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

JUST WHEN IT SEEMED like Nick Stuccio couldn’t piss off any more local artists, he did. He cancelled the festival’s Late-Night Cabaret this year.  

The cabaret was the last tether to the festival of yore, a free-for-all open-mike show that came to life, spontaneously, in 1997 in a tent outside Lucy’s Hat Shop on Market Street. It grew into a no-cover-charge spot where artists (and the public) could hang out after a day of festivaling, where they would drink lots of beer and watch a carnival of live performance — from music acts to burlesques to puppets setting things on fire. Everyone went. Scott Johnston, who managed it for the past 11 years, likened it to “Shangri-la.”

“I was told that the cabaret is ‘not part of the vision anymore,’” Johnston says.

Instead, Stuccio wants to give the artists a place to actually meet each other, and to actually talk, to maybe strike up collaborations. “If anyone had anything serious to say, it wasn’t happening at the noisy, crazy Cabaret,” he says. So in its place, Stuccio’s organized a “chill-out space” at 5th and Fairmount in Northern Liberties, where people can drink and chat, with DJs playing music in the background.

“A great sin is occurring,” says Johnston. “I use the word sin with all its muster.” He’s not kidding. A local producer and artist who occasionally performs under the pseudonym “Count Scotchula” and in a burlesque show called the Peek-A-Boo Revue, Johnston lives and breathes the Fringe. His life changed back in 1997 when he was volunteering with the first Fringe and saw a production by a naked saxophonist.

“Before the show, I was thinking, ‘This guy’s a self-important douche,’” Johnston says. Because as everyone knows, there are many, many self-important douches in the Fringe. There is bad, bad stuff in the Fringe. But sometimes, there’s a diamond. This saxophonist? A diamond. “He was a cipher of some divine presence,” says Johnston. “My eyes were opened to theater I never would have chosen to come to see.

“This festival is not about DJs,” he says. “This is about live arts.”

And that’s precisely why Johnston is breaking free of the church of Nick Stuccio, why he’s spending his own money — $10,000 — to put on the Unofficial Late-Night Cabaret that premieres on August 29th at Johnny Brenda’s.

“Would the gospels have traveled as far had not the apostles gone in different directions?” Johnston asks. For him, this isn’t a proving ground, not by any means. This is, most definitely, a “Screw you.”

And Nick Stuccio thinks that’s just about the coolest thing ever.