OK, here’s your task.
Create a portrait of Philadelphia that could convey to people at a glance the variety, the complexity, the scale and the idiosyncrasies of the city.
How would you do it?
Pie charts? Ehhh.
Fancy digital graphics? Maybe.
How about this? Gather 100 real Philadelphians from a whole bunch of different neighborhoods on a theatrical stage, a group that approximates the demographic diversity of the city, and ask them about their lives.
Now you’re talking. In fact, you’re talking Fringe.
The experiment in collective theater called 100% Philadelphia is one of the most ambitious pieces being presented in this year’s Fringe Festival. Shakespeare said the whole world is stage. 100% Philadelphia aims to put a whole city on a stage.
Daniel Wetzel is on the three founders of the German experimental performance group Rimini Protokoll, which has done similar performances in cities such as Paris, Brussels and Melbourne. Philly is the first American city to get the treatment. “In this project, it’s about: Who are we as a city?” Wetzel said. “Can we, coming from all the different districts, backgrounds, very diverse opinions, create the body of the city on stage, the population actually, and see how we get along and see how it looks?”
Each of the 100 ordinary Philadelphians on stage, who underwent a couple of days of intense rehearsals, represents approximately 15,000 city residents. The group, like the city, is half married, half single; 53 percent women; 43 percent black, and so on. The play immerses both audience and participants in a rich mix of music, texts and voices. The players on stage respond to various statements, by moving from one side of the stage to the other, depending on whether they agree. Hanging high over the immense stage is a video camera. It captures bird’s eye images of what’s happening below. The video image is projected onto a screen that the audience can see. Seen from far above, people become dots, creating a living pie chart.
Wetzel says it’s a format for doing both personal and collective theater: “Normally in theater when people say ‘I’ or ‘me,’ they represent another character, but in this theater, they represent themselves. But now there is also a ‘we’ that’s important for us from an artistic point of view. We work with this actor that has 100 heads.” One of the heads belongs to Jessica Kalec, who expresses her Philadelphia-ness through her tattoos. “I have nine tattoos and I hope to fill my arm completely start with Phi, love, Liberty Bell, TastyKake, WaWa, pretzel and cheese steak,” she said. She describes the performance as a “social experiment.” “We get to see all different backgrounds, ethnicities, how they live and what they think about the city,” she said. “What surprised me the most is the minimal amount of the Asian Pacific population. I thought there were more, because I live in South Philly and there’s a concentrated population there.” Helgard Haug, co-founder of Rimini Protokoll, directs 100% Philadelphia. “I like to play games,” he said, “and I like to play games that are relevant. It’s important that theater opens the doors on the people, who are not receiving text but bringing the daily life of the city of a society onto the stage.” Pulling this performance together took four months of research and participant selection before Hauk and Wetzel came to Philadelphia.
Performances are Friday and Saturday night at 7 p.m., and 3 p.m. Sunday, all at the Temple Performing Arts Center, 1837 N. Broad St.
After the Sunday performance, a panel of Philadelphia leaders, moderated by WHYY vice president of news Chris Satullo, will discuss the play and the pressing civic issues it raises.