Philly Fringe co-founder Nick Stuccio to step down after 27 years

Nick Stuccio built Philly Fringe into a major cultural event with a national reputation. He will step down in April 2024.

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Nick Stuccio poses for a photo.

File photo: Nick Stuccio is the organizer of the Fringe Festival. He is stepping down from the role in April of 2024.(Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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After 27 years of building one of the city’s signature cultural events, Philadelphia Fringe Festival’s co-founder will step down as president and producing director.

Nick Stuccio plans to leave FringeArts on April 1, 2024.

Stuccio, a former Pennsylvania Ballet (now Philadelphia Ballet) dancer, launched the Fringe Festival in 1997 with 60 groups performing over the span of five days in the Old City neighborhood. Since then it has become one of Philadelphia’s marquee arts events. This year, the festival featured more than 300 shows over four weeks, attracting about 35,000 attendees. Philly Fringe also has year-round programming in the FringeArts building on the Delaware River waterfront.

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“Twenty-seven years is a long time,” Stuccio said. “It’s enough. There’s something internal to me that said, ‘It’s time.’”

Stuccio said he had a similar premonition as a dancer.

“I thought at that time it’s the best job I’ll ever have,” he said. “And it was a great job. But something told me it’s time to look for a new challenge. I’m having that same exact feeling now.”

Stuccio said he plans to stay in Philadelphia and pursue arts consulting work while developing a long-term idea that he is not yet at liberty to discuss.

Stuccio started the Fringe Fest to be a platform to support the work of performing artists, without a plan for what it would become. Over the years he raised $10 million in capital funds and $25 million in donations. The festival annually makes about $1 million in ticket sales.

In the almost three decades of its existence, Fringe has become an important moment on the cultural calendar, and many artists debut shows that they plan to tour. Audience members who typically do not go to theater the rest of the year will go to Fringe. Some out-of-town festival loyalists make travel plans to be in Philadelphia in September, knowing they will see theater not available anywhere else.

The colloquial descriptor, “Fringey,” is widely understood in Philly.

“They’ve done a lot of audience building over the last 25 plus years, and we’re able to take advantage of that,” said Ben Grinberg, co-founder of Cannonball, a hub festival that operates within the Philly Fringe Festival. “If someone doesn’t know anything about the performing arts in Philly, they might still have heard that word ‘Fringe’ and know what that means.”

Obie Award-winning theater company Pig Iron Theater was launched in the 1990s by graduates of Swarthmore College. Philly Fringe was a big reason the company put down roots in Philadelphia.

Pig Iron performed at the first Fringe in 1997, and have used the festival to debut new work ever since. The company has performed at Fringe 18 times in 27 years.

“It couldn’t have been a better start, and continues to be the most nourishing artistic platform for us to perform in,” said Quinn Bauriedel, Pig Iron co-founder.

Bauriedel  said the Fringe has attained a national reputation for unique and innovative work, in part because of Stuccio’s leadership.

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“There were lots of people who can and should take credit for the way the Fringe has evolved. It’s too large for one person to hold onto,” Bauriedel said. “But lots of decisions get made along the way that are led by Nick to make it affordable, to hunt down spaces for artists to perform in, to do all of the backroom negotiating with the city to get licenses for those spaces, and to speak on behalf of the Fringe as an idea and get people, large numbers of people, on board with that.”

Stuccio repurposed a former waterworks pumphouse on the Delaware River waterfront into a performing arts space just as the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation was redeveloping nearby industrial piers into public attractions, such as the Cherry Street and Race Street piers.

“Fringe Arts and Nick Stuccio were early believers in the waterfront,” said DRWC president Joe Forkin. “Fringe Arts was a pioneer in what has emerged to be an important node showcasing Philadelphia’s creative community and economy.”

The Fringe launched during the mayoral administration of Ed Rendell, who supposedly said “Fringe made Philadelphia cool.” Stuccio asks Rendell to repeat that whenever he runs into him.

The Fringe Festival is, essentially, a platform on which independent artists can produce their own work. FringeArts curates and presents its own series of performances, but in large part the festival is outside the control of FringeArts. Stuccio says that is its strength.

“I don’t even see its edge,” he said. “We had this pursuit to provide this platform but it’s grown organically, like The Blob, in its own beautiful way.”

Stuccio said he will be leaving FringeArts in stable condition, despite the downturn experienced by theater companies everywhere since the start of the pandemic. While the organization is not operating at pre-pandemic levels, the 2023 Fringe Festival saw a 22% increase over last year and the festival is yet to close its books for this season.

“Maybe now it’s being passed on, in an almost organic way, to the next generation of folks who care about it and feel like it’s important to do it in a way to support artists and audiences,” Bauriedel said. “There’s a time to till the soil and let some of those ideas go back in and let things grow from the ground up. I see that happening.”

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