2020 Fringe Festival’s Virtual Reality

FringeArts Virtual Studio

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

Since 1996, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival has occurred on a variety of venues throughout the city with a panorama of shows and events in every performing arts genre. The 2020 Festival was to be as wide-ranging as ever between curated shows, and self-producing artists signed-on to present their work. Suddenly, everything came to a halt in March because of the Covid crisis with all public gatherings prohibited. Weeks of uncertainty turned into months forcing most performing arts organizations to cancel their seasons through the balance of 2020.

It appeared that FringeArts would not be exempt and inevitably would have to shut down as well.

But, as producing director Nick Stuccio detailed in an interview last week, the Festival will go on via virtual media and filmed live performances in what will be the most ambitious and expansive performing arts event yet to be staged in Philadelphia since the Covid crisis.

Nick Stuccio

“Artists find ways to adapt”

Stuccio never ceases to be inspired by the commitment among the artists to create and work, whatever the obstacles.

“We started the Fringe Festival with no money and remember we never had theaters the first couple of years, so we converted the informal spaces for whatever we needed, wherever we could find them. The informal space now is ZOOM.”

“Not to toot our horn, but the Fringe is too important to the community not to do it. Not matter what was going to happen, whatever it took, we were going to do something,”

Stuccio recalled that the artists have the same passion and commitment to be part of the Fringe when the festival started. “Whatever the conditions are, artists find ways to adapt…. they are compelled to make their work and deliver positive messages to the world”, he observes.

“There was never a question that we wouldn’t do the Fringe Festival” Stuccio intimated, “I said this to all the participating artists when we held a virtual Town Hall.” It was a massive undertaking to get everyone in just weeks on the same page.

First Stuccio had to cancel and reschedule the line-up of commissions for their spring season at the FringeArts Theater as well as other events at the La Peg restaurant. Stuccio goes on to recall, “we had to shred all of the plans we had in place for the Festival and start again. Virtually overnight. And then come up with a digital version of our Festival.”

Digital, ZOOMS & IRLs

The FringeArts mainstage theater on Columbus Ave in Old City is now the Festival’s digital broadcast studio that will control the more than 120 shows over several weeks, some recorded on their stage and most broadcast in real-time.

FringeArts has been at the forefront for several years in developing “interactive social-media, film and video broadcast, and podcast media.”

Stuccio went into action with his staff – artistic, administrative, stage and tech crews who “thought of everything we would need to do to rise to the emergency challenge to mount the festival this year”.

“Our team- the producers, production department, the digital and recording studio team, and our audience services coordinator- the whole group did an incredible job on this hard pivot.”

“The tech engineers will be in the studio during the festival ready to solve any multi-platform tech issues,” Stuccio assured.

One of the first decisions Stuccio made was to wave the artist fees for self-produced work, “and assist with any technical needs for the artists’ who are self-producing”.

During August, in preparation, FringeArts will be filming some performances remotely, and others in the studio with production teams observing social distancing and Covid safety requirements. Stuccio even bought high-end production equipment for the filmed shows that will be premiered during the festival.

Stuccio was quick to add, “after all this, going forward, we want to have deeper engagement and ways to help an artist make their work. New rules for how the artist would engage with us and even new mechanisms for selling tickets.”

This year also brings innovations for audience engagement. Trail Off, one of the shows categorized as an IRL or ‘In Real Life’ requires that an audience member while on the road and downloads a free IRL App. “It geolocates you and as you start moving, and a different story begins on your chosen route”, Stuccio explained, “So it could be abstract prose, of a horror story, a fictional narrative, based on one of the ten trails that you pick to be on.”

One of the most elaborate ZOOM events will be created by choreographer/director David Gordon’s collaboration with Jorge Cousineau, called The Philadelphia Matter- 1972/2020 with a virtual performance company of 30+ Philadelphia artists working remotely to record video material on everything from iPhones to professional cameras. Gordon is one of the legendary co-founder dancemakers of the Judson Church dance collective in Manhattan during the 60s.

The Art, The Fringe

As producing-director for 24 years, Nick Stuccio has always experimented, in the practical terms of the marketplace, but has never backed away from controversial or challenging work by serious artists.

FringeArts’ mission from the beginning has been to present artists who do not fit into static categories, to represent the deep field of Philly-based independent artists, and be inclusive and as diverse as the city. The festival continues to be at the forefront of ushering a new performing arts era in Philadelphia.

Many of the artists and performances in this year’s festival will reflect on the seismic events that have recently occurred – the nature of our divided country, government corruption, social injustice, civil-rights abuses, and social, political, and economic concerns.

However different, FringeArts 2020 in its new virtual form, by its sheer scope, will undoubtedly showcase a rare collective of performers during our most challenging times. It continues to offer a platform for their art, their collaborations, and shared humanity,

As devastating as the Covid pandemic has been on the arts in Philadelphia, from the cutting of the already meager Arts and Cultural Fund, to the impact on performers who are facing unemployment in their dance, theater or music companies, to gig workers who are shut out of unemployment, FringeArts is both a tribute to what we have lost as well as to the perseverance of our collective creativity and hope towards a better future. It has never been a more vital time to support this festival and all of the participating artists.

A full list of dance programs at this year’s FringeArts can be found on the Philadelphia Dance Calendar, click here.

More information about all FringeArts performances and how to purchase tickets can be found at https://fringearts.com/

About Lewis J. Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

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