This year's Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe opens Friday with a pioneering idea that could become a model for new work, a project far outlasting the festival's two-plus weeks of cutting-edge, oddball, occasionally thought-provoking, and sometimes brilliant performances.
With major grants, an expanded new space in Northern Liberties, and a determined leader, the festival is tackling research and development - a concept generally associated with new drugs and new cars, but not new works of art.
It has developed a program called LAB - the Live Arts Brewery - that pays a handful of theater artists, dancers, and musicians (at this point all local) to create work. It gives them the space to do it, the equipment to do it right, small audiences to react as it evolves, and the oversight of a major-festival producer to guide it to polished completion.
The idea is simple: With R&D, artists get to develop work in the sort of incubator big companies use for their best creative minds. And the Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe gets first crack at the results.
The idea had been floating in the head of Nick Stuccio, 47, the Fringe's cofounder and producing director, for at least five years. Why, he kept asking himself, couldn't artists use the same plan, and similar procedures, to develop work as, say, a computer company uses to develop products? Why must so many artists create work with no support at all? And why is there no organization to structure this sort of R&D?
"I got sick of talking about it," Stuccio says. Last year, when the festival headquarters moved from a cramped, more costly Center City office to a large North Fifth Street building that was once a brewery, "I said, 'Here's a big empty room. We can use it. Let's just go ahead and do it.' "
So almost under the radar, the Fringe last fall invited a handful of artists to use its space and resources for a set period of time; initially there was no money involved.
The organization couldn't have done even that much without the support of two real estate investors who are longtime friends of the 14-year-old festival, which includes 20 Live Arts programs selected and backed by the festival administration, as well as almost 190 Philly Fringe productions, a free-for-all for artists who essentially invite themselves.
The real estate investors, Michael di Paolo and Gene LeFevre, negotiated a low rent for the 22,000-square-foot building at 919 N. Fifth St., of which the Fringe occupies 10,000 square feet.
"These are young people who just don't have dollar signs in their eyes, they have the art deep in their blood, and they have endless, incredible energy," di Paolo said recently at the building, where some staffers were busy in offices while others worked to turn one of the spaces into a permanent black-box theater.
Last year, just months after the festival moved in, the 3,000-square-foot room was used for a multimedia production called Fatebook, in which the audience walked among live action and projections on large screens to detect a plot.
These days, it looks like a traditional small theater with a stage floor at the foot of a permanent riser that seats 102 people - a room for Live Arts work during this year's festival, and for testing LAB works-in-progress during the rest of the year, when the Fringe presents them for audiences who provide feedback.
To the rear of the new theater, a door leads to a room filled with planks, furniture, and other jetsam - 4,000 square feet that the Fringe will clean out and use as the R&D lab. (The first crop of artists used the space that the Fringe is now turning into a theater.) "In the United States, we don't do this kind of thing - fund the research of arts and culture," Stuccio says. "We don't even have research money for the arts.
"So here, we come along with this tiny little idea, and one that will draw people from different disciplines, from dance and theater and music. It's just a foothold."
And one that has, since Stuccio began the small-scale program after the 2009 Fringe, attracted funding to build the spaces, pay the artists, and hire Craig T. Peterson to run the program. He was artistic director of Dance Workshop in New York, which has a similar R&D program, as do some other operations such as New York's Baryshnikov Arts Center and the Yard Dance Colony on Martha's Vineyard - all for dance only.
Stuccio's vision is a bit different: a mixture of a fellowship among artists in various disciplines, a testing track, a roster of guests from the arts who come to talk about the act of creating, and a performance space with ready-made focus groups. Each of the coming year's six performance artists - chosen after submitting letters that described pivotal moments in the way they create work - will receive $6,000. To some, that may seem a small sum, but it's significant to an artist who has never been paid while creating a piece.
"Individual artists just don't get enough support," says Susan E. Sherman, president and chief executive officer of the local Independence Foundation, which is giving the Fringe $150,000 over three years to support the program. Another foundation, Kresge, gave $220,000 and even took the first step, inviting the Fringe to apply for the money.
Independence Foundation's Sherman cited the potential for artistic electricity when musicians, dancers, and theater artists share the space - and, possibly, the work.
"The opportunity to be able to support yourself while you're actually crossing dance with acting with music, the opportunity to collaborate with somebody doing work in a different area, is a rare opportunity," she says. ". . . And the opportunity to workshop that and to be critiqued and to bring the work to a better place - this is something we felt could make a difference."
Two pieces in this year's festival come out of LAB's initial trial period and will debut in the next two weeks. In the new theater, avant-garde performer Charlotte Ford will premiere Chicken, about the mental challenges of three people in a submarine. A few blocks south, at Fifth Street and Fairmount, Nichole Canuso Dance Company will unveil Takes, a new work with dance, film, and video performed in a large cube.
"It's hard enough to put together resources for a project you have on the horizon, but even harder to come up with the resources for exploration time," Canuso says. "I started working on some new ideas from scratch - that was really special, to have this time and go into a studio where you can use it - and it gets your brain working for future projects, too."
Canuso, 37, was grateful for the mix of artists brought together in sessions by the Fringe. "That we got to ask each other questions was both useful for the person asking and very helpful for the person making the presentation, getting poked and prodded about the goal. It opens you, forces you to think about what you're doing, through the lens of another artist."
This year's festival, for the first time, will highlight music. Bang on a Can Marathon: Philadelphia, an epic 10 hours of music from all over, is at World Cafe Live on Sept. 12, and Stew and the Negro Problem with Heidi Rodewald, featuring the single-named creator of the Broadway hit Passing Strange, perform Sept. 13.
It also boasts Dance, a classic 1979 collaboration by choreographer Lucinda Childs, conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, and composer Philip Glass; a film called Release with a score by jazz composer Vijay Iyer at Eastern State Penitentiary; Sanctuary, by Brian Sanders, whose swimming-pool dance, Urban Scuba, was a hands-down hit last year; new work by eight local choreographers; and theater by Philly-based groups including Pig Iron Theatre Company and New Paradise Laboratories.
The festival program also lists performers from Ireland and France, and three lectures by Chinese experimental theater artist Danny Yung. But this year's roster has more domestic and local artists than previous iterations, which often bore a distinctly international flavor. It's not a result of less money, says Stuccio; the festival's $2.1 budget is about the same as last year's. "That's something that just vacillates year to year."
So does the sort of work being done. This time, much is on stages, rather than in garages or the woods. "There again," Stuccio says, "we teamed up with a bunch of artists we like and they wanted to make their work in a traditional space."
And some artists will stay at the Fringe long past the festival, making their work in the new R&D space, and in a new way.