Philadelphia has an amazing arts scene, and the Philadelphia Fringe Festival is at the heart of it.
I love Philadelphia, and not just because it’s my hometown. Philly is a great city but it has a stubborn inferiority complex, mostly due to its proximity to New York and Washington D.C. It shouldn’t, though: Philadelphia has so much to offer if you’re willing to look for it.
In the past decade or so, the City of Neighborhoods has had a renaissance of sorts. Brewery town, Northern Liberties, East Passyunk, and Washington Square West are just a few of the areas witnessing rebirth thanks to a group of young, hip entrepreneurs and a revitalized art scene.
One of the earliest heralds of this new art scene was the annual Philadelphia Fringe Festival, which just completed its seventeenth season. I’m very proud to have been a part of its beginnings, even if it was a very small, somewhat insignificant part.
The bar where I worked had just opened a second room with a dance floor and was looking for ways to keep it busy in the middle of the week. As luck would have it, a friend of a friend was involved in this thing called Philly Fringe. I don’t remember much about the performance, only that the room was packed for its entire run and we had a blast! It was a unique experience. We continued to offer the space to amateur artists and performers, but none were as successful as with Philly Fringe.
According to their website, the Fringe Arts mission is to
- Support the artists (local, national & international) who create this work,
- Challenge, stimulate, entertain, and educate the diverse audiences who see that work
- Provide opportunities for-and investment in Philadelphia–based artists in such a way as to lead to the continued growth and health of the local and regional performing arts community,
- Engage fully in the global dialogue and global community surrounding this kind of work.
With such an eclectic collection of exhibits, installations, and performance art, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival fulfills its promise. The most profound part of the festival is the interaction among people who may not otherwise mingle. Here, conversations spontaneously ignite over a collective experience. It’s pretty amazing, really.
It’s been more than a few years since I last attended a Fringe Festival event. This year we decided we weren’t going to let life interfere with our quest to support our local arts scene, so hearts filled with optimism, we set out to see as many as possible.
Our first goal was Franz Kafka’s The Castle, produced by The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium at a theater in my old neighborhood. Seriously, I lived just a few doors down from the Adrienne Theater when I was in my twenties, in a third floor walk-up. On a whim, we went to the Adrienne to see if we could score seats to the sold out first show.
The process itself was somewhat Kafkaesque. We arrived at the theater two hours early, sans tickets. There were people milling about, but no apparent Adrienne staff. A stranger directed us up an industrial looking steel staircase.
At the top was an array of doors, each marked with homemade paper signs. The sign on the door to our left read “The Castle box office”. We knocked. There was no answer. The door was ajar, so we cautiously proceeded. Behind the door was a dimly lit, claustrophobic hallway with gray cinder block walls. It couldn’t have been longer than eight feet, and just wide enough for two people to pass each other. It was the kind of passage you’d expect to find in the back of a closet in an old house, leading to a secret room.
A single hanging light barely illuminated the space. At the end of the hall was a small table with flyers and brochures for various Fringe Festival shows. Next to that was the entrance to the small theater known as the 2nd Stage, which was set for the show. If there was a box office in this hallway, we didn’t find it.
We returned to the lobby and were told that a woman would be arriving shortly. Back to the hallway we went, and waited. Fifteen minutes later, we were sold two of the last four tickets.
Seating at the 2nd Stage isn’t assigned. If we wanted decent seats, we needed to stay close. Dinner was a burger and fries from a nearby eatery, then back to the dim hallway to take our place in line.
The small stone hall was a cool respite from the humidity. Unfortunately, as curtain call approached, so did the rest of the audience. Within minutes, our little oasis was no longer the coolest place in the theater; well, temperature-wise, anyway. Almost by design, as the little passageway filled, the close proximity forced interaction. Though awkward at first, the conversation flowed. Students, hipsters, seniors, and average Joes like us compared notes on our Kafka experience.
I’ve read some of Kafka’s works—“The Judgment,” “A Country Doctor,” and his most popular, The Metamorphosis—but I had not read Kafka’s unfinished work, The Castle. Unlike most moralistic tales, which teach that persistence and determination will all but guarantee success, The Castle has a more realistic, if not fatalistic, message: waste too much time on a lofty goal, and other opportunities may pass you by.
Speaking of “lofty goals”, finding the location of our second Fringe Festival performance, “Get Your Heart-On,” was almost a bust. Didier Garcia’s mobile graphic art light installation which, according to the Fringe Arts website, is intended to create awareness and communication, was to be set up at various locations throughout the city. That night’s location was JFK Plaza at 15th St. and JFK Blvd, better known as “Love Park” because it is home to Robert Indiana’s famous LOVE sculpture. What a perfect location for an installation that’s supposed to inspire dialogue about love, sex, and intimacy.
We made our way toward Love Park, searching for a gathering of hipsters gazing skyward. Neither of us sure what we were looking for. Finally, on the south side of the park, sitting on the curb, was an unassuming young man staring up at the side of Two Penn Center. Projected between the second and third floor banks of windows, was a series of images interspersed with the phrases, “Get Your Heart-On” and “#TheHeartOnProject”.
Apparently, we were early. Mr Garcia had just set up and was stressing over how the ambient light was interfering with his projection. He pointed out the small video projector plugged into a portable generator. A laptop provided the graphics which were projected onto the building.
“I bet you wish you had laser projection,” I said.
After less than formal introductions, Didier asked what we had heard about the installation. What did “Get your heart on” mean to us?
“Besides the obvious?” I giggled. I like to think of myself as “Sex-Positive”. I’m not scandalized very easily; however, I do find it difficult discussing my own sexuality in public, ao when Didier solicited input from me, I clammed up. He was very understanding, led the conversation along, tried to elicit a response that might liven up the discussion.
It seems we here in America still hold onto those old Puritan ideas that sex and intimacy are best left in the bedroom. As much talk as I give about being open, I’m no different than my parents and their parents before them. I worked in a bar for two decades. I’ve heard stories. I understand that most people live their married or partnered life without fully expressing their intimate desires. Didier latched onto that idea and asked what intimacy meant to us. Intimacy is vulnerability. None of us likes to be vulnerable.
The interesting thing is that even though we didn’t fully open up to Didier, his encouragement did inspire conversation—and giggling—between us privately.
We intended to visit another performance, but life happens. I am glad we had the opportunity to experience these two performances. As different as they were, their themes fit together in the grand scheme of life: lofty goals and intimacy; communication; paying attention to the world around you. In Kafka’s The Castle, the protagonist passes up a relationship with a beautiful woman for a chance at getting to the castle. In the “Heart-On Project,” Didier Garcia is encouraging people to communicate more about love and intimacy.
The Fringe Festival is truly a collection of the unexpected. I suppose that’s its charm. See? I told you Philly has an amazing arts scene.
cover photo Matt Harris/Flickr
interior photos courtesy of the author