A new Fringe Festival, a new era for Fringe Arts
Today is the the kickoff of the 2014 Fringe Festival in Philadelphia and the beginning of a new era for Fringe Arts, with the grand opening of its new cultural center which features a new restaurant with an outside dining area and a beer garden, besides the existing theatre, studio and offices.
In other words, it’s a dream come true for President & Producing Director, Nick Stuccio, who talked to AL DÍA about the past, present and future of the festival in it’s 18th edition and the organization that from now on will have a space for year round programming.
“To some degree the story of the festival is a little bit of my story,” Stuccio said.
Before co-founding Fringe Arts, he was a dancer at the Pennsylvania Ballet for almost a decade. It was there that in 1992 he helped produce “Shut Up and Dance,” a show created by the ballet in response to the AIDS epidemic that by then had taken the lives of close friends.
“I feel in love with the role of the producer more than the dancing,” Stuccio said, who retired from the ballet in 1995.
Stuccio then met Eric Schofer, a choreographer with whom he produced such a peculiar show that he hesitates to talk about it — but ultimately enough gave in, at our insistence.
“It was The Amazing Bratellini Sisters Flying Flea Circus,” Stuccio said, laughing.
As they were putting the show together to take it to the Edinburgh Festival (the world's largest art festival distinguished by the experimental works) they started considering the possibility of organizing a similar festival in Philadelphia.
Back then, the City of Brotherly Love, far from experiencing the cultural renaissance that it is currently going through, was packed with underground artists, whose presentations literally took place in basements, restaurant back-rooms, and nightclubs, Stuccio recounted.
On the other hand, foundations were looking to give new life to the city by supporting non-classical art forms.
“Having come from the classical world, I really sort of fell in love with contemporary art,” Stuccio said, adding that he was at the right place at the right time.
With no money and nothing more than an idea, Stuccio, Schofer and Conrad Bender — who is currently executive technical director of Fringe Arts — started promoting their own festival around the city.
The idea was to make a fringe festival provide unprecedented access for local artists, but also to bring artists making a buzz around the world to Philadelphia.
“Everywhere we went, foundations, theaters, individuals, people seemed to believe we were crazy enough to pull it off, and asked how could they help out,” Stuccio said.
That’s how in 1997 — with support from the William Penn Foundation and Independence Foundation, among others — the first edition of the Fringe Festival took place. Throughout five days, approximately 60 shows took place. Among them, Stuccio remembers a Shakespearean play enacted with Barbie dolls on a piano bench in Old City.
“The festival sold out and was it a success. In the years to come, we grew in capacity, we learned how to be presenters, to do everything, how to fundraise, how to get an audience, how to create a better context for the work that we were bringing,” Stuccio said.
Since its beginning and up to the mid 2000s, Fringe Arts had access to vacant buildings and warehouses in Old City to use as stages for its shows. As these properties were sold and the organization moved from one place to the other, it started looking for a home base and considering the possibility of becoming a city-wide festival.
“We knew that Fringe Arts and the Fringe Festival needed and deserved a real home base,” Stuccio said.
In 2008, when the recession hit, the organization took advantage of the depressed real estate market, and got its hands on a raw warehouse in Northern Liberties, where it built a 100-seat theater, and had a chance to try being a year-round presenter.
In 2010, they started looking for a new home and after walking through many buildings, they found the “perfect space:” an old municipal building in Delaware Avenue and Race St. The building built in 1903, for most of the 20th century supplied pressurized water from the Delaware River for fire control throughout Philadelphia. It became obsolete in the 1980s when the use of sprinklers in commercial properties became widespread.
Fringe Arts optioned the building, and closed on the sale in 2012, after raising 90 percent of the resources needed — thanks in part to a state grant, the William Penn Foundation and a private philanthropist.
The first phase, including a theater, a rehearsal studio and offices, was inaugurated last October, while the second phase, which includes a restaurant-bar, an outside dining area and a beer garden, will have its grand opening today, as the festival opens.
“When we thought about what kind of art center we wanted, we thought it had to be highly social, a place where people would come before the show and stay after,” Stuccio said. “We didn’t want to seed all that energy (and have it walk out the door after the show) to the restaurant industry. We wanted to be a part of it.”
For that purpose, Fringe Arts partnered with chef Peter Woolsey, from Bistrot La Minette, who will be in charge of “La Peg,” a French brasserie with a relaxed setting which opened its doors in anticipation of the festival two weeks ago.
“It’s our dream venue, a destination space, a cultural center, where you can come and have a beer and a burger, see a film, meet an artist, and it would be great if you also bought a ticket to see a show,” Stuccio said.
As a partner in the business, Stuccio hopes that the new restaurant will provide additional resources that the organization will need. The costs of operation are expected to increase from $3 million to produce the seasonal festival, to $4 million for the year-round programming.
With all this, the question will inevitably come up about whether Fringe Arts is becoming mainstream or if it will stay true to its roots.
“The work we bring today still is in the domain of the contemporary, and experimental and boundary breaking,” Stuccio said. “These are artists that are putting together work that is very unusual and different and are really pushing the boundaries of their discipline.”