Explaining something artistically unprecedented may be the central challenge of the 2015 Fringe Festival, which launches its 16-day run Thursday.
"Respectfully irreverent liberties" is how the classic Ibsen play A Doll's House is being described - a 60-minute version of the pre-feminist story of a Norwegian housewife trapped inside her own life, running Friday through Sunday. What will that combination of respect and irreverence look like? Fringe producing director Nick Stuccio consults his phone for recent texts from the Norwegian director Jo Strømgren.
"A twisted show - but no irony" says one from Oslo, where Strømgren is rehearsing his company.
So much for elucidation.
In a play whose very point is the claustrophobia inside Ibsen's doll's house, "I'm thinking that there will be plenty of action beyond 'the house' itself," Stuccio says. "They're delivering the text - though not all of it."
But who actually knows? Some events have had trial runs, and even previous stagings. But much of Fringe is anything but prepackaged - even the dozen "curated" events in larger venues with artists often imported from faraway places. International reputations don't mean the pieces begin evolving with a clear endpoint.
Nor do many represented in the large, local free-for-all called Neighborhood Fringe.
Example: A snippet of Brian Sanders' new work, American Standard, (Sept. 9 through 19), seen in a brief preview at a recent FringeArts "Scratch Night," looked like an outtake from a wholesome MGM movie musical. But given Sanders' sexually provocative record, something more is in store.
And isn't Available Light (Sept. 10 through 12) awfully venerable to be considered on the fringe? The 1983 dance work by Lucinda Childs, with sets by Frank Gehry and music by John Adams, might seem to merit classic status at the Academy of Music rather than the warehouselike Drexel University Armory.
"But Lucinda's work never had its day in the U.S.," Stuccio says. "She has a massive body of work . . . but we never saw it. It just missed us. This was an opportunity for us . . . to give a second chance to this iconic talent."
One of the festival's more traditional venues, the Merriam Theater, is the point of radical departure in The Extra People (Sept. 17 and 18), an Ant Hampton piece in which the 15 audience members will wear headphones and receive instructions to move from place to place in the almost-empty theater. Explain it all you want; the experience will hatch spontaneously in the heart of the beholder.
What will stick to the zeitgeist in the festival's 1,000-plus performances, curated and not, is an equally impossible call. Center City Opera Theatre premiered a new work, Paul's Case, in the local portion of 2009's Fringe, that went on to success elsewhere. But artistic director Andrew Kurtz of the now-renamed Vulcan Lyric says his Fringe contributions were too easily lost in the uncurated hurly-burly. Among the more highly promoted curated events, only two are by local artists. Stuccio is keenly aware the local showcase has given way to more window-on-the-world programming.
Responses to that include the late-night presentations at FringeArts headquarters featuring more club-oriented locals, such as Red 40 and Martha Graham Cracker, both of which present fully developed characters behind what is usually mere entertainment.
Also, since 2014, the non-curated festival has been presented under neighborhood headings - Kensington Fringe, Old City Fringe, South Philly Fringe - with the added purpose of urban renewal.
"Jarrod Markman [the festival coordinator] is going to neighborhoods and finding the activators of the neighborhood, whether a book store or a coffee shop, cultivating activity and suggesting that putting on a Fringe show could be an outpost in this neighborhood," Stuccio says. "It's a practical way to grow the festival. We want to help more artists do their thing. It helps the neighborhood if we can help the artists."
Each year's successes and failures influence what comes after. Periodic landmark events can enhance the festival's standing among local hipsters, artistic intelligentsia, and mainstream audiences who might otherwise dismiss it as "the cringe festival," as well as in the international network of cutting-edge festivals that often collaborate on high-ticket productions.
In 2010, the revival of Dance, Childs' 1979 combination of film, choreography, and Philip Glass music, provided the centerpiece. "It was the euphoria around that experience that got us to having a conversation with Lucinda's producer. . . . I had an hour-and-a-half talk about the notion of bringing this piece [Available Light] to life, knowing that I could bring in Pew resources as a co-commissioner."
Director Romeo Castellucci, whose work has been part of several Fringes here, was dumbfounded that Stuccio took a chance last year with his piece The Four Seasons, in which women were depicted as cutting out one another's tongues and the sound was so abrasively loud that earplugs were distributed to the audience. Yet it was another leap forward. "[W]e loved it, and we loved it en masse," Stuccio says. "The response was enormous. We did 350 people for three nights in a row."
Nevertheless, there are envelope-pushing limits. "If I love something but don't think I can sell it, I couldn't do it," Stuccio says. Then again, he acknowledges he has never encountered such a piece. He's particularly keen on Still Standing You (Sept. 9 through 11), a two-man dance piece said to resemble a to-the-death wrestling match that includes one man examining the other's foreskin in ways not meant to be sexual.
A retired dancer from the Pennsylvania Ballet, Stuccio would seem to have a choreographic bias in programming Fringe. He disputes that - a little bit.
"I wasn't the greatest dancer in the world," he says. "I was drawn to the theatrical world. And I lean towards a kind of theater that's physical, directors who aren't afraid to really engage the body physically. In the contemporary performance world, boundaries between dance and theater are malleable . . .. Contemporary performance work is so elusive. It's designed to bring your own experience into completing it. And that, to me, is a rewarding experience."
For performance descriptions, schedules, venue, and ticket prices, go to www.fringearts.com