At Home on Midway Avenue: Interview with Nichole Canuso

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photoNichole Canuso is drawn to what people choose to embrace and what they try to erase from their memories, especially as relates to spaces. In her new solo dance performance (at FringeArts May 2 through May 4), Midway Avenue, she explores what happens when “the house you grew up in squeezes into your current home, bending walls, twinning rooms, tilting windows.” In the performance, she constructs and transforms her own memories of growing up in 1980s Philadelphia while through her dance she builds—and takes apart—her current house on stage. We caught up with Nichole to find out some background to the show, as well as what it’s like to create a solo work.

FringeArts: How did you come up with the title Midway Avenue?

Nichole Canuso: Midway Avenue is the name of the street I grew up on. This title came towards the end of the process, once I knew the subject matter of the dance was centering around this house I lived in as a child.

web-3.-Nichole-Canuso_Midway-Avenue_Photo-by-Peggy-WoolseyFringeArts: Can you talk about what Midway Ave is exploring and how it came about?

Nichole Canuso: This dance grew out of a choreographic research project that I instigated a few years ago that focused on the integration and exploration of verbal meaning and physical logic. The main thrust of the project was, and still is, an investigation of the intersections of words and movement in performance. I wanted to give myself the space to use my voice, my writing, and my body in range of ways—to challenge myself to arrange, strip down, and layer meaning in playful and meticulous ways.

As the process evolved my own stories and my own body became the source material and the platform for these formal investigations. Images and stories from my childhood home kept coming up in improvisations and experiments. What began as a formal exploration of language and body eventually became a personal excavation of memory, architecture, and the body. The solo veered in this direction for a few reasons. For one, solos are inherently personal, there is something vulnerable about standing alone. Second is timing: my son is currently the age that I was when a lot of my most potent childhood memories formed.

FringeArts: What’s it like to create a solo work? What appeals to about solo work from an artistic standpoint? And why now was the right time to create it?

Nichole Canuso: When I was a kid I spent a good amount of time alone. And I loved it. As an adult my life is filled with collaboration, discussion, parenting, and negotiation. I love this too.  In recent years I’ve been sculpting large installations with incredible groups of collaborators [Check out Nichole's work in this area: Wandering Alice, TAKES, The Garden]. I’m also a mother, so for years time alone meant time writing at a computer, or sleeping.

nic on buildingBut some piece of me was ready to work alone for a bit. To return to a solitary place. In the beginning being alone in the studio felt unfamiliar, lonely, sometimes haunting. I realized I hadn’t really been alone in a studio for substantial chunks of time since before I’d become a mother, seven years prior.

But with this project, being alone with my body was the essential starting point. This time alone was not always “pleasant” and not always immediately “productive.” Spending long periods alone in the studio felt odd, like reconnecting with an old friend. Or maybe more like a frustrated grandmother who quips, “Why haven’t you visited?!” And like reconnecting with loved ones or taking a tour of an old house, you see things with a new perspective, while simultaneously experiencing a flood of memories. These sensations seeped into the content.

These sensations became the foundation for this new solo.  A lot of personal material was creeping into the process and although I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to use it as the subject for a work that I would share with the public, from that foundation I found portals into new ways of working. And eventually I found the courage to dig around and to allow myself to use my own stories as a frame for something larger than myself. (more…)

REMIX FESTIVAL: DANCE REIMAGINED

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greg 2What happens when you combine Philadelphia choreographers with dance makers from across the country, give them less than 10 hours to remix and recreate each other’s works, and ask them to show their creations? We’re about to find out.

The Remix Festival, curated by Annie Wilson and Susan Rethorst, is inspired by Susan’s choreographic technique of wrecking­—basically radically taking apart a finished work and reconstituting into a new form—and The Wrecking Project. I spoke with Annie about her involvement in the festival, which has performances May 1st through May 4th at thefidget space, 1714 North Mascher Street in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia.

Annie was inspired by the Deborah Hay Festival that Nicole Bindler organized in partnership with Mascher Space Cooperative and <fidget>, and that both venues are committed to DIY presenting of experimental dance and performance. To have these two neighboring studios as tandem hubs of dance experimentation for five days is an exciting prospect for this thriving arts community.

rachel-2Choreographers premiere original works as well as “wrecking,” remixing, and showing new variations of a fellow choreographer’s dance. Artists get six hours of remixing time with each dance over the span of two days before performing. The idea is that this isn’t enough time for choreographers to second guess themselves, but is enough time to make deep structural changes to their remix partner’s work, if they feel so compelled. <fidget> is an ideal space, according to Annie, because it’s the only venue in the city that is also a home; the transition between watching and talking about a dance to hanging out is slim. Philadelphia choreographers include Susan RethorstGregory Holt, and Chelsea Murphy and Magda San Milan, and the out-of-town makers are John Jesurun (NYC)Jen Rosenblit (NYC)Meredith Bove (DC), and Rachel Slater (Portland, OR).

New PieceWhen one choreographer gets to play the “wrecker” of another’s dance, she is not trying to “improve” the original piece or make the original choreographer’s intentions “more clear.” Annie explains, “No one is responsible to the other for their decisions. It’s a way of giving the original choreographer a new way to look at their work, while also calling into question authorship and collaboration.”

1458440_668158013215996_1768457595_nConceptually, there is not difference between wrecking and remixing. Annie compared these choreography techniques to remixing in music. “Girl Talk is one of my favorite musicians, partly because he does actually do something different with remixes; he takes bits of songs and recontextualizes them; he makes a new type of music from them. When I was introduced to the concept of wrecking by Susan, it clicked. I loved that it was a way of generating material, and being in collaboration with another artist that wasn’t consensus-based.” (more…)

Other Blogs: The Met Opera’s Music Library

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The Metropolitan Opera in New York has got to be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, performing arts organizations in the country. Each season they perform 25 to 29 operas, and each opera is a HUGE production, with the orchestra, chorus, singers, conductors, stage hands, and the all important sets and occasional gratuitous live animals (why not have real horses on stage for thirty seconds?). And they may play one opera one night, another the next afternoon and yet another that evening. It is a crazy operation, and it makes the challenges the rest of us face look quite modest by comparison. But one attractor of such an enormous institution is what goes on behind the scenes: the deep, dark layers of machinery that are in constant operation to keep the shows going up.

A Visit to the Music Library, a recent article by violinist Sarah Vonsattel on www.metorchestramusicians.org, takes a look at one such aspect of the Met. Yes, they have their own music library. Well, of course they have they have their own music library, but it’s the kind of thing you don’t think of until someone tells you about it, and you tend not to understand the scale of the operation until you dig a little deeper.

metopera 3For each opera, “there may be anywhere from 37 to 98 players in the orchestra pit, as well as the conductor, the chorus onstage, and the principals and soloists.  Add to that an army of music staff who assist in preparing each production – rehearsal pianists, assistant conductors, and prompters – and you can imagine the enormous number of musical scores and parts that are in use at any given moment.”

Preparing, restoring, remaking, and finding these scores are the responsibility of four full time librarians. “On a daily basis, the librarians prepare and distribute orchestral parts for each rehearsal and performance, collect and count parts after every service, distribute stage band parts, mark changes such as cuts and transpositions, and prepare chorus parts.  In addition, they must also repair damaged parts, produce new parts, graph the orchestral setup of the rehearsal room and pit for each production, coordinate with conductors and directors to determine which editions will be used for future productions, and prepare orchestral audition material.”

Indeed, throw in multiple rehearsals happening on any given day, you might describe their jobs as action packed. Chief librarian Robert Sutherland is quoted as saying, “The only thing that’s typical about any given day is that usually the day is clobbered by about 9:45am.  Then we are just simply trying to stay alive and cover all the bases until about 3, at which point we tend to focus on what we really need to do, which is getting things ready for tonight, tomorrow, next week, next month, next season, the season after.” And, ““It’s like trying to run on loose gravel . . . you can’t trust where you’re going to land, and you might have to shift very quickly.”

Storm chasers can relate, but they don’t need to be exacting at the same time that they are dodging a twister. This combination of pressure and care–and ability to read and write scores and know your operas–makes it one the most unique  positions around. Read more about their highly specialized work here; it’s an interesting look at what such a mammoth performing arts organization needs to create art at the highest–and biggest–levels.

–Leo Krass

Photos: Daniel Khalikov

Where Jugglers Gather

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Did you know there was a gathering place for jugglers? Yes, it’s true, and it’s not a secret society, and they don’t murder folks in their spare time. But it is quite a sight to see a gymnasium full of jugglers, who come to try out tricks, socialize, pick up juggling tips, or merely have a dedicated two hours to practice without non-jugglers bothering them. Every Monday night 8-10pm at Lloyd Hall, at 1 Boat House Row, off Kelly Drive, the juggles gather and . . . juggle. And a few of them ride around on unicycles. It’s run by Philadelphia Jugglers Club and it’s free and you’re not even tested to get in, which is good, because I was never good at juggling.

Other Blogs: A look at the ways of ensemble based theater

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Ensemble theater has been alive and well in Philadelphia for years now and shows only signs of growing, especially as the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training keeps churning out students that are highly trained in the ways of devised theater-making and have worked with a group of peers over the course of two years.  Still, creating an ensemble–particularly when serendipity isn’t on your side–is not easy. As Whit MacLaughlin of New Paradise Laboratories told me, to build an ensemble, you need people who are attracted to the work, you cannot build an ensemble by bringing in folks you want to work with–no matter how great you think they would be.

Jeffrey Mossler has written a series of articles about the making of and paying for ensemble based theater on Howlround. In his latest “Ensembles: How To Model One?” he talks to members of The TEAM, a New York City based ensemble that makes devised work, on how they have evolved over the years and what they have down to be creatively and financial sustainable as a company. The article shifts easily from issues of creative development to creative management to administrative structure to fundraising and grant writing–a valuable reminder how all this aspects must work with each other in a performing arts company.

Check it out!

–Leo Krass

The Dance Apocalypse: Gabrielle and Nicole do whatever it takes

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gandNandcatsOn Monday, April 7 at 7pm, Gabrielle Revlock and Nicole Bindler will unleash The Dance Apocalypse at FringeArts. Part of the FringeArts Scratch Night series, it’s a free show! (But you need to RSVP.) They describe it as “a genre-defying creative collaboration about two female artists in a spectacle-driven world” and a “heart wrenching end-of-the-world love story that takes place within the context of a director’s commentary, a sensationalist talk show, and a million-dollar kickstarter campaign for a feature length film.” That film, Chicken Fight, indeed has a real kickstarter goal of a million dollars. The performance has also been preceded by an eight-week series of free CardioCreativity dance classes that the two have been running at Mt. Vernon Dance Space. We caught up with Gabrielle and Nicole, who decided to respond in unison.

FringeArts: How did you come up with the title, The Dance Apocalypse?

Gabrielle Revlock and Nicole Bindler: The title came from Craig Peterson, former director of the FringeArts LAB. We invited him to appear in our panel discussion that was embedded in the middle of our last piece, I made this for you. In the panel he said that the state of dance is dismal and that we appeared desperate to do anything to capture the audience’s attention. He said, “This is the dance apocalypse.” When we heard those words we knew that would be the title of our next piece.

The Dance Apocalypse explores the issues that arose in I made this for you: spectacle, competition, and arts funding. Framed as a director’s commentary, The Dance Apocalypse digs deeper into the conundrums of creative collaboration and the blurred line between real life and performance. The piece spills out into our personal lives and social media. We have gotten married, had public arguments, co-taught classes, and fielded many audience responses—both criticism and delight—in the controversial, feminist provocations that we have unleashed prior to the April 7th performance.

CardioCreativity_JulieanneHarris 2FringeArts: How do the CardioCreativity classes play into the The Dance Apocalypse

Gabrielle and Nicole: The classes have been an integral part of our process. We designed them as a strategy to give participatory dance enthusiasts a window into dance as a performing art. They are essentially a performance disguised as a movement class. We do somatic work and cardio, but also improvisation, composition, and performance practice. In this way we are training them to see each other in the space, in time, in relation to an audience. They are developing more tools to watch and appreciate dance. In addition, many of them will play a crucial role in the performance on April 7th.

The Dance Apocalypse exists beyond the borders of the stage. We consider the CardioCreativity classes to be as much a part of the performance as what you will see on April 7th. The classes have been an opportunity for us to play with our ideas of the performance/real life gray scale. It has also been filled with laughter and joy. We leave each class feeling inspired and energized. We see people building strong bonds, developing trust in each other, and taking embodied risks.

FringeArts: Can you take us through what the show is going to be?

Gabrielle and Nicole: Shenanigans
Prizes
Speed dating
Youtube videos
Fighting
Heartfelt confessions
Animals
Glitter
Jumps and tricks
Tears
Grand entrances
Autograph signing
The opportunity to meet the love of your life

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(more…)

Other Blogs: New York Public Library Puts Major Dance Video Archive Online

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Thanks to hyperallergic.com for posting this article about the online archive of dance videos that the New York Public library has just launched. (And thanks to Annie Wilson for posting it on Facebook and thanks to Facebook . . .)

Allison Meier informs us, “The New York Public Library recently digitized thousands of hours of its videos in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division Moving Image Archive, from grainy historic footage to contemporary productions along with preservations of culture. . . . This is the first time the New York Public Library’s dance archive of 24,000 films and tapes has been available to view online. Before, you had to ask for copies individually at the library. Not all of the thousands of videos are viewable off-site, as much of the archive does still require you to be present in the library. However, in terms of accessibility, it’s miles ahead from before.”

Actually, from a cursory investigation, there is a noticeable preponderance of talking heads talking about dance at symposia-type settings, and nearly all the accessible online videos of actual dance, with a handful of exceptions, are of the Festival at Dzongdrakha Lhakhang, in Bhutan (there are hundreds of these). But what is important about the website is in viewing all the limited access videos of work (which require you to go the library and view it there) it clearly frames the priggishness and stupidity of the dance community not to allow access to their work online. If you want to inspire, disseminate, gain appreciation for your art–let it be seen!

It is not equivalent to allowing free streaming of a film or TV series, which share the same form as the medium of delivery. Dance is a live performance, and we can only hope allowing these videos to be seen online would be as popular as free HBO.

–Leo Krass.

Tangle Movement Arts brings new circus arts show to Christ Church

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“I love the chance to have a dozen women perform on stage together, with different body types, gender presentations, and personal styles, and illuminate their individual stories and their interactions.”

Tangle - Timelines 1 - Anne Saint PeterCircus arts has taken root in Philadelphia over the past several years, with a number of artists and companies opening up creative approaches that push the form in new directions. Tangle Movement Arts, one such company, integrates typical circus elements, such as acrobatics, into dance and theater. This weekend the company’s new production Timelines uses this combination to create a narrative about time, evolution, and the female body, spanning past, present, and future eras. The show premieres at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 North American Street, April 3 to April 5. We caught up with artistic director Lauren Rile Smith who filled us in on the inspiration for Timelines, the women performing in the show, and the performance space.

FringeArts: How did the idea for Timelines begin and how did it evolve?

Lauren Rile Smith: Like the rest of Tangle’s shows, Timelines was built by all the performers in a long-term collaborative process. We started sharing ideas and putting together the concept in October 2013, right after our Fringe Festival performance Break/Drift/Resist. This show’s theme is female bodies in time, so it developed into a mix of shorter aerial solos that focus on aspects like evolution, healing, and aging, even comic timing—and then, for our final act, a half-hour long ensemble piece inspired by tropes from feminist science fiction. The final act, “Tomorrow Girl,” is a fantasy of time-travel in which a 1950s secretary daydreams of a radically different future—and then finds herself transported there.

Tangle-Rehearsal3FringeArts: Are you working with any new performers for Timelines? What are some of things you are doing that are new for a Tangle performance?

Lauren: Timelines includes Tangle’s core nine-woman ensemble, plus a few guest artists, including Meredith Rosenthal and Caitlin Donaghy. Meredith’s act echoes life evolving on earth millennia ago, rising out of the ocean and into the air via body contortion and aerial rope. Caitlin is a hoop artist, and she, Lee Ane Thompson, and I are creating a three-person dance that moves between the ground and the air, inspired by the precise mechanism of clockwork and the lightning-quick connections you might make when meeting a new person for the first time.

Additionally, I’m excited that our friends Megan Gendell and Lauren Feldman from the world-famous New England Center for Circus Arts will be performing as special guest artists. Their dynamic, playful duo trapeze act is really stunning and I got to preview it when we performed with them at the HOT! Festival in Manhattan last year. We’re thrilled to have them perform with us in Philadelphia!

FringeArts: What makes you most excited about this show?

Lauren: I love the chance to have a dozen women perform on stage together, with different body types, gender presentations, and personal styles, and illuminate their individual stories and their interactions. From a storytelling perspective, I’m most looking forward to Timeline‘s big finale, which is a love letter to science-fiction tropes. In creating it, we talked a lot about movement styles for different people and times: if the 1950s secretaries have very purposeful, direct gestures, maybe the people of the future are fluid and indirect by contrast, and they would consider, for example, a handshake to be the height of rudeness. We got to explore a lot of swinging, spinning, sliding movements for the people of the future, including my personal favorite, a brand-new aerial apparatus made of multiple loops suspended from the ceiling.

And purely from my perspective as a producer, I’m very excited to be at Christ Church Neighborhood House, a beautiful theater. Tangle’s full-length performances have typically taken place in giant warehouses where we build a temporary theater just for the length of the show so it’s a big treat to have lighting, seating, and a tech booth already in place! And the Neighborhood House brings together such a great range of smart, innovative dance and theater; we’re glad to be joining their community.

Sweet, thanks Lauren, we look forward to the performance!

Timelines
April 3 + 4 at 8pm
April 5 at 3pm + 8pm
Christ Church Neighborhood House
Tickets ($15-20) available at www.tangle-arts.com

Photos: Anne Saint Peter (top), Michael Ermilio (bottom)

Other Blogs: Models and Trends in International Arts Exchange

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International arts exchanges have been around for a while–how will they continue in the future? Alicia Akins, a former international arts exchanger, notes the interesting history of such programs, and their ties to government(s) as a vehicle for “cultural understanding” often between  nations that don’t particularly like each other. She recently posted her article “Models and Trends in International Arts Exchange” on Creatiquity.com. Akins writes, “International cultural exchange’s long history is intertwined with the history of trade and conflict. Since the end of World War II, formal exchange initiatives and policies in the United States have been directly tied to the prevention of and recovery from international conflict.”

Of course, it’s not just history, as conflicts proliferate today, along with stunning ignorance, and it is fascinating how artists, who are often viewed with political suspicion–or at least kept at arms’ length–by their own governments, become a sort of last resort ambassador for international understanding. For this article, Akins is most interested in spurring the discussion about how these programs can be effectively structured and how organizations can maintain this work, and how do institutions collaborate from one country to another.

She quotes Yo-Yo Ma, “We all feel we’re better musicians as a result of the Silk Road Project. We were taken to musical areas we didn’t know well, and have widened our own musical worlds. We have more tools with which to express ourselves. Most importantly, I feel more human, more connected to others.”

This is the positive outcome: however, facilitating these exchanges is rarely easy, and it is important to consider not just the outcomes, but as Akins notes, the structures necessary to make these exchanges happen and have continued success. Read the article here.

–Lance Filo

Interpretation is Fluid: Interview with choreographer Tere O’Connor

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“I use moving as a method to ruminate and allow thoughts to interweave with each other as I dance. “

tere_head-web-1346871061Tere O’Connor brings his new work BLEED to FringeArts March 27–29. As so much of his work takes form through the process in which he works—as opposed to working towards a pre-conceived idea of  its ultimate shape—we were lucky enough to ferret out this recent interview he gave to the folks at the Ringling International Arts Festival in Sarasota, FLA, who presented two of the works which BLEED grew out of.

(For more, in-depth writing about BLEED, and the process of its creation, see Tere’s blog bleedtereoconnor.org.)

Ringling: Reviewers have had a hard time describing your work. How do you prefer to describe it?

Tere O’Connor: I am looking to meditate on the expansive nature of consciousness through dance, where language, dream states, memory, and willful artifice combine to create a unique form. I am interested in dance outside of its “narrative” potential. I am making performances to be experienced, where interpretation is fluid, not fixed. My work embodies a convergence of many ideas, not a paring down to one theme. Explanations, to whatever degree they might be necessary, exist inside the dances.

I don’t mean to say that my works are immune to critique but often the modes used to critique dance do not engage the poetics that many dance artists employ. They are looking for something concrete to latch onto and I am interested in the creation of multiple meanings that include the individualized interpretations of audience members. I think, sadly, that many people and critics think there is a “secret meaning” in dance and if you don’t reveal that you are being obtuse. But dance processes information in a way that is quite different from language and I am looking to respect those fundamentally singular communicative aspects of dance.

bleed_toc_1943_pc_ian_douglasRingling: Where do you find the inspiration and catalysts for your choreography?

Tere O’Connor: Choreographic thinking is always awake in me and I start my works through movement to see what areas of interest arise in me. I use moving as a method to ruminate and allow thoughts to interweave with each other as I dance.  In a given work the experiences I am having personally, those of the performers, and the energy of what is going on culturally and politically in the world start to react with each other. Movement gets shaped during that period and starts to become the material result of that thinking. It doesn’t mime the ideas or depict them: it is just born of them and I attempt to find a container for this particular constellation of ricocheting phenomena.

I don’t search to make them clearer, I try to find a form to best express their unique interrelatedness and make that into a theatrical time-based work. It can be very different from dance to dance.

Ringling: An ongoing element in your dances has been androgyny and the fluidity of gender. Why this has been significant to you?

Tere O’Connor: I have been dealing with gender in my work since the day I started. I don’t want to engage with it as a topical element; it is a background condition. I have always wanted to live in a place where fluid gender and androgyny were a given. I prefer to create an androgynous atmosphere where the performers shift from masculinity to femininity without question and more importantly without any political proclamation. There is a deep, almost childish desire to be past this issue in my work. Many people who see this combo of [my dance works] poem and Sister remark on the androgyny. That makes me happy yet isn’t something that is prominent for me. It is partially that I am a lucky enough to have these cool performers generously offer their expansive, highly individuated selves to my work. (more…)

Denver’s 2020 Arts Plan–another plan designed for people too lazy to read

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The city of Denver recently released a seven-year cultural plan called Denver 2020. May this help booster the city as an arts destination, and the incorporation of arts into city and community life in general, and if realized, help serve as a model to other cities. (God forbid America look to those European cities–or Montreal–for healthy models of  art as integral to city life.)

But . . . whether good or bad, why is the plan, the  full, published plan, given a design and editorial treatment that is for people who are too lazy to read? It’s colorful! It has graphs! It uses the word “strategy” incorrectly, all the time! It allows no opportunity for thought! It is essentially a giant, overly designed brochure that avoids intelligent text like the plague. What’s funny is that there is also a brochure. Why is the plan doing what the brochure does? 

I have seen numerous, well-intentioned, arts planning guides by cultural groups over the past 10 years that were so proud of how “not boring” their published plan looked, how it didn’t turn people off with too much text, how colorful it was, how clearly it showed objectives through colorful circles and arrows, and bullet point lists! But after the initial splash, nobody uses these plans, they are all trash. Because they have no depth within in them, because they do not share enough information, analysis, and raw research, they cannot be used as a resource. Talking points for foundations, arts organizations, and government supporters to use for a few months–that is not a resource, that is not a plan.

A plan cannot be presented as an advertisement. (The brochure, yes.) The first few pages of a plan can have the executive summary hoohah to satisfy that need for talking points. But the plan must be exhaustive, it must make its research available, it must be citable in a credible and authoritative and fact-checkable way, and it also must be written to be read.

If you are creating a serious plan to guide an entire city for seven years, you need something else than loud, oversized titles, aphorisms posing as fact, and lists of vaguely actionable items: you need substance and good information. It is the equivalent to George Bush thinking the democracy will magically spread throughout the Middle East by invading Iraq. That is not a plan! It is especially unfortunate because often there is a lot of valuable research and work that has gone into making these documents (as well as–sometimes–some quasi-scientific and questionable statistical methods)–it is okay if some of that research and its implications will bore some people. The challenge is then not how do you avoid putting too much of those annoying words in there, but how do write with clarity, how do you organize information so that other organizations can use your plan as a true resource, and perhaps even implement part(s) of it (which is the goal, right?)?

In publishing, that pesky industry that gets people to read things, those who shape periodicals and books and journals are the editors and writers, those who have a commitment to the material, the research, the work. And those designing those publications use typography that is made for reading. That is why serious work has value, because those in charge of making it are serious about its content.

Yes, it is good that Denver, or any major American city, is making any kind of public push for the arts, and it publicly declaring value in the arts as integral to the health of a city. But it would be nice for these “plans” to start containing a bit more substance.  Making a city into a cultural and artistic hub takes serious work. We should not be afraid to create serious documents to help support the effort.

–Leo Krass

(And why 2020? Why not 2016? Get to work now!)

Phindie, one year later: Interview with editor Christopher Munden

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“It’s pretty easy to create and maintain a basic site of arts journalism, or other small publishing project. There’s no reason why others couldn’t do what I’m doing and do it well. It’s cheap, it’s easy, they should.”

32468_390299683381_2276020_nIt’s been a little over a year that editor Christopher Munden, an avid theater-goer, created Phindie.com in order to provide  arts coverage to the independent theater scene. [You can read our interview with him from last year!] Since then, Phindie.com has become the place to go to read reviews and articles about the plays that are up and the artist who are making them. From a previous staff of one, he now has a number of writers covering the scene, and he is keeping tabs on multidisciplinary work as well as beginning some dance coverage. We caught up with Chris to find out what he’s learned from Year One, and what he’s looking forward to.

FringeArts: What is Phindie, as you see it now?

Munden: It’s a website people can visit to read about performing arts in Philadelphia. Mostly reviews, but also interviews and features. The focus is on “independent theater”—the type of theater which would be at home in the Fringe Festival—but there are articles on dance and other arts and on the city’s bigger budget theatrical performances.

FringeArts: You started Phindie a little over a year ago and since then the site has expanded dramatically in coverage and audience. Take us though a few of the decisions you made that helped grow Phindie.

Munden: Yeah, I soft-launched last March, so it’s been about a year. I had an idea to build audience when I started the site, one I haven’t fully implemented: giving away free theater tickets as a way to build the email list. I thought it was a really good idea, and I told it to my friend’s father, a successful business guy and theater fan. He told me, “Maybe it’s a good idea, but it’s only one idea. You need ten good ideas, because if you just have one it might not work.” So I went home and wrote a list of ten ideas for the site, and I’ve gone down the list picking ones which might make a difference.

A couple of them have really moved the needle in terms of impressions—the key metric for gauging website audiences. The first was the decision to run a “Critics Awards” for Philadelphia theater for the 2012/13 season, in the absence of a Barrymore Awards for that season. The second was my effort to cover as many shows as possible in last year’s Fringe Festival. I recruited a bunch of writers and managed to get reviews of seventy-eight shows, plus a bunch of preview pieces—more coverage of the festival than anywhere else. I think that’s what put the site on the radar for a lot of people, it definitely sparked a big and lasting jump in visits, so thanks Fringe. 

FringeArts: What do you think was the best decision you’ve made editorially?

Munden: My guiding principle is not to worry too much about where the site is going, but to make sure that I’m happy with it at every stage of growth. So it started as a venue for my writing on the arts, with my own independent theater, web-centric editorial focus, and that focus remains. It quickly grew to incorporate other writers, and we are now covering pretty much every theater show in Philadelphia. I have ideas for expansion, mostly into more arts fields, but I want Phindie to be good at whatever it does and not expand just for expansion sake.

One recent decision that has helped me out immensely was hiring a theater editor to take some of the posting and correspondence of my hands: Julius Ferraro, formerly an intern and writer at FringeArts.

FringeArts: What’s been the most difficult part of maintaining Phindie.com?

Munden: It’s time consuming. It’s not seriously time consuming, and I certainly think it’s pretty easy to create and maintain a basic site of arts journalism, or other small publishing project. There’s no reason why others couldn’t do what I’m doing and do it well. It’s cheap, it’s easy, they should. But it does take a several hours a week, every week, and my inbox is now completely overrun with messages from theaters and artists. I can’t, and don’t, reply to and cover everything, and I feel a little bad about that because I know people are emailing me about projects which are important to them. (more…)

Rehearsal Photo

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Anna Rehearsal

March 17, 2014, the Arts Parlor: Anna Watson in rehearsal for American Wisdom (SmokeyScout Productions). Photo by Said Johnson.

The West Comes To Town: Interview with creator Alex Bechtel

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Alex BechtelFor the past several years, Alex Bechtel has been busy in Philadelphia wearing many theatrical hats: music director, actor, singer, composer, and co-creator and was in the inaugural class of the two-year program at the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training. At the end of March he is premiering The West, his first full-scale production as the lead creator and producer, and with a cast of THIRTEEN no less.

The West is ensemble-devised musical theater, described as “an absurdist western music hall drama about the gun that killed Billy The Kid, the gun that didn’t, and truth and fiction in history, human relationships, and our day-to-day lives.” After having worked for so many other companies—1812 Productions, Walnut Street Theatre, 11th Hour Theatre Company, New Paradise Laboratories, Theatre Horizon, Applied Mechanics, People’s Light, Groundswell—The West is Alex’s moment of stepping out on his own. We caught up with Alex to learn more.

Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training

FringeArts: Why is the play called The West?

Alex Bechtel: When we made the initial short-form version of the piece, I wrote a song that was sung at the end called The West. So, when I decided to expand and remount the show, that song started to feel like what the play was about. Also, the play is called The West because half of the play follows the last days of Billy the Kid. And the notion of “the West” becomes a stand-in for what a lot of the characters in the play are dealing with: the possibility of something greater lying just outside of yourself, the feeling of manifest destiny, the urge to grab your fantasies by the reins and transform them into your reality.

FringeArts: Why did you think that now was the time to create your own project?

Alex Bechtel: I’ve always been primarily interested in creating new work. Many of the jobs I’ve had—either as MD, designer, or as actor—have been in premieres that are being devised and/or created during that production. And for a long time I’ve been striving to figure out just what kind of work I wanted to make. That’s one of the things that going through the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training [APT] taught me: what kind of work I wanted to do. APT is an intense immersion into the art of collaboration and I came out of those two years with a much deeper understanding of the work I wanted to make. When we made the initial, short-form version of The West as my final project at APT, I knew that this was a piece that I wanted to take further, so I felt like there was no time like the present.

Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance TrainingFringeArts: How did The West evolve? How did you come about to its starting point?

Alex Bechtel: The piece began as my final project at APT. For the final projects, each person was given a phrase to prompt the creation of a short work of theater. My phrase was “The reason escapes me.” So, I picked a few people and we began playing around, improvising, picking that phrase apart to get at the heart of it. One of the things we did was talk about inexplicable interests. For example: “I’ve always been drawn to salsa music, but I have no idea why.” One of my inexplicable interests was Billy the Kid. I’ve been fascinated with Billy the Kid for a while; I’ve read a few biographies, I’ve seen a few movies. It’s never progressed to a full-on obsession, but it’s always been there and I’ve never really known why. The group and I talked about that, and then when we got up to do some improvs, Scott Sheppard and Nick Gillette improvised a scene in which they were auctioning off two guns—one, the gun that killed Billy the Kid, and the other, an identical gun made in the same factory, on the same day, that did not kill Billy the Kid. That is the scene that starts The West. It’s been expanded, worked on, but essentially it’s the same scene. When I saw them do it in that first improvisation, I thought to myself, “Yeah, that’s the start of a play I’d want to see.” It was a very strong impulse, and I decided to honor it. We’ve thought about moving the scene, changing its place in the arc of the show, but we’ve always come around to where it is now—the beginning. It feels like one.

Poster for an early Billy the Kid film. Most people who saw the theatrical release are now dead.

Poster for an early Billy the Kid film. Most people who saw the theatrical release are now dead.

FringeArts: Is this your first major producing job of your own work? Were you a little frightened of having to juggle such a large cast?

Alex Bechtel: This is, indeed my first major producing job of my own work. And it is, indeed, major. And yeah, I will say that most of the challenges that I’ve faced over the last few months have been in wrangling such a large group of people without the budget to pay them enough to commit to a rehearsal schedule full-time. I really can’t complain—I got thirteen of the brightest, most talented emerging theater artists in Philly to create this piece with me over the course of two months, for almost no money. But because they are those kinds of people, there are other creative projects they’re also engaged in, there are restaurant jobs, there are performances, auditions—it’s been difficult getting people in the room. I understand, though—having been on the other side of that exchange. And I’m grateful that they’ve given me the time and artistry they have in this process. We’re making something great because of that. (more…)