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Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe ready to buy its own building

The actors are setting up shop, as are the dancers, comics, acrobats, clowns, musicians, and uncategorizable others - some from around America, others from across the sea, many from zip codes all over the area.

The actors are setting up shop, as are the dancers, comics, acrobats, clowns, musicians, and uncategorizable others - some from around America, others from across the sea, many from zip codes all over the area.

Every Philadelphia performance space is taken - as well as spaces not normally used for performance. And if you find an unaccountably unclaimed set of stage lights, better keep it to yourself.

It's all in preparation for one of the nation's powerhouse arts festivals - one that has never, itself, had a permanent home since its founding 15 years ago.

Until now.

The Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe - 16 days and nights of sometimes experimental and risky, sometimes outré and bizarre, and frequently striking work - opens Friday, its organizers hoping this is its last nomadic season. The festival management has signed a letter of agreement to purchase a redbrick hulk of a building at Race Street and Columbus Boulevard, 10,000 square feet of space with a 30-foot ceiling that will allow high-flying circus acts as well as earthbound dance, theater, and other performances.

Moreover, the place will have what festival producing director Nick Stuccio has craved for some time: outdoor and indoor space for events, social interaction, and food and drink.

For all its constant growth in audience-building, fund-raising, and mentoring performers, Live Arts/Philly Fringe - now a $2.6 million annual operation known to just about everybody as, simply, the Fringe - has never had a fixed headquarters. Under Stuccio, its various physical components pop up here and there, maybe for a few years at a time, maybe not.

The box office for the festival - composed of Live Arts, with invited performances backed by the festival, and the Philly Fringe, a free-for-all of artists who essentially invite themselves - could be anywhere. (This year it's at the Prince Music Theater on Chestnut Street.) The popular after-performance festival bar likewise changes venues. (This year, it's at the RUBA Club Studios, 416 Green St., in Northern Liberties.) The 200 festival volunteers may or may not a have a place to stash personal effects, depending on where they are asked to turn up.

The festival also has no stage to call its very own. Its staff has built temporary theater interiors in rented spaces, as needed; its current main space, with one of those theaters and its offices, is on Fifth Street near Girard Avenue.

"Every year we surface somewhere, and a couple of years, we've had the same location. When we surface, there's a lot to do," says Stuccio, formerly a Pennsylvania Ballet corps dancer, now a producer with connections around the world.

"We have to define the place, negotiate with the owner, mitigate the mold, deal with the air-conditioning, the rodents - this is usually in some empty building. We have to put about 10 phone lines in. Then we have to tell the audience, 'OK, folks, here is the new location.' All of this costs time and money, but mostly it costs energy.

"That can be a fun adventure, but it's wearing. What else could we be doing if we didn't have that? A lot."

That includes "adding this social component, which is very important to us," says Stuccio. "Not only the bar, but a place to eat food. If you're sitting down and want to ponder what show you want to buy, maybe meet your friend at the box office, you could also order a Caesar salad or a burger and have a beer or a coffee. That component is going to make it great."

Stuccio was envisioning this future as he walked through the High-Pressure Fire Service building - the name is set in stone across two portals - built by the city in 1902 for pumping water from the Delaware River and sending it, with a tremendous boost, to Center City's hydrants. The city decommissioned the building a few decades back, after more modern ways of protecting the downtown area had evolved.

Inside, the building still houses a mass of huge pipes and pumps, and a great valve that Stuccio pointed to: A handwritten direction on the cranking wheel tells users to turn it 124 times in order to open it and unleash the pressurized water. Stuccio, who has become well-versed in old-building interiors over the festival's years, led visitors into a crawl space to see the massive underground pipes. ("I love buildings, I'm a typical boy," said Stuccio, 48, who with his wife, Anne White, has two of them, plus a girl, and lives in Narberth.)

He hopes the festival will be able to move some of its operations in by next year's performance season, but audiences who attend one Live Arts show this year - a huge, free, festival-long screen-projection art installation by a choreographer and a filmmaker, called Zon-Mai - will have a sneak peek. The installation is inside the building, at 140 N. Columbus Blvd., whose name in the festival guide is "Former Pumping Station."

The organization is working with designers, architects, a restaurant consultant, and others to rebuild the interior and open some bricked-up windows facing Columbus Boulevard to offer a clear view of the water and the Delaware River Waterfront Corp.'s sleek new waterfront park, the Race Street Pier, flanked overhead by the south-side sweep of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.

Standing outside the building, Stuccio broke into a grin. "Look at this outdoor space," he said, staring down what used to be the end of Race Street before it was diverted to run several yards away. This, he said, would be a picnic place for audiences, another area for performance, and the outdoor space festivalgoers say they crave each year when they swarm to the after-show bar. The space looks onto the entry to the new park across the street.

The project means that the building will be converted to include a box office, all the festival office space, a 225-seat theater, a restaurant, and room for the festival's artist-mentoring program, called the Live Arts Brewery (after its current location). The purchase price of the building is $750,000, and the entire project, still in its initial phase, could come to about $5 million, Stuccio said.

The festival has raised about $3 million so far, a third of it state redevelopment assistance that former Gov. Ed Rendell approved and that Gov. Corbett has released to the festival. Another chunk comes from an anonymous donor. The festival will embark on an aggressive fund-raising campaign for the rest.

And in a year's time, the fates willing, what began 15 years ago in Old City as a bold but small-scale arts festival of contemporary work, ambitiously modeled on Edinburgh, Scotland's massive Fringe, will declare its own permanence.

Live Arts Festival/ Philly Fringe

The festival begins Friday and runs through Sept. 17, with about 200 productions around the city and a few in the suburbs. The box office is at Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St., and tickets are also on sale on the Web. For a full listing of shows, ticket prices, times, and venues, 215-413-1318 or EndText