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.