Every year since my children were still small enough to be considered children, I’ve compiled a list of family-friendly Philadelphia Fringe Festival offerings. It started, like most worthwhile efforts, out of necessity, and for about a decade has proved — to this mother, at least — a pretty useful invention.
I probably don’t need to convince you, but if you’re at all dubious about the benefits of long-term Fringing en famille, know this: my son, a hip-hop obsessed, all-night-FaceTiming, selfie-Snapchatting, almost-licensed driver, begged me to take him with me again this year to see some Fringe shows, any Fringe shows. Sure, a few of them fall on school nights, but I mean, would you say no?
Works in the Fringe often upend expectations and prove that art can happen anywhere, in almost any form. So, here’s your chance to say — using improv parlance — “yes, and…” to your child/ren’s inherent sense of curiosity while starting a new family tradition in the bargain.
Kids love tricksters — they appear in nearly every culture, from Anansi the spider to that pigeon who should definitely not drive the bus — and 2017’s Fringe offers plenty.
There’s The Fren Banklin Experience, which brings an unreliable colonial narrator into your home (in any Philadelphia neighborhood) to tell you about all the wondrous fictional historical events that happened there. Or, if you prefer to get even closer to your Fringing, let it get into your head at Frank Perri's Mesmerized, billed as a “hypnosis comedy show.” Since the performance requires audience participation, this is a great spot to bring the young and all their excess energy so you can see it channeled toward a worthwhile cause: your entertainment.
Robert Malissa's A Case for Magic offers a more traditional experience suited for our times. It’s a comedic appreciation of swindling and deception. If anything can explain our state of civic affairs in a way children can understand, it’s sleight of hand.
Traditional (and untraditional) narratives
Some children just love a good story, and both the official curated Fringe and Neighborhood Fringe are happy to tell tales. The curated Fringe — those shows hand-picked and financed by FringeArts — brings all-ages performances by two longtime favorites: Thaddeus Phillips and Pig Iron Theatre Company.
I’ve been delighted by Phillips’s creativity and innovation since he first performed The Tempest in a kiddie pool many years ago. Here, he teams with another Fringe veteran, Obie-winning designer Steven Dufala, and composer Juan Gabriel Turbay for A Billion Nights on Earth, the tale of a stuffed whale and the interdimensional journey of a father and son, played by a real father and son.
Similarly fantastical, but on a much larger scale, there’s Pig Iron’s A Period of Animate Existence. This production also features a composer (Troy Herrion) and a Tony-winning designer (Mimi Lien), plus the members of Pig Iron, several area choirs, and a total of 80 performers. What’s it about? Oh, the extinction of 50 percent of our species. At 110 minutes, this might be more suitable for older kids (Phillips’s piece, by contrast, clocks in at a swift 55 minutes). But it sure promises to be a spectacular event.
Of course, independent companies also show up ready to share their own adventures. The multicultural team behind Dragon’s Eye Theatre created Follow Me Through the Gates, a site-specific interactive romp about friendship through the Free Library’s Independence branch, for ages 5 to 10. Princeton, New Jersey’s A Moment for Music refashions the story of Hansel and Gretel into Lost in the Woods, a cautionary tale for our electronic times. Featuring tunes by classically trained singer/songwriter Jessica Renfro, there’s also some spinach baked into that gingerbread: its ulterior motive is to sneak classical and jazz music into young people’s lives.
Perhaps not surprisingly, area movement-training programs lead the family-friendly dance slate. The Rock School for Dance Education presents its annual Fringe showcase of students performing staples and new additions to the repertoire. This year, it’s The Edge of the Rock, which will be about the closest classical purists and their tutu’d, pointe-toed tinies will come to finding traditional ballet at the edgy festival.
Another dance school, Movemakers, teaches hip-hop styles — including breakdancing and funk, from beginner to advanced levels — and shows them off in its all-ages showcase, i.d.
While those shows cover the possibilities of floor work, Tangle Movement Arts takes charge of the air, with dancers swinging from trapezes and aerial silks in Life Lines. And, yes, you can sign your child up for classes at any of these schools.
LGBTQ+ Family and Friends
Two shows stand out for their attention to little (and big) people in the LGBTQ+ community. ReNew Theatre Company’s Aunty Ben (ages 8 and up) visits a little girl and her beloved Uncle Ben, who also happens to be a drag queen. Aside from being a darling premise, it’s a great warmup for your child's first Martha Graham Cracker performance.
The extra fidgety might also enjoy Wesley Flash’s Pride Parade! It's a 120-minute “walking tour of queer and trans history in the Philadelphia gayborhood.” There will be dancing, singing, and shouting, and no doubt plenty of applause from passersby.
Finally, these last two shows aren’t really shows but rather events at which you can stay or go, and they might be just the thing for those with (or without) sensory or attention issues. Kate McIntosh’s curated Fringe show Worktable offers a special Worktable for Children schedule, during which young Bob or Barbara the Builders can strap on a pair of safety goggles and hammer and build or destroy the items provided, as the mood suits them.
Last, but definitely not least, there’s #DogsofFringeArts. And yes, it’s just a happy hour at Fringe headquarters featuring the organization’s canine cohort, but anyone who says dogs aren’t the finest, purest purveyors of performance art hasn’t spent enough time around them. Here’s your chance.
Click the show links for ticket information. Also, see our other Philly Fringe previews: A Guide to Mental Health Onstage, Resistance in the Theater, Theater classics reimagined, and Ill-advised theatergoing.