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First Friday Interview: Sarah Bishop-Stone of FringeArts

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Long-time opening act of Philadelphia’s theater season, the Philadelphia Live Arts and Fringe Festival has been molding and shaping our performance landscape since 1997. Last year, the company tested and pushed boundaries internally: moving from their small office and studio space in Northern Liberties to a restored fire department pumping station on the waterfront, across from the Race Street Pier. The organization, who has since shortened their name down to FringeArts, unleashed a brand spankin’ new website for this year’s festival season, running from September 5-21. What’s remained the same? A stellar lineup of international and local theater and dance performances set to pop up at traditional and fringe locations all over the city. We caught up with FringeArts’ Programming Manager, Sarah Bishop-Stone, to hear about these changes from the source!

PPRG: How did you first get involved with FringeArts and the Philadelphia theater/dance community at large?

Sarah Bishop-Stone: I started as a fan. For years even when I wasn’t living in Philly, I made a road trip down at least once per Festival to see some work and to hang out at the Festival Bar. After college, I took a gig with Pig Iron Theatre Company, stage managing a crazy show in an empty warehouse that became Pay Up (which they revived for last year’s festival). The cast was over 30 people, and for years, that was how I knew everyone I knew in the Philly performance scene. (It was a great introduction!) I’d been living in Brooklyn ever since, but I always said I’d move back to Philly if Nick Stuccio offered me a job. Miraculously, that happened in November, and here I am!

PPRG: Tell us about the shift from Northern Liberties into your new headquarters by the Race Street Pier. What was the transition like, and what new opportunities does this charming building present to FringeArts’ audiences and staff?

Sarah Bishop-Stone: The move to Old City is really a homecoming for us. In the early years, the Festival took advantage of a lot of empty real estate in this neighborhood to create site-specific works and social gathering spaces, and you could run from show to show all day within a ten-block radius. We’ve been somewhat itinerant for years. Our building creates a sort of “festival central” that we hope will be the go-to social space for festival-goers and festival artists alike. The bonus opportunity is that we now have a year-round space in which we can both build sustained relationships with local artists, and take advantage of national and international artists who are touring outside of our Festival season. We’re also thrilled to be part of the waterfront revival along with the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. and other local businesses, working to rebuild Philly’s waterfront as a destination and a social space.

PPRG: Everyone is incredibly excited for your in-house restaurant, La Peg, helmed by Bistrot La Minette’s Peter Woolsey and slated to open August 25th. Can you speak to the inspiration and intent behind the creation of this intimate, mezzanine-level brasserie?

Sarah Bishop-Stone: We are just as excited! Peter has assembled a phenomenal team, and best of all, he and his staff are game to collaborate with us. We’re a one-stop destination for dinner and a show, but even more, we want to capture that social energy that happens when people are excited about the art they just experience, and want to keep the conversation going over drinks and great food. There’s also a stage in La Peg, which will host some really exciting artists in an intimate setting.

PPRG: In 2013, the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe officially changed its name to FringeArts for the groundbreaking; and this season, launched a brand new website. What 5 words best describe Live Arts / Fringe’s updated brand image?

Sarah Bishop-Stone: I don’t think I can reduce what we do and what we mean to just 5 words! It’s about so many things: galvanizing the city and its neighborhoods, nurturing and providing a platform for artists, acting as a catalyst for audiences to engage with new work and each other. I’m not on the marketing side, so forgive me if I try desperately for nuance and sincerity instead of branding-speak!

PPRG: From your experience, in what ways has programming for the Live Arts and Philly Fringe festivals changed over the last couple of years?

Sarah Bishop-Stone: The mission and programming has retained the same focus since the beginning: we present world-class national and international artists alongside the amazing homegrown talent that Philly has to offer. Year by year, we’ve been able to expand and really participate in a global conversation about international performance. It’s our privilege to bring Philly artists into that conversation.

PPRG: What other programs or projects do you offer throughout the rest of the year to FringeArts audiences and local writers, directors, producers and performers?

Sarah Bishop-Stone: Year-round, we’ve begun to offer audiences more of the boundary-pushing performances they’ve come to expect at our festival. Now that we have a real, well-equipped space at our disposal, we’re working on new ways to support local artists — with presentation opportunities, formal residencies, or sometimes simply free rehearsal space, when we can. One of my favorite parts of this job in the past year was reviving and revamping our Scratch Night program. It’s a monthly series in which we invite five to seven artists to show up to seven minutes of any piece they’re working on, in front of an audience, in a friendly, social environment. No formal talk-backs, no expectations: just throw it up and see if it sticks.

PPRG: Which shows are you most looking forward to seeing produced during the 2014 festival run?

Sarah Bishop-Stone: Without saying “everything”… I’m super excited about our late night programming. Half the fun of the Festival is the Festival Bar: coming together at the end of the day with artists and fellow audience members, and comparing notes on must-see shows. We’ve worked hard this year to pack the bar with really quality programming (to match our new venue and the bar itself!), full of local heroes and artists from all over the world.

My other big pick is 100% Philadelphia, which has been in the works for over a year, in collaboration with the German art collective Rimini Protokoll. We cast one hundred citizens of Philly to represent the demographics of our city: age, race, neighborhood, household situation, and gender. The result will be an incredibly personal portrait of Philly, statistics brought to life on stage, and given a face. The cast members ask each other questions, and put themselves into categories: Who was born here, and who emigrated? Who went to public school? Who has seen a gun? Who will be alive in 5, 10, 50 years? I can’t wait to see the result, and it’s the culmination of the festival, September 19-21 up at Temple Performing Arts Center. Tickets are pay-what-you-can, in the interests of having the audience in the room reflect the city as much as the people on stage do.

PPRG: With so many recent changes to the company location, brand identity and offerings, what new goals do you have to work towards over the next 5-10 years?

Sarah Bishop-Stone: It’s such a different beast to have a physical space, and to redefine ourselves as a destination as much as an event. That said, it’s all about building capacity, to continue to do what we do, better and bigger. We have an opportunity to engage more with the fabric of life in this city: to continue to challenge and provoke, to provide forums for conversation and discovery, not just 18 days out of the year, but all year round. I’m doing my best to keep my eye on that challenge as we push this organization forward into the next decade.

Special thanks to Sarah for chatting with us! You can learn more about FringeArts’ upcoming festival and check out the dozens of shows scheduled between September 5th and 21st on their website or with a handy Festival Guide that can be found at any of these hot spots. Stay up to date on performances and special events like Feastival by following FringeArts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

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