Fringe feature artists stolen by Philadelphia

Theater companies, dance troupe’s and other artists are leaving big cities such as New York and San Francisco because they say it’s easier and cheaper here.

The Philadelphia Fringe begins Friday , along with it’s sister event, the Live Arts Festival. It’s a chance to catch the next big thing – the performer who could go on to big things in New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. [audio:100903PCFRINGE.mp3]

It also a chance to see performers from other cities who have decided Philadelphia is the best place to live. Hell Fresh TheaterThere’s a new theater company in town, called “Hella Fresh Theater.” The world “hella” is slang from Northern California meaning “very” – if you’re from Boston is sort of translates to “wicked”. John Rosenberg , the Hella Fresh director, used to be a theater artist in San Francisco.

“It reflected a sensibility about the Bay Area. Not the most classy, but reflects the work we do.”

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Eight months ago Rosenberg left his non-profit bookkeeping job in San Francisco and his established theater troop because his heart is now in Philadelphia: his girlfriend is working for her family’s real estate business here too. But Rosenberg did not want to start all over again from scratch.

“I can take 4 years and struggle and keep sending scripts out and saying, hey, remember me, we met at a party – I think you should produce a one-act. I produced my own work in San Francisco, the next crazy step is to make my own theater.”

Rosenberg is building that theater in an old warehouse in the Kensington neighborhood. He’s never performed in Philadelphia before, and audiences have never come to this blighted block to see a play before. It’s a $10,000 gamble.

“I cashed out my non-profit retirement fund and put it into the theater. Very rarely do you get your own theater space. You can either be scared by the freedom, or cash out your 403(b) retirement fund and hope for the best.”

Rosenberg debuts himself at the Fringe festival. In the 13 years since the festival started, Philadelphia has become fertile ground for alternative and experimental theater. That’s what attracted Eun Jung Choi, a Korean-born choreographer whose performance at the Live Arts Festival reflects the failure of memory.

Choi says her own memories are fleeting because she is so transient. Since leaving Korea, she has lived in Boulder, Colorado; San Diego; Mexico City; Salem, North Carolina; and until a year ago, New York City.

“I don’t have a family here in the U.S. I have no strong urge to move to my hometown – I don’t have a hometown. New York felt like a hometown – that’s where I started working, working actively as an artist.”

But Choi left New York because dancers in Philadelphia tend to be more communal. She says in New York the African dancers stick with the African dancers, the Moderns with the Moderns, the Flamencos with Flemenco. Here everyone mixes it up. And it’s easier for a small company to get money.

“New York is so saturated. There are a lot of funding systems, but they usually go to the larger companies. I felt Philadelphia was a better place for me to grow as an artist.”

The company that bears out that optimism is Pig Iron Theater. 15 years ago it started performing experimental theater in Old City when Old City was just empty storefronts. Since then founder Quin Bauriedell says he has watched performers create increasingly sophisticated work. He says audiences have stepped up to the challenge.

“There’s a breadth of work that’s happening here that I didn’t see 10 years ago. I think the Live Arts and Philly Fringe Festival is a huge reason for that – it helps develop an audience for this kind of work.”

Pig Iron Theater always debuts new work in Philadelphia before taking it to other cities. It has won two Obie awards – those are New York’s way of acknowledging the best theater in the Big Apple.

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