Philadelphia's Fringe Festival has long been an event spanning many venues - theaters, studios, churches, streets, and even audience members' living rooms (check out this year's
). Its latest frontier? The iPod.
That's right - the Fringe (officially, the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival & Philly Fringe), which typically highlights theater, music and dance, is branching out into a new aural medium by offering its first-ever podcast, The Many Men of Martha Manning. The first of its six episodes is already available online. The rest, all free downloads, will be released in installments during the Fringe season, which runs from Friday to Sept. 15.
And you know what? It couldn't be better.
The delightful creation of David Witz, Grace Gonglewski and Karen Getz, The Many Men of Martha Manning is based on - and constantly spoofs - old-time radio soap operas. It tells the story of Martha Manning (voiced by Gonglewski), a resourceful and indefatigable possible-widow, who hops from Pepper Pickle, Pa., to Tanganyika to Romania to find her presumed-dead husband and, along the way, save Lebanon, Kan.
Joining her in her quest is her companion Dotty (Getz), who speaks a hilarious, unidentifiable language and has an obsessive love for pickles. Her ordained twin, Brother Mike; her globe-trotting mother, Margaret; and her massive dog, Snowflake, also drop in from time to time. It's like a funnier version of Garrison Keillor's Guy Noir, only the main character is a '50s housewife.
"I can't tell you how much fun it was," says Getz, who, along with Witz and Gonglewski, recalls the show's origins in a gelato-and-martini-infused discussion the three held about radio soap operas.
"Before I knew it," remembers Witz, "we were clinking glasses and they were saying, 'We're going to do a radio soap opera and you're going to write it.' "
The three put everything together ("David 'wrote' and I 'directed' and Karen 'choreographed,' " Gonglewski says, "but we all put our changes in there") and used additional voice actors from "conservative radio commercial people to elements of the Fringe Festival." But they weren't sure where to present it.
Enter the Fringe Festival. Now in its 11th year, the Fringe is, in producing director Nick Stuccio's words, "a giant state fair of contemporary art." It famously draws tens of thousands of people to see well over a hundred innovative performing arts events both from around the world and from the heart of Philadelphia. The Live Arts Festival features works specifically selected by the program's directors, while Philly Fringe allows any artist to self-produce his or her own work.
And, as Stuccio is quick to point out, finding new performance spaces is one of the Fringe's defining characteristics. "We like to challenge how we define a piece of theater and what that does to the viewer," he says. "Work in a different kind of environment, and the concepts change."
In a world where radio soap operas are unlikely to be heard on the radio itself, that openness to site experimentation made the Fringe Festival, in Witz's opinion, the perfect outlet for Martha.
"It fits as part of the Fringe," he explains, "because it breaks new ground as far as a performing space goes. It also is inspired by the performing style of the past, but reinterpreted for today, kind of like this year's Gatz, which is a completely different take on The Great Gatsby."
And so Martha became the Fringe's first-ever podcast, its performance without a physical venue. It's available in installments as a free download from iTunes and from www.marthamanning.org, as well as in CD-form at the Fringe Box Office.
Its three creators couldn't be happier. "It's very popular online," says Witz proudly, pointing to the many downloads of the premier episode since its release on July 17.
"When you're attending the Fringe for three weeks, you're spending a lot of time at the ticket office and online," adds Getz. "I'd like people to be carrying Martha around with them when they're at the box office or when they're online, so they can listen to her while deciding which shows to see."
And while all see Martha as a retro radio extravaganza for all ages, Gonglewski believes it will have particular appeal to older generations who remember radio soap operas from their youth. "I think there are people in Philadelphia who want to be involved in something that is out of the box but also speaks to them and their generation, and I think that's a segment of the Fringe population that isn't reached out to a whole lot," she says.
"You think of Fringe as being for college students and younger people, but people who are over 50 are contacting me, saying, 'Oh, that's funny, I forgot about that,' " Witz agrees. "It's kind of a treat."
But it's Getz who gets at the heart of the matter when she says, "I hope that it shows our love and respect for the art form, because we all have über respect for it and would love to bring it back. I'd love to have families sitting around listening to the radio instead of watching TV."
And sitting around listening to the iPod? Well, that's a start.
Members of Pig Iron Theater Company and Headlong Dance Theater blog about rehearsals for the festival at http://go.philly.com/fringe/
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