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

One man can only have so much vision, and Nick Stuccio seemed to have reached his limit.

He was having a conversation — one that started like so many conversations do when you’re the producing director of the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe: “Nick, I have an idea for a new show. … ”

In this case, Stuccio was chatting with a noted German choreographer, whom he’d flown in from Berlin along with 10 improvisational dancers to perform for the festival. Their production involved audience members lying on beds onstage and being massaged and mounted and generally tossed around. But the next show he was developing would make this one look like Anne of Green Gables.

“It’s called Secret Service,” the choreographer explained. Just one audience member and two dancers in a room, alone. There were blindfolds. Clothing was optional. “If it gets sexual,” he said, “then we allow that to happen. … ”

“What are you saying?” Stuccio asked. “That you’re going to have sex with these people?”

“Well, if that’s where it leads, then. … ”

“Ahhhhh, no,” Stuccio said. “No … I … I can’t do that. That crosses the line for me.”  

And that was that.

Nick Stuccio says no a lot. It’s his job — he’s the gatekeeper of all things fringy. He’s the visionary who helped start the Philadelphia Fringe Festival 12 years ago to give the city’s emerging underground artists an official forum in which to strut their wacky stuff. He’s the campaigner who built the city’s reputation as home to what has become a super-cool, world-class international festival. And now, he is The Man who alone decides which shows and artists are worthy — and which are not — of being produced during those precious 16 days of fringe-festivaling that take place each September. Nick Stuccio is the city’s great and powerful wizard of experimental performance art. What he says, goes.

“I don’t want to piss Nick Stuccio off,” says one young local artist who’s been jumping up and down to get his attention. She isn’t alone — lots of locals have been whispering amongst themselves, complaining about Stuccio: that he’s fired the festival staff members who were looking out for the artists’ best interests; that this year he cancelled their favorite festival event, the Late-Night Cabaret; that basically, all the time and effort he put into building this über-international-festival has come at a cost.

The trouble, they say, is Stuccio’s vision, which has become so ambitious that the only things really in his sights anymore are the city’s top-tier artists, who are already established, and faraway acts, like German choreographers and Swedish folk-singing animators and Argentineans who flash-fry live lobsters on stage. But what about the emerging artists here? Because there are more than ever, many of whom have chosen to settle in Philly over New York, and not just because rent is cheaper. “This arts scene is welcoming,” says one dancer who moved to the city fresh out of college four years ago. “People here are excited about new artists and new perspectives.” But these are the very people who are now being left behind, she says — the underground that the Fringe was originally created to bring into the light of day.

As one lighting designer put it in a letter to the editor of the City Paper in June, Nick Stuccio is “screwing over the home team.” Ironically, if it weren’t for Nick Stuccio, no one would be paying attention to the home team at all.

FIRST, ONE THING NEEDS to be made clear: Even though it started as the Philadelphia Fringe Festival (and pretty much everyone still calls it that, or the Fringe Fest), the event — and the nonprofit that runs it — is officially known as the Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe. This distinction is important.

Because really, there are two festivals going on at the same time. One is the Live Arts festival — a.k.a. the Official Fringe. These are the artists and companies that Stuccio selects to “be produced,” meaning they get the venue they need, whether it be a stage or a skate park or the backseat of a car. They also get technical support, marketing, advertising, publicity, travel expenses, lodging … they even get paid. Stuccio is the curator. His idea of “What is art” is the filter. And he’s not looking to produce Swan Lake. Or Rent. Or even The Glass Menagerie performed backwards, or in pig Latin, or in the nude.

“Being naked and saying ‘fuck’ isn’t experimental in and of itself,” Stuccio says, dressed in his trademark black t-shirt and black pants, sitting in his very white office on Front Street, where he has a computer constantly playing the DVDs artists send him for consideration. He’s particularly pumped at the moment about the video from a Brazilian group that’s deconstructing hip-hop dance.

“They don’t even have music!” he says, his voice stretching higher as he almost vibrates in his chair, which makes him seem 20 years younger. Not that he looks 45 to begin with; more like a teenager with some strands of premature gray. Basically, he’s searching for artists who make him react this way. He wants dancers, actors, musicians and poets whose work isn’t like anything ever put before an audience. It must surprise him. It must challenge the way he views the world. Stuccio is hunting, always — all over the planet, in fact — for the next thing.

He describes it this way: “When you see a piece of work — all the textures and colors and sounds and smells — it’s all firing in your head, and all of a sudden your endorphins are going and you’re not sure why. Yeah. It’s like a drug.” And just about every performing artist in the city is dying to be Stuccio’s next drug.

“The Live Arts is a huge marker of success in our community,” says 26-year-old choreographer Meg Foley, who has never had any of her work produced by Stuccio.

But Foley has self-produced her own work in the other festival — the Philly Fringe. Uninvited, unfiltered, unpredictable and unapologetically unofficial, this is the wild, sexy, punk-rock, do-it-yourself side, open to anyone, whether you have an MFA in theater or are the line cook at Alma de Cuba who decided over the weekend that you want to do a stand-up act (presuming you have a space in which to do it, plus $275 for the participation fee and a listing in the program). This year, 176 acts are performing in the Philly Fringe — the most ever — which Stuccio sees as the “proving ground” for young, emerging artists.

“It’s brutal natural selection,” he says.

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?

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?

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.


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