Chained to a bathtub on the floor, Gunnar Montana balances an angle grinder on his groin and begins to free himself from the shackle, his cotton-candy blue European mullet glowing in a shower of sparks. Jessica Daley observes her choreographer with concern, unsure of how she’ll manage this power-tool feat into the middle of her dance solo.
“I just thought it’d be cooler if the sparks were flying out of your pussy,” Montana tells Daley. “I feel like we could still get that flame-from-pussy vibe.”
Montana’s latest dance production, “KINK HAÜS,” kicks off Philly Fringe Festival at the Latvian Society on Sept. 5. For the last three months, he has been transforming this ad hoc theater space into an ultra-queer, underground nightclub, replete with steampunk graffiti and an enormous silicone penis that dangles from the catwalk. A sign reads “REJECTED MATERIAL.” An operatic rock ballad – “Dark Nights” by Dorothy – blasts through the speakers.
Montana self-produced his first Fringe show, “Basement,” in 2013 at the Asian Arts Initiative. His budget came out of his pocket at the time. After working a restaurant shift, he’d bike down to The Home Depot to buy props for his set. This year, thanks to fans he has garnered over six years of Fringe performances, Montana fundraised more than $11,000 to put on his kinky nightclub fever dream. He’s in the process of starting his own nonprofit dance company. Amid all of this motion, he feels himself getting older and further from the soul of Fringe.
Rehearsal is over, and the 28-year-choreographer is fiddling with plastic zip-ties to reconnect the severed lengths of chain. Each year the production value of his shows gets bigger. He transformed this same space into a fairytale wonderland for 2016’s “Wroughtland,” and in 2015, into a brooding, candlelit chapel for a particularly well-received show titled “Purgatory.”
“This whole balls-to-the-wall, don’t-give-two-fucks, I’m-just-here-to-make art is that real essence of Fringe,” Montana says. “I get sad the more and more I make work and the bigger my work gets, the further I stray from that … I’m really happy to be able to be where I’m at, but at the same time I kind of miss being a nobody and just doing my thing.”
But the nobodies, as it happens, would probably sacrifice limbs to be in one of Gunnar’s shows today.
FringeArts, the nonprofit brainchild of the festival, is now showcasing young artists who weren’t even born when the Fringe Festival began in 1996. The scale has grown over the years, according to FringeArts director Nick Stuccio. Uncurated productions, which range from high-end stage acts to mobile one-woman performances, still make up the bulk of the festival. Two decades ago, Fringe had 60 curated and uncurated performances; this year will showcase more than 200, plus another fresh slate of online-only digital shows.
Two miles away, a dozen UArts students are rehearsing in a cramped black-box theater in Gershman YMCA on South Broad Street. The title of the piece, “An Incomplete List of All the Things I’m Going to Miss When the World is No Longer,” has the windedness of a post-rock song, and its 19-year-old creator, Dante Green, is reckoning with some similarly weighty subject matter — death, life after death, experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs — through a mix of dance, song and dialogue. In one chorus, student actors break out into a mournful harmony about hunting for signs of hope in a bleak world.
There’s no course credit for Green and his peers. Like Montana’s early works, Green is financing his own project. Why? For the glory of Fringe. “To be able to be 19 and show this thing that I’ve been working on to the whole city of Philadelphia … I think that’s like it,” Green says. “That is the soul.”
Make no mistake: Many Fringe shows are startlingly bad. The awful factor is part of the tradition. Conventional advice varies for first-time and veteran attendees alike, but in general, one should take a gamble on (at least) three uncurated shows. One will be bad and another one will also be bad. But one will likely change the way you look at the performing arts.
Today, with its $3-million-a-year budget and a new waterfront headquarters, Philly FringeArts still retains its fundamental democratic virtues. Artists pay to play, and no one is spurned for lack of talent. Success or failure – largely fueled by the media (and the gossip mill) over the course of the festival – rests on each show’s laurels, Stuccio says.
Philly Fringe has its growing pains, but they’re not as bad as others. The eponymous festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, began in 1947 as a protest movement against the high-brow and the elite theater festivals that excluded serious works from unknown artists. In 1966, Tom Stoppard premiered his now-famous drama, “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead.” Today, sophomore comedy acts dominate the festival, so much that it’s hard to imagine a sophisticated, three-act dramatic work finding a stage. “No one would give a shit now,” says Stuccio. But in Philly, there is still space – this year, at least.
Philly is not the poor-artist’s paradise it once was. Funding remains an ever-graver concern amid our current political and economic climate. When Fringe began in the mid-1990s, Stuccio recalls that thespians rented Old City apartments for $200 a month, and there was cheap warehouse space within a stone’s throw in any direction. But the silver lining of the city’s real estate boom is that, each year, more Fringe shows appear in neighborhoods outside of Center City.
There are varying opinions about Fringe’s slate of curated shows – which tend to be established, crowd-drawing acts that are premiering new work – but many of these same artists got their start on the festival’s ground floor. Protean director-actor Thaddeus Phillips opened Fringe in the mid-1990s with a solo rendition of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” relayed from a plastic kiddie pool. Phillips has returned to more than a dozen festivals since then, and this year he’ll produce his latest work, “A Billion Nights on Earth,” on the FringeArts main stage.
Other artists come to the festival mid-career. Choreographer Lela Aisha Jones, 39, had a first Fringe experience just a few years ago, and returns this year with “Plight Release and the Diasporic Body,”an Afrocentric production that was commissioned by Temple University’s dance department. “The Fringe is an open space that’s ready to go for whatever message you have,” Jones says. “What your work is centered around culturally, or with gender or with class, you have permission to go into this space and do your work.”
KINK HAUS | Sept. 5-24. $35. The Latvian Society, 531 N. 7th St.
AN INCOMPLETE LIST OF ALL THE THINGS I’M GOING TO MISS WHEN THE WORLD IS NO LONGER | Sept. 8-10. $10. Gorshman Hall, University of the Arts, 401 S. Broad St.
PLIGHT RELEASE AND THE DIASPORIC BODY | Sept. 22-23. $20. Connell Dance Theater, 1801 N. Broad St., 5th Floor
A BILLION NIGHTS ON EARTH | Sept. 14-17. $29 ($20 for members). FringeArts, 140 N. Columbus Blvd.