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

Why, then, is the word on the street that Philly Fringe could disappear and Nick Stuccio would be okay with that? Why are so many artists upset that the Fringe “isn’t what it was”? Because Stuccio changed the festival’s name.

Before 2004, this circus was one big (though odd and semi-dysfunctional) family. After 2004, it was separated into two parts — the Live Arts, and Philly Fringe.

It didn’t seem like such a big deal, really. Ever since the first festival, there had been shows that got more support, and then there were those that were self-produced and on the fly. But the name change? It just made clear that two different events were happening here — one festival that was vetted, and one that wasn’t.

“We had the line cook from the restaurant, yes. And God bless him,” says Stuccio. “But to put his listing in the program next to a world-class, world-famous contemporary artist? We felt it was important to make clear what, exactly, the work was, to make it transparent to the audience.”

But the significance of those 50 Live Arts shows vs. the 140 Philly Fringe shows that year was as transparent as transparent could be, according to Fringe co-founder Eric Schoefer. “I remember seeing the program,” he says. “There was ‘Live Arts’ in big bold letters. And then there was ‘Philly Fringe’ in small little italics. It made it perfectly clear that the Fringe wasn’t as valued. Like a little sister who was tagging along.”

By then, Schoefer hadn’t been working with the festival for years, partly because a “sour feeling” had developed between Stuccio and him. “Fringe Mama” Deborah Block isn’t with the festival anymore, either; she’s now the co-artistic director of Theatre Exile. Stuccio fired her in 2006. “Deb had a more socialist view of art-making,” says Stuccio. “She believes in basic fringe principals of lotteries and first-come-first-serve, of not picking stuff. I wanted to be more selective.”

Making these choices hasn’t been easy for Stuccio.  “I never expected this would be the position I was in,” he says. He’s had to sacrifice lots of things — colleagues, friends, camaraderie with other artists. He can no longer have normal conversations with dancers, the way he used to when he was one of them. Every artist who approaches him is working up the nerve to transition from “Hey, Nick, how’s it going?” to “Let me tell you about my new piece.”

“My best friends now are the funders,” Stuccio says. “I feel closer to them.” And in a way, he’s more responsible to them.

Which is why, this September, Stuccio is producing 21 Live Arts shows (including 12 that are Philadelphia born-and-bred) — the most selective yet. It’s also the fewest yet, which means that while the Chosen Ones get more resources, the city’s emerging artists have fewer spots to be chosen for. Their only option is to put on a fringe show. Except the bigger the Fringe side gets, the more all those young, serious, hardworking artists — the ones the festival was created 12 years ago to support — have to compete with 175 other acts (including that line cook) to get an audience to come see their work.

But the real issue is this: One man can only have so much vision, and Stuccio has reached his limit.

A longtime fringe and Live Arts regular, lighting designer Mark O’Maley, was recently having a conversation with other local artists, and they all agreed: “We have to be careful of making Nick Stuccio the de facto curator of taste in this city.” But Nick Stuccio is the de facto curator of taste in this city, at least as far as contemporary and experimental performance art goes.

“It is a one-horse town,” says Andrew Simonet, of Headlong Dance Theater, which Stuccio has produced numerous times. “It can start to feel like, ‘I have to make work that this guy likes.’”

The crazy thing is, Nick Stuccio agrees. “There aren’t enough mediators in this city to get work in front of the public,” he says. “I matter more than I should.”

“It’s not a bad thing that people are pissed,” says Deborah Block. “If people are pissed, hopefully they’re getting ready to do something new.”

Could it be that what the Fringe Fest needs is … a Fringe Fest?