Former PW staffer Jeff Barg learns first-hand.
Renzi and I talked about the space’s challenges: It has troublesome acoustics, and if you don’t fill the room up, it can look pretty empty. But the opportunity seemed too good to pass up.
Driven in equal parts by creative vision and a general shortage of viable theater spaces, the Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe have always included out-of-the-way, out-of-the-box performance spaces as part of their draw. First the local stages get snatched up, then the bars, then the churches … and then artists start getting creative.
“There are some big machines that cut granite with water underneath us right now,” says Director Rebecca Wright, walking through the Machine Shop, a loft space above a warehouse on the corner of 21st Street and Washington Avenue. The set for her show Overseers is a work in progress, with random storage ephemera scattered around the room and a few makeshift furniture pieces taking shape in the weeks before the Fringe begins.
“When we first came in here, there was dust 2 inches thick,” she says. “There was a bunch of old rejected carpeting, window dressings and kitchen remodeling equipment. This shelf was piled high with rubber siding and venetian blind samples. It might not look like it, but we’ve probably swept and mopped it seven or eight times now.”
As with so many Fringe shows, Overseers demands a different kind of theatrical experience. The structure is what Wright calls “parallel narrative,” in which both actors and audience are constantly moving around the space. Actors are never offstage—they follow their own storylines from place to place around the room, and audience members can choose to follow one person through the play, to stay in one spot to see what happens there, or to do some combination of the two. Each character is the star of their own story.
“This work couldn’t happen on a regular stage,” says Wright. “We’re interested in playing with the audience relationship in a way that allows them to participate in that relationship in a way that’s more than they could or would or should if they were sitting in a dark room looking at a lit stage. A lot of people find that there’s a lot of payoff for that, and as artists, you find that you’re communicating with someone as opposed to to someone, and that’s exciting and rich.”
“People are more willing to go outside their comfort zone during the Fringe,” says Miriam White, whose show Longing With Language: A Performance Smorgasbord is also using the Machine Shop in the 2011 Fringe. “When you’re in an alternative space, the whole experience is so much more rewarding for the audience.”
But it’s not just artistic vision that drives these alternative spaces in the Fringe—it’s also economics.
“The off-the-beaten-path thing works for us, but we’re really poor,” says Wright. “We don’t have to worry about filling a 200-seat house every night in order to keep the lights on. We’re poor in this liberating way—we’ve got nothing to lose and we can do anything we want, and spaces like this let you do anything you want.”
For many artists, the mundane challenges of finding a space and selling tickets and securing insurance are too much to bear. Despite the ample assistance offered by the Fringe, “I know many artists who aren’t great producers,” says Producing Director Nick Stuccio.
Then there are those of us who have never written a show before and have to start from scratch.
Well, not entirely from scratch—Wars & Whores is an adaptation of Shakespeare, and the man provides an admittedly solid foundation. But there was still a show’s worth of songs to write.
For inspiration, Kamine cited the “Talkin’ William Shakespeare Time Travelin’ Blues,” an absurd number I’d written eight years ago solely for the amusement of my friends and myself. Follow that model, he said, and we could have an entire folk musical.
He gave me the first three song titles—“Make Love From a Horse,” “I Know You All” and the “Talkin’ Richard Two Two-Timin’ Blues,” along with a description of each song’s purpose in the show—and told me to get to work.
When you have a song title like “Make Love From a Horse,” the lyrics write themselves. “I Know You All” adhered verbatim to Shakespeare’s text, so that one came pretty easily as well. But then I went to write another Talkin’ Blues, and the well was dry.
I called Kamine to tell him I was bailing on the project. The Fringe was way too ambitious a goal, right?
He raced over and coached me through the block until I was up and writing again. The rest of the songs followed over the next few months, and stall-outs were blessedly few.
In the meantime, we enlisted local dramaturgy maven Sally Ollove, another college friend from the same old Shakespeare company, to adapt the script. I had the songs covered, and that would be about 50 minutes’ worth of the show. But uncut, Henry IV Part I is a nearly three-and-a-half-hour show. We were aiming for 90 minutes.
So she took first a hatchet, then a scalpel, combining characters, condensing plot points, eliminating wars (no need for the king and his men to go fight in Scotland and Wales now, is there?). Everyone who does Shakespeare cuts him up. But the task of making sure that storylines still flow, and that characters don’t end up giving birth to themselves or delivering messages that they never could have possibly received in the first place, provides a unique challenge to each book adapter.
Kamine and Ollove both work in theater—Kamine in New York, where his credits include the Brick Theater and the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab, and Ollove in Philly, where she’s worked with Philadelphia Theatre Company, Theater Exile and the Arden, among others. But I’ve got a day job. Although I was supported by pros, I worried I was way out of my depth.
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.