Fringe performers take on varied venues

The FringeArts Festival returns to Philadelphia to once again give artists the chance to run wild with their most cutting-edge and unique ideas for performance pieces and installations.

As in previous years, unique spaces seem to be catalysts and inspirations for a number of the performers. New York-based choreographer Trajal Harrell is bringing two of his five dance-performance shows, from “Antigone Sr. (L)” to “Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (XS).”

Both shows are all-male productions that draw upon the styles of the gay ballroom scene, Greek theater and deep-bass club music for their inspiration, but Harrell said that, beyond those characteristics, the shows’ themes differ.

“They are the same proposition but they are completely different pieces,” Harrell said. “They are articulated according to the size of the room. All the sizes ask the same question: What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the Vogueing dance tradition had come down from Harlem to Greenwich Village to perform alongside the early postmodernists? Each size has a different way of answering that question. It’s a different set of circumstances and contexts. So they share the same ideas but it’s just different answers. It’s like a fashion show. You may have seven different gowns and it’s all part of the same idea the designer was working on, but each gown is different.”

He added that the sizes of each of the shows add to their uniqueness.

“The circumstances are completely different for these shows. ‘XS’ is a show made for 25 people only in the dark sitting on the floor,” he said. “The ‘Large’ is made for large theaters with audiences up to 800. So there are complete different experiences.”

Harrell said that bringing together gay ballroom culture and postmodernism with Greek theater may not seem like it would fit together thematically, and admits he’s not exactly sure what they all have in common, beyond the shows he has created.

“I can’t say it all ties together in my mind,” he said. “I had been working for many years on the relationship between early post-modern dance and the Vogueing tradition. That was kind of an overall research that I was involved with for 13-15 years. Then I did ancient Greece because I was trying to increase the audience. I was trying to find different negotiated factors that could bring more people together. I was thinking about the foundations of Western drama; men played female and male roles, which one could say is a performance aspect of Vogueing. Also, ancient Greek is a larger part of people’s general knowledge than the Vogueing dance tradition.”

Even with the connections of the different genres still up in the air, Harrell did give his opinions on why the ballroom culture has endured for so long.  

“Their values system in the ballroom scene comes from the ballroom scene,” he said. “It’s doesn’t look outside of itself for validation. I think that’s why it survived. It wasn’t trying to be in the art world, for example. Of course, if they have opportunities to do work in film or television, that is great. But the ballroom scene is a competition based on the social values and the self-esteem that comes from working on something in your own community. That allows them to reinvent themselves and perpetuate their ideals. It’s amazing that it really can’t be co-opted in that way.”

Another show using a unique space is “Safe Space,” created by local playwrights Douglas Williams, Emma Goidel and Emily Acker. Performed in Williams’ South Philly home, the performers, along with the audience, hunker down during a climate-change apocalypse through live-action role-playing (LARP).

Goidel said the Fringe audiences are usually game for this kind of nontraditional interactive theater experience.

“Fringe tends to draw a curious audience, people who are open to exploration with form and are excited to get their hands dirty, so to speak, with the performance,” she said. “When we started talking about creating this piece, it seemed like the perfect venue to explore an interactive performance.”

Goidel added that audience participation in “Safe Space” adds to the drama of the show, yet the audience is never fully given the reins to drive the story.

“The play that we created allows the audience to find their way through the narrative in the text,” she said. “It doesn’t allow them to determine what happens in the plot but it allows them to create their own narrative based on the material that we present. So it is a play you can walk through. It happens in the top floor of a house. There are multiple rooms and they each have themes going on in them. There are simultaneous actions but also big-group themes where everyone is involved. So the audience will have an opportunity to put different pieces together of a story by following different characters.”

LARPing isn’t the most mainstream of pastimes, but, before this play, Goidel and the other playwrights had never used this form. So, novices and LARP enthusiasts alike should find the show engaging.

“None of us LARP,” she said. “We came to the idea sort of by creative process. We built the show as non-LARPers who accept others who are experts in this field. And I think that our joy in discovering what LARPing can be is present in the piece and it will be just as exciting for other non-LARPers to experience what we discovered in creating the piece. This play in particular is about a group of kids being someone else for a few hours while they play role-playing games. Some of them are LARPers and do this all the time and some people have never done it before. In taking on these other characters, we are looking at how that changes people in their real lives and we’re looking at it in a subtle, immediate way. By letting the audience follow game-play, it actively engages them in the playful, fast-paced spirit of the game we created much more than buying a seat in a dark theater and staying stationary for 70 minutes watching it happen. I think the audience really gets to engage in the process of play more so than they would if they were seated.”

FringeArts Festival 2014 runs Sept. 5-21 in any space they can fit into around the city. For a detailed list of events, venues and performers, visit www.fringearts.com.