Former PW staffer Jeff Barg learns first-hand.
Turns out that the Philly Fringe is the one time each year when lots of closet artists unleash the beast … or at least they try to.
Cymande Lewis, whose one-woman show My Name Is Sam Johnson is appearing at the Arts Garage, has a day job. Fringe Director Craig Peterson clearly remembers first meeting her.
“When she came in to sign up, she said, ‘I’ve never done a show before! I’m terrified! I’m gonna do it!’” he recounts breathlessly. “That was the epitome of the Fringe to me.”
Her story—and mine, it turns out—is not uncommon.
“A lot of people who put on shows are people who have a love for the performing arts, but have no context for doing so,” says Peterson. “They have a day job, but they love doing comedy or theater. It becomes a time when people who maybe did college theater can finally pursue it. Or that band or musician who doesn’t perform regularly can rent out a bar. It sounds a little hokey, but it’s kind of a make-my-dream-come-true kind of thing. There are a substantial number of people who really just want to tell a story.”
Jay Nachman fits the bill perfectly. By day he works PR for the National Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall. In the Philly Fringe, he gets to let a different side out.
“I’ve always done creative things—writing, taking acting classes—and the Fringe provides a venue where I can put these creative talents out there in a way I can’t do at my job,” Nachman says. “It’s a desire to express myself. It’s a little more engaging than just writing about it. I like getting the immediacy of an audience response.”
His one-man show My Dad Is Now Ready for His Sponge Bath is taking advantage of another of the city’s unique venues—Grasso’s Magic Theater at Front and Callowhill. The show, which sprung from Nachman’s father’s battle with lung cancer, takes a surprisingly humorous look at an otherwise very unfunny topic. He has performed previously in the D.C. and Wilmington, Del., fringes, along with New York’s Emerging Artists Theatre. But the performance side of Nachman remains a side project—at least until it isn’t anymore.
“Does everybody dream of being a rock star? Yeah. Do I dream of doing this on Broadway? Yeah, sure,” he says. “But it is what it is. I’m just happy about any audience that comes to see it. For me, it’s rewarding enough when people tell me that they get something out of the show.”
It’s a sentiment that Fringe organizers see time and again in their artists.
“I think people are really committed to the understanding that this is an endeavor they’re taking on for whatever reason is important to them,” says Peterson. “Doing shows in the framework of a festival makes people feel a little less isolated. They aren’t producing their work in a bubble.”
Stuccio sums it up even more succinctly: “There are all kinds of people in this world,” he says. “Some just look at their circumstances and say, ‘I can do this.’”
It wasn’t until two-thirds of the songs were written that I actually told myself, “I can do this.” By the time we had 13 songs in the bag, and a band to play them and a cast to sing them, the show started to feel real. Before we knew it, rehearsals had commenced, we were fundraising to cover expenses, we were blitzing local media in the grand scramble for air amid a crush of shows all happening in the same few-week span, and as we started to publicize the show, people actually started buying tickets.
Now we’re just over a week away from a four-show run in the Rotunda sanctuary.
As much as we were told about the hurdles—it’s tough to find space, you have to really promote yourself, how the hell are you going to write a musical—very little of it has felt like a heavy lift.
Maybe it’s deceptively easy work. Maybe we got really lucky.
Or maybe, when it’s not a job, but a passion, even the most difficult pieces feel like a hell of a lot of fun.
Wars & Whores: Fri., Sept. 9, 7pm; Sat., Sept. 10, 2pm and 7pm; Sun., Sept. 11, 2pm. $5-$10. Rotunda, 4014 Walnut St. 215.413.1318 or livearts-fringe.org
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.