A night of conflict, improv and laughter at Manayunk Fringe Festival event

“Shut up and sit down!” It’s hardly the way you’d expect ticket-buyers to speak to each other in the middle of the show, but it was all part of the game last Friday night, when about 10 guests arrived at COSACOSA’s tiny Main Street gallery to participate in an evening that was part performance, part role-playing free-for-all and part prize bonanza, all over drinks and pizza (the latter donated by Couch Tomato Café).

Embracing the Philly Fringe Festival’s true alternative-theater roots, Manayunk’s COSACOSA Art at Large just finished the last of three Friday night performances, providing the most raucously interactive evenings of the entire festival.

“Shut up and sit down!” It’s hardly the way you’d expect ticket-buyers to speak to each other in the middle of the show, but it was all part of the game last Friday night, when about 10 guests arrived at COSACOSA’s tiny Main Street gallery to participate in an evening that was part performance, part role-playing free-for-all and part prize bonanza, all over drinks and pizza (the latter donated by Couch Tomato Café).

For this year’s Fringe, COSACOSA Director Kim Niemela decided to adapt a conflict-resolution game she helped develop for use in troubled neighborhoods. Ticket-buyers became the participants of this rendition of the “Change ≠ Chance” game (whose name implies that positive change does not happen by chance alone).

Slipping into the role 

Arriving attendees received a drink ticket and an unmarked paper bag containing a nametag, some prize tickets, and a tiny booklet explaining the evening’s scenario. Guided by hosts Amelia Rayshon and Judge Mental, each attendee assumed an assigned identity for the performance. Last Friday night, the COSACOSA participants became members of a community meeting facing a thorny real-world-inspired dilemma: the controversial expansion of a large university into a surrounding low-income area.

Their instructions were simple: after donning personas like long-term business owner, block captain, neighborhood elder, pastor, developer, and University representative, the role-players discussed – quite vehemently, it must be owned – a course of action.

Since the fictional institution in question was known as Bluz State, or B.S. University, the game was not quite as balanced as it could have been – matters weighed heavily in favor of concerned community members from the start. But everyone discharged his or her assigned role with vigor.

Willow Grove resident Tom Monaghan, in playing the neighborhood elder, made sure the conversation was well-salted with crotchety remarks. His companion Darlene Heep of Chestnut Hill advanced many steady considerations in her role as a community leader – no surprise, given her real-life career as a lawyer.

Cheltenham resident Larry Ackley entertained everyone in his role as a suspiciously narcissistic pastor. Marlene Sider came from Germantown and played the vociferous owner of a grocery store established in the fictional neighborhood for forty years, and John Pickersgill, a lifelong Manayunk resident, operated on the other side of the coin, voicing the views of Bluz State’s Outreach Coordinator.

Debating the pros and cons 

The pros of the scenario were obvious: the University could catalyze a reduction in vacant lots and blighted properties, and bring additional jobs, business and security to the neighborhood. On the other hand, residents might fear unwanted buy-outs and displacement, the collapse of long-standing local businesses, and the unruly antics of a sudden influx of college students.

In a free-wheeling argument, all in their characters’ voices, participants also grappled with questions of access to low-income housing, the possible collusion of University officials with local developers, affirmative action for community-based hiring, underage drinking, economic opportunity, and the extent of the impact neighborhood organizers could truly have on a powerful university board’s decisions.

“They’ll invite you to the meetings and serve you cucumber sandwiches, and that’s it,” Heep warned in the voice of her community leader role.

“I want jobs, not hot-dogs!” Monaghan’s elder exclaimed.

Throughout it all, Amelia Rayshon and Judge Mental paused the game to spin a colored wheel and distribute Starbucks-donated prizes to the winning ticket-holders.

After several contentious votes (aided by a lawyerly proposal from Heep, whom the COSACOSA hosts later voted Most Valuable Player), a majority of the players decided that the problem would be best approached by “recommend[ing] that community representatives be involved directly in the University’s planning process.”

Participant reaction 

Afterwards, Heep said she had come because she’s a longtime fan of the Fringe Festival, and the COSACOSA event “seemed interesting,” not to mention the appeal of dinner with the show.

“I’m fascinated by the Fringe Festival,” Ackley (the pastor) added of why he came to the Manayunk event. “You see stuff you can’t see anywhere else.”

Sider, once she could abandon her store-owner persona, explained that she’s also a fan, but has been disappointed to see so many Festival shows in recent years tend toward traditional formats.

“Shows should be on the fringe,” she said of seeking unique experiences in the Festival. According to Slider, COSACOSA’s event made the grade: it was the most fun she had had of all the shows she attended this year.

Pickersgill, who played the University coordinator, made his way to the COSACOSA show because of his interest in arts education, a core part of the non-profit’s mission. A teacher who graduated from Temple University, Pickersgill felt the game’s scenario hit close to home: “that’s an example of what this really is,” he said of controversies involving Temple’s real-world expansion. 

“Every night has been different,” Niemela said as things wound down. She particularly enjoyed the way last Friday’s crowd entered into the spirit of the game, imagining the scenario from perspectives that were undoubtedly different from their own. “They were really dynamic players,” she said.

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