COSACOSA Fringe Festival event connects strangers through community problem solving performances

Even in the unpredictable world of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, attendees expect to present their ticket and join the audience. But this year’s Fringe show from Manayunk’s COSACOSA art at large makes the ticket-buyers themselves characters in the performance.

“It’ll be a little crazy, but we’re looking forward to it,” says COSACOSA Director Kim Niemela.

No, you don’t have to be a theater major to join in – Niemela says it’s less about turning in a performance and more about challenging yourself to imagine being in someone else’s shoes.

Change≠Chance has its roots in exercises the non-profit urban-improvement arts organization has used successfully in many school and neighborhood conflict-resolution programs. The premise is simple, and like all the best events, involves some good food and drinks: Couch Tomato Café and Starbucks will be providing dinner and drinks included in the $15 ticket price.

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The problem solving premise 

When attendees arrive at COSACOSA with their tickets, they’ll be given a brown bag that contains their character assignment for an evening spent in an imaginary neighborhood. They could become the elderly neighbor who knows the whole street’s history, a block captain, a new developer, a pastor, a child, or many others.

The group will have dinner and get some networking practice that will allow participants to get familiar with their characters, all “guided” by COSACOSA hosts “Amelia Rayshon” and “Judge Mental.”

“And then we’ll sit down and be assigned this problem that we all have to solve in character,” Niemela says. Possible topics include violence, vacant lots and controversial building developments.

“It’s a grand experience that combines a game show with participatory dinner theater and team-building exercises,” Niemela says, explaining that this is the first time COSACOSA will attempt this game with a group of people (i.e., ticket-buyers) who are strangers to each other.

“It’s certainly not about acting, it’s about thinking if you were in this person’s shoes,” Niemela emphasizes. “What would you do to solve this problem for the neighborhood?”

Niemela says the night will also include a prize wheel and lots of giveaways, including awards for the most collaborative participants, as well as the most opinionated.

Connecting people from ‘very different walks of life’ 

“We’ve been thinking about doing this for the Fringe for a couple years,” she says, noting that COSACOSA would like to develop a structured “boxed set” for the activity to be widely implemented in other settings, including colleges and suburban neighborhoods apart from COSACOSA’s usual urban focus.

“What better way to try it out than with people from very different walks of life who haven’t played the game before?”

Niemela hopes that participants will come away with something valuable, remembering the role-playing experience the next time a real problem – whether inter-personal or community-wide – stares them in the face: “you may be assigned a character that might have a very different opinion than you would normally have; it’s about getting outside yourself and listening to others.”

So with a plethora of other festival shows to choose all around the city, why should you pick Change≠Chance?

“Come to this show and you are guaranteed to have a fun time,” Niemela says. “It’s going to be a night out with friends: new friends you’ve never met before. You’re going to have delicious food, and you’re going to have an experience that will really have a lasting impact on how you perceive the person that’s sitting next to you, the stranger you didn’t know before.”

Change≠Chance is happening three Fridays in a row: Sept. 7, 14, and 21 at 7 p.m. Tickets are available through the Fringe Festival website.

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