When Sarah Gladwin Camp did the casting for “100% Philadelphia” she interviewed the resident of a tall building in Rittenhouse Square just like she interviewed an ex-convict in a homeless shelter.
Neither of them are actors but they will share the stage in the documentary theater play that will take place Sept. 19, 20 and 21 as part of the Fringe Festival.
Their experiences, perceptions of the city, beliefs and values may be completely different. If it wasn’t for the play, maybe they would never cross paths. Or if they did ran into each other, maybe the homeless person would be begging for money on the street and the other would ignore him.
The play produced by German collective Rimini Protokoll will bring together 100 Philadelphians, non-actors, who represent the demographics of the city according to the census. On stage, they will answer different questions about themselves from the simplest to the unexpected to the uncomfortable.
The project “100%” began in Berlin in 2008, and since then it has toured different cities in the world but always with a local cast.
“We wanted to invite the whole city on stage and we thought of doing it with 100 representatives who are a cross-section of the population,” said Helgard Haug, co-creator of the play, with Stefan Kaegi y Daniel Wetzel.
“Normally they wouldn’t meet because they are from different districts, different social groups or different ages,” she added.
Numbers and statistics may be abstract but the play shows their human side.
“At the beginning all the participants have a couple seconds to introduce themselves and show something about their personality before the game of questions starts,” she said.
To reply, the participants can, for example, move to different parts of the stage while a camera placed up high captures their movement and the image is projected in a screen along with different animations that show multiple options.
“The audience can track specific people, maybe those who fit your own profile, or maybe those who are very different than you,” Haug said. “I’m always really amazed by the way I thought a person would go for one answer and they go for something completely different, or to see that people from completely different backgrounds share the same opinion, political positions and beliefs.”
While there are general questions that are asked in every show, others are specific to each city.
“In Philadelphia race and ethnicity are such big issues, and neighborhoods can be very different, and that’s something that we will highlight,” Haug said.
The presentation in the city of brotherly love will take place after a peculiar casting process by Gladwin, and after only four rehearsals the week before opening.
To find the 100 representatives of Philadelphia the producers only chose the first participant who then had 24 hours to recommend the next one, and so on.
“At the beginning there’s absolutely no problem because anybody fits in the categories we have, but by number 50 it gets really tricky,” Haug said. “If a person fits in a category but we already have all the people from that district, that excludes them from participating.”
The process reveals the limitations of a social circle and forces participants to search in other circles.
In Philadelphia, the casting has been particularly complicated, and finding certain participants has been a real challenge.
“At first we had a very big problem connecting with Hispanics because we didn’t have participants that had a link to that community,” said Gladwin, who had to reach out to different Latino organizations to start a new chain.
GALAEI, a Latino LGBT organization, is one of them. When the executive director Elicia Gonzales heard the details about the play, she knew she wanted to be a part of it.
“Sometimes we live in a bubble surrounded only by individuals who are like-minded,” said Gonzales, who sees her participation as an opportunity to meet others she usually wouldn't be in touch with and to find out what they have in common.
Jess Ortiz, 26, of Puerto Rican heritage, was recommended by her neighbor’s daughter.
“When I found out that there were going to be people like me, who have no experience on stage, I thought it would be fun,” Ortiz said.
“I hope to meet new people because I know almost everybody in my neighborhood, but Philadelphia is a big city.” Ortiz is a resident of the Northeast.
Olivia C. Negrón is a 39-year-old Puerto Rican woman who lives in North Philly.
“My family is from Philadelphia and I wanted to represent the Puerto Rican community in this play, just like we do it every year in the Puerto Rican parade,” Negron said. “I am also a single mother, like many Latinas.”
She recommended her daughter, Alyssa Negron-Samonte, 15, who has been in traditional plays and is excited to be playing herself this time around on stage.
“It’s a play completely out of the ordinary. I’ve never seen anything like it and I love the idea of being a part of it,” Negron-Samonte said.
There are also a few intrepid people who said yes to participating without even knowing what they were getting into.
Among them, Felicita Velazquez, 61, who was recommended by her daughter-in-law.
“I don’t know if I have to dance or sing, but I accepted to participate because they needed Latinos and I like to participate in projects that involve this community,” said Velazquez, who lives in the northeast.
Martin Castro, 15, who lives in South Philly and was recommended by his mother’s friend, thought it would be “cool” to represent Latino teenagers.
“They asked us to bring a special object, so I’m going to take my basketball trophy that I’m really proud of,” Castro said.
Or Elijah Gray, 18, half Puerto Rican and half African American, who lives in the northeast, and goes to high school, and who simply accepted after a friend recommended him.
These are just some examples of the diversity of this play of which Latinos make up 13 percent.
No doubt many people (and entities, both governmental and corporate) could learn a lesson from the efforts of the play to be inclusive, to bring people together and to give a voice to all, even if that’s not its main objective.
“Many people change their mind after meeting someone they thought they wouldn’t be very fond, working together and sharing this experience, and that’s a good side effect of the show,” Haug said.