At 20, Fringe Festival benefits from longtime troupers, first-time performers

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Nick Gillette (left) and Ben Grinberg

Nick Gillette (left) and Ben Grinberg

Starting out as a scrappy arts festival in the scrappier Old City neighborhood, the Fringe Festival now reaches into most every Philadelphia neighborhood.

It keeps its feet in Old City, having bought and renovated an old industrial building a few years ago on the Delaware River.

In its 20th year, the Fringe Festival will launch in Philadelphia Sept. 9.

Back at the beginning, “Deb [Block] and Nick [Stuccio] and Eric [Schoefer] were talking to everyone they knew to be in this thing they were starting,” said choreographer Nichole Canuso, who was swept into that first Fringe almost without realizing it.

“In 1997, I was fresh out of college. I was in Tower Records in a listening booth and found a cover of a ridiculous Three Stooges song,” Canuso said, evoking in one sentence two bygone cultural touchstones — the record store and the listening booth. She had just discovered a silly novelty song, “Three Little Fishies,” delivered in the Stooges’ slapstick, non-musical style.

“I thought the song was so funny. It reminded me of a part of myself that was really active as a child,” Canuso remembered. “I was an only child. My parents both worked, and I spent a lot of time in the house entertaining myself. It sprang from that. It became more surreal and ridiculous. At times dark, but mostly funny.”

Canuso turned “Three Little Fishies” into a comedic, solo dance work, “Bored on a Sunday,” and performed it at the Fringe as the top of a triple-bill. She has performed in every Fringe Festival since then — except for the last two years, when she was a) at an overseas residency and b) simply sitting it out.

“I feel like I grew right alongside the Fringe, and the Fringe was a big part of that growth,” said Canuso. “It was a way to engage with artists and audiences. The platform continued to elevate as the years went on. I would be asked to rise to that occasion.”

Another Fringe pioneer

Pig Iron Theatre started in 1995 at Swarthmore College, from which the founding members graduated. As an ambitious, experimental theater company, they were looking to establish themselves in a major city, like Chicago, Minneapolis, New York.

They heard about the Fringe Festival starting up in Philadelphia, so they tried it on for size. They opened a new show, “Cafeteria,” at the Seaport Museum.

“We hired — with pizza — a group of 25 Swarthmore students to be our marketing team,” said co-founder Quinn Bauriedel. “When you’re 18 or 19 and told to put posters anywhere, they just went bananas.”

Back then, Old City was known for its boarded-up buildings; there were few places you could not put up a poster.

“One of our pizza-bribed interns made a giant bed sheet for ‘Cafeteria’ and tried to hang it over the highway,” said co-founder Dito van Reigersberg, aka Martha Graham Cracker. “Got us into a little bit of trouble.”

“Somebody postered a moving bus,” added Bauriedel. “We didn’t pay for the bus poster — which I guess costs a lot of money — but somebody postered a moving bus. So there were posters everywhere. There was a buzz generated a little nefariously.”

It worked. “Cafeteria” was a surprise hit. Pig Iron stayed in Philadelphia and grew to become one of the city’s experimental theater institutions, consistently using the Fringe Festival to premiere new work over the last two decades.

Audience — and heat — play integral roles

One of the most regular and consistent audience members of the Fringe has been Brett Mapp, who now works for the Old City District, but used to run a retail shop on South Street, Inferno. He went to the first Fringe Festival at the urging of a friend who was performing with SCRAP Performance Group in a piece called “Icarus.”

“What was great was most of the performers were topless, male and female, and they had really beautiful feathered wings,” said Mapp. He has since become one of the most regular, enthusiastic audience members, averaging about 30 shows a year and using an Excel spreadsheet to map out his ticket itinerary.

After 20 years, the Fringe has taught its audiences to expect the unexpected, but one thing that is always dependable is the heat. A late-summer festival of performances often staged in unrefined spaces (an abandoned paint factory, a cobblestone alleyway, an apartment building basement, a parked car) means sweat will be your constant companion.

“There’s always at least one day where there’s a huge thunderstorm, so you get the venue soaking wet,” said Mapp.

“The heat is tricky: it makes people tired, but there’s a quality of sweat that feels like energy,” said Bauriedel. “If everyone is too comfortable, people expect something tame. I don’t love the heat, but it provides an unexpected ingredient.”

Pig Iron will not be in the Fringe this year, but it promises a massive show next year. With a working title of “A Period of Animate Existence,” it will be the largest show Pig Iron has attempted, with about 100 performers, including a full band and choir. “The ‘Carmina Burana’ of global warming,” said van Reigersberg.

The next generation of Fringe

However, Pig Iron will still have a presence in this year’s festival. The company has started training the next generation of alternative theater via its School of Advanced Performance Training. Started in 2011, it is now a three-year academic program accredited through the University of the Arts.

The schools teaches “devised ensemble” theater, a creative process that does not start with a script to be memorized by performers, but with people on stage figuring out what story they want to tell. It’s a bottom-up approach, rather than a top-down approach.

“That approach felt so different than other theater schools I had been looking at, which is about training to be an actor so we can hand you a script and put other people’s words in your mouth,” said Nick Gillette, a graduate of the school.

Gillette and a fellow alumnus, Ben Grinberg, created their own company, Almanac Dance Circus Theater. They tell stories through acrobatics and strenuous physical activity — something they learned from Pig Iron.

“Whenever we were given a creation assignment, part of the prompt was ‘Words Only When Necessary,’” said Grinberg. “Words can be cheap. You can lie really easily with words. When you’re just a body in space, you have to be truthful and present.”

Almanac will debut a new piece, “Exile 2588,” telling a futuristic story based on the Greek mythological characters Prometheus and Io. Serving as adviser is Dan Rothenberg, one of the co-founders of Pig Iron.

Another company from the first Fringe Festival is Headlong Dance Theater, which, in 1997, had just recently formed. It performed “Pop Songs.”

“’Pop Songs’ was a collection of pieces that we made with pop songs,” said co-founder Amy Smith. “I wonder if I should mention the specific songs — we certainly didn’t get permission to use them.”

It was the soundtrack of indie rock, circa 1997: Violent Femmes, Galaxy 500, Blake Babies. And a touch of schmaltz: Air Supply’s “Lost in Love.”

“They had me in a Xanadu outfit, roller skating around while they danced,” remembered Canuso, who hopped between her own show and Headlong’s that first year.

“Everything we did at the time was DIY, punk rock, make it work,” said Smith. “The Fringe Festival grew as we grew, as Pig Iron and New Paradise Laboratories grew. It became a relationship where, if we were fundraising, we would get letters of support. Commissioning fees. They became a partner with us.”

Having blazed a trail of alternative performance, Headlong is now part of the effort to create the next vanguard. The Headlong Performance Institute is a semester-long training program, accredited through Bryn Mawr College.

“Dance and theater programs miss practical tools to be a working artists,” said Smith. “We have a strong focus on creation, we also teach ‘The Life of the Artist.’ Budgeting, taxes, day jobs, fundraising, grantwriting — all the things that aren’t taught, but should be.”

one way redDani Solomon, a graduate of the Headlong Performance Institute, rehearses for her Fringe production, ”One Way Red.” (Emma Lee/WHYY)

One of the graduates of the Headlong Performance Institute is Dani Solomon, who is in the Fringe Festival this year with “One Way Red,” a performance about starting a human colony on Mars.

Solomon came to Headlong right after she got her undergraduate degree from Colgate University. She had studied both theater and physics, and found herself at a divide: to pursue science, or art. Solomon says the Headlong school cinched her decision.

“Their way of looking at creation is a mode of asking questions about ourselves and the world the world we live in,” said Solomon. “That’s what serious physics inquiry is; that’s what research is. So in rehearsal space, I start off with a question, in this case, why we look to other planets to solve our problems?”

This will be Solomon’s first performance at the Fringe, but not the first time for “One Way Red.” She got ready for her Fringe debut by working the piece last year at Philadelphia’s Solow Fest that presents solo performances on a low budget.

“Solow Fest is the new Fringe,” said Solomon. “It’s the fringe of the Fringe.”

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