Fringe Player

As the wild, unpredictable Fringe Festival — this month staging its 12th season — has grown into an internationally acclaimed event, co-founder Nick Stuccio has become Philly’s arbiter of the avant-garde. And that, say the struggling artists he once helped champion, is exactly the problem

EXCEPT FOR ONE PROBLEM: That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. Or at least, that’s not the way it works at the original fringe festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, where Stuccio headed in 1996 to figure out what this fringe thing was all about.

Actually, Stuccio didn’t want to go. Eric Schoefer made him. Schoefer, a local dancer, had this very un-mainstream one-man show he wanted to put on called Ballyhoo, the saga of a flea-circus ringmaster whose fleas rebel. Schoefer knew that aside from nightclubs and a once-a-year revue at the Painted Bride at 2nd and Vine, there wasn’t really an outlet in Philly for the artists here who did that kind of work — something that didn’t fit the dance mold or the theater mold … or any mold. That year, the Arden’s season billed old standbys Company and Death of a Salesman; even the Wilma was putting on a Tom Stoppard play. But Schoefer knew there was an outlet outside Philly: Edinburgh, Scotland.

Edinburgh didn’t set out to be the epicenter of all things fringy.  The point of its first festival, in 1947, was to use the arts — legitimate and esteemed theater and music companies — to unite Europe after World War II. But eight performance groups who hadn’t been invited to the official party decided to put on their shows themselves, on the outskirts — the fringe — of town. This wasn’t a proving ground for the mainstream festival; it was a “Screw you” to the mainstream festival. The fringe part — and the defiant spirit behind it — grew. Today, Edinburgh boasts the largest arts festival in the world, with 2,088 acts this year alone.

Schoefer knew, even back in 1996, that he couldn’t produce and promote his show in Edinburgh all by himself — the scene was too hectic. So Schoefer’s friends hooked him up with this guy in his early 30s named Nick Stuccio who’d been dancing with the Pennsylvania Ballet since he graduated from college in 1986, and who had recently started to produce original work as part of a benefit for Manna called “Shut Up and Dance.” Stuccio wasn’t supposed to be a producer. In fact, Stuccio wasn’t even supposed to be a dancer.

He grew up the youngest child of a second-generation Italian family in Wilkes-Barre, intending to become a doctor like his dad. But during his first days at Skidmore College in New York, he wandered past a ballet class and was mesmerized. He watched. For hours. And suddenly this biology major was buying tights and a dance belt and ballet slippers and spending five hours a day in the studio — the only guy in a room filled with ballerinas.

“He was well aware of the advantages of the male-to-female ratio in a ballet class,” says his oldest buddy, Constitution Center president and CEO Joe Torsella, who cast Stuccio in a Neil Simon play he directed when they were in high school together.

After college, Stuccio auditioned for the Pennsylvania Ballet and got in. As a dancer, he dug tradition and purity. So when the ballet director brought in contemporary choreographers to run six-week workshops with the company, Stuccio was appalled. I’m here to do ballet! he thought. This is going to distract from my mission to be Baryshnikov!

When a visiting choreographer asked the dancers to write down their thoughts, Stuccio nearly lost his mind. Writing? Why am I writing in the studio? As if it couldn’t get worse, the guy taught them a series of movements and, when it was Stuccio’s turn to perform them, said, “Nick, now I want you to say this line. … ”

 “You want me to speak?” This is bullshit, Stuccio thought. And to prove it, he did what the choreographer asked, but he screamed the line, totally exaggerating.

“That’s it!” the choreographer yelled. “That’s exactly what I wanted!” That day, Stuccio recognized, for the first time, that there was more to dance than just ballet.

“At that moment, with that man, I got thrust into the world of contemporary expression. It changed my entire view,” he says. “From that point on, I was like, ‘Classical ballet? Pulllleeeease.’”

As they planned their trip to Edinburgh, Schoefer and Stuccio began fantasizing about starting a fringe festival in Philly. So in Scotland, while Schoefer performed, Stuccio learned everything he could. How did they find all these venues? How did they get artists to pay to be a part of it? How did they persuade the city to sign on?

When Stuccio called folks in the Rendell administration — including his old bud Torsella, who was deputy mayor of policy and planning at the time — to pitch a festival, “All of us blew it off,” says Torsella. So with a $30,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation, Stuccio and Schoefer did it themselves. For five days in September 1997, an astounding 17,000 people came to 37 venues in Old City to watch the work of 60 artists — most of them from Philly.

“It felt like drinking water in the desert,” says Deborah Block, a young director who partnered with Stuccio and Schoefer to get the festival up and running, and eventually became the “Fringe Mama,” nurturing local artists, going to see their shows throughout the year. Better yet, they made money. So many people came to see one show in an Old City warehouse that they just threw the money from ticket sales into a garbage can.

“I was carrying home garbage bags full of something like $25,000,” Stuccio says.

Fast-forward 12 years, and Stuccio no longer uses garbage bags to transport the $350,000 or so the festival pulls in each year through ticket sales, or the rest of the yearly $2 million operating budget that comes from all the mainstream big wigs, like PNC. Stuccio, with a salary of $78,000 a year, has evolved into a “power lunch” guy, buoyed by a board of big names like credit card gazillionaire Richard Vague and Art Museum interim CEO Gail Harrity.  

Stuccio has to play that part now. He’s got big plans to buy a warehouse and turn it into lab space for artists to develop their work. He’s got a well-deserved rep to protect as a Philadelphia visionary with endless imagination, the guy who truly put the city on the map of contemporary performance art. (“Philly’s on the short-list of U.S. locations to travel to to see interesting work,” says Cathy Edwards, who curates a similar festival in New Haven.) He’s helped Philadelphia companies like Pig Iron and New Paradise Laboratories and Headlong Dance Theater develop devoted audiences here and get attention beyond.

But being on his way to a caricature at the Palm doesn’t mean Stuccio’s gone soft. In fact, the older he gets, and the more he does this, the edgier he becomes, even though he’s a family man with a wife and three kids. That whole discussion with the German choreographer about “If it gets sexual, then we’ll allow that to happen”? That was five years ago. Stuccio wishes he’d talked to the choreographer about the show a little more, tried to understand the ideas behind it. He wishes he’d consulted the festival’s lawyers, because if they’d charged admission, that would probably have been prostitution. But if it had been free, he wonders now, would that have been okay?