The way I feel about the Philadelphia Fringe Festival is the way some people feel about the entire holiday season, football playoffs, or Coachella. I get hyped up months ahead of time, make lists, talk about it ad nauseam to my poor friends, and flip through the catalogue of shows as I count down the days. What can I say? It’s the most wonderful time of the year. I realize that, to the uninitiated, this may sound ridiculous. But let me initiate you and demystify the secrets of the Fringe. Perhaps, just maybe, you’ll come to love it in the same way that I do.
The Philadelphia Fringe Festival is a multi-week festival of theatre, dance, film, music, comedy, and everything in between. FringeArts runs the festival, handles some degree of the publicity, and features shows by up-and-coming artists. Though FringeArts itself is a local theatre, it doesn’t house all of the performances, because there are too many different events for just one theatre to host. (You should check out the FringeArts theater some other time, though, because it’s got a damn good view of the Delaware River, houses the French restaurant La Peg, and puts up plays like the amazing Underground Railroad Game.) During the Fringe, the excitement is spread all over the city, and you can catch shows in traditional theatre spaces and strange places alike. (One piece this year is staged in a local garden, in which the audience will forage for the food that they will eat for dinner at the end of the show. Anything goes!)
That’s the thing about Philly Fringe, and fringe festivals almost everywhere: anyone can stage whatever they want, provided they have enough money for the entrance fee. So you can have a few traditional stagings of Ibsen or Tennessee Williams, but you also have shows staged in haunted houses. Some shows put you in the middle of the action. On any given night you could help solve a mystery, fight zombies, learn to source your food, or wander through Fairmount Park. To some, this seems a little out there. It used to seem that way to me. But the thing is, we’re so used to our encultured norms of what media and performance is supposed to look like, that normal can be boring as well as comforting. When we watch movies, even plays, we often know what sort of a monster lurks around the bend. When you go to weird or experimental theatre, you don’t know what kind of a monster is there, where the monster is hiding, or where the bend is, for that matter. It’s like getting on a roller coaster, and letting the possibilities overwhelm you.
The possibilities thrill me. Last year I got to see a collaboration between the Pig Iron Theatre Company and the band Dr. Dog called The Swamp is On. It wasn’t a concert or a play; it lingered in between. The concert-goers were confused, and so were all the theatre geeks. It was a halfway medium, and the lack of boundaries felt pleasurable. How many nights of your life are you going to encounter something unlike anything you’ve seen before? How many moments do you have in this life where the possible and the impossible shift a few degrees to the right? When you start blurring mediums, you linger in a space of in-betweenness, of liminality. These experiences make me question how I experience the world in general, and how the world experiences me.
Another important thing to know about Fringe: it’s RIFE with Swatties, both former and current. The aforementioned Pig Iron is the brainchild of Swarthmore grads Dito von Reigersberg ’94, Quinn Bauriedel ’94, and Dan Rothenberg ’95. It’s now one of the most visible companies making original work in Philly. Recent grads Michaela Schuchman ’16, Patrick Ross ’15, and Kimaya Diggs ’15 are presenting an original one-woman musical this year called Scarlet Letters, which details all the other nasty things a woman can be branded besides adulteress. Current Swattie Erica Janko ’17 is staging an original dance piece, The Performers, and using her participation in the festival as research for her sociology thesis on the Philadelphia performing arts community. What can I say? Swatties multitask well.
It’s not just students and alumni who present work: current professors get in on the festival as well. Swarthmore professor Alex Torra manages to teach Acting One and Production Ensemble by day and spin theatrical magic of his own come night. This year Alex’s company, Team Sunshine, staged their second installation of a 22-year piece called The Sincerity Project. The project tracks the performers through their lives as time shifts both the performers’ sense of self and their sense of the project. Every other year they reconvene to make a new installment, with the aim of being completely and totally sincere with the audience. So you are in a performance venue watching people who are conditioned to perform while they make every effort to not make what they are doing into a performance. The result is fascinating. The second installment featured naked dance parties, a baby, karaoke, and a bathtub of ice-cold water. It’s one of those pieces that shifts your sense of what theatre is, and who you yourself might be. It just ended its run after extending a few performances due to overwhelming interest.
You don’t have to know anything about theatre or dance or the performance world of Philadelphia to enjoy Fringe. A bunch of the companies presenting work aren’t even from Philly; they just come into town to show pieces, so in all likelihood, you may know the way to the closest el stop better than the performers. It’s a great chance to see new parts of the city along with a new piece of theatre. If you’ve never been to South Philly, catch a show there and check out the Italian market. Or if you’re feeling less adventurous, stick to Center City, see a show at the Wilma, and grab some grub at Reading Terminal Market before you take the train home to the Swarthmore station. Access to Philly is one of the biggest boons to going to Swarthmore College: we experience idyllic (sometimes frenetic) college life here on campus, and also, we can hop on the train, step into the city, and breathe in an experience that’s completely different.
So…the air you breathe may be cleaner on campus, but there’s something to city air all the same. You’re surrounded by hundreds of people you’ve never met. Some of them are grumpy and pushing through the crowds on Market clutching their Dunkins, but some of them are, just as you may be, looking down the avenues towards the rivers and up to the sky. See a Fringe show. Climb up the Ben Franklin Bridge. Watch the world shift, and see if you shift with it. And when you’ve done all that? Head to Franklin Fountain and ask for the hot fudge sundae.
What can I say? It’s the most wonderful time of the year.