Live Arts & Philly Fringe: New Energy on the Waterfront
Publication Date: July 11, 2012With support from the William Penn Foundation, the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe will soon take up residence at the foot of the Race Street Pier, creating an electrifying new destination on the Central Delaware Waterfront. The project is a prime example of the Foundation's growing interest in the intersection between creativity and place.
By Matt Blanchard for the William Penn Foundation
Artist renderings by WRT Design
The great urban critic Jane Jacobs once argued that important buildings should be treated like “chessmen” – queens, pawns, bishops or knights that when properly placed on the chessboard of a city will transform the strategic situation and trigger surprising new developments.
So if office buildings and nightclubs combine to generate round-the-clock street life, Jacobs would have said the pieces were well-played. And if a hip new café anchors the revitalization of a whole neighborhood, it’s as if a humble pawn has reached the far end of the board and become a queen.
By this logic, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival (along with its juried sister, the Live Arts Festival) is about to become one of the most interesting pieces on the city’s board. Every September for the last 16 years, the two-week combined festival has scattered dozens of dance and theater performances like so many temporary pawns across the city, drawing audiences into places and spaces they’d never otherwise discover, highlighting and promoting the revitalization of neighborhoods, but only for two weeks. Likewise, the festival’s administration has until now been a wandering rook, operating out of borrowed and rented spaces, first in Old City during the 1990s, and later in Northern Liberties and University City. Each Fringe brings with it a Festival Central and Late Nite Cabaret, themselves rich additions to the cultural scene, but only for two weeks and always at the mercy of landlords willing to accept below-market rent.
“Every year we make a really great place and then commit the cardinal sin: We ditch it,” laments Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe co-founder and producing director Nick Stuccio.
Now, aided by generous state and philanthropic support, Stuccio and the Live Arts/Fringe are making their boldest move yet: the creation of a permanent home.
In the coming weeks the once-nomadic festival will begin the $6.4 million renovation of the old High Pressure Fire Service pump house at the corner of Race Street and Columbus Boulevard. The placement of this chess piece could not be more ambitious, promising to add the Fringe’s frenetic energy to the long-sought redevelopment of Philadelphia’s Delaware riverfront. But with ambition comes risk. As anyone familiar with the stop-and-start history of riverfront development can attest, the far side of Interstate 95 can be a challenging spot.
While the Live Arts/Fringe will still stage Live Arts and Fringe performances across the city in different venues, it will now have a central administrative home with a box office, performance space, and a destination dining establishment, right in the middle of Philadelphia’s re-energized waterfront.
“At the scale of the entire waterfront and the vision for its future, we’re tiny speck of development,” Stuccio says. “But if we can demonstrate that people will come down here, to go to shows, to come to events, to have dinner, we can have an impact.”
Standing at the base of the Ben Franklin Bridge, the building itself is a little-known historic gem, an understated Victorian structure local historian Harry Kyriakodis once dubbed “the hero of the waterfront.” Behind its red brick walls are six powerful pumps which once could suck in 10,000 gallons of water per minute out of the Delaware River and shoot it with incredible force to a network of heavy-duty hydrants in and around Center City. Completed in 1903, the high-pressure system allowed fire hoses to throw a two-inch stream of water as high as 23 stories, high enough to keep up with the new breed of steel-framed office buildings rising at the time. The system went on to prevent a major downtown fire in Philadelphia for a century until it was taken offline in 2005, a heroic record if there ever was one.
Preserving elements of the historic pumps, the renovated facility will bring together diverse uses in a way that would make Jacobs proud. At the western end, Live Arts/Fringe administrative offices and rehearsal spaces will keep the facility buzzing in the daytime. At night the focus shifts to the approximately 240-seat theater, the box office, and the striking 2,000-square foot restaurant facing east to Columbus Boulevard and the river.
Restaurant designer Richard Stokes has incorporated many of the building’s coolest features into the new design: There are giant steel water tanks rising behind the bar, 1950s control panels studded with dials and buttons, and high overhead a massive steel gantry with dangling chains. Once used to hoist 24-ton pumps, it will soon be hoisting a DJ booth. Restaurant and theater will normally be separated by massive soundproof doors, but these can be opened to create an unbroken 5,000 square foot space for hosting large events. Arched exterior doors can also be thrown open to allow easy flow onto a wide outdoor plaza facing Race Street.
With all these functions operating together on a year-round basis, Stuccio hopes to create a humming cultural hive, and spare his team the annual struggle to find new space. “With a permanent Festival Central, we can worry more about fund raising, doing better shows and more education work,” Stuccio says. “It’s a shift in energy that would be great for the organization.”
For artists and audiences, the renovation means Live Arts’ annual 16-day calendar of cutting-edge performance will grow by another 349 days, creating new options for both local talent and acclaimed national and international acts that, up to now, have passed by Philadelphia for lack of venues. Like a net dropped into a stream, Philadelphia will now be able to catch international acts touring the U.S., or New York City acts who’ve finished their run.
“So when this great Japanese robotic dance troupe comes to the U.S. in February, I wouldn’t have to say ‘Sorry, I can only present in the first two weeks of September’,” Stuccio explains. “We’ll now be the conduit to bring this great art to Philly. We’re going to fill this void.”
And from a planning perspective, the renovation could hardly be more strategic. Just across Columbus Boulevard from the Fringe’s new home is the Race Street Pier, a remarkable new park designed by the architects of New York’s High Line to give Philadelphians a vision of what its seven-mile Delaware waterfront could one day become. Completed last year, the pier is gradually drawing a user base, and offers commanding views of the river and the Ben Franklin Bridge.
“With the Fringe and the Race Street Pier working together, you create an almost instant destination,” explains Shawn McCaney, a program officer with the William Penn Foundation who’s played a role in both projects. “It’s a great example of creative placemaking on the waterfront, investing in projects that will help animate and activate community space.”
In light of the ongoing effort to spur waterfront development, the Fringe’s new home is also a great example of well-played chess. According to Delaware River Waterfront Corporation president Tom Corcoran, the local development pipeline includes two new housing projects north of Race Street (a combined 182 units) as well as the long-anticipated redevelopment of the historic Pier 9 shed. Add in the Fringe and the Race Street Pier and there are at least five important chess pieces acting in concert to transform this rather empty end of the board.
“We really see this intersection at Race and Columbus as one of the first hotspots on the new Delaware waterfront,” says DRWC’s Corcoran, “and the Fringe will play a crucial role in making that happen.”
Philadelphia’s Mayor Michael Nutter, who inherited public planning process for the Central Delaware waterfront from his predecessor John Street, has also endorsed the move as “perfectly aligned” with the Race Street Pier and other assets in that part of the waterfront. “We couldn’t be more excited about what the Fringe means to Philadelphia,” Nutter said. “It enhances our presence in the arts and culture, and it makes Philadelphia that much more of a place where people can come to have fun, and to live.”
While virtually any well-funded arts organization could find itself pioneering in such an important way, it’s interesting to note that transforming urban space has been part of the Live Arts/Fringe agenda from the very beginning.
Back in 1996, Stuccio had just left a life in the ballet to become a producer when he was approached by an artist with $3,000 and the dream of performing his one-man show at Scotland’s original Edinburgh Fringe Festival, then in its fourth decade and the largest arts festival in the world. What he saw in Edinburgh would crystallize Stuccio’s critique of American theater-going and his plans for the nascent Philly Fringe.
While American audiences traditionally headed for home after a night at the theater, Stuccio found that theatergoers at the Edinburgh festival poured out of performances into bustling cafes and bars to debate and discuss, converse and connect. Similar scenes awaited Stuccio on his travels to Paris, Amsterdam, and Ghent.
“It’s the combination of two very simple things, arts culture and social culture – the critical mix that’s so hard to really get right,” Stuccio explains. “But spend just one day in a place like Edinburgh, and it’s clear. Every little tiny book shop venue has a coffee shop. They take aim at making their places social, and it’s fundamental to the vibe on a micro level. Every little place is passing out tea and scones and beer and coffee… These are places where when the show’s over, the night’s just getting started!”
Thus, each night of the very first Philly Fringe was followed by the very first Late Night Cabaret, originally held in a tent on Elfreth’s Alley, a place for artists to unwind, share ideas, and test out new bits of their acts, whose history has been well-chronicled by J. Cooper Robb
The Cabaret spawned several important artistic collaborations, but by 2008 was so popular with the public that audience members far outnumbered artists, forcing the spin-off of the Festival Bar and a separate artist-focused event which now bears the Cabaret name.
“Time and time again, artists meet after a full day of Fringe performances, to go to the Festival Bar afterwards, some spark will occur and new art is created as a result,” says Live Arts/Fringe board president Richard Vague. “And I think that’s true in any discipline – science, business, engineering, you name it. When people collaborate new things happen.”
Indeed, Stuccio’s basic vision of melding arts culture and social culture mirrors much of the current thinking about the importance of the arts in urban economies. It’s a dynamic author Elizabeth Currin has dubbed “The Warhol Economy”, after Andy Warhol’s Factory, which not only churned out silkscreens but also parties, lots of parties, at which artists built the kind of social networks that have helped make New York’s cultural economy a juggernaut.
Research now being conducted by PennPraxis suggests the Live Arts/Fringe has indeed played a Warholian role for Philadelphia by accelerating the local arts production and helping to create an exciting identity for the city as a space for contemporary arts (Last year Travel and Leisure Magazine awarded Philadelphia an impressive 5th place for theater/performance art and an astonishing 1st place for overall culture). “It’s helped to build Philadelphia’s brand, not just as a place to see good art, but as a place where if you are an aspiring artist, you’ll find opportunities to live here while creating and honing your craft,” said lead researcher Andrew Goodman.
The report to be released this summer also chronicles subtle impacts of the Fringe on specific neighborhoods as it migrated through areas that were blessed with low rental rates and a critical mass of artists. From its roots in Old City, where at one time 80 percent of Fringe shows were staged, the Fringe has successively shined a spotlight on neighborhoods reaching the cusp of revitalization, such that today, developers from University City to Kensington speak of the Fringe as a good way to increase foot traffic and raise the profile of their properties.
“The festival itself is not necessarily the cause of neighborhood transformation, but it expands people’s mental maps of the city into areas where they might not ordinarily go,” Goodman said.
A great illustration of the festival’s impact can be seen in the career of playwright Charlotte Ford, who set her 2008 Fringe debut in precisely the sort of place the arts audience rarely goes. Flesh and Blood and Fish and Fowl, the story two office workers stuck in the last office on earth after Armageddon, was set in an abandoned Rite Aid pharmacy in West Philadelphia that had been slowly invaded by plants. “It was like Ankor Wat in West Philly,” Ford recalls.
The play was a hit, got picked up by a producer and has since been performed in France, London and – no surprise – the Edinburgh Fringe. Ford has gone on to create two more clown plays (a genre firmly grounded in physical comedy) for the Live Arts/Fringe and was frankly “psyched” to hear the festival would be getting a year-round home.
“Honestly, the Live Arts is a big reason why I live in Philadelphia,” Ford said. “It’s the venue where I’ve always debuted my work, and so the idea that it’s not just something that happens once a year it great. And it means more work!”
For now, Stuccio is bracing himself for the inevitable pitfalls and reversals of the project ahead. He is buoyed by the solid support of city institutions, by festival audience figures that grow bigger each year, and by the memories of Edinburgh which have guided him this far.
“That’s been the seed growing in my head all this time, recreating that vibrant atmosphere, that great context for art making,” Stuccio said of his long ago summer in Edinburgh. “It’s a simple idea, but it’s hard to do.”