Most people think of the Live Arts Festival & Philly Fringe as being an annual 16-day event that begins Labor Day weekend. And while the presentation of contemporary performing arts is still the festival’s primary focus, it has also taken a year-round interest in developing new work from local artists.
The festival’s hub for shepherding this work is the Live Arts Brewery, launched in 2009 as part of a two-year pilot program. LAB supports local artists with fellowship and production residency programs, the latter of which includes the just launched LAB Test series. The series is designed to give artists the opportunity to “test” new material on audiences and discover what does and doesn’t work. LAB Test debuts this spring with public showings of work from the two artists awarded residencies: Philly-based theater artist Geoff Sobelle will present Elephant Room, and Thaddeus Phillips will show Whale Optics in April.
The new push for cultivating local work is an effort to “elevate the quality” of it, according to Nick Stuccio, producing director of the Live Arts and Philly Fringe. LAB Director Craig Peterson adds that although Philly artists often supply the Festival with some of its most creative and satisfying productions, there can be a noticeable disparity between their work and the creations presented by out-of-town artists.
Peterson points out that many of the shows presented by national and international artists arrive at Live Arts after extended tours of one or two years, a period of time that allows the production to be refined and polished. By contrast, the productions presented by Philadelphia artists are almost exclusively world premieres, which in some cases have never been seen by an audience. Peterson says the result is that the local shows can appear “undercooked” in comparison to the more “finessed” out-of-town work. LAB is an attempt to level the playing field by giving artists the time and resources to allow the work to mature before it debuts at the festival.
Sobelle, perhaps best known for his work with the Pig Iron Theatre Company, is creating Elephant Room with collaborators Trey Lyford (who he teamed with on the brilliant festival hit All Wear Bowlers) and Steve Cuiffo. The production—which Sobelle describes as “a surreal magic show a la David Lynch”—focuses on magicians Dennis Diamond, Louie Magic and Daryl Hannah, who have gathered at “a clubhouse just this side of dreamland” called the Elephant Room.
The plan, Sobelle says, is to use the informal March performances to gauge audience reaction. “It’s a great advantage to try this material beforehand in front of a live audience. Especially with magic, you can rehearse and talk about it until you are blue in the face, but the only way you know if it works is to do it in front of people and get their reaction.” Audiences won’t get to see the entire show, but Sobelle promises plenty of “nonstop experimental jaw-dropping magic. We will try a variety of things and hopefully we’ll know then what to put in the final draft of the show.”
Phillips, whose previous festival shows include last year’s hit El Conquistador, says participating in LAB has encouraged him to work on a larger scale. He describes Whale Optics as an ambitious “three-part epic about humpback whale songs, sub-oceanic fiber-optic cables and the ocean.” He says that next month, he and his team of performer/collaborators—which includes acclaimed local actor Lee Ann Etzold and the very hot Makoto Hirano—will be working on the show’s “creative and technical elements” such as the lights, sound, set and music. Putting the unfinished work in front of an audience is an opportunity “to see how [Whale Optics] flies and where it drags,” Phillips says.
If the LAB Test series and the associated programs prove beneficial, Peterson says, the Festival hopes to expand the series to include more artists. “The series isn’t just the artists testing material with an audience; it’s also a test for whether we are serving the development process in appropriate ways,” he says. “There is no doubt artists can benefit from extra time to develop the work. The question is whether this particular format is the most helpful.”
Geoff Sobelle's Elephant Room: March 12 and 19, 7:30pm. Thaddeus Phillips' Whale Optics: April 11 and 17, 7pm; April 23, 2pm. Live Arts Studio. 919 N. Fifth St. livearts-fringe.org
Calendar: March 25-April 1
PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide