The annual Philadelphia Fringe Festival opened Thursday night — 18 days with 158 different shows, not counting an ever-changing roster of late-night performances. What began here 23 years ago in Old City as a small-scale version of the mother of all Fringes in Edinburgh, Scotland, has grown into a year-round operation headed by FringeArts, the overseer of the festival.
The Philly Fringe, as most people refer to it, is an eclectic mix of theater, dance, music, circus, film and visual art — plus digital shows you don’t even have to leave your seat to attend. Ten productions this year are curated by FringeArts — either commissioned or brought in from other cities. (And countries, too: this year, Argentina, Belgium and Mexico.) The other 148 shows are a free-for-all from independent producers who find their own venues around the region, leaving FringeArts to take care of the box office and some of the marketing.
The Fringe is for audiences open to risks — and in fact, the festival has helped to foster brave audiences in the Philadelphia region, where many professional companies now stage and commission new plays or musicals as part of their seasons. Those works mostly go through a process of readings and workshops; new work in the independently produced Philly Fringe is a grab bag of just about anything, and it may have been written only last month.
That’s a big part of the excitement that drew about 33,500 people to the festival last year and has attracted audiences ever since its inaugural year. The shows tend to be short and ticket prices, affordable – they generally range from $10 to $50, and mostly at the low end. So if you see something that misfires, it’s no big deal. If you see something that wows you, you’ll catch the real excitement and surprise of the Fringe.
Each festival night around 10:30, the Fringe turns into a scene when people from the shows and from the audience mingle at inside and outside bars at the FringeArts building, Race Street at Columbus Boulevard. This year, the city’s Bearded Ladies Cabaret will host “Late Night Snacks,” a full lineup of performers in a refitted East Passyunk industrial space on Percy Street. And each night, there’s an independently produced pop-up, “Free Fringe Philly Cabaret” on Tenth Street.
So, how to begin navigating the festival? It can appear daunting. In fact, it’s not. Leaping through the festival guide online (and in print at stores around town) is a simple way to make choices — the 10 curated FringeArts shows are well described, the rest of them not so much. But you’ll get an idea what you’re getting into.
Here’s a tip for jumping into the fray at the last minute, no guidebook in hand. Go to the FringeArts site and scroll down your screen. You’ll see a list of days on the left side (including days after the festival when some shows still run). Click on the day you want to go and survey all the shows. Each has a red box: “Read More.” Click on that to see the description FringeArts has of the show. Once you’ve made a decision, you can reserve tickets.
Here’s a rundown of all the shows curated by FringeArts and a selection of the festival’s independently produced shows. Click on the title of any of the following shows to call up the FringeArts page for that show, with dates, times, prices and running times.
Superterranean: Philadelphia’s pioneering Pig Iron Theatre Company teams with Tony Award-winning designer Mimi Lien for a show about the impersonal infrastructure that makes a city viable, and our relationship to it. There’s no particular city here, just big structures and nine contemplative performers relating to their surroundings. This show will probably have box-office buzz — Pig Iron usually does.
The B-Side: From the much-admired Wooster Group in New York, this show’s description is in its bulky subtitle: “Negro Folklore from Texas Sate Prisons, a Record Album Interpretation.” Voices of three live performers blend with those on an album of work songs and spirituals recorded at Texas prison farms in 1964, when those places were segregated. In between the tracks, the cast reads the record’s liner notes and talks about Bruce Jackson, the folklorist behind the recording. The New York Times called the production, which played off-Broadway, “extraordinary.”
Úumbal: FringeArts received a William Penn Foundation grant to produce free work in public spaces — last year, about 200 people performed a choreographed dance at the Art Museum steps, and this year, Mexican choreographer Mariana Arteaga will turn 60 everyday Philadelphians into dance artists. She subtitles the dance, “Nomadic Choreography for Inhabitants.” It’s in South Philly, at Mifflin Square Park.
Is This A Room?: True story: A former linguist with the Air Force, 25-year-old Reality Winner, leaked information about Russian interference in the last presidential election. The FBI knocked on her door one day and began questioning her in a discussion that moved her one way and another, through a variety of emotions. She was ultimately sentenced to jail for the leak, and there she remains. The transcript of that FBI encounter was released by the government. Tina Satter, artistic leader of the New York group Half Straddle, creates a verbatim staging of the event, every um and ah in place.
Cartography: This piece of documentary-style theater explores the global refugee crisis in a highly personal way: Five actors, all refugees (from El Salvador, Lebanon, South Africa, Syria and Rwanda), recount their physical and personal journeys. The idea came from New York-based theater artist Kaneza Schaal and author Christopher Myers; they traveled to Munich in 2016, when about 30,000 refugees were arriving each day, and heard many of their stories. FringeArts is billing this as an all-ages show.
There: In The Light of the Darkness and the Self and the Other: Rosa Barba, a visual artist from Italy who now lives in Germany and whose work appears internationally (three times as part of the Venice Biennale), teams with Wilma Theater leader Blanka Zizka to create a stage work from Etel Adnan’s book-length prose poem of the same name. Adnan, a painter (also in the Venice Biennale) and writer, quests for self-discovery in this work, for which Barba has redesigned the interior of the Wilma. Zizka uses her HotHouse Company of Wilma actors to perform the show.
Fase: This dance — four movements to the music of minimalist composer Steve Reich — premiered in 1982 and put choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker on the contemporary-dance map. She brings her dance company, Rosa, to the Fringe with a pair of dancers performing three duets and a solo. The tiny movement variations mirror Reich’s sound, and begin to evolve.
Un Poyo Rojo: Two guys turn on real-time local radio in a locker room, then “redesign this dance on the fly” to suit the station’s programming, says FringeArts chief Nick Stuccio. “It’s a fun farce on male competitiveness.” The performers’ physical communication mixes mime, acrobatic, martial arts, and more. The show’s been playing for a decade around the world, after it premiered in sold-out theaters in Argentina, where it was created. Reviewers say it makes them laugh out loud.
Pursuit of Happiness: Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper team with the Slovenian dance troupe EN-KNAP Group for what Stuccio calls “a romp – that’s the only way to describe it.” The name of the piece offers a hint to its underlying question: Just what is that very American notion, the pursuit of happiness? The first part is set in a Western saloon, where things get crazy. The second part is told by a dancer as he moves about the cast and relates his adventures in Iraq.
Let Me Die: This theatrical survey of the great death scenes of opera is presented with Opera Philadelphia as part of its Festival O19. It’s from singer-writer-musician Joseph Keckler, who performs the piece “with the style of a rock star, the three-plus-octave voice of a classically trained bass-baritone, and a keen comic sensibility,” according to the show’s press information. He melds major death scenes with his own music and narrative.