The gist and execution of Theatre SKAM's Fashion Machine at FringeArts is simple. Ebullient, talented children find audience members willing to take the shirts off their backs — literally. The kids then deconstruct and reconstruct these and other clothing items in amazing new ways.
Before entry, patrons are given the option of wearing a badge of honor that reads “I’m In,” or another with a picture of a chicken. Choose wisely.
For the performance, 20 Philadelphia kids divide into six teams standing behind six large tables with sewing machines and other stitch witchery. Between them is a long catwalk holding hampers filled with scraps of material and scads of beads. Several flashy, funny SKAM artists perform as the emcees. (If SKAM sounds familiar, it's because they've brought several ingenious participatory theater events from their base in Victoria, British Columbia, to the Philadelphia Fringe Festival in years past.)
There’s no competition here, so this is nothing like Project Runway. But before the evening is over, new outfits will be made and modeled, and people will cheer the burgeoning young fashion designers. In that way, at least, it has the feel of a Bravo Network program. The outcome is like one big Godspell audition: ragtag, colorful, a little glam, a little hippie chic.
Meeting the artists
The show doesn’t offer information about the young designers’ outside lives, but during the performance, their diligence and dedication shines. These children work their asses off once the clock starts ticking on their 50 minutes; they choose a willing victim, size and sketch their new outfit, grab garb elements, and sew.
It was also amusing to get to know some of the equally young participants willing to share their clothes for the good of art and fashion.
Pema Nilsson, 10, is a fourth-grader at the Miquon School who likes safety pins, has purple hair, and digs dancing, ballet, and jazz. Her pal and classmate Juliet Seplow is also 10, loves fashion, and believes that she is a unicorn in disguise. The animation of these children was a marvel, especially after the twosome received their new outfits — Nilsson’s loaded with safety pins — and modeled them on the runway.
Though, upon entering, the audience was given the option of participating, several adults with whom I chatted afterward said they weren’t given any advance notice that they could sacrifice themselves or their clothing in the name of the Fashion Machine. That’s one of the show’s few shortcomings. I also would have brought clothing to deconstruct, no problem.
But communication troubles notwithstanding, I don’t know if “Fashion Machine” is meant to be a confidence builder, but any child who took part in the event came away charged and even more charming than when they started.