There's no need to explain what the Philadelphia Fringe Festival is. The annual explosion of the arts — mashed-up, experimental, boundary-busting, all over town — has been a staple of the Philly arts scene for two decades.
This year's Fringe Festival, running from Sept. 6-23, includes 19 major curated works (meaning invited, selected, and underwritten), a whopping 148 independently produced shows, and 25 Digital Fringe shows exclusively online.
The question is: How do you Fringe? How can you get a taste of its best without being overwhelmed, without Fear of Missing Out?
My way of having a great Fringe is to go with the right attitude and expectations. Here and around the world, fringe arts festivals show us what's happening now. They let us sample what's possible, what artists are thinking about and trying to do. That's the thrill and the fascination.
I just came back from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland, the original and still the biggest of all fringes, where I saw 18 shows in five days. Not everything worked — not everything will work here, either — but everything was worthwhile for that feeling of what's real and right now.
At the Philly Fringe, go to the curated shows to see powerful, complex performance events pushing the arts in new directions. Take in some independent shows (they're 77 percent of the Fringe, after all) to enjoy Philadelphia's current wave of talented performers. And delve into Digital Fringe for a sense of the intersection where artistic achievement and cutting-edge technology meet today.
It helps to have suggestions. I'm recommending nine curated shows, 15 independents, and one from Digital Fringe. Dip your toe. Mix and match. Go with an open mind and a sense of fun. For times and tickets, go to fringearts.com/2018-fringe-festival.
"In our curated shows, we are introducing people with new ideas about making art, adding to our notions of what art is," says Nick Stuccio, artistic director of FringeArts. He's been with Fringe since it began in 1997 as a five-day arts festival centered in Old City.
Bigger productions with shorter runs, curated Fringe shows mix up all the arts — music with theater with dance — in new and unexpected ways. "They seek to break down the fourth wall," Stuccio says, "meaning they try to erase the space between audience and performance, making each part of the other. If you go, be ready to become the show."
The curated show that opens this year's festival is Heiner Goebbels' Stifters Dinge (Sept. 7-9, Navy Yard, Building 611). "I've loved this work for years, but it, and he, were too big, frankly, for us to bring him here yet," Stuccio says.
Expect an enormous industrial installation, a stage crammed with connected, pianolike instruments. Music will play. Mist and lighting will create oceanlike patterns. Disembodied voices — you may recognize Malcolm X and William S. Burroughs — will strike up here or there. What we've learned to see as "effects" are really the stars of this show-without-actors, along with our own reactions and emotions. Stifters Dinge is famed in the avant-garde art world; many beholders report being strangely moved.
Trey Lyford's The Accountant (Sept. 6-9, Christ Church Neighborhood House) is the curated show that comes closest to conventional theater … but not that close. It's visual theater, woven around the story of a man buried in a job, a system, a routine. Lyford, a Philly musician, producer, and writer, has collaborated with a genius band of performers, composers, and designers to blend the familiar and unfamiliar in a braid of music, Beckett, Sartre, vaudeville, physical theater, and illusion. (See Dan DeLuca's profile on Page H3.)
And then there's dance, which is huge in this year's Fringe, starting with Le Super Grande Continental (Sept. 8-9, Philadelphia Museum of Art). After a joyous run at Fringe 2012, Montreal's Sylvain Émard is back with this popular show, bigger than ever. More than 200 locals of all ages and description have been practicing all summer to master and perform a truly complex, professional-level dance routine in a massive ensemble in front of the Art Museum. "It's dance done for the sheer joy of it," Stuccio says. It's free, and afterward, you can join in, as the performance area becomes a huge open-air dance floor.
Dance meets exercise in The Museum Workout (Sept. 12-16, Philadelphia Museum of Art), in which audience members jog along as Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass tour the museum and lead choreographed exercises. See art, get fit!
If you're interested in fresh and serious new music, you'll find it in Goebbel's Songs of Wars I Have Seen (Sept. 7-8, FringeArts, 140 N. Columbus Blvd.), the Crossing's Of Arms and the Man (Sept. 16, FringeArts), and In Plain Air (Sept. 22-23, Christ Church), featuring the new C.B. Fisk organ. (Classical music writer David Patrick Stearns describes them in more detail on Page H5.)
In the curated Do You Want a Cookie? (Sept. 4, 6-9, and 12-16, 448 N. Tenth St.), the Bearded Ladies Cabaret troupe turns an old factory into an enormous nightclub. It's an irreverent history of cabaret itself, from Le Chat Noir to Weimar days to right now. Baked goods are also involved. Note: After selected performances, individual artists present extended shows called "Late Night Snacks."
Finally, ear-whispered by Tania El Khoury (Sept. 6-23; various locations) is something very special. The Lebanese British installation artist offers five interactive pieces concerning the lives of refugees. Two installations are in town. "As Far as My Fingertips Take Me" (PII Gallery, 242 Race St.) is a one-on-one meeting between audience member and refugee. "Stories of Refuge" (Twelve Gates Arts, 106 N. Second St.) is an exhibition of photos taken by refugees as they adapt to new lives in a European city. Three more installations are at Bryn Mawr College, including the much-praised immersive sound installation "Gardens Speak."
Whoa: those 148 independent shows, though. Fear not. One way to navigate the Fringe is to look for the local touch. Many of the performers at Fringe come from elsewhere, but many of Philadelphia's best-known artists, theaters, and troupes are at work somewhere in Fringe — and such riches! Stuccio says, "The talent level in the independent shows is higher than it's ever been. We're in a second wave of arts talent in Philadelphia, way above most regional centers."
Fringe includes a selection of great plays, like James Ijames' Kill Move Paradise at the Wilma Theater (Sept. 4-23); Tennessee Williams' Eccentricities of a Nightingale by those delightful absurdists, the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium (Sept. 4-23); Tom Stoppard's Hapgood at the Lantern Theatre (Sept. 6-Oct. 14), directed by longtime People's Light stalwart Peter DeLaurier; and Sam Shepard's True West by the brand-new "punk aesthetic" Subscension Theatre (Sept. 12-16, 19-22, Maas Building, 1325 N. Randolph St.).
It's also a one-person festival. After an entire August doing one-person shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland, three Philly actors leap right into the local Fringe. Sarah Knittle's Nightmare Fuel (Sept. 8-9, 12-16, 24, Panorama Philly, 5213 Grays Ave.) is a comic exploration of how fear, desire, and dream can intertwine. Lee Minora worked up White Feminist (Sept. 12-16, Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Place) at the Wilma Hothouse. It's a satirical look at white, self-satisfied feminism, with jokes and slaps to go around. And Chris Davis' The Presented (Sept. 8-9, 15-16, 19-22, 24, Panorama Philly) is a comic look at the theater artist's life.
In 4Solo (Sept. 19-23, Proscenium Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks St.), the Simpatico Theatre Company presents four short one-person plays – pay what you decide – about our hyper-gendered society. All are true stories: One concerns tap-dancing, another the Titanic, another the Icelandic performer Björk, and so on. Actor J. Hernandez says, "What's great about Fringe is that it allows actors to try things they might not get a chance to do otherwise, which is why I'm looking forward so much to this show."
FEEL is by Tongue & Groove Improvisational Theater (Sept. 7-8, 14-15, 21-22, PlayGround at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St.), great representatives of the city's improv sector. Artistic director Bobbi Block says, "You get a Feel Sheet: a list of emotions, where you say what you're feeling and why. 'I'm feeling excited because my boyfriend sent me flowers' or, 'I'm feeling insignificant because my boss ignored me for a job.' And then we create scenes and monologues reflecting the audience answers."
And there's more – come half an hour early, and masseurs from Hand & Stone will give you a chair massage.
Till We Have Faces (Sept. 17 and 21, Lantern Theater, 923 Ludlow St.) by Anthony Lawton and Alex Bechtel is based on a beloved C.S. Lewis novel retelling the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Lawton and Bechtel were part of the team behind the lovely musical The Light Princess, which debuted at Fringe 2015 and went on to win Barrymore Awards for its Arden run.
This time, their Fringe show is a musical-in-progress. "We have the first act of a four-act structure done, and lyrics for eight songs, and music for one, so we will read the rest of the lyrics," says Lawton. "Fringe audiences have always been so charitable, and we're hoping for some good feedback." It promises to be a fascinating look into how the artists work. As Stuccio says, "What's exciting about Fringe is that the artists like to take you into their process, show you how they create, sometimes create in front of your eyes."
Fly Eagles Fly by Tribe of Fools (Sept. 6-10, 13-17, 20-22, Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake) is a new direction for this the physical theater bunch — more scripted, much more topical. Co-director Terry Brennan says, "It's a show basically about who gets to be a fan: the meaning of fandom, how important a Super Bowl can be for people, the extreme lengths they'll go." I caught a rehearsal, and it's hilarious.
For ShakesBEER Roulette by the Manayunk Theatre Company (Sept. 13-15, 21-22, Bourbon Blue, 2 Rector St.), the idea is to have fun with Shakespeare. "We've rehearsed Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Much Ado About Nothing," says stage manager Lexa Grace. "We have all four shows on a roulette wheel. We or an audience member spins the wheel at the beginning of each show, we do an act from one play, any act, wherever the roulette wheel falls, then spin it again for the next act, until we've done five acts."
Some shows are harder to describe. Jeanne/Jean/John/Jawn by the Almanac Dance Circus Theatre (Sept. 4-9, 11-16, Maas Building) is an indoor-outdoor performance involving circus feats, acrobatics, cheesesteaks, and botany. Kensington (Streetplay) by the Renegade Company (Sept. 6-9, 13-16, starting at the Allegheny Street stop on the Market-Frankford Line) is, I am told, "a performative walking tour exploring the narrative of the neighborhood, performed and created by the residents." And Cocktail Plays (Sept. 17-19, Philadelphia Distilling, 25 E. Allen St.) returns to the Fringe with its popular short plays paired with equally popular libations. As with ShakesBEER Roulette, bar becomes stage and vice versa.
Digital Fringe takes the Fringe experience — that edgy, mashed-up testing of artistic frontiers — and extends it into the digital world. The 25 shows of Digital Fringe are available only online, with games, websites, stories, and visual art.
August in the City is one to consider. It consists of 10 monologues from plays by the great American playwright August Wilson, read by Philly actors at locations throughout town and consigned to video, accessible only with a special QR code. Collect all 10!