Romance and robots inspire Philly Fringe performances

Philly Fringe is under way, along with its sister festival, Live Arts. For the next 15 days, hundreds of performances will be staged throughout the city.

Several shatter the proscenium arch.

Conventional theater norms–linear storytelling, a stage, even beginning and end times–have been getting kicked to the curb by New Paradise Laboratories for years. Like its 2009 offering, “Fatebook,” the company’s new piece tells its story through layers of Internet and social-networking tools.

“Extremely Public Displays of Privacy” is about two women–a rock musician beginning to feel the onset of age and a young Internet darling living in a digital bubble–who meet online and begin a troubled relationship.

Act One is online, accessible anytime. Audiences can probe a flash archive of online chats, homemade video, and original music that outlines an improbable connection between a woman in New York and one in Minneapolis (the actual hometowns of the two actresses).

Act Two is a kind of scavenger hunt in the real world. Beginning Sept. 9, users can download maps of Center City to help them find artifacts of the women and their relationship planted on Philadelphia streets.

Act Three takes place at Seventh and Sansom on the last weekend of the festival.

Director Whit McLaughlin says the characters identities become dangerously fluid, becoming doppelgangers of each other.

“People who grow up with social networks understand how they depict themselves,” said McLaughlin. “What’s authentic? What is a person? How much is display, how much is self-promotion?”

To McLaughlin, the Internet is still an unknown frontier for artists. The potential to use it as an infinitely flexible platform for narrative work, he says, is largely untapped.

“I have a feeling that if we don’t intervene, a lot of folks are going to turn the Internet and web-based expression into a shopping mall,” said McLaughlin. “I feel it’s important to find soul in there, find real human content.”

Where art thou, Red Rover?

One spring day in 2009, the director of Headlong Dance Theater was listening to Science Friday on NPR. Host Ira Flatow was interviewing John Callas from NASA, talking about problems with the Mars rover. The conversation sounded weirdly personal.

“What does that mean that it has amnesia?” said Flatow.

“Well, the rover takes naps each day and sleeps during the night, and so it powers up and powers down a couple of times each day.” Callas explained.

After hearing that, Amy Smith became interested in how the Mars rover named Spirit has been anthropomorphized. In a National Geographic video she discovered, Spirit is described as female.

“She hasn’t been able to maintain memory in her hard drive,” recalls Smith. “Or, her front wheel broke so we had to learn to drive her backward. Which was a really great image for me in terms of movement.”

A machine with human characteristics that was erratically non-communicative inspired Smith. For her dance “Red Rovers,” Smith approached Philadelphia’s Central High School, which offers a class in robotics. Students there built her two robot rovers. They are both choreographed on stage alongside human dancers.

The “Red Rovers” performance is set up as though it were a conference of robotics scientists. Each ticket-holder is issued the nametag of an actual scientist, and asked to not only participate, but influence how the dance unfolds.

“The last thing we want to do is alienate people or make them feel they are on the spot,” said Smith, who notes that her adventurous audience tends to be self-selecting. “We like to gently and strategically invite them to participate. And they do.”

Smith promises audiences will not be required to do any dancing. Or singing.

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