This weekend, a new performance venue will open on the Philadelphia waterfront. The FringeArts Building at Race Street and Columbus Boulevard is a 240-seat space for experimental theater, dance, and music — extending the annual, 16-day Fringe Festival into a year-round programming adventure.
The new building was supposed to launch during the FringeArts Festival in September, but construction delays postponed the opening. It’s still not entirely finished. When ticket holders come to the theater on Friday night, they will walk past construction equipment in what will eventually be a bar and restaurant.
“You can see the motors for the big sound wall that we built,” said FringeArts director Nick Stuccio, pointing out the business end of two 30-foot-long, 24-foot-tall parallel walls on wheels, sliding 7 inches apart from each other. “There’s two of them, and each weighs 7,000 pounds. That’s a lot of tonnage between people eating and drinking and having fun, and some serious art-making on the other side.”
On the other side, the theater space is being prepared for “Elephant Room,” which premiered at the 2011 Live Arts Festival. It will inaugurate FringeArts year-round programming cycle, a perpetual presentation of that which has been described as “fringey.”
Stuccio says the annual festival, which just finished its 17th year, will focus on international acts, while the year-round programming will feature primarily regional talent.
The driving concept of the new space is to be a place for performance art and socializing — to dovetail the pleasures of eating and drinking with the pleasures of theater. So much so, that the upholstered seating features cup holders in the armrests — like in a movie theater.
“There are all kinds of cup holders, nice wooden cup holders with the beautiful metal frame. We had them sent to us, and we put a beer in it, and it made too much noise,” said Stuccio, seated in one of the theater’s plush seats. “That’s the difference between film and live performance, which is there are people in front of us performing and we don’t want to make noise or be obnoxious. So we got these nice, quiet plastic ones.”
Stuccio has spent years overseeing the fundraising, design and construction of the building, which he hopes will become a destination drawing people to the waterfront. The 10,000-square-foot building, across the street from the Race Street Pier, had been a century-old municipal pump house where water was pressurized for the city’s network of underground pipes. It closed in the 1980s.
The renovation retains much of the old industrial aesthetic, including original glazed brick and a 40-ton ceiling crane. The huge windows allow arresting views of the underside of the Ben Franklin Bridge and its network of steel trusses designed by Paul Cret.
This weekend’s opening is a soft launch. And this is only phase one. Phase two, which should begin in January, is the construction of the restaurant and outdoor garden plaza. Stuccio already has the liquor license.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misstated the premiere date of “Elephant Room.” The play premiered in 2011 at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival.