Philly Fringe Fest pivots to 4-week digital arts showcase

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Cookie Diorio in Late Night Snacks

Cookie Diorio in Late Night Snacks. (Caio Bruno)

Philadelphia’s 2020 iteration of the Fringe Festival kicks off Thursday, bringing to mind the adage, “The show must go on,” as artists, producers and directors find a way to perform for their audiences despite the pandemic.

The novel coronavirus has forced the festival to go predominantly virtual this year. Producing Director Nick Stuccio says the multi-week theatrical showcase of more than 100 shows won’t be filling seats in theaters. Instead, it will more likely be broadcast in living rooms across the globe.

Take choreographer and director David Gordon’s piece “The Philadelphia Matter.” Speaking with Morning Edition Host Jennifer Lynn, Stuccio called it an example of a brave pivot from real-time to digital.

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There is a heck of a lot of things that are on-demand and very well crafted for that reason. And I think of “The Philadelphia Matter” by David Gordon, who’s the seminal artist in our country, who was going to make this live space show with a lot of interesting dancers. And instead, he gave them all assignments. They went back to their homes and they went off into the woods and crazy places and built these dances. And he is editing all these together and is going to make this really, really, really cool dance film that would never have existed except for these conditions we’re working in now.

I also read about a performance called “Sign of the Times,” and we’re invited to send a message, so there’s some interaction there. There’s another one that I read about, where you’re supposed to grab your earbuds and you can be lulled to sleep, so a different way of interacting and a theatrical piece.

I love this one. And the promise is when you wake up, you’re going to know a whole magic world you didn’t know until you went to sleep.

I like that idea. And it’s different this year in that your audience can be anywhere. You are probably marketing internationally because you can. People don’t have to be at a theater at a certain time.

That’s right. The Fringe Festival’s a big festival, and we’ve had to pivot from being this in-person festival to being now one of the biggest digital arts festivals anywhere. And that’s getting a lot of attention. And so a lot of people will tune in to see what a big digital arts festival is like. We expect to get people from all over the world to see our shows.

The Fringe Festival has had virtual performances before, so I suppose it was in a unique situation to expand on that.

Exactly. We’ve had digital Fringe shows for four or five years now, and there are artists that specifically make shows for the digital space, and it’s been really cool. The last couple years, we’ve, as a staff every morning, sent around our pick for the coolest digital Fringe show. We watched it together. Now, almost all the show [is] in the digital space, and some of the artists who don’t make work in the digital space are learning from, are inspired by those artists in our region that make really cool work in the digital world. It should be a very rich experience for everybody.

I know that the Fringe is going to incorporate some social justice themes this year, also some themes around COVID itself. And you have an interesting setup with your app that really makes searching any topic very, very easy.

Our app is fantastic. We had a great time with the search feature being able to search by any imaginable function or feature you can think of, from spirituality to COVID, to social justice, to nudity, to community, to environment — I think just about 100 different ways you can search. So you name it, you can see a show about it.

Some theaters are reopening actually this week in Philly at a small capacity; you must wear a mask. What are your thoughts about the reopening of theater at this time still when we’re all urged to be ultra-careful?

It’s tough for us in this business because we only function when the houses are really pretty full. Our margins are thin. We rely on the ticket income to make the whole thing work. And if we could only have a small portion of audiences, we don’t get enough ticket revenue and therefore the whole thing sort of breaks down. So maybe in a couple of months, two, three, four months, we [can be] able to get 50%, 70%, and soon we’ll be back in business.

I see the Fringe Festival as something that can really raise the spirits of performers and also us — the viewers, experiencers. You must hear from patrons going into this season, “Nick, thanks for letting the show go on.”

Absolutely. I’ve had dear friends and Fringe-goers for years, decades, in fact, say, “Please tell me you’re not canceling.” And we said to them, “We never thought about canceling.” The Fringe is too important to the season, to what Philadelphia is about. If we had decided not to do the Fringe Festival, you know what? The artists would have done it anyway. It’s with them in mind. Their great, great passion for compelling them to shine that mirror on our culture and reflect back to us, and we’re treating and being with each other. It’s very important.

I love it. All the best. Thank you for your time.

Thank you, Jennifer, so much.

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