Comedy weekend launches FringeArts season of theatrical mini-festivals

The FringeArts Building at Race Street and Columbus Boulevard. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The FringeArts Building at Race Street and Columbus Boulevard. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A two-day comedy festival launches Friday at the FringeArts building on Philadelphia’s waterfront, with 10 performances of stand-up, performance art, and a live podcast recording about comedy that pushes the format.

Blue Heaven” represent a new programming direction for FringeArts as a relatively short festival focused on a particular theme or genre.

Three such festivals are in the works: this comedy lineup; a spring series of new local theater; and a summer festival of circus arts, called “Hand to Hand.”

“Hand to Hand” appeared last summer to test the concept. It worked.

“We sold a lot of tickets,” said FringeArts president Nick Stuccio. “We know the festival business, we’ve done this for 23 years doing the Fringe Festival. Programming a festival creates a lot of economies. You can sell many shows at one time. You can fundraise around a batch of shows at one time. It’s a more efficient way to do our mission.”

“Blue Heaven” will feature the edgy cabaret performer Erin Markey; “Daily Show” correspondent Jaboukie Young-White; Philadelphia musician Emily Bate; and the queer podcast Food 4 Thot.

It was programmed primarily by Zach Blackwood, who first attended the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland in 2012, and discovered a whole world of comedians who are rethinking comedy.

“I saw comedy that moved me in a way that comedy hadn’t before,” he said. “Oftentimes, I go to comedy to laugh. What I found was that I was learning about people and their lives.

“So to go there and see these people straddling performance art and theatrical understanding, using improv and stand-up, was really interesting to me.”

In March, a six-production festival of new local theater will be presented with runs ranging from three days to two weeks. “High Pressure Fire Service” is named after the FringeArts building, formerly a municipal pumphouse built in 1903. The name is permanently carved into the building’s stone façade.

The companies presented will include such longtime Fringe Festival favorites as Pig Iron Theater, the Lightning Rod Special, and the Berserkers.

“‘High Pressure Fire Service’ is redefining our commitment to local artists. There is so much talent here, and that should be recognized nationally,” said Blackwood. “Really interested in works that are poised to tour, to spread the gospel of Philadelphia across different art spheres.”

This kind of festival programming has a much smaller scope than the annual Fringe Festival in the fall, which can feature more than 150 performances across the city.

But Stuccio does not call them mini-festivals. He believes they can scale up into a large-scale festival that might ripple across the city.

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