The Fringe at 20: Looking ahead

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 Almanac Dance Circus Theater, with Nick Gillette (left) and Ben Grinberg, rehearses for

Almanac Dance Circus Theater, with Nick Gillette (left) and Ben Grinberg, rehearses for "Exile2588," an acrobatic presentation about the myth of Io. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The 2016 Philadelphia Fringe Festival program guide lists the more than 150 dance, theater, music, and interdisciplinary performances in dozens of locations around the city from Friday through Sept. 24. It makes little mention, however, of the fact that this is the 20th festival.

In his opening note for the guide, producing director Nick Stuccio nonchalantly wrote that it’s “not surprising” a festival of performances that are experimental, alternative, sometimes difficult, often varying widely in quality should make it this far.

“Every year, this city is a home to an ever-growing population of adventurous artists,” he wrote.

Back in 1997, the festival hosted 80 performances in five days, confined to just the Old City neighborhood. Now it is 16 days long, spanning eight neighborhoods, a few outlying shows in the suburbs (Bryn Mawr and Chester), and two dozen online-only works in the “Digital Fringe.”

“What was interesting about the Fringe for the first few years was that everything was in Old City,” said Brett Mapp, a longtime theater patron who has attended shows in every Fringe Festival since 1997. “Literally, you could go to an 8 show, ends at 9, and you walk five minutes to another show.”

Now, Mapp creates an Excel spreadsheet to plan his tickets in advance, leaving wiggle room for “dark horse” shows that generate buzz after the festival starts. The logistics of taking in the festival has increased as its size and reputation have grown.

The nature of the festival — with a short list of headline shows curated by the festival and a vast sea of artist-produced shows — resists any coherent theme threaded through the guide.

WHYY’s art and culture reporter Peter Crimmins and theater critic Howie Shapiro sat down and traded ideas about what looks interesting in this year’s festival lineup.

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