Playing with silence

Philly Fringe 2019: The Back Pack presents Wear and Tear’

2 minute read
Who needs words? Not The Back Pack. (Photo by Steve Rogers.)
Who needs words? Not The Back Pack. (Photo by Steve Rogers.)

As I skimmed through the Fringe 2019 guide with a highlighter, Wear and Tear, from The Back Pack (an Austin-based performance troupe), stood out for its interdisciplinary, non-verbal comedy style. As an avid fan of live comedy, I have learned that performers who play with silence are often the most confident, patient, and engaging. While mainstream entertainment is typically inundated with words, this show provided a refreshing departure from dialogue-centric shows.

Packing it in

The Back Pack is a physical comedy troupe with four members who wear large pads of drawing paper on their chests, in the style of handmade backpacks worn in reverse. They do not speak for the entire hour-long show, allowing the plot of their stories to develop only through ripping pages off of their backpacks to reveal new drawings. Their whimsical non-spoken sketch comedy is coupled with movement and dance, often incorporating clowning, puppetry, shadows, and animation.

This performance morphed into different forms throughout the runtime, moving from a scene in a play to a choreographed dance to shadow puppet theater. I found myself smiling throughout the show in a new and unfamiliar way, as there was something sweet about the group’s movements, content, and teamwork. At moments, watching the show felt meditative, challenging my ability to tap into deeper ways of expression without words.

Synergy and commitment

Because the show had zero spoken dialogue, the actors compensated with heightened facial expressions and movements. There were several dance pieces performed to bangers by M.I.A., Imogen Heap, and Mika. The group demonstrated a key awareness of the importance of pacing in a show: each dance number spiked the energy following more heartfelt sketches.

The Back Pack has a synergy that is admirable in its scope and quality, and, most impressive, its commitment. This performance format would never work without the total commitment of each member. The audience, if nothing else, has to respect the elaborate choreography and wit onstage.

This creative, clever, and fresh show proves that you don’t need a big budget or fancy costumes to tell stories with depth and ingenuity. A standout scene had two members acting as squirrels setting the scene at a park, and then the remaining two members appeared and started playing chess. The scene developed into each member acting as a specific chess piece, moving along the board accompanied by dark lighting and music.

Wear and Tear stands apart from anything I’ve seen before: an inspiring statement that there are still art forms that remain undiscovered. The Back Pack’s imaginative style has been described as a “live-action cartoon and pure entertainment that will leave you with a smile on your face and a glow in your heart.” The hype is real. If you get the chance, run, don’t walk, to the next show.

What, When, Where

Wear and Tear. By The Back Pack. Through September 8, 2019, at PHIT Comedy at the Adrienne’s Second Stage, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or

The Adrienne is an ADA-compliant venue.

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