Philadelphia’s festival of avant-garde performing arts returns
By TARA NURIN • For the Courier-Post • September 3, 2010
When you’re a self-described “couple of theater kids from New Jersey,” the potential to attract the attention and eyeballs of a Philadelphia audience — any Philadelphia audience — can be hailed as a significant coup.
So the pressure’s on for a tiny amateur group of producers and actors, plus a writer-director, who have spent the past few months in a Barrington basement fastidiously rehearsing their self-written and produced play, “Prudence,” and worrying about who, if anyone, will show up to appreciate its world premiere tonight at the 13th annual Philly Fringe Festival.
Tonight’s performance of “Prudence,” a dark psychological comedy in three acts, forces the mostly 20-somethings who comprise the Ocelot on a Leash Theater Co. into some monumental and nerve-wracking “firsts.”
It marks the first time the troupe will perform in a venue anywhere near the size of the theater they’re renting for the festival and it’s the first time writer-director Mary Ellen Cosablon is staging a full-length play. But this cadre, consisting of Cosaboon, a professional fundraiser from Barrington; producer Wes Senza, a recent law school graduate from Collingswood; and actors Marcus Roorda, a Cherry Hill civil engineer, Gina Martinelli, a chemist from Collingswood and Kellie Cooper, a veterinary assistant who lives in Sicklerville, say their participation in the professionally produced 16-day festival that runs tonight through Sept. 18 is teaching them strategic business skills they wouldn’t have learned by cowering within comfort zones of Haddonfield and Voorhees venues.
“You get to reach so many more people when you’re part of Fringe,” says Cosablon. “It’s not just the potential for bigger audiences and more exposure through the festival’s marketing operation. I’ve used their tools to learn how to write targeted press releases and I’ve asked everyone in the troupe to send them to organizations they’re part of.”
Across the Philadelphia region, artists involved in 250 different Fringe performances are undergoing similar preparation and learning curves and probably similar nerves. The less formal companion to the concurrent Live Arts Festival, Philly Fringe invites participation from anyone who has a presentation to put forth and the money to stage it. Because Live Arts shows are selected and programmed by curators, they’re culled from the world’s most dynamic, avant-garde and contemporary theatrical offerings, while Fringe, although operated by the same organization, serves as a popular showcase for mostly regional — and often relatively inexperienced — talent.
One such freshman troupe consists of a dozen Rowan University students, plus an alum or two. The humor that guides their improv comedy routines travels along a familiar path for regional jokes — New Jersey.
“So we have Bill and Sookie, these characters from (the HBO drama series) “True Blood,’ ending up in Seaside Heights. And they can read minds,” says Steve Grande, whose Second Place Champions puts on an act called “Greetings from New Jersey! A Comedy about Growing Up and Living in the Great “Garden State!’ ”
“They run into the guys from the “Jersey Shore’ and what do they hear when they get to Snooki? Nothing! They get a flatline. She’s got nothing on the brain.”
References to Jersey’s pop culture, politics and prurient interests are sure to get laughs from audience members who cross the bridge into the city to attend the two shows. But Grande promises his rising comedians will succeed in tickling the funny bones of non-Jersey participants.
This is critical, say festival veterans, because knowing the Fringe audience can be key to attracting an audience at all.
Greg Campbell, whose professional Philadelphia-based Luna Theater Co. is taking part in its fourth Fringe this year, says he expects his 12 performances of “Thom Pain (based on Nothing)” to sell out the Upstairs at the Adrienne space in part because the internationally acclaimed show that first debuted at the seminal Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland is “perfect” for this festival.
“It’s quirky and dark and intelligent. It’s what people at Fringe want to see,” says the director, who lives in Wenonah.
Although it’s rare for a professional company to enter Fringe, Campbell held onto the rights to the one-man script for four years before deciding he’d finally found the right actor to make now the time and Fringe the place to stage its Philadelphia premiere.
While the critically lauded “Thom Pain” is expected to be a seat-filler, staging a production for Fringe can be risky for lesser-known works, which are typically so low budget they tend to use inexpensive yet creative techniques such as lighting the stage with candles, bike lights and flashlights. While troupes benefit from the buzz the festival generates, they risk losing money because they have to compete with about 250 other Fringe performances and 17 Live Arts pieces.
Conversely, Live Arts pieces don’t need to rely on a core of loyal supporters and, thus, aren’t nearly as risky to mount. The works selected for inclusion into Live Arts are, as Stuccio puts it, “the world’s best and brightest in theater.”
This year, he’s especially excited about “Bang on a Can,” a 10-hour live marathon of neo-classical music played by its most notable pioneers; “Dance,” a reconceptualized meta-performance of the 1979 movement choreographed by Lucinda Childs and scored by Philip Glass; and “Cedric Andrieux,” a self-titled performance that has the famed dancer narrating his life through his body and words and sharing stories of his decade dancing under a father of modern dance, Merce Cunningham.
Stuccio’s picks are staging at World Cafe Live, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts and at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, three of the city’s most esteemed venues for music and the fine arts, where arts patrons will spend upwards of $30 on a ticket.
Far from those marqueed halls is where Cosablon and her coterie of experimental Fringe artists will be setting their stages and selling tickets for a fraction of Live Arts prices. Cosablon’s actors, for their part, will be reciting their lines in the 125-seat Rotunda in West Philadelphia with just a green dropcloth and a park bench standing in for a park scene.
For their simple production, the soft-spoken and newly pregnant thespian has just one wish: “I hope people come to see it.”