Safe­ty on the brain 

Safe­ty con­cerns at the Philly Fringe: does pay­ing for a list­ing make it art?

Biofeedback: is it an art? (Illustration by Hannah Kaplan, for Broad Street Review.)
Biofeedback: is it an art? (Illustration by Hannah Kaplan, for Broad Street Review.)

FringeArts (and before that, Live Arts, and before that, the Philly Fringe Festival) has always been a home for the weird and wild, with performance and performers often residing on the outskirts of genre or even definition. But one entry in this year’s independent Fringe raises questions about the safety of the 17-day event’s freewheeling acceptance policy.

Underwhelmed and uneasy

The Philadelphia Fringe Festival is separated into two parts: the curated Fringe, featuring artists and events chosen and subsidized by FringeArts, the presenting organization; and everyone else. Gary Ames’s non-curated event listing for Biofeedback: Brainwave Relaxation caught the eye of BSR writer Christina Anthony, who reviewed the experience last month.

Anthony was left feeling underwhelmed by the licensed psychologist’s methods, but more important and alarming, she left feeling uneasy. “It seemed sketchy,” she said. “The whole office was in his house, and being a woman, I didn’t like being alone in his home.” To make matters worse, a black washcloth was placed over her eyes throughout the session.

Giving (biofeed)back

Biofeedback and neurofeedback are favored by cognitive-behavioral therapists as a means of training the brain to respond to the body’s reactions. There are several methods of treatment, including electroencephalograph sensors (used during Ames’s event), all designed to measure a person’s response to certain stimuli. Ames, 70, a licensed therapist, has used the modality in his practice for more than a decade. After attending a few events with a “Fringe fanatic” friend, he explained in an interview, he decided “I loved the Fringe so much I wanted to give back.”

Ames claims his work is good for artists (“And I thought this might be fun,” he added). The 2019 Fringe Festival page touting his event reads biofeedback will open the bridge “between conscious and subconscious realms. Let creativity and talent arise.” So why shouldn’t Fringe patrons try it?

Perhaps because sending unwitting ticket-buyers alone to someone’s suburban home for a therapeutic session could result in major problems—for Ames, for the Fringe, and for the “audience.” By Ames’s own admission, one patron who lives with PTSD was “deeply troubled” by the session. However, that didn’t stop Ames from leaving the premises at one point during his advertised two-day Fringe time-slot to play golf, while his intern, 23-year-old Noah St. Amant, took over. St. Amant, a recent St. Joe’s grad, is neither a therapist nor a certified biofeedback practitioner, and was not listed in the Fringe guide as a participant.

$350 and you’re in?

In the 22 years since the Philadelphia Fringe Festival’s founding, it has experienced profound changes—in name, location, length, and bureaucracy. But amongst all those changes, the fest’s decentralization, while generally a positive development, cannot leave patron safety to chance. As FringeArts marketing and communications director Claire Frisbie explained, “Anyone can participate as long as they pay the fee,” which is generally $350.

Venues are also required to purchase liability insurance, which Ames says he did; a good thing, because by his count—the Fringe does not release ticket sales information—he sold tickets to about 10 Fringe-goers. Frisbie also said the Fringe “checks that the venues are real and reaches out about [ADA] accessibility,” but that there was no site visit to Ames’s property.

It’s worth noting that the Free Fringe, formed this year in response to the growing costs, bureaucracy, and crowded field of the Fringe Festival under the auspices of FringeArts, also listed Ames’s event in its guide, under the title Solo Journey Deep within Your Mind. But the Free Fringe required neither insurance nor much other verification. So, that’s at least one mark in favor of FringeArts’s relative stringency. But clearly, the organization can and should do better.

No new clients

Ames said none of his Fringe visitors signed up for further sessions (10-20 are recommended for best results with conditions ranging from anxiety to urinary incontinence), and judging from Anthony’s response, it’s no wonder. “I didn’t fully understand what he was talking about,” she said, “but I asked questions and he didn’t give me any answers. It didn’t seem like he had any knowledge about what he was doing.”

To be clear, poor performance is no crime, and certification is not required to perform biofeedback. Nobody was assaulted, and Ames’ intentions—he’s enthusiastic to spread the word about this particular modality—seem good even if his execution was sloppy.

Safe at home

Many Fringe Festival shows over the years have welcomed audiences into private homes in the city—often with the address not revealed until after you’ve purchased the tickets. But these are still typically billed as a collective experience alongside other ticket-holders who make their way into the residence alongside you.

But for FringeArts to send unsuspecting ticket-buyers to someone’s suburban house for an ill-defined solo experience without checking the host’s background, knowing who will be on-site, or visiting to make sure it’s an appropriate space (and not, say, a basement dungeon) is lazy at best and utterly irresponsible at worst. And hey, Free Fringe, I hope you’re also taking note.

According to the organization’s mission statement, “FringeArts presents world-class, contemporary performing arts that challenge convention and inspire new ways of thinking.” It’s a stretch to call what Ames is doing “contemporary performing arts,” but sure, I’ll buy the rest of it. I just hope that if the Fringe plans to continue expanding its definition of what qualifies as art, its safety standard will follow.

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