NOW CURATING: YOMI
s t r e e t a r t i s t
You don’t know what shows you want to see in Fringe. That guide is freakin huge, the descriptions are tiny, and there are like 150 shows. And it’s coming up soon: Sept. 9-24.
For two years Curate This co-founder Julius Ferraro has leveraged his experience and knowledge of the Philadelphia theater scene to produce a series of Fringe Bike Tours, helping audiences to navigate the ocean of possibilities that is Fringe. This year there won’t be a bike tour, but you can take a look at his Fringe schedule, below.
-Amanda V. Wagner, co-founder
Fringe always reminds me of firsts! One of my first outstanding Fringe shows was Nichole Canuso’s Wandering Alice, and now she’s back at Fringe in Pandæmonium with Geoff Sobelle, whom I first saw in Pig Iron’s Chekhov Lizardbrain, also at Fringe. I first saw Mary Tuomanen perform in Vainglorious many years ago (and have seen her many times since then), and now she’s back in another immersive Applied Mechanics show.
If there’s a theme among the shows I’m seeing in this year’s Fringe, it’s that so many fall under the label of “immersive” performance. Think critically about this descriptor, which is inarguably a hot one these days. What does it mean? Is it a new way of engaging “presence” in performance, or is it a gimmick? Is it vital to the changing meaning of theater in an increasingly digital world, or is simply a new way to stimulate oversaturated audiences?
And what counts as immersive? If actors are on all sides of me and sometimes touch me, is that immersive? If I am allowed to choose in what order I see scenes, is that immersive? Or do I have to be picking fruit with the artists, or making real in-the-moment choices with my body which affect the ways I relate with other individuals, for a show to be truly “immersive”?
Look out for my reviews of many of these at Phindie and thINKingDANCE as the festival goes by. Hopefully this list will help you to navigate the notoriously massive and ponderous list of shows. I’ve also tabulated running counts of how many shows I’m seeing and how many hours that means in actual time in the theater. Just for fun.
THURS, SEPT 8
8 pm. Animal Farm to Table by The Renegade Company. Immersive theater and food together. Immerse yourself in both, like an arty jello bath.
Total shows seen: 1. Time spent in theater: 1 hr 15 mins.
FRI, SEPT 9
8:30 pm. Feed by Applied Mechanics. What’s Feed about? I can’t tell from the description and I don’t really care. Applied Mechanics “makes plays you can walk through,” and they’re good at it. Mary Tuomanen was a wonderful Napoleon in their Vainglorious so many years ago. I’m excited to see her alongside Thomas Choinacky again.
11 pm. Crave by Sarah Kane, this production by Svaha Theatre. Kane’s first major production was Blasted, a play which blew up theatrical orthodoxy by having the seedy motel room from the first act bombed by an invading army. Graphic staged (and often sexual) violence was a hallmark of her first three plays; Crave is a departure from this, with the violence still present but abstracted into language and monologue.
Total shows seen: 3. Time spent in theater: 3 hrs 45 mins.
SAT, SEPT 10
3 pm. Cellophane by Mac Wellman, this production by Jenny Kessler and John Bezark. I wrote a preview about this play for thINKingDANCE. Wellman is a master of modern wordplay, “James Joyce reborn as a rap artist.” If you think there’s something weird and wiggly going on underneath the grinning, whitecapped veneer of contemporary communication, take a peek under the sinister skirts of Cellophane.
7:30 pm. Two Stories. In a house, dance happening in different rooms, choose your own adventure. “Immersive.” Why not.
10 pm. Shadow House. Immersive opera directed by Brenna Geffers and with a libretto by Brenna Geffers. Another choose-your-own-adventure, follow the performers around the house and get a different story depending on where you go play. I saw Geffers’ La Ronde in the same building last year. My choices didn’t seem to matter because I was able to catch everything that happened, eventually . . . but Geffers is super talented and experienced so this is worth checking out.
Total shows seen: 6. Time spent in theater: 7 hrs 30 mins.
SUN, SEPT 11
2:30 pm. The Chairs by Eugene Ionesco, created by, of course, Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium. Ionesco is the French absurdist who wrote The Bald Soprano, the anti-play which you’ve seen performed in 24-hour cycles with an increasingly exhausted and loopy cast.
7 pm. The Sincerity Project by Team Sunshine Performance Corporation. The hook: two years ago, seven performers signed on for a 24 year experiment. Every two years they’ll perform The Sincerity Project, perform the same rituals, answer some of the same questions, and re-weave their lives together.
Total shows seen: 8. Time spent in theater: 10 hrs 30 mins.
MON, SEPT 12
8:30 pm. I Fucking Dare You by The Berserker Residents. I’m going to this completely by the virtue of the company making it. Wild and wicked; “daft, ephemeral and joyous.”
Total shows seen: 9. Time spent in theater: half a 24 hr day.
TUES, SEPT 13
8 pm. Gala by Jérôme Bel. Join thINKingDANCE after this performance for Write Back Atcha: a post-show “talk-back” combined with a mini-writing workshop, exploring the language you use to describe dance. See the show, pow wow with other audience members and some experienced writers, think and talk critically, write a few lines about what you saw, and then have some of your work compiled with other audience members’ work into a crowd-sourced review like this one.
Total shows seen: 10. Time spent in theater: 13 hrs 30 mins.
WEDS, SEPT 14
8 pm. Pandæmonium by Nichole Canuso Dance Company and Early Morning Opera. Nichole Canuso is a Philadelphia treasure – her Wandering Alice epitomized immersive work for me before I ever knew what that word meant, and then The Garden blew that out of the water a few years later. See her dance with Pig Iron founding member Geoff Sobelle.
Total shows seen: 11. Time spent in theater: 15 hrs.
THURS, SEPT 15
7 pm. 7-Chair Pyramid High Wire Act by Der Vorfuhreffekt Theatre. Puppetry. Elaborate costumes. Props and dynamic sets. Super theatrical performance. This show’s been all over the world and I want to catch it while it’s here.
Total shows seen: 12. Time spent in theater: 16 hrs.
FRI, SEPT 16
7 pm. With Flint and Steel by duende. Improvised music and dance. But, like, they seem to really know what they’re doing.
Total shows seen: 13. Time spent in theater: 16 hrs 45 mins.
SAT, SEPT 17
5 pm. Speculum Diaries by Irina Varina. Varina is an engaging, present, super-talented performer who is also capable of screaming a song at her own vagina on stage. One of my top picks for the festival.
9 pm. Explicit Female by Zornitsa Stoyanova. To quote Kat Sullivan, Zornitsa is a “neo-metal monster and a futuristic Renaissance queen.” Check out my interview with Zornitsa on thINKingDANCE for more info about why I’m psyched about this performance.
Total shows seen: 15. Time spent in theater: 18 hrs 45 mins.
SUN, SEPT 18
7:30 pm. Wise Norlina by Stacy Collado, Hillary Pearson, and Kat J. Sullivan. I don’t know much about this piece; I’m seeing it because I’m interested in Sullivan’s work.
10 pm. Exile 2588 by Almanac Dance Circus Theatre. First time I saw Almanac was at Nice and Fresh; they did a little wordless ditty about a SEPTA ticket taker chasing a fare-cheat up onto the roof of the train and then into such unlikely places as the cockpits of fighter jets. Laurel and Hardy joyfulness combined with astounding circus skill.
Total shows seen: 17. Time spent in theater: 21 hrs 45 mins.
WEDS, SEPT 21
7:30 pm. One Way Red by Medium Theatre Company. Dani Solomon first created this piece for 2015’s SoLow Fest. It’s a beautiful and moving exploration of the one-way trip to Mars proposed by popular science recently.
Total shows seen: 18. Time spent in theater: 23 hrs 15 mins.
THURS, SEPT 22
7 pm. Julius Caesar. Spared Parts by Romeo Castellucci / Socíetas Raffaello Sanzio. A nice pairing with Cellophane, this is a Caesar stripped of its words, featuring characters who wrestle desperately to communicate and fail.
Total shows seen: 19. Time spent in theater: 1 day and 45 mins.
FRI, SEPT 23
7 pm. Portrait of myself as my father by nora chipaumire. A dancer who never knew her father “celebrates and critiques masculinity: its presence, presentation, and representation” by producing it in a boxing ring.
Total shows seen: 20. Time spent in theater: 1 day, 2 hrs and 15 mins.
SAT, SEPT 24
2 pm. Le Cargo by Faustin Linyekula. A Congolese dancer explores the elimination of memory and his country’s past.
6 pm. The Performers by Erica Janko. A total toss of the dice on this one. I know nothing about Erica Janko except that she describes herself as “a movement artist who researches social phenomena through performance,” a kind of personal statement which might mean everything or nothing.
10:30 pm. Martha Graham Cracker is Martha Graham Cracker.
Total shows seen: 23. Time spent in theater: 1 day, 6 hrs.
SUN, SEPT 25
2 pm. One Way Red by Medium Theatre Company. Full disclosure: I’m filming this for the artist, so I’m seeing it twice.
7 pm. Macbeth by Third World Bunfight. A bit of a cultural minefield: a South African director leads a cast of Congolese performers in an adaptation of Verdi’s opera Macbeth, translating its events to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the leading man into a warlord.
Total shows seen: 25. Time spent in theater: 1 day, 9 hrs.
A friend of mine, who was lucky enough to hang out with certain Dutch artists after their stage performances of a certain Swedish film icon’s screenplays, in a certain performance arts festival this September, said that the actors were dismayed at our lackluster applause.
In Amsterdam, I learned, the standing ovation is a serious thing. People do it. If the performance is good, the actors get a standing ovation.
It’s more complicated here. The currency of standing is costlier. A show can be perfectly good and get a seated ovation. This is matter of cultural norms, of trigger points. The Dutch have a lower trigger point of quality for a standing ovation. In Philadelphia, we need to be actually launched out of our seats, practically holding ourselves back from running onto the stage to hug the performers. And even then, we often don’t stand until many others are on their feet. There, it’s simply a matter of expressing admiration for a work.
This performance got a sort-of standing ovation—some people stood, and others didn’t. I didn’t, not because I didn’t like the performance, but because A) I’ve always got a bag with me and this one was sitting in my lap, along with my notebook and pen and water bottle, and I was anxious about losing one or all, and B) I’m a little confused about my own standing ovation currency. I’m a tightass about my personal taste and I get myself into these uncertain situations.
Anyway, these actors had to be mollified a bit. This is a cultural division. Symbols like the standing ovation are important, and even sincere, objective proof that it’s simply a matter of cultural norms and is not personal might not do the trick in easing the emotional blow.
The whole discussion made me think about something far more awkward than the standing ovation. It’s the mid-scene applause. Goddamn. I mean, a scene or a song has got to be amazing for an audience in Philadelphia to unselfconsciously applaud at a blackout that isn’t the end of the night.
If you go to the theater with any regularity, you’ll have been in an audience when a scene ends, there’s a blackout, it was a good scene, there’s an expectant pause, and a little too late someone starts clapping. We do this because televised versions of plays tell us we should, not because we’re inclined.
So there’s one person clapping in the dark, then one or two other people join in, and then suddenly the next scene is starting. At the next scene break, everyone tries to be better about it, and even if the scene wasn’t so good, a fair set doggedly claps on.
Americans are passive viewers, no doubt. We, and probably a growing number of Europeans, learn to watch not in a live format but in a home one. Outside of a ballgame, we don’t go out and get wild with our applause. We enjoy within, not without, and then we politely applaud at the end of the show. Not in the middle.
In Philadelphia, we don’t applaud in mid-scene.
This is not a bad thing, and you know what? Chronologically, it’s directly linked to a decrease in built-in rests in shows. The mid-scene blackout and intermission breaks are built-in rest points for audiences to gather their thoughts, express admiration, and get ready for what’s next. New plays for younger audiences rarely include intermissions, and the trend is away from scene breaks.
Underground Railroad Game was one of the unqualified successes of this year’s FringeArts festival. The play’s been presented in development (read: unfinished) in Philly and across the country over the last year, and when I asked Scott Sheppard what the biggest change was that he and co-creator Jennifer Kidwell had made to get it ready for Fringe, he said, “We rounded off the edges. There was a lot of stopping and starting between scenes, but that didn’t feel right. Our goal was to make it more fluid.”
I’m in my home with my laptop on my lap, writing an article while Spotify plays Ryan Adams covering Taylor Swift and, if my mind begins to drift, I read an article on my cellphone. My TV is on in the background. More and more people consume this way—without breaks, fluid, connected, overlapping—and theater which touches on those tastebuds is what’s going to catch.
So here’s what I have to say about mid-scene applause in Philadelphia, and if you’d just join in with me:
Please, hold your applause to the end.
And if it’s silent in a blackout, and you’re asking yourself the question “Should I start the applause?” Just take a deep breath, remember who you are, realize that you don’t actually want to applaud, and don’t.
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.