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Cannonball Festival

The Cannonball Festival is making a huge splash at this year’s Philly Fringe 2021

by Steven Weisz for The Dance Journal

The Cannonball Festival officially started on September 9th but I still managed to catch up online with Ben Grinberg, co-founder of Almanac Dance Circus Theater, who partnered up with MAAS to create an independent hub of activity during the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. He was gracious with his time to answer my questions about Cannonball Festival. which runs through October 2nd, and what it would be offering audiences and performers in their first year of operation.

[Steve] So what exactly is the Cannonball Festival?

[Ben] A cannonball is a concentrated orb of energy, whether it makes a splash in a pool or busts a hole in the wall. Cannonball Festival is a producing platform to help independent artists — especially forward-thinking, risk-taking artists— make a splash. It’s a single venue festival: we are taking over the Maas Building on 5th street for 21 days, offering over 150 performances of 28 full-length shows, several events, workshops, and a nightly cabaret. There are four performance sites across the building, including the indoor upstairs studio, the outdoor garden, a cottage and even a tiny sauna for intimate, immersive work. There is family friendly programming, there are shows and events focusing on decriminalizing the sex industry performances, there’s a mini new play festival within the festival, there’s work that’s been around for years, work that is brand new, work that is improvised. There are pop-up food vendors who are artists in their own right, offering delicious snacks and meals. There’s a nightly cabaret and an emphasis on artists celebrating each other and starting conversations.

[Steve] Why run as part of or concurrent with FringeArts Festival as opposed to being a separate festival all together?

[Ben] For me as for many “art warriors” in Philly, Fringe is a magical time. The energy of risk-taking artists fills our city and the bounty of performance to go and see is overwhelming. In the past we at Almanac have loved being a part of the FringeArts festival, but it’s not a model that works for everyone. Therefore, though we run concurrently with the FringeArts Festival (and Free Fringe, I’ll add!), Cannonball artists are not required to be a part of the FringeArts Festival or Free Fringe. We want to support artists and we know that they know best what works for them. Still, us being a “Fringe hub” was something that FringeArts got really excited about. I think there’s some hope that this model will allow the large Fringe festival to get to the next level of maturation. We look to the Edinburgh Fringe, with hundreds of hubs and presenting entities, as one model, but know that whatever we end up with, we will be here to serve our city and the communities we are presenting our work in. 

[Steve] The Cannonball Festival is about pooling resource for artists. Can you tell us more about this and how this model may serve for future events?

[Ben] Producing a show on your own is hard. You have to find (and pay for) a venue, figure out lighting and sound and other tech all on your own, do your own marketing, and staff your own box office. Not to mention actually creating the art. There is so much to do to that without a really great support network or independent financial stability, it can really be impossible for a lot of people. With Cannonball artists bring their art, and we provide the space, tech support, a stage manager, marketing support and the box office. We even offer video documentation or live streaming support. Artists either pay a flat buy-in fee which is cheaper than shopping for all of these things separately, or we arrange a co-production deal with them, where we split ticket revenue. A few shows are being fully presented, which means that artists pay nothing and keep all of their ticket sales. 

But beyond that, producing and creating a show can be lonely. Especially for out of town independent artists in Fringes past, it’s been hard to find a community of like minded artists to meet, have conversations with, and be inspired by. One of the best parts about Cannonball so far has been seeing how artists come together, have spontaneous conversations in the garden, ask each other for feedback, and get excited about each other. We are hoping to create an environment where organic relationships can form and important conversations can happen that are impossible when we are all isolated in different parts of the city. 

[Steve] The Cannonball Festival is a partnership between Almanac Dance Circus Theater and the Maas as a venue. How did this relationship evolve and why the Maas?  Do you see other partnerships developing for now or the future?

[Ben] One of Almanac’s veteran company members is Lauren Johns (LJ), who for several years has also been the venue manager for the Maas building. Maas is a great space, owned by artists as well, and Lauren is always thinking about how we can bring more performance to the space. Almanac made a site-specific show in the garden for Fringe 2018 and we’ve hosted some work-in-progress events there. LJ started an artist residency recently and the interest in doing something larger scale that could benefit more artists was mutual. 

While we all hope that Cannonball will live on, we don’t really know what the future holds. As we go through the first iteration of this festival, there are a lot of questions. How are we as artists in relationship to the larger communities we are a part of, and especially the communities we are entering in doing a festival like this? Whose voices are not at the table currently, that we need to consider? Will it be viable financial model for artists to actually make money at Cannonball? Will we as producers be able to pay ourselves anything for the 1000s of hours of labor we are putting in? We live in a time of great uncertainty, and right now Cannonball is still an experiment. We will sit with the ways it is successful and especially the ways that it’s not before making any plans. 

We are super open source and would love to share any lessons we learn with anyone who is interested in doing something similar, and we are always interested in new partnerships! Feel free to get in touch.

[Steve] Cannonball festival speaks of a community of artists who are forward-thinking, adventurous, and willing to take risks.  But it also speaks to creating a space that welcomes artists and audiences of all backgrounds, identities, and abilities. Can you speak a bit more about this?

[Ben] We are a company run by primarily white, primarily queer artists doing a festival on Lenni Lenape land in a majority Black and Brown neighborhood. We are celebrating and platforming the work of queer trans sex workers, queer Black playwrights, BIPOC actors and dancers and musicians in a festival that is still comprised of majority white artists. We are on a journey toward creating a more inclusive environment and we want to make sure that the artists that we are presenting feel like the space they are entering into with Cannonball festival is one they can be creative in. We name that hatred and bigotry of any kind will not be tolerated at the festival, but we understand that systems of oppression are more complicated and nuanced than that. We are working together and individually to understand how our work intersects with systems of oppression and how eventually we can begin to remove ourselves from them, but it starts with seeing it and naming it and talking about it.

[Steve] Given the state of the Covid pandemic and the rise of the delta variant, how has this affected the development of the festival? What obstacles have had to be overcome? Do you see this as affecting attendance or audience participation?

[Ben] Back when we were releasing our artist calls in May, we dreamed of September as a jubilant, maskless, triumphant return to live performance. We saw ourselves and audiences absolutely ecstatic that we could gather again and at least temporarily put the pandemic behind us. Sold out shows every night! Sweaty dance parties to West Philly Orchestra in the Garden!

That’s not the timeline we live in, and the Delta variant has definitely tempered our expectations in terms of audience numbers. It is truly heartbreaking to see so many incredible shows have such low pre-sale ticket numbers, so please — if you are reading this, go to cannonballfestival.org, and buy some tickets in advance! We love you.

We have had to institute strict vaccination and masking policies, and we understand that doing so does exclude people who would otherwise be in attendance. It’s not a choice that we made lightly. Still, if any group of people are adaptable, it’s artists. None of our artists have reconsidered their plans to perform in person since they applied, although a few have added live streaming dates. With opening weekend behind us, I can confidently say that being at Cannonball does feel great and safe, at least to me. And I am so, so, grateful for all the work that has put in and to all the audiences who have come out. 

[Steve] With over 150 shows, workshops and events what are some of the highlights for this first year that audiences should take note of?

[Ben] It’s so hard for me to talk about highlights because I truly believe so many of this year’s shows will be incredible. I want to name Awoke and $7 Girl as two very important, moving shows that are both, in a way, pieces of activist theatre that use virtuosity in performance as an instrument for social change. Don’t miss either of them. If you’re looking for circus, buy your ticket right now for Only Bones 1.6, which only runs until Wednesday. I think this is a show everyone needs to see — it reminds us of our humanity in the visceral way that only circus can. And coming up later in the festival, we have Ragtag, which offers very high level circus in a super fun show. Permission to Monster is a family friendly show, geared toward young audiences in grades 1-5, that I can’t wait to share. And there’s so much great dance coming up that it’s hard to know what to pick, but Megan Mazarick’s deprogram and Gabrielle Revlock’s I replaced him with a lamp/Nuptial Blitz are both shows I’m excited for. 

[Steve] Is there anything else you would like to add or that we should be aware of for this year’s festival?

[Ben] If you are an artist and you’d like to get involved, there’s still time to jump into our OVERBOARD Cabaret or About Ready work-in-progress series. You can reach out to us at [email protected] to join in.

And if you’re a supporter or community member who wants to help, we are accepting donations and we are still in need of festival volunteers! Feel free to reach out at the address above. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

We are checking Vaccine cards at the door, so don’t forget to snap a picture of your card before you come. Masks are required at all times. 

FOR MORE INFORMATION AND TICKETS TO THE CANNONBALL FESTIVAL, CLICK HERE

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