community is as broad, diverse, interesting, high-functioning, intelligent and talented. It’s a large and healthy community. Which means at any arts event, the audience is largely made up of artists.

The challenge is to find avenues and roads that lead to people who are outside that community. It’s a more diverse room when there are also people in the audience who are not artists. It’s certainly been a challenge at FringeArts, and it’s hard work.

And it’s not just about the dynamic between artists and non-artists. That’s just one example. We want to provoke conversation, and the conversation is richer and deeper when the audience demographics are representative of the city we live in.

Who are some of the artists you have curated who are actively reaching out to new audiences?

Rimini Protokoll’s 100% Philadelphia, which was performed by 100 Philadelphia citizens, entirely non-performers, representing the city’s specific demographics. Sylvain Emard with Le Grand Continental, which was another large-scale piece performed by people who are not performers in a group line-dance. Those are the big highlights. They were titanic, spectacle works. We had thousands show up.

Which I think has very interesting implications in terms of the relationship between social practice and artistic practice. Of course it’s interesting from an artistic perspective, but it’s also an opportunity to build to new audiences, to reach communities that we don’t often tap into.

What was the response to 100% Philadelphia, as you remember it?

It’s a very powerful piece, and the response was overwhelming. We had a lot of people go to Temple University’s campus to see it. Over half the cast were people of color, representing the demographics of our city. We intentionally did not put this show in Center City, because Center City is a historically white neighborhood. We put it on Temple’s campus, which is a more neutral ground between African American neighborhoods and non-African American neighborhoods, in the hope that we could attract a more diverse audience.

I was hoping for an audience that reflected the cast. That didn’t happen, entirely. But we gained enormous ground, considerably expanding the diversity of our audiences.

100% Philadelphia was a learning experience around outreach. You can curate an audience as well as the program. It’s hard work. We are always considering what will interest the public and how to engage the right people. On one level, filling seats is a win. But we are continually reflecting on what communities we have to reach to ensure that the show has the greatest possible impact.

I think it is fair to say that we all want an audience that reflects the city we are performing in, but when it comes to funding, is having diverse audiences a priority for funders?

I think that’s ultimately a question for funders.

Funders favor organizations that have clear goals and aspire to reach them. Our mission is to present contemporary, progressive performing art.

What’s underneath that mission? We believe in a deeply progressive world. And we believe that artists have a charge in creating that world. In order for these pieces to have an impact, to create the world we want to see, they need to be reaching the right people.

As a curator, how do you balance the concern of filling seats against FringeArts’ ongoing mission to bring cutting-edge work?

I’ll tell you, one of the most rewarding shows we’ve presented was Romeo Castellucci’s The Four Seasons Restaurant. That was a big risk. The show was very difficult conceptually—very dense and enigmatic. But people responded. The size of the audiences far exceeded our expectations.

When I go to one of our shows, I watch the stage about forty percent of the time, and I watch the house the other sixty percentlistening, feeling, watching faces. During that show I did not recognize the room. Which tells me there is a growing segment of our community that is hungry for sophisticated, complex, experimental art by the world’s very best art-makers.

Have we played a part in creating that appetite? I think so. But either way, we’re psyched about it.

What shows in this year’s Fringe Festival surprised you, in terms of audience?

Similarly to our experience with Castellucci, we had great success with our two masthead shows, Available Light and After the Rehearsal/Persona. Both were in hot, un-air conditioned venues, and they were dense and difficult pieces. But audiences came out for them in droves, and feedback was amazing.

The one that’s standing out for me is Underground Railroad Game. Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard worked on that for a long time, and we sold the crap out of it, even adding shows.

The piece was a great conversation starter about race. On one hand it was a big hit, but on the other, I wish we could have curated the audience differently. We’ve met with Scott and Jenn about bringing the show back to FringeArts, in part so we can work on continuing the conversation they started while aiming at a more diverse audience. We certainly need to partner with other organizations to help us find more networks of people that we’re not connected to.

But you know, we’re 19-year-olds, and . . . well, 19-year-olds are messes. I know I was. These are muscles we have to build.

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