Newly-Abled Bodies: Interview with Neighborhood Fringe artist Laurencio Ruiz

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“Puppetry allows me to socialize people—it seems to me that we are no longer able to touch, to talk, and to listen to each other.”

Laurencio Ruiz in 2011. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Laurencio Ruiz in 2011. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Why do so many of us avert our eyes from people physically different from ourselves? Why are so many of us uncomfortable with differences in ability? In his 2014 Fringe Festival puppet show, Incongruous, Laurencio Ruiz raises these questions and challenges us to reevaluate our definitions of ability and disability. Laurencio refers to the puppets in his show not as disabled, but as newly-abled. As the lines between puppet and human and between abled and disabled blur, Laurencio reminds the audience of its shared humanity and connection. Incongruous runs Sept 5­–21 at Studio X (1340 S 13th St.). We talked to Laurencio to find out more about his production and his experience with puppetry.

FringeArts: What drew you to puppetry?

Laurencio Ruiz: Since my childhood, I have been fascinated by puppetry, thanks to the wisdom of Sesame Street, which became the landmark and universal point of reference. I learned about what puppets can do for us. At the age of ten, using two Sesame Street hand puppets borrowed from my best friend, I performed several small shows in my front yard charging 25 cents.

Back in Mexico, my home country, during college, I got involved in designing and building puppets seriously for theater productions, a national television show, and commercials. I collaborated with a couple of talented visual artists in their studios. This collaborative and challenging period was very rewarding personally and professionally. During that time, I was also involved in performance art—designing and performing objects as “puppets” for several performance art events and venues, as well as creating art installations for diverse art galleries, museums, and trade shows.

The beginning of my development as a puppeteer began during my last year of graduate school here in the U.S. After the events of September 11, 2001, as an artist I was in need of creating a piece of performance art to exteriorize my rage, compassion, love, understanding, courage, and forgiveness in my own terms and language. I came to the realization that puppetry would be able to help me heal and share my experiences; it was the right artistic medium.

But most importantly, puppetry allows me to socialize people—it seems to me that we are no longer able to touch, to talk, and to listen to each other. Sometimes we are afraid of the “different” (based on gender, ethnicity, race, cultural background, appearance, body image, accent, manner of dress, sexual orientation).  Puppetry allows us to do that again—to socialize and interact with each other without guilt, fear, or embarrassment, because puppetry involves cooperation and trust. It makes us conscious of our own bodies and the bodies of others, as well as allowing us to appreciate our capacities. Things that we take for granted, our daily routine, are acts that puppetry reminds us to appreciate, because puppetry transcends cultures and language, because at its core is our humanity. Just as puppets are used as a part of medical healing, they can bridge seemingly insurmountable gaps between people.

Laurencio Ruiz in performance. Photo by Michele Corbman.

Laurencio Ruiz in performance. Photo by Michele Corbman.

FringeArts: What inspired you to create Incongruous?

Laurencio Ruiz: The first idea was inspired by a very good friend of mine, Ana Vaquera. She was the greatest single mother I know, and had a single leg. One day I saw her standing with her crutch when her baby crawled over to her. She put the crutch to the side and, in an amazing balancing act, she lifted her baby son from the floor. This was such a beautiful moment of love without limits; I was so moved that eventually I asked her if she would allow me to make a puppet based on her.

From there I didn’t know how to make concrete, to materialize, my idea of working with physical disabilities, until a couple weeks later I found an interview in Esquire Magazine in 2007.  I was again so moved by the story of an Iraq veteran, Brian Anderson, that I couldn’t stop thinking about experiences and challenges each of them faced every day. This moment was my epiphany, and the starting point for my project.

FringeArts: Can you describe the process of creating a puppet show?

Laurencio Ruiz: In my case, the creative process for a puppet show comes in a variety of ways. Sometimes it starts with an image, something from an article in the newspaper, or from people I meet. The script is the last part of the process. I start with the structure or the main idea of the show, then develop the characters (gender, physical appearance, personality, size) and decide how many puppets I will need. During this time I start planning the plot and possible story lines.

FringeArts: Do you create new puppets for every piece that you write?

Laurencio Ruiz: Yes, I do, because every project is very different. Many times, in each project I make a new generation of puppets, improved and with new tricks, with different mechanisms and effects.

FringeArts: What makes a successful puppet?

Laurencio Ruiz: When the puppet is able to reach audiences and stimulate their curiosity. When I hear the audience being mesmerized and see them captivated by the puppets, I know I have been successful. When they come up after the performance and show that their interest goes beyond just superficial entertainment.

Often, I work to create artistic visual narratives that, at some point during the show, invite the audience members to be part of the performance as puppeteers. I invite them to literally “give me a hand.” That is, I ask an audience member to be the puppet’s right hand. We complete actions together, so the audience has the opportunity to see and practice both sides of puppetry.

Photo by Michele Corbman.

Photo by Michele Corbman.

FringeArts: What were the challenges in making Incongruous?

Laurencio Ruiz: The challenge was how to present these stories as one, because this show is not a play with a logical plot development.

From my point of view as puppeteer, since the puppet has fewer body parts for me to move, I am challenged on how to allow him or her to express him or herself. So the challenge is to build or create capacity while breaking the normalizing gaze of the audience members.

FringeArts: Has creating this production affected your understanding of physical disability and ability?

Laurencio Ruiz: Creating this production confirmed for me that we—not the puppets—are the disabled, because we are the ones who no longer talk or touch or see or listen to each other. This incapacity/disability results from our lack of physical contact and communication with each other, and is not based on the missing limb. Even though we can, we don’t.

This “newly-abled” puppet show bares all to generate a safe playground for the audience to become less prejudiced and more friendly to the “different,” to explore new realms of the eerie, the weird, and the odd. The more we are exposed to people with physical disabilities, the more we normalize our perception of what they really are—people, like you and me.

When we look at nude Greek sculptures, even when they are mutilated or missing limbs, we don’t get scared or avoid looking at them or see them as odd. Instead, we still encounter their presence and appreciate their bodies’ beauty. So why are we not doing the same with the physically disabled?

That’s why this “newly-abled” puppet show invites you to look at their bodies without fear and without seeing them as odd. They don’t want to be objectified; instead, they want to inspire reflection about our own bodies.

Thank you, Laurencio. We can’t wait!

All Fringe Festival tickets are on sale online. Tickets to Incongruous are available here.

Incongruous
$10 / 45 minutes
Studio X
1340 South 13th Street
Wheelchair accessible

Sept 5­–7 at 6pm + 7pm
Sept 12 at 4pm + 11:30pm
Sept 13 at 2:30pm + 9:30pm
Sept 19 at 4pm + 11:30pm
Sept 20 at 2:30pm + 9:30pm
Sept 21 at 5:30pm + 6:30pm

—Miriam Hwang-Carlos

Absurdity and Chaos: Interview with Neighborhood Fringe artist Emily Schuman

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“We are wired to seek solace and meaning even in the most absurd of worlds.”

Fando y Lis in the 2014 Fringe Festival.

Fando y Lis in the 2014 Fringe Festival.

Fando y Lis, an absurdist play by Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabal, is coming to this year’s Neighborhood Fringe Festival. The play tells the story of two lovers, Fando and Lis, journeying through a barren nowhere-land while Fando pushes Lis, paralyzed from the waist down, in a cart. Director Emily Schuman translated the play into English, and has adapted her production to focus on the complexity of Lis’s story. Fando y Lis will run Sept 20–22 at the Shubin Theatre. We caught up with Emily to find out more.

FringeArts: How did you decide to work with Fernando Arrabal’s Fando y Lis?

Emily Schuman: I first read Fando y Lis as part of a summer research project I did at Denison University. I was really into absurd Spanish theatre at the time. Though we read so many of those plays in my Spanish literature classes, we never touched them in my theater classes. This project was my excuse to delve into Spanish theater and find a way to share it with English-speaking audiences. I found this amazing Spanish theater library when I was home in New York called the Jorge Luis Borges Library at the Instituto Cervantes, a Spanish cultural center. I was there for hours, reading play after play until I picked out Fando y Lis. I had never heard of Fernando Arrabal, but the first line of the play caught my attention and I couldn’t stop reading it. It was also the first time that I had read something in Spanish that I instantly understood without having to translate to English while I read.

I was drawn to Fando y Lis because it is a play that exists in complete absurdity and chaos, and yet these real, tangible issues, like relationships, love, identity and self-worth, are able to seep through the cracks and affect its viewers. That is why I find theater like this so powerful, because we are wired to seek solace and meaning even in the most absurd of worlds.

FringeArts: How has your production evolved from Arrabal’s play?

Emily Schuman: My production has evolved from the original play in our further exploration of the character of Lis, who is very complicated and enigmatic. She is paralyzed in her legs, which makes her extremely dependent on her lover Fando, who pushes her in a cart. I wanted to find interesting ways to shed light on her character and make this Lis’s story. I wrote a monologue for her that I believe gives her character depth, grounds her, and makes her more accessible to the audience. I also incorporated movement sequences that take us further into their absurd world and give variety to the tone of the piece both musically and visually.

The biggest development from Arrabal’s original play is that I decided to incorporate a burlap-covered mannequin that is used to represent Lis’s body. Lis experiences a lot of violence throughout the play both mentally and physically and I wanted to find a creative and effective way of conveying that violence to my audience without using stage combat. I might be alone in this theory, but I feel that when we see physical violence on stage, we say one of two things: “That punch looked so fake!” or, “I hope that actress is okay.” Either way, we are in our own heads, distracted from what is really happening to these characters. The incorporation of the mannequin into Fando y Lis is my way of exploring a symbolic and creative method of stage violence that viscerally affects my audience while keeping them in the story of the play.

As soon as we started using the mannequin in rehearsal to represent her body during these violent scenes, we started to see a whole new layer to the play that didn’t exist before. It is a layer that allows us to see this story through Lis’s eyes, a layer that gives new perspective to Arrabal’s vision.

FringeArts: What process did you go through to translate Fando y Lis?

Emily Schuman: I spent the first two weeks of my research directly translating the text of Fando y Lis into English, and then spent the rest of the summer adapting the language, choosing the right words, and incorporating my own concepts into the play. The process helped me to grow as a theater artist because it forced me to approach the work from new angles. I would not have been able to accomplish this project without the aid of professors Dosinda Alvite and Dr. Mark Evans Bryan, who guided me through the process and supported me the entire way.

FringeArts: Can you give us a little background on Fernando Arrabal and his work?

Emily Schuman: Fernando Arrabal is a playwright, poet, essayist, and novelist who is often associated with writers like Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett. He was heavily influenced by avant-garde, surrealist artists of the 20th century, and is known for joining forces with filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky in 1962 to create the Panic Movement. It is a theatrical form that was inspired by Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty and designed to shock its audiences with surreal imagery and chaotic performance art. The Panic Movement was their response to surrealism turning mundane and audiences becoming passive participants in theatre. Even though he wrote Fando y Lis before the Panic Movement, the play definitely carries the values of that movement. His characters actively engage their viewers by surprising us with their sudden switch to chaos and absurdity.

Arrabal currently lives in Paris, and seems like such an eccentric character. He has an interesting blog called Ceci n’est pas un blog (French for This Is Not A Blog), where he posts interviews, photos, and upcoming productions of his plays. When I wrote to him to ask his permission to perform Fando y Lis, he wrote back giving me his blessing, and posted my play’s information to the blog!

Thank you, Emily! We can’t wait!

Tickets for all Fringe shows are on sale now online. Get tickets for Fando y Lis here.

Fando y Lis by Fernando Arrabal
Shubin Theatre
407 Bainbridge Street
$10 / 65 minutes
Sept 20 at 2pm, 5pm + 8pm
Sept 21 at 4pm + 7pm
Sept 22 at 7pm

—Miriam Hwang-Carlos

I Smell Philly: Observations from 100% Philadelphia

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Participants speak in 100% Brussels. Photo by TMitchell.

Participants speak in 100% Brussels. Photo by TMitchell.

This summer, I’ve been the Festival Guide management intern here at FringeArts. Since the guide went to print last week (hooray, come to our party!), I’ve been editing interviews with participants in 100% Philadelphia by the German artist collective Rimini Protokoll. The show stars one hundred Philadelphians­ chosen according to the city’s census data. These non-actors—who are statistically representative of varying races, genders, ages, and neighborhoods—will share their views on current issues and tell their stories onstage, exploring what it means to live in this diverse yet fragmented city of cheesesteak. We are currently compiling interviews with all one hundred participants for a booklet to accompany the performance.

From the first twenty-three interviews, I already feel privy to a unique peephole into the life of the city. Since we all have to wait until September 19th for the real show, I’ll share a few observations, using the entirely scientific whatever-sticks-out-in-my-memory method:

When asked what smell they associate with the city of brotherly love, participants tend to respond with one of three answers: Cheesesteak, pretzels, or garbage. As some participants salivated over Philadelphia’s abundant pretzel supply, others waxed poetic about the heat-induced summertime stench of trash, punctuated by the watery aromas of the Schuylkill and Delaware.

Education is one of the most popular causes that Philadelphians would demonstrate for. Multiple teachers spoke of their love for their students, and many parents and grandparents watched children outside their window with concern. In general, these Philadelphians seem to agree that the way to a better future, for their own children and for the city as a whole, is increasing access to fairer education.

In a similar vein, many participants expressed great belief in community. Many identified the reason they stayed in Philadelphia as the desire to strengthen their communities, inspired by the mentors that helped them or that they wished had been present.

Philadelphians love their music. When asked what sounds they associate with Philly, many participants responded with music genres or particular songs. Or SEPTA noises, which I suppose could be a music of its own, if we’re being generous. On that note, I’ll leave you with this Philly classic:

To encourage the entire city to participate, tickets to 100% Philadelphia are pay what you wish. Get your tickets online here.

100% Philadelphia
Temple Performing Arts Center
1837 N Broad St
(between Montgomery Ave and Norris St)
Wheelchair accessible
Sept 19 + 20 at 7pm
Sept 21 at 3pm

—Miriam Hwang-Carlos

Fighting Back: Interview with Neighborhood Fringe artist Colie McClellan

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“It’s infuriating to realize the enormity of intimate partner violence, the prevalence it has in our society—I couldn’t not do something about that.”

Colie McClellan in They Call Me Arethusa

Colie McClellan in They Call Me Arethusa

Stories of abuse and sexual violence against women run throughout Ancient Greek mythology. Actor and writer Colie McClellan came across these stories countless times while majoring in classics at the College of Charleston. In her one-woman play, They Call Me Arethusa, Colie weaves Greek mythology with stories of real, modern women who have experienced partner violence. They Call Me Arethusa runs throughout the 2014 Fringe Festival (September 5–20 at Pig Iron School Studio One). We caught up with Colie to find out more.

FringeArts: What inspired the creation of They Call Me Arethusa?

Colie McClellan: Once you’ve experienced dating violence, it’s like you enter a club. This club is made up of women who all have their own experience to relate. Sometimes these are small instances. Others extend over the course of a lifetime, recurring again and again. Women share with you the secrets they don’t share with anyone else, because once you’ve experienced it, you understand. What I’m seeking to do is bring these stories to light, for the world to see. It’s infuriating to realize the enormity of intimate partner violence, the prevalence it has in our society. I couldn’t not do something about that.

I didn’t know what the piece would look like when I started talking to women, started doing research. I just knew that I wanted to record and honor their stories. At first I envisioned a piece that used a lot of different forms of expression from the women: poems, stories, songs. I also had the idea to bring in themes from pop culture to represent the pressure we place on women to perform a certain way. Those things didn’t make the cut. The creative team and I felt that it drew too much away from our mission of focusing on the survivors, their stories, and how often we diminish or romanticize abuse.

FringeArts: What makes theater the right artistic medium to explore these issues?

Colie McClellan: Theater is the right artistic medium for me to explore these issues because it’s my artistic medium. Theater is about sharing stories and reflecting on human experiences. And I’ve been doing theater since I was a kid. It all makes perfect sense for me, and, again, I couldn’t not do it this way.

FringeArts: Has creating this play made you think differently about partner violence?

Colie McClellan: There are a few things that creating and performing this play have made me think about differently: A. Oh yeah, people don’t talk about intimate partner violence. This sounds obvious, because it’s the reason I wanted to do the thing, but I can be so steeped in the telling of these stories that I forget that other people aren’t talking about this. When certain audience members are stunned or shocked, it sometimes still surprises me. You can feel it from them while the piece is happening. I’ve built in soothing moments, moments of reprieve to help with that sting, but it is a lot to take in, and I don’t let anyone off the hook.

B. Everyone has a story. Every single time I’ve performed this piece, at least one person from the audience has approached me and said that they, or their sister, or their girlfriend, or their mom, or their grandmother, or their friend is a survivor of intimate partner violence. Some of the women who experienced it firsthand would leave right after the show and send me messages later. Their messages kept—and keep—me doing this. I’m doing this for them.

C. Some people won’t ever get it. They also get upset with me for sharing these stories, like I’m making them confront issues that they wish they could keep ignoring. I could write a whole essay about this. I’ll keep it short and simple: I don’t like it either! But ignoring things doesn’t make them go away.

FringeArts: Why did you decide to include Greek mythology?

Colie McClellan: I was a classics major in undergrad. The stories of the women who are chased and attacked and abused, they are all over the place. I wanted to frame the testimonials with something universal—these myths that reflect the way we diminish abuse today.

I like that the stories are a bit removed from the audience. It gives them a chance to breathe between these heavy, hefty testimonials. I also like that the mythological storytelling lulls them into a sense of security, so you can draw them back in a little before continuing to the next heavy hitting piece.

FringeArts: Is there anything you would like the audience to know before your show?

Colie McClellan: I’d like for the audience to come with open minds and ready hearts. I’m not out to prove anything; I’m just seeking to share and hopefully empower.

Thank you, Colie!

Fringe Festival tickets are already on sale! Tickets for They Call Me Arethusa available online.

They Call Me Arethusa
55 minutes
Opening night $10
All other performances $20

Pig Iron School Studio One
1417 North 2nd St
Wheelchair accessible

Sept 5 at 10:30pm
Sept 6 + 7 at 3pm
Sept 10 + 11 at 8pm
Sept 12 at 10pm
Sept 13 at 2pm + 6:30pm
Sept 14 at 5:30pm
Sept 15 at 9pm
Sept 17 + 18 at 6:30pm
Sept 19 at 8pm
Sept 20 at 2pm + 8pm

—Miriam Hwang-Carlos

A Couple Airwaves Removed from Reality: Interview with writer and director Tina Satter

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“It’s a slightly abstracted, theatricalized space, because it’s theater and I’m always interested in theater taking me beyond the edges of reality.”

In the Pony Palace/FOOTBALL. Photo by Hunter Canning.

In the Pony Palace/FOOTBALL. Photo by Hunter Canning.

Coming to this year’s Fringe Festival, In the Pony Palace/FOOTBALL, brings an all female and genderqueer cast of football players, coaches, and cheerleaders on stage as part of the Presented Fringe. The play by Half Straddle combines the iconic imagery of football with the linguistic particularity of high school girls, all backed by a live brass band. Half Straddle is a New York City-based company that produces plays, performances, videos, and music written and directed by Tina Satter. We caught up with Tina to find out more about her In the Pony Palace/FOOTBALL, which will be in the Festival Sept 17–19.

FringeArts: Why is the show title In the Pony Palace/FOOTBALL?

Tina Satter: I was calling the show just “FOOTBALL” for a while because it was about football and that worked for me. Then I was trying to work more on the script and push further into it and I was struggling. Jess Barbagallo, who plays the quarterback in the show, told me that they had overheard these young cool-looking girls having this awesome conversation where they referenced something being “downstairs in the pony palace…” Neither of us knew what that meant at all, but the concept of girls discussing a “pony palace” totally opened up the conceptual premise of the show to capture this more intangible special athlete-girl world of the play that I wanted to feel slightly off to the side of real life.

I made “pony palace” the name of their locker room in the play as well. I was able to then create the script and overall concept I was looking for. And then it seemed really important that the wonderful, weird phrase/idea of “Pony Palace” was actually reflected in the title of the show

FringeArts: How did your experience with sports in high school and college inform this play?

Tina Satter: My main sport I played all throughout high school and at Bowdoin College on a Division III team was field hockey. I totally drew from my experience of working really hard with, laughing with, riding buses with, losing with and feeling utterly devastated, and then winning with these groups of girls with whom I had been on these teams all these years. The coded language you have. This incredible sense of effort and honor towards something that, at the end of it all, you know is just a sport, a game, but that really signifies a kind of personal integrity and group effort and belief in something bigger than yourself that, even at that time, and definitely after, I found very inspiring.

So I took all the feelings, memories, and dynamics of playing field hockey and put them onto this idea of a team playing football instead of field hockey. There was something about the larger iconic significance of football that seemed to be what I wanted to use as opposed to field hockey, which is much more obscure in the U.S. I also wanted to use the idea of girls just totally playing without comment in this sport that, the vast majority of the time, only males are allowed to play on a competitive level.

FringeArts: How did the work evolve from your writing of it to your directing of it?

Tina Satter: I don’t think of the plays I am making as just scripts that can be filled out by someone else in a directorial capacity. They are these whole conceptual worlds and feelings that I am just as invested in as I am in the characters and narratives. There is almost not a difference between the writing and directing, because I ultimately have this idea of how every molecule of it should feel, especially the overall rhythm. Of course I’m constantly taking advice, ideas, and in-the-moment inspiration in the rehearsal room from my incredible performers and design collaborators, and adjusting my ideas.

In the Pony Palace/FOOTBALL. Photo by Hunter Canning.

In the Pony Palace/FOOTBALL. Photo by Hunter Canning.

FringeArts: What is the setting of this piece and how does it appeal to your imagination and artistic sensibilities?

Tina Satter: The setting is a high school football team that exists a couple airwaves removed from reality. It’s a slightly abstracted, theatricalized space, because it’s theater and I’m always interested in theater taking me beyond the edges of reality into a liminal and exciting space in subtle unexpected ways. I want it to feel like something we’ve never quite seen or felt before. To me, that’s a huge part of making something.

So in this case it’s an all-female high school football team that plays football with all the recognizable signifiers—the football uniforms, the sports language, the athletic posturing—but then all edged-out with this kind of made-up, tweaked valley girl speak and poeticized sense of what athletics and the team mean. In the play we see a snapshot of their season as they play several games and have interactions on and off the field that are related to football, to their adolescent sense of the banal, and to bigger things in the act of self-discovery.

FringeArts: Why football?

Tina Satter: It’s the iconic, totally American, very, very male sport that feels universal, but that’s also something only men can play. That’s totally weird when you actually think about it. This thing that just men play, that mostly men watch—not entirely, but primarily—so it’s really this highly segmented gender thing. I wanted to play with that.

But to me, initially it was not a political act to make the play at all, because my first draw was the awesome uniforms and the language and the toughness to the sport and getting to poeticize all that in my world and with the performers I work with. I wanted to make a kind of sports play. That was my main driving factor—an artistic interest in the framework of this particularly iconic tough sport and the aesthetics and language it allowed me to play with. But the fact that it does then become political is great by me.  (more…)

WetLand crosses the Delaware

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Photo by Josh McIlvain IMG_3818
July 22, 2014, in the morning: The main structural component of WetLand by Mary Mattingly, a houseboat, turns towards its destination–the dock at the Independence Seaport Museum–as it is towed into the harbor. Commissioned for the 2014 Fringe Festival, WetLand will be open August 15 to September 21, daily, and is free to the public.

Data of the Everyday: Interview with Brian House, WetLand resident artist

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“As painful as it sometimes is, I think waking up is the most beautiful part—those few moments where everything is a little unfamiliar.”

Brian House. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Brian House. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Starting on August 15th, Mary Mattingly‘s WetLand, a floating, self-sustaining ecosystem on the Delaware River, will open to the public as part of the 2014 Fringe Festival. WetLand will include living and performance spaces, gardens, a water filtration system, and potentially a beehive and chickens. In addition to hosting dozens of artistic and environmental events, WetLand will be home to a rotating cast of resident artists who will work and live on the barge.

One of these residents, Brian House, is a media artist who manipulates data to look deeply at our unique patterns of living. His recent projects include Forty-Eight to Sixteen, in which the logistics of a bike ride are transformed into music, and Tanglr, a Google Chrome extension that virtually connects two anonymous browsers. House currently teaches at the Digital + Media program at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Below, he discusses his plans for his residency and how WetLand‘s ethos will interact with his own.

FringeArts: What do you plan to work on during your residency at WetLand?

Brian House: I’m not entirely sure at this point, but it will likely involve music composition. Mary’s previous project, Flock House, inspired me to make some sensors for her structures that measured the rhythms of activity inside. I’m interested in perhaps doing something similar, but this time through purely low-tech methods of observation, and I think that could feed in to the composition process. When I say ‘rhythms’ it could really be anything—the daily life cycles of the inhabitants, the weather, visitors, city noise, etc.

FringeArts: Has the tension between public and private space has been a subject of your work in the past?

Brian House: Yes, definitely this has come up with many of my projects. These terms sound simple at first, but are actually very difficult to pin down. What constitutes a ‘public’? What are the boundaries of the ‘private’? In a world where it’s not unreasonable to expect Google satellites to look into your backyard, seeds and DNA are patentable, and we walk down the street immersed in our own cellphone worlds, these things are shifty, and I’d almost rather avoid definitions. In the past, I’ve used text messaging to change the context of your surroundings (Hundekopf), built simple appliances that eavesdrop (Conversnitch), and made secure platforms for sharing data (OpenPaths). As far as living in ‘public’ space, as on WetLand, however, that is new territory.  (more…)

Dancing through Diasporas: Interview with Shaily Dadiala of Usiloquy Dance Designs

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“Moving to the United States changed everything.”

Shaily Dadiala in performance, 2014.

Shaily Dadiala in performance, 2014.

Shaily Dadiala, artistic director of Usiloquy Dance Designs, has been dancing Bharatanatyam, a classical Indian dance form, since childhood. After growing up in Bardoli, a city in Gujarat, India, Shaily moved to the United States, where she formed her own ensemble. Usiloquy presents innovative, cross-cultural Bharatanatyam dances informed by stories of immigration and multiculturalism. On Saturday, July 26th, Usiloquy Dance Designs performs an original dance, Ragas and Airs, combining Bharatanatyam dance and Celtic music. We caught up with Shaily to find out more about her life as a dancer

FringeArts: What kind of dance did you do growing up?

Shaily Dadiala: At age four, I was part of a kindergarten dance group in India. I distinctly remember rehearsals, shopping for jewelry with my mother, and dancing at the annual gathering on stage. It was a “welcome dance” inaugurating the event.

I started learning Bharatanatyam at age nine. You had to be sixteen years old in order to take the state board exam at the end of the seven-year course’s graduation. Before the formal training, I would excitedly throw my arms and legs around in make-believe dance concerts.

FringeArts: How did you decide to specialize in Bharatanatyam? 

Shaily Dadiala: I owe genuine gratitude to my parents for that. They recognized the dance itch in me as something that wouldn’t go away, something that needed formal nurture. My home town at that time offered structured training only in Bharatanatyam. My parents enrolled me, and I was entranced from day one. The style feels encoded, almost epigenetically, and it has never been a matter of choosing it over another.

FringeArts: Did moving to the United States change your relationship to dance?

Shaily Dadiala: Moving to the United States changed everything. Until then, Bharatanatyam was something I simply enjoyed. The experience of being an immigrant here—the pressure to assimilate, the desire to belong, the stereotyping—has deeply informed my dance discipline over the years. My dance practice has represented how I myself have navigated the tensions of creating a home here in the United States while I remain true to the classical grammar of Bharatanatyam movement. My inspiration comes from preserved music styles, folklore, and cultural practices of the myriad diasporas I see around me, and I see my journey reflected in theirs.

Usiloquy Dance Designs in performance, 2013.

Usiloquy Dance Designs in performance, 2013.

FringeArts: How did you decide to form Usiloquy Dance Designs?

Shaily Dadiala: I wanted to project my work through the texture and complexity that only an ensemble can bring to the stage. I quit my full-time job and established Usiloquy in 2008. Students had been taking classes with me since 2006, some of whom I invited to join the company. “Soliloquy” was my favorite Shakespeare word. Replacing “Sol” with “Us” to make “Usiloquy”—our conversations—seemed like a pretty neat neologism to me. Besides, Bharatanatyam was the only element that I could coherently tie to the narrative of my birth country.

FringeArts: What is it like to teach an Indian dance form in the United States?

Shaily Dadiala: It is mostly fun and interesting. I think the average dance student and aspirant dancer is hard working and eager to learn. Sure, there is plenty of background knowledge like the history of the dance, symbols from ancient scriptures, and cultural jargon that I cannot take for granted. Teaching non-South Asian students has become a refining mechanism for my historical knowledge! There is a healthy curiosity and yearning for training across all age groups and institutions, which is highly encouraging. There are some weird instances though, when Bharatanatyam is confused with Bollywood dance or belly dance.

FringeArts: How do you use the meeting of cultures to create work?

Shaily Dadiala: Music is the trigger, usually. If I hear certain music and it intrigues me enough, I start digging deeper into the culture at large. We all are immigrants, give or take a few years or a few centuries. Immigration creates diasporas, which, curiously enough, preserve old music and cultures more judiciously than their originating sources. As a choreographer, I seek points of intersection between my immigrant identity and adaptation of my classical dance training. I create works drawing upon the fundamental vocabulary of rhythmic footwork, hand gestures, and mime inherent to Bharatanatyam, juxtaposed with music and narrative devices not traditional to South Indian arts. (more…)

Invisible River Made Visible

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Aerial performance by Alie Vidich and Evan Hoffman in Invisible River, 2013.

Aerial performance by Alie Vidich and Evan Hoffman in Invisible River, 2013.

Invisible River, a 2.5-mile performance of dance, music, acrobats, sculpture installations, and boats, is coming to the Schuylkill River this weekend for the second year in a row. The show, which has two performances, includes 30 performers, 12 tech workers, 245 volunteers, and an estimated 1,300 audience members. The public can view the event from the shores of Kelly Drive for free or purchase tickets to join a moving boat flotilla and see the show from the water.

For Alie Vidich, producing director and choreographer, Invisible River evolved through a natural progression of her work. In 2010, Alie made Constants, a show about the hidden histories of the Schuylkill River—the history of the Underground Railroad on the river, the Lenape Native Americans, Typhoid on the river, and shad fish. Constants had a heavier emphasis on narration, acting, poetry, and song than on dance. By 2012, Alie was formulating new performance ideas, and knew, “I did not want to make another piece about history. The romanticism of the past was driving me crazy; pouring over historical photos tends to do that to a person.” For Invisible River, Alie says, “I was thinking a lot about how to create a positive celebration that drew people to the river and to talk about access to the Schuylkill.”

We caught up with Alie to talk about this weekend’s performance on Saturday, July 12th, and Sunday, July 13th.

FringeArts: Last year you had people hanging off the Strawberry Mansion Bridge. What’s the craziest thing happening this year?

Alie Vidich:We are doing that again! Outside of that I think the whole thing is kind of crazy—65 boats moving together in a flotilla alongside a music boat with live performers, a freestanding abstract sculpture of native birds floating in the river, a choreographic ritual paying homage to summer and the change of seasons, dancers on an island in the middle of the river, dancers in canoes and on paddle boards flowing along the river. When the audience returns to the docks at the end of the show, they will see a chorus of dancers building a landscape by running and flocking in movement that ebbs and flows, creating an ephemeral experience not unlike that which we experience in nature.

Dancers in last year's Invisible River. Photo by Elayne Wishart.

Dancers rehearsing Invisible River, 2014. Photo by Elayne Wishart.

FringeArts: How do you direct and choreograph such a large and diverse event?

Alie Vidich:With a lot of help and time—the turn around time for this kind of event is one year but really it needs a year and half. I think as we get bigger and more experienced it will be easier to do implementation and planning at the same time. I’ve been playing with this in my head for two years now, and it’s finally happening!

FringeArts: I want to know about the boats. Can you take me through the audience experience?

Alie Vidich: There are at least 65 boats committed: 10 dragon boats with teams of 8 paddling the audience on the river, 15 row boats, 42 kayaks, 2 rowing sculls, and possibly a few more kayaks and canoes. You have to purchase a boat ticket to participate in the event. Unfortunately, due to liability and public safety concerns, we cannot let anyone launch their boat in the river and just join in—maybe in the future, but not right now.

The audience arrives and checks in, then everyone goes to their respective stations—dragon boat launch, kayak launch, row boat launch. There they take part in a pre-show safety discussion with watershed educators from Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center about the river’s currents, daily flow, tides, and the combined sewage overflow that affects it on a regular basis, followed by a short paddling lesson. They launch onto the river and see a floating bird sculpture installation. They hear music from composers, Michael Wall and Jon Yerby in a musical boat that travels alongside them. I can’t tell you the rest because then it wouldn’t be a surprise!

Audiences will also receive a comprehensive map that details the journey they took, the streams and creeks that flow into the river, and the trails that surround the river in Fairmount Park.

(more…)

Interview with Art Travelers, Linda and David Glickstein

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David and Linda Glickstein in Ghent

David and Linda Glickstein in Ghent on the way to tour Vooruit.

Avignon, Brussels, Montreal, Edinburgh—imagine hopping from one city to another, sampling the largest performing arts festivals in each. For those of us confined to the United States, opportunities to compare performing arts festivals are rare, as the Fringe Festival in Philadelphia is one of very few in this country that presents highly realized contemporary theater and dance works. To get a better sense of the performing arts in a global context, we turned to travel experts and performing arts aficionados Linda and David Glickstein, recently returned from the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels.

Linda and David have lived in Philly since 1970, but have travelled extensively. In addition to the Kunsten, the Glicksteins have also been to the Festival TransAmériques in Montreal and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. They are going to Festival d’Avignon this summer, assuming the artists don’t all go on strike (in which case they will just enjoy France).

Linda and David have loved theater since their childhoods in Connecticut. Class trips first sparked David’s interest—he remembers The Diary of Anne Frank, the first live performance he ever saw that connected to him on a deep level. Linda’s family brought her to many performances, of which she most clearly remembers Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals.

In the summer of ’69, Linda saw a whole new kind of theater while taking classes for her Masters at Teachers College, Columbia University. One class introduced students to the East Village to see radical theater—very different from the musicals of her childhood. It was “crazy stuff” from “the era of LSD,” Linda remembers, adding that she and David “were like, ‘Oh my god, what is going on?’” as actors had sex on stage or when they swung around naked. You don’t go to this type of theater because you “like” it, Linda explains, but because it’s fascinating. Because of “a certain excitement that there’s something so different out there that you’ve never experienced, so outside of your realm.”

Batucada at Kunstenfestivaldesarts.

Batucada by Marcelo Evelin at Kunstenfestivaldesarts.

Decades of theater going later, the Glicksteins remain excited by new work. David shows us a video he recorded at the Kunsten Festival, a performance of Batucada by Marcelo Evelin. In the video, a large group of naked performers bang furiously on metal pans and then lie down in the street. Linda comments, “I’d never seen anything like that, in that kind of numbers. I’d never been to a festival where all the performers were completely nude.” She breaks off and turns to her husband as they both think, before adding, “Well . . . maybe that’s not true.”

The largest difference David and Linda notice between festivals in the United States and elsewhere is audience turnout. In Montreal, they remark, thousands would show up to shows that wouldn’t get three hundred people here. For a talkback with Romeo Castellucci in Montreal, hundreds packed into an auditorium. His talkback in Philadelphia last year garnered, by the Glicksteins’ estimate, closer to fifty audience members. Hypothesizing about the cause of this difference, the Glicksteins mention a general public appreciation for performing arts in Canada, nurtured by deep governmental funding.

Macbeth by Brett Bailey, from the Kunstenfestivaldesarts

Macbeth by Brett Bailey at Kunstenfestivaldesarts.

With exasperation, the Glicksteins note one constant among performing arts festivals—the lack of audience diversity. Regardless of location, the audiences at each festival they have attended were “predominately white.” Linda and David emphasize, you could take an audience from Brussels and transplant it in Philadelphia, France, Canada—regardless of the location, audiences are predominantly white. They remember attending a Peter Brook show in a primarily African neighborhood of Paris. Even there, the attendees were overwhelmingly white. The only place that might challenge those norms, David adds, is New York City, where he and Linda have been in more diverse audiences.

Looking back on their favorite shows from the Kunsten, the Glicksteins point to Macbeth, by Brett Bailey, a theater maker from South Africa. This version featured music from Verdi’s opera and images from the atrocities of the Belgian Congo, highlighting similarities between two violent pursuits of power. Linda and David remark, “It was different, but at the same time it wasn’t different, because you knew it was Macbeth.”

—Miriam Hwang-Carlos and Josh McIlvain

Rehearsal Photo

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IMG_3320_photo by Josh McIlvain

FringeArts, June 20, 2014: The Beserker Residents rehearse The Talkback. (l to r) Bradley K. Wrenn, David Johnson, and  Justin Jain. Photo: Said Johnson.

A New Book To Help Artists Live Better, Smarter

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The book.

“I wrote the book that I wanted to read. This is the book I wish someone had given me twenty years ago.”

Are you an artist in Philadelphia, thinking, How the hell does this work?

There’s a new book in town for artists to help get themselves to live a more fruitful artistic life and career and it’s FREE (the PDF version anyway, the handsome trade paperback costs $18). Making Your Life As An Artist by Andrew Simonet, grew out of Andrew’s work at Artists U, a planning and development program for artists, which he founded in 2006. (Andrew was also a co-founder and co-artistic director of Headlong Dance Theater.) Since much of the wisdom of the book grew out of living an artistic life and career in Philly, this is a must read if you are a performing artist in Philadelphia! The landscape is different here than in New York or L.A., even though those cities’ narratives still drive much artistic thinking and/or dreaming. Making Your Life As An Artist will help you take a long view and help you plan and develop your artistic career while also getting you to see your life outside of your work as part of that equation. We caught up with Andrew to fire off three quick questions.

FringeArts: Why did you write Making Your Life As An Artist?

The author.

The author.

Andrew Simonet: I wrote the book that I wanted to read. This is the book I wish someone had given me twenty years ago. I need to be reminded of the sacred role artists play and the astonishing skills artists have. Doing this work with artists [at Artists U] for the last ten years, I’ve always worked face-to-face, always real bodies in a room, sharing a dialogue. It’s probably my performance background that makes me feel so strongly about presence and sharing space with people. But there’s a limit. More people have downloaded this book in the last day than I will ever work with in Artists U. That’s sobering to me and exciting. With the designer, brilliant artist Anthony Smyrski, we asked: what is the physical object and virtual object that will be like an Artists U workshop? How can we use this scalable system to convey the work? So there’s lots of negative space, lots of room around each thought, and a tone that is more like speaking than writing.

FringeArts: How many books have been downloaded?

Andrew Simonet: 3,300 as of 9 pm on June 19 [Ed note: less than 48 hours after going on sale!]. I’m thrilled about that. It’s exactly what I want for this book: take it, read it, share it. Several folks have said they emailed the book to all their students, which I completely encourage, so we’ll never know the total reach.

FringeArts: What are you reading now?

Andrew Simonet: The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality by Angus Deaton. It’s a brilliant account of how humans escaped the grinding poverty and short life expectancies that dominated human life for tens of thousands of years. In the last 300 years, we are suddenly dramatically richer and live much, much longer and healthier lives. It’s a book about that astonishing and rapid shift, and about the rise of inequalities. Everyone should read it, if only for Deaton’s distinction between good inequality—rich people develop a technology, like indoor plumbing or eyeglasses, that trickles down to everyone—versus bad inequality—rich people control the political process to keep others down.

Making Your Life As An Artist
By Andrew Simonet
Download for FREE! Or purchase the paperback right here.
For more info on Artists U: www.artistsu.org

—Josh McIlvain

Asaki Kuruma on Writing, Immigration, and the Racial Dynamics of Philadelphia Theater

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“It’s really hard to do acting and make a living unless you’re really good—and a Caucasian man.”

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“Uh, are you okay? You look like you’re giving birth,” Asaki Kuruma’s roommate asked while watching her write. Asaki, who has acted in Philadelphia for about ten years, premieres her first play, Bi(?!)lingual, as part of the SoLow Fest, June 26–28. Asaki developed the play with help from Simpatico Theatre Project’s SoLow Incubator, an artist residency program to develop shows for the SoLow Fest. Asaki describes the writing process as “fun . . . and torturous,” adding, “the idea is there, but it’s so fuzzy—I cannot put it into words.”

Months of writing and rewriting later—she refers to cutting beloved but unnecessary passages as “killing the babies”—Asaki finally feels confident in her script. Bi(?!)lingual is based upon her move from Japan to the United States ten years ago, and all the misunderstandings and laughter that accompany being bilingual in a foreign country. We sat down with Asaki to learn about her show, her life, and her view of theater in Philadelphia.

Asaki grew up in Yokohama, Japan, a hilly port city near Tokyo. She attended a middle and high school founded by American missionaries, which had a very good English program. “But it didn’t matter,” Asaki insists, “I was still terrible at it!” Asaki first experienced theater in this high school. A classmate wrote a play inspired by a tragedy from their school’s history—during World War II, an air raid destroyed the school and killed several students and teachers. Asaki’s classmate enlisted her as an actor, and Asaki immediately fell in love. She remembers knowing, from this one play, “I wanna do this as a career.” Though she quickly laughs and adds, “which is not really a career, unless you become really famous.”

After high school, Asaki attended Temple University, Japan Campus (TUJ) in Tokyo to study English. Her decision to attend TUJ, rather than an English language prep school, was directly influenced by 9/11. Following the attacks, Asaki remembers multiple rumors spreading rapidly. One theory was that the attacker was North Korean. If this turned out to be true, Asaki—who is ethnically Korean—was unsure how American attitudes towards Koreans would change. In case she could not move to the U.S., Asaki decided to go to TUJ, where she could earn a degree without transferring to another college.

But after a year, Asaki did transfer, moving to Temple’s Philadelphia campus at age twenty. At this point her English was, by her own estimate, “fairly fine.” Yet she quickly found that “speaking with native speakers is completely different.” Asaki laughs, exclaiming, “People in Philly speak so fast! East Coasters in general, but Philly especially has this weird accent.” Asaki describes being baffled by Philadelphians’ pronunciation of words like “water” and “now.” Even today, she sometimes struggles with the accent when she is very tired.

Asaki Kuruma in Polaroid Stories at Allens Lane Theater. Photo by Tracy Long.

Despite the linguistic confusion, Asaki loved Temple, where she majored in theater with an acting concentration. After graduating, she took up a smattering of odd jobs. Currently, Asaki supplements her acting by working as a house manager at a theater company in Philly, and by helping out at a friend’s cosplay company, which specializes in Game of Thrones costumes. Asaki laughs with slight embarrassed while describing sewing costumes, crafting jewelry, and modeling for photos, but admits that it is very fun.

With the support of these jobs, Asaki can afford to keep acting. “It’s really hard to do acting and make a living unless you’re really good—and a Caucasian man, and can do acting and singing,” Asaki remarks matter-of-factly. In response to whether being Asian affects her acting career, Asaki lets out a half-laugh, half-sigh: “A lot. . . . There’s a weird tension between races, especially in Philadelphia, which is really unfortunate because it’s such a diverse city.” But this diversity is segmented and stratified. Asaki maps out different neighborhoods on our coffee table—here is the Latino neighborhood, there is the Cambodian neighborhood, this is where the rich people live. These racial boundaries are reflected in Philadelphia theater, which Asaki describes as “very white, plus a little bit of black. No Asian or Latino, at least not as much as there should be.” So often, she has heard at casting calls, “Oh, she cannot be Asian, sorry.” Asaki mentions that many Asian-American actors become so frustrated with the dearth of roles in Philly that they move—usually to New York or California—or leave acting all together for backstage positions. (more…)

Talking about The Talkback: Interview with The Berserker Residents

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“We are satirizing everyone we’ve ever worked with and also our own lives as artists. No one is safe.”

Clockwise: Bradley K. Wrenn, Justin Jain, David Johnson

Clockwise: Bradley K. Wrenn, Justin Jain, David Johnson

For the next three Sunday evenings, the Berserker Residents will present in-progress showings of The Talkback at FringeArts (140 N. Columbus Boulevard). Philadelphia-based artists Justin Jain, David Johnson, and Bradley K. Wrenn joined forces in 2007 and created The Berserker Residents, performing a fantastical blend of physical theater, puppetry, music, sketch, and prop comedy. The group is in residence at FringeArts in June to finesse their 2013 Fringe Festival hit, The Talkback, before taking it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August.

Part-scripted and part-improvisation, The Talkback begins at the end of a show the audience has never seen, leading the audience through a discussion of the unseen show, which then goes completely awry. Curious, we went to Justin, David, and Bradley for the inside scoop on creating The Talkback, and what they’ll be working on while at FringeArts.

FringeArts: What was the inspiration for The Talkback?

Brad: It started back when Justin was a FringeArts LAB fellow. We had found ourselves in a rut. We were making the same show over and over. We spent a week or so exploring new ideas and trying figure out how we could mix things up and make ourselves uncomfortable. We finally hit on the post-production discussion as a format.

We generally aren’t big fans of improv, it makes us weak in the knees just thinking about it. But our aim was to disrupt our usual patterns, and we love playing with an audience. The form also allowed us to be ourselves, literally. We aren’t playing characters really, we keep our real names and plop ourselves into a fake theater company at the end of a fake show.

Dave: We often rehearse long blocks of stream-of-consciousness improvisation that make us laugh and push the boundaries of our own comfort as far as what is funny—and go on way too long. At one point we thought: how can we make this a show?

FringeArts: How did The Berserker Residents form?

Brad: The Berserker Residents didn’t form. The Berserker Residents have always been. Just like time or love or war. We were forged in the heart of a dying star and we’ll be here long after this feeble experiment called humanity has been snuffed out.

Dave: Brad and Justin wanted to create a show and they knew something was missing. ME!

Justin: In 2006 we came together to make The Jersey Devil for the Fringe Festival of that year. We do divide the labor. An unseen Berserker is Meghan Walsh, who also takes on some of our administrative work.

David Johnson, Bradley K. Wrenn, Justin Jain

David Johnson, Bradley K. Wrenn, Justin Jain

FringeArts: What is the process for creating a show like The Talkback, which depends so much on the audience?

Dave: The Talkback is a lot like stand-up comedy. It cannot be created in a vacuum. The show lives and learns in front of a live audience. The early days of this show were like imagining the worst stand-up comic you have ever seen, bombing alongside two other crappy comics, and none of them know how to leave the stage. Now we have better material, more confidence, and ripped abs.

Brad: It’s maddening rehearsing this thing by ourselves. We have dummy questions on a chair in front of us as we rehearse, and we each take turns wandering into the audience to pretend we are asking questions.

Justin: I love seeing what has stuck since that first showing in 2012. The usher character, the way we fuck with audience members, the dance, the all-bets-are-off logic that the show takes in the middle. All of these things have survived each revision and are essential to the show. Creating an audience-participatory show without an audience in the rehearsal studio is extremely difficult.

(more…)

Rehearsal Photo

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June 2, 2014. The cast of Wild by the Groundswell Theatre Company during a pre-performance walk-though at FringeArts for an excerpted showing at Scratch Night. Photo: Said Johnson.

Putting the Value on the Art of Performing Arts

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It is time to start placing more value on the “art” part of performing arts. When it comes to dance and theater and all the multidisciplinary performance hybrids, the support for performing arts organizations and artists, of all sizes, pales in comparison to the type of funding that art museums, for example, obtain. Art museums, and the like, have the advantage of also being seen as keepers of national treasures, and a housing place of art that is worth so much money that it is deemed priceless. Meanwhile, none of those artworks are alive.

The Card Players, by Cezanne, is valued at $250 million.

This painting is valued at $250 million.

These days, performing arts continually justifies its existence and its value by everything but the art itself. The Metropolitan Museum of Art needs only say, “Look at our Monets.” Performing arts companies—and their boosters—have gotten in the habit of not promoting their art as the most valuable part of their existence, but their arts’ economic impact on the city—which might be part of the reason why artists, and many arts administrators, get paid so little, because it’s always about the economic benefit they bring other people.

How many times have you heard, when an arts festival, or new theater is to open that it’s a good thing because of all the business it brings to the surrounding restaurants and shops? Not to mention a spike in the local real estate market. The justification for a new performing arts project is almost always presented in a way that showcases how it will add value to everything except the art itself. It is a weak argument, as if we were to scared to stand up for ourselves and our work, and that doesn’t help the perception of artsy people being a bunch of weenies.

There is nothing wrong with using the economic benefits argument as a buttress to the bigger picture of what the arts bring to the world, but the primary thing, the primary value that needs to be argued is the art itself. Without the art being the primary and most valuable reason for its existence, once the art becomes secondary, or even tertiary, it stops being able to fight for its own existence. Plus, the economic argument is seriously flawed: though I do believe performing arts benefit a city’s economy in various—though at times hard to quantify—ways, it would be hard to argue that they have a smidgen of the economic impact that a company like Comcast, Microsoft, or Hershey has. The argument needs to frame the performing arts as being the most valuable in the only way it is the most valuable, as art—as an economic booster this is simply not true.

This work of theater is valued at . . . ?

This work of theater is valued at . . . ?

The tricky thing is to find a way that separates the dollar value of a performance with its perceived value. The dollar value of a particular production is basically what people are paid. While a Cezanne could be worth $100 million, because that is what a collector is willing to pay for it, a particular dance or theater work costs anywhere between $2000 and $75,000 because that is what the performers, crew, and creator(s) and venue were paid. If you can make art happen for this amount of money, why not? When what might get you two tiles at the Barnes can get you a new play or dance, why would you ever give more than the minimum to the performing arts? Your impact is clearly and quickly and cheaply realized. Meanwhile, for a prestigious art museum, if you want to play with the big boys and girls, you will have to lay out some serious dough. Or give them a Cezanne. That Cezanne, incidentally, is worth more than any performing arts organization in Philadelphia—and the net worth of all the artists making that work, combined.

So we need to develop a way that the art in the performing arts has an essential value, one that people take for granted in a lifeblood fashion. Even when we speak of “supporting the arts” it comes across as a goodwill benefit. We are not buying tickets because we want to have transformative experience that might reframe our view of the world, but because we are “supporting” some good cause that the arts represent. People do not buy overpriced T-shirts and jeans because they are “supporting” the clothing industry. They are buying those items because they like them. People should be encouraged to buy tickets to a show, because they like and connect to the art. (more…)

Farewell

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A Conceit

Give me your hand

Make room for me
to lead and follow
you
beyond this rage of poetry.

Let others have
the privacy of
touching words
and love of loss
of love.

For me
Give me your hand.

–Maya Angelou (1928–2014)

So Much To Do This Weekend!

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What’s come to our attention:

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27, New Paradise Laboratories

Remember New Paradise Laboratories’ hit performance 27 in the 2012 Fringe Festival? Whether you missed it the first time or are eager for more, 27 returns Thursday, May 29th through Saturday, May 31st at the Painted Bride Arts Center, 230 Vine Street. Members of the “27 Club” of talented musicians who passed away at the age of 27—Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and Jimi Hendrix—explore purgatory and deal with a new arrival to their group. Questions of musical genius, mortality, and the afterlife coalesce in this performance pulsing with music composed by guitar prodigy Alec MacLaughlin. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door, and can be purchased online.

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Kate Aid of Tangle Movement Arts. Photo by Michael Ermilio.

Looking for some circus arts this weekend? The Porch at 30th Street Station has been showcasing a series of dance and physical theater performances this spring and summer. On Saturday, May 31st at 2pm and 4pm, the Porch will come alive with acrobats and aerial dance in Tangle Movement Arts’ free performance of their new and original work Passages. The urban circus-theater will explore daily life in urban Philadelphia and play with the idea of 30th Street Station as a public center for Philadelphia. The rain date is Saturday, June 8th. More information can be found at: www.tangle-arts.com

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Performers in CATCH Takes Philly

After you leave 30th Street Station, head over to The Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N American Street at 8pm on Saturday, May 31st, for the explosion of performance events that is CATCH Takes Philly. Usually confined to Brooklyn, this weekend CATCH joins Philadelphia’s Thirdbird for a night of dance, theater, video, performance, and beer. CATCH Takes Philly will feature Tei Blow, Cara Francis, Meg Foley, Groundswell Theater Company, Cynthia Hopkins, Jaamil Kosoko, No Face Performance Group, Brain Osborne, Matt Romein, and Saúl Ulerio. Tickets are $15 at the door, beer included.

Round off your weekend by attending the culmination of a year of research into voice and movement improvisation by the Leah Stein Dance Company on Sunday, June 1st, at 5pm. The renowned composer Pauline Oliveros developed the deep listening method of incorporating environmental sounds into musical performance, and has been working with the Leah Stein Dance Company to explore the relationship between deep listening and movement. Oliveros, Stein, seven dancers, and seven singers will conduct a free performance, panel discussion, and opportunity for audience participation at The Performance Garage, 1515 Brandywine Street, this Sunday. More information can be found at: www.leahsteindanceco.org.

Leah Stein Dance Company conducing research with Pauline Oliveros.

Leah Stein Dance Company conducing research with Pauline Oliveros

–Miriam Hwang-Carlos

The Happy Video: When dancing gets you imprisoned

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Here’s the “offending” video that got its six dancing Iranian participants sent to jail in Iran; they were then made to repent on national TV. As the  National Iranian American Council stated, “The irony that the Iranian youth were arrested for dancing to a song called ‘Happy’ seems to be lost on the Iranian authorities.”

The Untenable Career of a Successful Philadelphia Theater Artist: Interview with Charlotte Ford

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“The most I’ve ever made in a year is $23,000, and that year was filled with 60-hour weeks of overlapping work, which I was thrilled to have.”

Charlotte Ford. Photo by JJ Tiziou.

Charlotte Ford. Photo by JJ Tiziou.

Philadelphia’s theater scene is better than ever—haven’t you heard? With so many shows, exciting performers, original work, and new theater arts grads flooding the city each year you might mistake it for being healthy. But when so few of its practitioners, on the artistic side of things especially, can eke out a living wage from it, and when even its most successful artists live a tenuous economic existence, it is time to take a serious look at how poor the health of the theater industry is in this city.

Theater artist Charlotte Ford is well known in Philadelphia thanks to her creations like BANG (Live Arts Festival, 2012), a huge audience and critical success, which she also produced and performed in. She has also been a widely seen performer with Pig Iron, the Arden, and Theater Exile, among many others, including some of the areas most innovative “art-maker” types. Over the past five or six years, she has made her living as a theater artist—meaning she stitched together income from grants that support the work she creates herself (also including Flesh and Blood & Fish and Fowl and Chicken), acting gigs, and teaching. Recently, however, she took a look into the future and did not like the view. She has decided to put her theater career on hold, go back to school to get a masters degree in a field that would allow her to earn a decent wage, and pursue a different future.

Recently, we caught up with Charlotte, who shared with us both how she came to make this decision, and how the economics of being a theater artist in Philadelphia just don’t hold up.

FringeArts: Recently you made a big career decision—can you explain what that was and how it came about?

Charlotte Ford: I decided to return to school to get a second masters degree in speech language pathology. The catalyst was the Philadelphia Theatre Initiative [PTI, which now exists under the more general banner of The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage] changing its funding guidelines. I didn’t receive funding for my new project. It seemed likely, given the other artists who had also relied on PTI funding for years and were denied funding, that I may never receive funding from them again. PTI has been the main funding source behind each play I’ve made. I lost the majority of my income for the year, and was scrambling to make enough money to pay rent and eat, and needed a new long term plan. I’ve been able to make a living as an artist without a “day job” for the past five years. Suddenly, I needed a day job. I love teaching, and have an MFA [in theater], which allows me to teach at the college level, but tenure track teaching gigs are about as scarce as foundation funding these days.

FringeArts: What got you interested in speech language therapy?

Charlotte Ford: I started by researching jobs that were in demand. I didn’t want to accrue more student loan debt and then graduate without any job prospects. Most speech language pathology [SLP] programs boast a one-hundred percent hire rate. Every pathologist that I spoke with loved their job. I’m excited to research how theater exercises, which can foster huge personal growth, could help clients who stutter, have selective mutism, or autism. SLP work also seems like a lucrative freelance gig where I could still make theater. If I had to get a day job, I wanted it to be meaningful work.

Charlotte (left) with Sarah Sanford and Lee Etzold in BANG. Photo by Kevin Monko.

Charlotte (left) with Sarah Sanford and Lee Etzold in BANG. Photo by Kevin Monko.

FringeArts: Looking over the few years, can you roughly breakdown where your income came from?

Charlotte Ford: It really depends on the year, but usually, about a third of my work is made of one or two “straight” acting gigs a year at a local regional theater. Half of my year is devoted to creating my own work, and the remainder is filled by teaching gigs—I teach for Pig Iron, at the Arden Theatre, as well as lots of workshops at local high schools and colleges. I had a great experience directing and teaching at Bryn Mawr College.

It can be a tricky juggling act of taking on too may jobs because nothing pays super well, and you need to make up for the weeks of the year when you may have no employment at all, which is difficult financially and emotionally. The most I’ve ever made in a year is $23,000, and that year was filled with sixty-hour weeks of overlapping work, which I was thrilled to have.

With Matt Pfeiffer in Red Light Winter at Theatre Exile.

With Matt Pfeiffer in Red Light Winter at Theatre Exile.

FringeArts: How did you go about organizing your life so as to put this all together?

Charlotte Ford: The busy year—the year I made that miraculous $23,000—all my projects overlapped. So first I was in a show at Theatre Exile while teaching, and then I was creating BANG while teaching and creating a show at Bryn Mawr College, and then rehearsing at the Arden while also creating the show at Bryn Mawr, then simultaneously teaching for Pig Iron and the Arden while performing at the Arden and prepping for BANG, then creating BANG again. So those are mostly sixty-plus-hour weeks. But then I didn’t get any acting gigs for the fall, so I needed to live off of the money I’d made in the winter and spring. That’s part of the problem: weeks of unemployment, while a necessary break after no days off for months, eat into your meager reserve. There’s no paid vacation.

FringeArts: What made you finally see this path as unsustainable?

Charlotte Ford: I was initially excited when I had enough theater work to fill out a year and quit my day job, and I naively believed that if I kept improving and having more success, that I would make more money. I was up for the Pew [grant] in 2013, and made it through four rounds of feedback before not getting it. They read you some of the feedback. One person on the panel said, “She actually thinks she can make a living doing this?” When I didn’t get the funding, after having years of increasingly successful work and still scraping by, I was like, yeah, maybe she’s right. I can’t afford to do this anymore. Maybe I could have worked smarter, and not harder—maybe I could have done a better job of diversifying my funding, or teamed up with universities, or if I was willing to relocate . . . (more…)