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My favorite part of the Fringe is artists telling risky, fiercely personal stories, like singer, actor, and cabaret veteran Hannah Parke, a UArts grad living with epilepsy. Her new solo show, Birth. Sparkle. Death., directed by Shamus, gets its debut in the Cannonball Festival hub of the Philly Fringe.
Parke conjures an hour of monologue, video projections, and original song (repeatedly proving her bone fide "belt") to share her journey with a devastating diagnosis in her mid-20s. The artist chronicles her extraordinary resilience (taking to the stage a mere month after a torturous brain surgery), but it's hard to know if this is also a bigger critique of punishing industry norms that even some non-disabled artists can barely survive. Should we celebrate Parke's fortitude? Or should we revolt against an industry with no regard for our physical and mental health?
An impressive voice
The artist does skewer her own callow youth, telling lies in restaurants to get her kicks as an actor. She satirizes industry expectations and takes swipes at Philly theater institutions, often by name. Though the topic is disability and not body-size discrimination (though these two are by no means mutually exclusive), Parke's show reminds me of Lexi Schreiber's 2022 Fitting In: Tales of the Fat Ingénue. Both are women artists with a big voice (literally and figuratively) going their own way onstage and naming names in a body that is decidedly, often painfully, outside the norm.
Parke charts the stages of her own disability journey, including the onset of her symptoms, her early state of denial (including substance abuse), grappling with the reproductive ramifications of her life-saving treatment, pleas to a higher power, and ultimate acceptance. With vivid sensory language, she brings her symptoms and her surgeries to disturbing life (know before you go: the show includes graphic real-life medical imaging and photos).
Video projections starring Parke in a variety of wigs and Philly settings, including parks, stoops, and the Broad Street Line, are stylish but a bit repetitive. The tinny, cheesy DIY beats under her songs—which range from pleading to primal scream—have their own charm, but it would be exciting to hear a more developed sound in the future, matching the quality of Parke's voice, and better transitions between the monologues and the music. I hope Parke continues to develop and present this piece, which is an impressive debut given the constraints of Fidget Space.
Theater as endurance sport
This Mascher Street venue will host dozens of performances this month in the Cannonball Festival, a major hub of the Fringe. So it's apparent that large swathes of the Philly Fringe continue to be an endurance sport, accessible to only the most physically able patrons (I first wrote about this in 2018, and it seems nothing has changed).
Fidget audiences must walk up six flights of stairs, and as I entered the space on Wednesday evening, I was dismayed to realize that a tiny desktop fan and some free seltzer were the only apparent cooling elements in the room as temperatures outside hit the mid-90s, and audience members were required to wear masks. I had to ask staffers to turn on another fan (which they didn't point at the audience). Another fan sat idle for the whole performance. I felt sick by the curtain call (the meds for my own illness mean I’m unable to regulate my temperature in the heat). Audience members paid $25 to perch on a weird assortment of chairs, stools, and droopy futons that offer poor sightlines and even worse comfort. There was also an angry disruption in the audience during the show, apparently due to a water leak.
This is all pretty ironic in a piece about disability, which Parke mentions laughingly at the top of the show. The MAAS Building, which is also hosting dozens of Cannonball shows, has similar accessibility and comfort issues. But Fidget Space (not easy to get to by car or SEPTA) is beyond the pale, even in the edgy, low-tech spirit of the Fringe. I feel for the stellar lineup of artists who must haul their audiences up there, especially in a heat wave (and early September, it seems, is pretty much always a heat wave). I feel for the dedicated staffers sweltering through it. And I feel for the many, many people who will never get to fully experience our Fringe Festivals because they can’t even get in the door or endure the conditions in the room—even when the show itself is about disability.
What can we do?
Why are our independent theater artists (and audiences) chronically exiled to crumbling, roasting rooms atop stairs that leave almost everyone puffing and sweating—conditions a journalist colleague described to me as outright hostile?
What is the solution? Maybe we need more Fringe buy-in from regional theaters—could they affordably open their doors to more independent artists, even if it’s a lobby, classroom, or rehearsal space? Could we get more libraries and museums in the mix? Could Fringe organizers who hope we’ll attend hundreds of performances at ever-steeper prices show more consideration to the audience, starting with climate control and decent seating? I don’t raise questions about accessibility and hospitality to criticize our artists. I ask because I want more people to be able to experience our artists’ work.
In her recent BSR piece, veteran Fringe performer Sarah Knittel voiced qualms about the sheer number of Cannonball shows, in terms of the artists’ experience. But Cannonball needs to ask some hard questions about the audience experience, too. Artists like Parke deserve it.
What, When, Where
Birth. Sparkle. Death. By Hannah Parke, directed by Shamus. $25. Through September 18, 2023, at Fidget Space, 1714 N. Mascher Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or phillyfringe.org.
Fidget Space is accessible only by several flights of stairs.
Masks are required for this show.
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