Former PW staffer Jeff Barg learns first-hand.
It started on a dare. A totally absurd-sounding dare.
“Henry IV: The Musical,” he said to me.
“Uh, sure,” I replied, assuming that the idea would disappear within minutes.
I’d heard a lot of Ben Kamine’s harebrained schemes years earlier when we were undergrads together at Penn—the kind related from a college freshman at 3 in the morning, the hour when college freshmen believe they have all their most brilliant ideas.
“I’ll direct it,” Kamine said. “You’ll write the music. We’ll do it in the Philly Fringe. It’ll be amazing.”
The idea was preposterous for any number of reasons: I’d barely ever written any music, let alone a musical. He lived in New York, I in Philly. And the Philly Fringe was just eight months away. But Philly’s isn’t just any fringe fest. As long as you find yourself a venue and pay the very nominal entry fees, you can put on a show in the festival. Got a hankering to do a dramatic reading of the 1929 Philadelphia White Pages while dressed up like Angela Lansbury? Perfect. Think someone will come see you dance the hucklebuck in the Waterworks fountain behind the Art Museum? Start sloshing. Feel a need to strip naked and pantomime the collected congressional testimonies of Bob Brady? Great—shows with nudity tend to do especially well in the festival. All of which is to say that most Philadelphians—yourself included—are much, much closer to being able to put on a Fringe show than they think.
I certainly was. And now the Philly Fringe starts this week, with hundreds of shows on tap—including one by my friends and me called Wars & Whores , a musical version of William Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I .
As I got to learn firsthand, getting a show up in the Fringe isn’t just doable—it’s almost too easy.
Philly didn’t invent the idea of a free-for-all fringe. But thanks to Producing Director Nick Stuccio, the Philly Fringe did reclaim the mantle of a noncommercial festival with virtually zero barriers to entry. The festival’s roots actually lie in the hallowed Edinburgh Festival Fringe, a three-week performance extravaganza that wrapped this week, and this year featured some 2,500 actors, musicians, artists and outside-the-box creative types raring to put on a show. Back in 1947, when eight uninvited groups showed up to perform at a particular festival in the Scottish capital, they were denied entry but decided to perform anyway, giving birth to the idea that anyone who wanted to could put on a show—they didn’t have to be “presented” by anyone but themselves. While that renegade spirit still exists in Edinburgh, “it’s a much more commercial venture now,” says Stuccio, who this year went back to Scotland for the fest. “There are producers roaming around looking for that next Blue Man Group.”
But when he went there 16 years ago to produce a show, it occurred to him that Philly had the perfect environment for a similar kind of impromptu collection of works.
“It started out small—it was confined to Old City for a couple of years,” says Craig Peterson, now the director of the Philly Fringe. “As it grew in size, it started to spread out across the city.” Then in 2004, what was then simply called the Philadelphia Fringe Festival split intentionally into two different showcases: the Live Arts Festival, a curated handful of acts drawn mostly from national and international stages, and the Philly Fringe, which is the open-ended madcappery that welcomes any and all.
Though Philly’s a much larger, more diverse city than Edinburgh, with more than three times the population, the nature of the performing arts here lent itself to a similar kind of festival vibe. “Philly audiences are really supportive of artists, and that makes a big difference,” says Peterson. “I’m from New York, and the Fringe there is great, but it doesn’t take over the city because the city’s so big. But Philly’s small enough that it can overwhelm the city. Everybody knows at least a couple people involved in a Fringe show, so it creates this buzz. In a larger city, it flies under the radar of a lot of people. Here you can’t avoid it.”
It’s grown by welcoming all comers who are willing to pay the very nominal fees—all told, after marketing fees and insurance requirements and things, entry is as little as a couple hundred bucks (which can easily be made up at the box office). They’ll put you in the festival guide and even sell your tickets for you (collecting only a minimal commission on seats sold through the Philly Fringe box office). You just have to find a venue to perform in. In many cases, securing that space is the toughest part of putting on a show.
When we started looking for a venue, we thought we had it on lock. Kamine and I had met at Penn in a Shakespeare troupe that always performed in the rooftop lounge of a high-rise dorm there, a blank-slate space with floor-to-ceiling windows 25 stories above West Philadelphia. So we figured we’d use that room for Wars & Whores , and avoid incurring the space rental fees that are often the costliest hurdle for Fringe performers.
But long after most Fringe performers had already secured the plum spots all around the city, the Penn powers that be informed us that letting a Fringe’s worth of audience members into a dorm would be too great a security risk. So we started scrambling.
We had friends with coffee shops and with large West Philadelphia living rooms, but all seemed too tight for what we had in mind. We toured countless church basements and attics and rec rooms, sheepishly telling them that the title of our otherwise family-friendly show included the word “whores.” (“Hey, they’re in the Bible,” responded one.)
As an almost last-ditch effort, I emailed Gina Renzi, who runs the Rotunda at 40th and Walnut. With some of the most diverse, original programming in the city, the Rotunda is one of the most coveted buildings in the entire festival, and I figured it had long ago been booked up. But I knew Renzi from an old PW story I’d written about the Rotunda back in 2005, so I figured it was worth a long shot.
I wasn’t totally wrong: The back room where the Rotunda weekly hosts bands, artists, actors and performers of every stripe was booked solid. But by some miracle, the Rotunda’s front sanctuary—which is typically closed to the public, but has hosted Live Arts and Fringe shows every year since 2004—wasn’t yet claimed.
I knew the room well. A 5,000-square-foot behemoth, this sanctuary of the former First Church of Christ Scientist was the focus of that 2005 PW story. In writing about a radically ambitious art/architecture installation that was planned for the space (but which never came to pass), I’d fallen in love with this building and its majestic domed roof, its grand organ pipes, its peeling white paint and its rough hardwood floors—all classic urban decay, a disused relic hidden in plain sight.
It can be a daunting task deciding what to see from among the nearly 200 productions at this year’s Live Arts Festival & Philly Fringe. To help you out, we’re offering our recommendations for shows that you should put at the top of your must-see list.