September is right around the corner, which means it’s time for the annual performing arts extravaganza that is the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe.
Founded in 1997 as Philly Fringe, the festival is comprised of two distinct components. The 14 shows at this year’s Philadelphia Live Arts Festival have been curated by the festival’s co-founder and producing artistic director Nick Stuccio; the Philly Fringe, conversely, is an open participation event. All in all, the 2012 lineup features more than 650 performances from approximately 140 artists in a variety of disciplines, including theater, dance, improvisational comedy, music, visual art, film and hybrid work that the festival lists in its interdisciplinary category. This year, it’s starting a few days later than the usual Labor Day weekend kick-off, but the festival is still spanning a full 16 days—from Friday, Sept. 7, to Saturday, Sept. 22—with several productions running beyond the official closing date.
In addition to experiencing the latest productions from top-tier local, national and international talent, Live Arts also gives attendees the rare opportunity to discuss the artists’ work in-depth. Many of Philadelphia’s performing arts companies already give their audiences a chance to discuss themes and topics in their stagings, but Live Arts offers the opportunity to explore a topic from the myriad perspectives found in different shows. This year, Live Arts’ underpublicized but intellectually invigorating Festival Plus program is hosting a free panel discussion with the creators of three productions that focus on women and identity. Moderated by Linda Caruso Haviland, the founder and director of the dance program at Bryn Mawr University, “Body Politics in Arts and Culture Today” will take place on Sun., Sept. 16, at 2 p.m. on the Arcadia Stage at Arden Theatre Company, located at 40 N. Second St.
The three works to be explored—which, despite their shared themes, were developed separately from each other—include the critically acclaimed N.Y.C. company Elevator Repair Service’s work-in-progress, Arguendo (of which a sizable excerpt will be presented on the Arden’s Arcadia Stage an hour before the panel discussion); playwright-director Young Jean Lee’s provocative Untitled Feminist Show, and Bang by Philadelphia theater artist Charlotte Ford. ERS founder John Collins, Lee and Ford will all take part in the “Body Politics” conversation.
Collins’ ERS is best known for Gatz, its spectacular stage rendering of The Great Gatsby, but Arguendo concerns the 1991 Supreme Court case of Barnes v. Glen Theatre. Created as a docu-drama crafted from court transcripts, the landmark Barnes v. Glen Theatre case was brought by a group of go-go dancers who were denied permission to perform in N.Y.C. strip joints. A trial with far-reaching First Amendment implications related to free speech, its transcripts, Collins said, provided unique insight into the reasoning of the nine court justices as they debated whether dancing naked in a strip club is an exercise of artistic expression or a criminal act of public lewdness. Arguendo is not intended to render a moral judgment or advocate any judicial opinion, according to Collins; instead, Elevator Repair Service’s agenda is to shed light on the court’s process, which doesn’t determine law, but interprets it. That said, the case raises important questions about the definition of performance versus conduct and, perhaps more troubling, suggests that certain jurists on the Supreme Court believe the Constitution has nothing to say when it comes to the judicial system’s legislating of morality.
Lee, who is represented with her 2012 work Untitled Feminist Show (running Sept. 19-21 at 480 S. Broad St.), is—like Elevator Repair Service—one of the leading voices in New York’s alternative theater scene and one of the most unpredictable artists working in America today. A co-presentation with the University of the Arts, Untitled is described by Lee as representing “a small part of a utopian feminist experience.” Her first play without words is structured as a series of rituals. Lee, who also directs, describes the show as her most accessible. All the performers are nude, which Lee says is to discourage the audience from making assumptions about the characters’ identities based on their clothing. “For me, fluidity of identity is an acknowledgement that we can’t shove people into categories,” she tells PW. “If you are assigned the female gender at birth, then you grow up being constantly made to feel inadequate, inferior to men and ashamed of your body and appearance.” Although five of the six characters represent themselves as female, Lee says that “all the performers represent people who don’t suffer from feelings of inferiority and shame. They take on whatever gendered identities they want without feeling limited by defined gender roles.”
Created by Ford, in collaboration with talented and charismatic Philly performers Lee Etzold and Sarah Sanford, the Emmanuelle Delpech-directed Bang (playing Sept. 4-12 at 20 N. American St.) is a “comedic-clown-theater-spectacular” that also uses nudity as an instrumental to explore gender assumptions. Ford says she is interested in whether “a woman can be sexy and funny at the same time” or if these dual character traits extend only to men. She hopes that despite being naked, the audience will find the characters amusing, but regardless, she says that performing the show has been a liberating experience. “When I’m naked and being funny, I’m not worried about being alluring,” Ford confides. “Ultimately, I’m hoping to create a female sexuality on stage that is more about what women desire instead of being an object of desire.”
Arguendo, Untitled Feminist Show and Bang could easily be enjoyed on their own. Stuccio’s hope, however, is that events like the panel discussions not only allow audiences to delve more deeply into how different artists approach a particular topic, but hopefully will lead to future collaborations between artists inside Philadelphia and those who are bringing work from beyond the city’s boundaries.
SEE THE SHOWS:
Arguendo: Sept. 16, 1pm. Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. Second St.
Untitled Feminist Show: Sept. 19-21. Suzanne Roberts Theatre,
480 S. Broad St. Bang: Sept. 4-12. Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St. livearts-fringe.org