Philly Fringe 2017: A Postmortem

Pig Iron at the trough

Another year, and another Philly Fringe Festival has passed. Perhaps it’s worth wondering why so many publications spend so much time and effort covering this festival as opposed to the many, many other arts festivals in this city. It might also be worth wondering what the festival is actually giving back.

Pig Iron's 'A Period of Animate Existence': no one here gets out alive. (Photo by Maria Baranova)

The Philly Fringe has made its mark nationally and internationally as Philadelphia’s flagship arts fest. That’s a big deal. But it’s also a gauge of the health of our arts landscape.

The festival is composed of two separate, unequal entities. First, there’s the Curated Fringe, those shows brought into FringeArts’ protective embrace. These productions receive money and publicity from the organization, and that umbrella helps attract other funders. The second part of the festival is the Independent Fringe, which operates outside the organization's official framework. Participants pay a fee to be included in the festival guide and also benefit from some publicity.

Separate, unequal

The first thing I noticed about this year’s crop of Curated shows (and really, you didn’t even have to attend anything to notice this): it was a great year to be a white producing artist.

Maybe it always is, but — perhaps because we’re living in an era of peak White Grievance — this time that contrast stood out starker than ever. Of this festival's curated entries (overwhelmingly by U.S.-based artists) many offered apolitical or more general themes that could be produced at any time and didn’t address this particularly fraught moment in our nation’s history.

The Second Movement in 'A Period of Animate Existence,' its simplest, was also its strongest. (Photo by Maria Baranova.)
The Second Movement in 'A Period of Animate Existence,' its simplest, was also its strongest. (Photo by Maria Baranova.)

New Paradise Laboratories’ head-scratcher Hello, Blackout; Big Dance Theater’s look at 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys, 17c; Tina Satter/Half Straddle’s broken-family musical Ghost Rings (one of my festival favorites); Geoff Sobelle’s charming HOME; Thaddeus Phillips and Steven Dufala’s delightful bedtime story A Billion Nights on Earth; Michael Kiley’s “voice piece with movement” Close Music for Bodies; Kate McIntosh’s interactive Worktable; Pig Iron Theatre Company’s A Period of Animate Existence, which I’ll address further in a moment: these are eight of the Curated Fringe’s 10 productions. Even Salva Sanchis and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker / Rosas’s A Love Supreme, choreographed to John Coltrane’s seminal album, is a reboot of a 10-year-old piece.

Only one piece, the (by all accounts) excellent new opera We Shall Not Be Moved, focused on African-American life and was created by people of color, and that wasn’t an exclusive FringeArts show; it was co-presented with Opera Philadelphia for the O17 Festival.

But Pig Iron’s show encapsulates several issues I had with the direction taken by this year’s festival.

The Earth dies screaming

I know director Dan Rothenberg and company wanted to make a big environmental statement with this piece, but they didn’t, and the reason they didn’t is because they had too much time, too much money, too many resources, and too much goodwill behind them. Despite the show’s apocalyptic subject matter, it had no sense of urgency. (If you want to read about it and come back, go ahead.)

Rothenberg bristled at a Philadelphia Inquirer article featuring the show’s price tag, $400,000, in its headline. He said in an email he’d prefer to see that number in more context, and some of the context he cited was this: “Each movement [there were five] had its own creation and rehearsal process. We had three cadres of volunteers: the elder choir, the children’s choir, and the community choir.” These groups received travel stipends, and the professional actors and various choirs, adult performers, and musicians negotiated separate payments. He also explained, “I was under the impression it was not legal to pay kids to act,” and admitted, “as a producer, the learning curve was steeeeep.”

Worktable's postindustrial community-art-recycling project forced participants to grapple with their place in our throwaway culture. (Photo by Kate McIntosh.)
Worktable's postindustrial community-art-recycling project forced participants to grapple with their place in our throwaway culture. (Photo by Kate McIntosh.)

This would all be fine if Philadelphia’s major arts grantors weren’t hurling money at Pig Iron, a company with no background in environmental issues, so they could spend four fiscal years tackling the subject and flailing their way up that steeeeep learning curve. And all this — $300,000 from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage alone — for five performances. Perhaps even more telling, aside from the performance itself, there seems to have been no additional environmental component to the piece. 

There must be more effective and creative ways to communicate the direness of our global situation than dressing up the Crossing choir as fancy trilobites. Even McIntosh’s piece, during which ticketholders merely destroy a tchotchke, then reassemble someone else’s destroyed tchotchke, offered a more cogent meditation on the theme, and I’d be shocked if that cost a couple of thousand dollars to produce over the entire span of the Fringe.

Look outside the black box

Are no Indigenous artists already working on this issue? Isn’t anyone confronting environmental racism onstage? What artists are already engaged in examining polar ice melt, rainforest devastation, or carbon emissions? How many smaller, more diverse developing artists could have had their voices heard for that price? Why is Pig Iron, an established company with its own University of the Arts-affiliated training program, given the freedom to fail so spectacularly while excellent local, emerging artists from less privileged backgrounds still struggle to be noticed?

I’m a fan of the company (though in my critic guise I've found they work best when working small) and, of course, they should apply for and accept all the grants they can. This show was merely a symptom, not the disease. 

But if the Curated Fringe is, as it claims, Philadelphia’s home for contemporary performance, presenting "progressive, world-class art that expands the imagination and boldly defies expectation,” why have we come to expect the same few Philadelphia-based (or formerly Philadelphia-based) performers to show up as headliners nearly every year? Why aren't we seeing more Independent Fringe producers working their way up the ranks to the Curated stage just as Pig Iron (and its members who now produce work individually, such as Sobelle), Phillips, and New Paradise Laboratories once did?

These companies have changed Philly's performance lexicon, and the city is better for it. But if FringeArts and Philadelphia's arts funders really want to maintain the vitality of our reputation for boundary-pushing creative and performing arts, they might try checking its pulse in a few new places.

Our readers respond

Tom Bissinger

of Pottstown, pa on October 04, 2017

I concur with your analysis. How much better to spread the $ and invite in some newbies who aren't so new. Seems to me the Fringe is kind of stuffy, oddly curated and, as you point out, actually safe.

As for New Paradise Lab's piece, oi vey. Redefining pretension. Why not distribute an article by Derrida or whoever and let it be?

The other irritating thing about the Fringe is its diffusion. I visited the Fringe in Cape Town its first year, 2014, and all events were held in a government building, which made it so easy to see three shows in one afternoon to evening. And they were good ones. Now it's a one-and-done deal, no matter how they categorize venues.

I miss the crazy improv nature of the early Fringes. Guess you can't go home again, especially when there are big bucks to be made. I will give a shout-out to Home, with the caveat that the invitation for audience and "ringers" onto the stage became the play and took up way too much time, but the ending was gorgeously haunting. And although Toby Zinman adored Fishtown and said it was everything a Fringe show could be— well, no. the physicality aspects were terrific (wish the play had consisted of that) but the script, amusing for millennials? Rapid-fire delivery, which often rendered speech unintelligible, did not float this theatergoer' s boat.

Cameron Kelsall

of Haddon Township , NJ on October 05, 2017

Fishtown is a parody of/homage to noir, where snappy dialogue flies fast and free. The dig on millennials is both unnecessary and inaccurate.

Chuck Holdeman

of Philadelphia, on October 11, 2017

A bit belated, but I did not want to miss mentioning what a brilliant and impactful show I thought A Period of Animate Existence was. It was highly original and also completely chiseled and refined. So along with the big budget came this completely brilliant work of art with all of its parts brilliant, the visual, the sounds, the movement/dance, the story-telling, and the grand conception. What I was left with was not so much environmental concerns, but more the stunning tiny-ness of our humanity and our time on earth, and also the fascination of its details, perhaps most of all the social details of human life, how life works in emotionally enlivened community.

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