|The Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe has been known since 1997 as an annual contemporary performing arts festival held in early September in Pennsylvania’s largest city and gathering large audiences each year. Now the festival has officially changed its name to FringeArts, simultaneous to its move into a historical brick building (former Water Department pumping station) built in 1903 that has been renovated as a permanent arts center with the same name that will have its grand opening at the time of the September 2014 festival. Standing on the waterfront of the Delaware River, on the edge of the Old City neighborhood of Philadelphia, this historic building with 930 square meters of floor space and 30-foot ceilings, has been transformed into a performing arts center with a 240-seat theater, rehearsal and creation studios, and a restaurant, etc. In addition to its festival in September, FringeArts plans a year-round schedule of programs in this new residence. In this interview, the founder of the festival and executive director of FringeArts, Nick Staccio, talks about the growth of the festival and the organization’s ambitious new transition.
Interviewer: Yoko Shioya
, Artistic Director, Japan Society
So, now you have your new permanent home. I have read that the cost of this building was $750,000, which sounds like a real bargain.
The price is in fact a kind of bargain. The reason is that because this is a historic preservation building, you can’t take it down and you can’t touch the outside. If it were not a historic preservation building, it would probably have been developed a long time ago, perhaps by a hotel. It had been used as storage by Philadelphia City’s Water Department and because its structure has large clear spans—there are no columns in the open spaces—it suites us perfectly. Also, its location is really nice: it’s on Philadelphia’s waterfront in a de facto
arts neighborhood. Since it’s just outside the zoning restriction for liquor licenses, we were able to get a license and will have a fully functional bar and restaurant opening this July. Following the grand opening in September, it will be open seven days a week. We will even do some cabaret-style performances, comedy and live music shows in the restaurant.
How much did the construction for renovation cost?
The total cost for Phase One and Phase Two is a little over $8 million. Phase One totaled about $6.5 million, including the acquisition cost. In Phase Two we will create a really big outdoor garden plaza space.
How many programs are you planning to present in Philly Fringe in a year? Can you tell us what the size of your budget is?
The budget right now is $3 million. But, we have been in this new building only for a short time—so we are trying to understand the cost here. We hope to have revenue from the bar and restaurant and we also hope to have some space rental income from this building as well as proceeds from lease and/or sharing of the space. As for the number of programs, we also are still figuring that out. I can tell that there are a lot of low-cost shows available for us—meaning emerging artists’ shows. We are trying to work even harder than before in terms of programming to define who the really fine, talented artists, and who are up and coming artists we can afford. You know, although we are an organization with 18 years of experience in the festival business, we are now starting a completely new business [with the center].
Would you tell us about your festival – its programming contents and structure?
We started in 1997. It was called “The Philadelphia Fringe Festival.” We did then what we do today. That is, we have two ways to present artists: one is that we pick them and present, and the other is free from our curation.
In Philadelphia, especially back in 1997, there were not many contemporary arts presenters but we knew there were really good artists around the world, and we thought we should make sure they would come here. So we “present” them – meaning, we guarantee a performance fee, and are responsible for technical and theater costs, and sometimes travel costs. And we take box office income.
The other way is just like Edinburgh Fringe and all other good fringe festivals all over the world – free from curation. We wanted to create a platform for any artist. What we do for the fringe artists is providing the centralized box office and selling their tickets. We are a kind of a big marketing and PR entity. Fringe artists are responsible for everything else: producing their own show, finding their venue, selling their tickets at their own venue, promoting their individual show, and so on. And they get their box office income as they pay their costs.
Bringing these two ways together, we called it the “Philadelphia Fringe Festival,” but in 2004, we put a new label on it: “The Philadelphia Live Arts.” This was because we started getting resources to present big, significant artists who were being presented in major venues around the world. We took the idea of what Edinburgh does, which is not just one festival but multiple festivals: International festival, and fringe festival.
What kinds of genre of performing artists can join in the fringe part?
Anything—it could be music, could be Shakespeare, could be very standard things, because that is a fringe festival—we have no control. All we do is say, “Put on your best stuff.” As it turns out, it tends to gravitate toward a sort of risk-taking: what we present leans to experimental, and I think that certainly sets the tone of the festival. So artists generally know this is not a place to do typical/conventional shows.
For what reason did you decide to hold the annual festival in September?
Because that was when we could get theaters and spaces. There is a big regional theater community here in Philadelphia, and they have their theaters. But, those theaters are used from October 1st through June. Therefore, [our choices were] either summer, which is very bad for getting an audience, or early fall. So the decision was availability-driven. Early on we got some free spaces, or paid a little money for rent. So, the budget was a little over $100,000.
How did you raise money when you first started the festival in 1997, and how many programs did you have at your first festival?
We got a few brave funders. We visited them and said, “We have never done this before. We are a bunch of novice producers. Will you give us money?” (laughs). And scary enough, a couple of big foundations said yes. Can you imagine? We were a first-time producer who had never had a dime of money, with really only a big idea? I think the foundations took a risk, too. We got $15,000 from the Independence Foundation, and $30,000 from the William Penn Foundation.
The first year was a 5-day festival. We had a total of 50 shows. It may sound like many for the first year, but for a fringe festival, you have to start with a certain volume. But, in these 50 shows, four or five were co-presented — meaning we paid money for them. The first year was a great success. Then, the festival grew from five to nine days. We presented some big names in the early years, such as Akram Kahn and Shen Wai. In recent years, the festival length is 16 days.
You will have the grand opening of your permanent arts center this autumn. When did you start feeling the need for a permanent venue?
Pretty early on. We knew it would ultimately be a good thing to do. By 2002 or 2003, you remember that the real estate market bubble had started. We used to use a lot of sites for our work (we still do), and our festival headquarters was in a great old industrial building in Philadelphia. Those places became quite valuable as real estate heated up, and we were getting pushed out from all these different places. Each year, we had to worry about finding the location and space for the festival’s public face. Every year, the location of the festival’s headquarters was different, which was kind of fun, like, “Where is the festival going to pop up this year?” But our operation started to get further and further from the center of the city, and, by 2007, we were relegated to having our headquarters, box office and social space in really far reaches of the city. We started to think we should get back down in the mix, into the city. The great festival’s vibrancy is a mix of things—and we needed to have a definite festival center. One of the really fun things during the festival is a big social gathering point where hundreds of people gather. That’s what we wanted to build.
Also in Philadelphia, there are not many peer presenters doing what we do. Here is the fifth largest market in this country, with presentation of contemporary performing arts only 16 nights a year, during our festival. We knew there was a big demand—for a year-round [program]. Also, we knew that we, as a festival in September, couldn’t take advantage of works on tour. For example, with Japan Society’s great tour project coming in January or February, I used to be like, “Gee, I can’t present it.” So we wanted to take advantage of works on tour, which is also great economically.
When we at the Japan Society produced a tour for Oriza Hirata’s Robot Theater last February (2012), you presented it as one of the stops of our tour. You said that it would be part of the opening of your year-round operation, but this building was not yet ready and neither was your theater. How did you handle it?
We rented a theater for the Robot Theater. It was the very first production we have ever presented outside of the festival. We were not sure how ticket sales would go. We wanted to test how people would respond to our presentation outside of the festival. And it turned out to be very successful. People loved it. Now we had a feeling that people would come for the year round program.
Even before the Robot Theater, we did a lot of informal events outside of the festival, in a big warehouse in a neighborhood north of here, which we rented. Those events were like work-in-progress showings by the artists we presented. We called the events “Scratched Night.” It was a good learning experience because it worked as an experiment of what it feels like to be a year-round presenter.
Tell me about yourself. I know you used to be a professional ballet dancer. How did a classical ballet dancer begin producing and presenting cutting-edge live performances?
My grandparents came from Italy. My father was a son of a very poor immigrant. All he knew was work, and he became a physician. So his son should also work very hard and become a banker or doctor, something like that. So I went to Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs in New York State. I was in biology, but in the very first few days at the campus, I discovered the dance department. I constantly visited the dance studio at 12-midnight, practicing pirouette and so on for four years of college. I danced a lot and I was so focused. I had a deal with my parents that I should get a degree and then “you can dance as much as you want,” which I did.
In my last year I decided to audition for dancing school, rather than going to medical school. I got a scholarship in Philadelphia, for the Pennsylvania Ballet. About six months later I got an apprenticeship and soon became a company member. I felt so sorry for my father — I have three sisters, and I am the only boy, my becoming a ballet dancer. (Laughs) But I am glad I studied science because I think I learned how to analyze. I danced 10 seasons in the Pennsylvania Ballet, having joined when I was a 22-year-old and quit at 32.
Why did you decide to quit while you were still in your early 30’s?
It was in mid-’90s. In the early ‘90s, AIDS was really a devastating thing especially in the ballet world — even within our own company. So we decided to throw a benefit event to raise money for a Philadelphia-based non-profit organization which responded to the AIDS crisis. I think it was 1993. We — all dancers — conceived the event: none of the company’s administrative people were involved in it. I was one of the members that founded the event, and began taking a sort of producing role in it. We learned, from every little bit, brick by brick, how to organized a benefit event. For me, it was my first experience of producing. We had been very naïve about it but, driven by passion, we were asking people for help. Through that event, I fell in love with the role as a producer. By the second year of the event, I didn’t want to dance anymore. I knew I was interested in being on stage. But, I found I love raising money, organizing the production, and selling tickets. I decided to quit dancing and do the work as a producer and as a presenter, full-time.
And what was your motivation for switching from ballet to specialize in producing and presenting cutting-edge contemporary works?
For the last three years when I was in the Pennsylvania Ballet, Christopher d’Amoise became Artistic Director. He was young, still in his mid-30s. He had plenty of ideas about contemporary ballet. He brought a bunch of contemporary choreographers to the ballet company to work with the dancers. We were all opposed to it because we were all classical ballet dancers. Then, one day, we were with a crazy—to us as classical ballet dancers—and young artist/choreographer, Joe Goode, from San Francisco. For me, it was a very unique experience that I’d never imagined happening in my life. It marked the end of my career as a dancer. Joe asked us to sit on the floor, take out a pencil and paper, and write anything about our childhood views on movies or any such little things. I never used a pen and sat on the floor in a dance studio. And he asked us to speak, and he gave us his ideas about contemporary culture. And we performed little things. It was very foreign, and I hated it. One day I reacted very badly, making fun of it. My attitude was, “Leave me alone!” When I did that, Joe Goode said, “That’s what I want. That is contemporary dance! What you are doing is very expressive!”
In that moment I thought, “Wow, that was really fun….!” Aside from me as a dancer, I had never imagined, never tapped before this feeling, and I fell in love with it. I really embraced this kind of expression; very different from the classical mode, where somebody says, “Put your arm up, put your arm down, at count four and count five, and then turn, burgh burgh.” Instead it was this, giving your speech and improvising, etc. That’s contemporary art, versus classical. So, when I quit dancing, I wanted to focus on contemporary dance. I met a lot of local artists here in Philadelphia, and started producing a few shows—mostly contemporary dance.
In those days did you know any local artists that made experimental work?
No, not at all. So I just went out to see the shows and met artists. This person took me to that person and that person took me to another. I met an artist who wanted to go to Edinburgh. I asked myself, “Could I as a producer—yet not really a producer—help him to produce a show and take it to the world’s biggest performing arts festival?” I said to myself, “Yes.” Then I raised money and helped him to develop a show. We took a solo show to Edinburgh. While we were there, I saw the idea of bringing artists for a festival and said to myself, “Why not here in Philadelphia?” That was summer of 1996. I quit ballet in 1995. And our first festival was in 1997. I didn’t know how crazy the idea was. I was naïve: I didn’t know enough, so I had no fear.
Besides the two foundations which gave you funding for your first festival, who supported and/or helped you?
I found friends within the ballet world. To this day I still have some who are willing to help me as a former dancer. Or, the festival is good for the city, which was some people’s reason to help me. Or, some liked the kind of arts that I wanted to put on for the festival. I learned as I went – like, I met a person in a foundation and said, “I want to do this. Can you help?” Then the person would say, “Sure.” Then I would ask, “Who else can I talk to?” And he would say, “Talk to this person,” and I would go that person. I did this every day for one year, door to door, asked for help from hundreds of people. I adapted myself to my wife’s salary — she was a ballet dancer and earned $22,000 a year — we lived on that.
One of the founding members, Conrad Bender, executive technical director, is one of the reasons that we were able to make the festival. He was, and is, a very smart guy on production. He is a production person and he had a job, so he worked for us for 18 years on the side. While I had learned how to raise money and to sell tickets, he knew everything about production. So, we do the show, and it was always done very well because of Conrad. That was our one great asset.
As you moved in to your permanent residence you changed your organization’s name to “FringeArts.” Why? Not all of your programs take the “fringe” structure. Rather, your lineup includes many international big names.
When we were the festival, our name was the eight-word name: “The Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe,” which would not fit in the marquee of this building. We needed a new name. We thought the new name should no longer be “xxxx Festival” because we are a festival plus
a year-long program. Then we had two choices for the name: one was to come up with a completely new name; or the other was to use the word “fringe” in some fashion.
All of our audiences know very well that we present local emerging artists or unknown artists, or new artists, and
we bring great shows from around the world and around the country, such as Romeo Castellucci or Jan Fabre. They know the difference and they know we have brought them here together under one marketing frame. And no matter what they see, they have liked to call us “The Fringe” as a kind of a pet name. So we thought that the idea to kill the word “fringe” and adapt something like “Philadelphia Arts Festival” or “Waterfront Arts Center” would be a bad thing. We are about local audiences, and those are our first customers. We have to be cautious how they feel about us. And, we could tell that the majority of our audience would probably keep calling us “The Fringe.” So we wanted to embrace the idea of “fringe.”
Who is your audience? What is the demography of it? There are many artists and also college students in Philadelphia, because this city has a lot of universities. Are they your audience?
For our annual festival, we sell 25,000 tickets each year. It’s hard to tell from this number but we think we have 8,000 to 10,000 attending per year. Generally, the audience is aging a little bit. The biggest segment — in terms of age — is between 35 and 50. And the next is 50+, and then college age. 20% of our audience is college age. The average age is across the 40s. It used to be much younger when we started. The ticket price may be a barrier — as the price has slowly gone up. But we set a lower price at the door for 25-year-olds and younger because we think it’s important that all young people can get tickets.
Our audience is also getting a little more affluent than they used to be: 40% of our audience makes over $80,000 a year. I think we end up too Euro-centric in many ways in terms of artists we present, and I think we should wrestle with the diversity question. We hope to develop whole new audiences for being here in this building, and we need to not only because we need to raise more money for new shows for year-round presentation, but also for the building’s capacity.
You have not been to Japan since February 2003, but you have consistently presented Japanese artists in your festival. How do you familiarize yourself with contemporary Japanese performing arts?
I wish I knew more about Japanese performing arts but I don’t as much as I want. It’s time for me to go back again! Much of what I know is through you, and touring artists. And we will soon present Niwagekidan Penino
. And a year ago, we presented Oriza Hirata’s Robot Theater, which was great. Each of them is part of the tour that Japan Society organized. We did Toshiki Okada
’s work twice: one was Hot Pepper
by chelfitch, and the other was Zero Cost House
, which was his collaboration work with Philadelphia-based Pig Iron Theater Company. Both programs were the big featured part of our last year’s Festival. Hot Pepper
is a really interesting piece and I really love that.
My favorite thing, ever, in Japanese and Asian performing arts, is Akira Kasai
. It was a long time ago — we presented his Pollen Revolution
. He was in Kimono, like a geisha woman, with a wig. And he rode down the streets of Philadelphia in a horse carriage. So, we held the horse out in front of the theater and he got out of the carriage and led the audience into the theater. That was great for the festival! We also presented Min Tanaka before.
Another great Japanese artist I remember is Saburo Teshigawara
. I saw his “Mirror and Music
” in Spain. It was so beautiful. Teshigawara’s KARAS is the one that I would like to bring here. Other artists whom I am interested in but never presented here are Hiroaki Umeda
, dump type and Hiroshi Koike.
Can you in any way generalize about the characteristics of Japanese contemporary artists?
I can’t be deductive to say, “Japanese artists are this and that.” But, well, I would say they are “brave experimenters.” “Uninhibited.” And “committed.” They are breaking taboos down. Akira Kasai in his 60s and now probably in his 70s, to be in drag — I think it is very bold. Especially from Western perspectives, knowing of pre-conceptions of Japanese culture and Japanese people, Japanese artists break down those notions.
Toshiki was saying, “This is how we behave—formality in our culture.” But, he was skewering it in the piece so well. It was self-awareness—and I think it was very intelligent and brave.
Since you began debuting your presentations in your new home from October 2013, how far have you decided on your programs so far?
We have had Lola Arias from Chile, and Niwagekidan Penino. Both were in January (2014). And Terre O’Connor is coming. And we have a bunch or local artists. We have gotten some frameworks of the next festival in September. Romeo Castellucci is coming back. Castellucci’ s cost is big but we’ve received special funding from The Pew Charitable Trust. And we are talking with Rimini Protokoll. Their “100%” series is a great one. They go into a city and take 100 citizens who’ve never performed — it represents a demographic of that city by many measures, by age, race, sex, sexual orientation, neighborhoods. Since our audience is becoming composed of relatively affluent people, unfortunately, I think Rimini Protokoll’s “100%” piece would be a great means to look at this diversity issue.
How many people work here [at the FringeArts center]? Have you hired new staff as you move toward your year-round presentation?
We have about 12 year-round staff members. When we do the festival, we have brought in another 15 people — for box office, PR, productions, and volunteers. And, yes, we’ve grown a little bit. We just added a full-time technical director, and full-time house manager/volunteer manager/problem solver. (Laughs). We also expanded upper management as well: Myself, who has been working for 18 years; Carolyn Schlecker has 13 years experience; and a new senior manager, David Harrison, who has great expertise in non-profit business administration, particularly in the areas of marketing and development. And, also we have just hired a smart young curator, Sarah Bishop-Stone. She is a Yale-drama trained person. I have spent time as a curator with a bunch of artists and it’s been 20 years. I’m always looking at new things but it’s becoming harder for me—and she can make connection to artists in her own generation. Also our board is growing—now we have 27 board members.
The next few years will be very interesting. We have this great building and we now need to use it. We need to [A] have to draw up a great program, [B] find resources to operate, [C] find a lot of people to come here. When the restaurant opens, we will have a really fun place to be around culture and socialize. We hope that will help to build our new audience.
Thank you very much for you time. We look forward to the grand opening this fall!