On Friday night in Philadelphia, people were moving between galleries at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to see performers billing, cooing and ultimately breaking up. Others were watching a show of old-time uke music at a pub on Delancey Street. At the Painted Bride, an audience looked on as adult behavior turned bad. At a church in Manayunk, another audience watched a show about a mad emperor. In South Philly, the story of two gay, star-crossed lovers, members of different Mummers brigades, unfolded. And in 28 more places, people gathered to watch people perform, and sometimes be a part of the action.

The 2014 Philly Fringe Festival had officially begun, with 135 shows and attractions in a wide swath of the city. But nowhere was the action -- or the scene — more heady on Friday night than at the corner of Race Street and Columbus Boulevard. There, just to the south side of the Ben Franklin Bridge and across the broad thoroughfare that separates the city from the Delaware River, a new era for the 18-year-old festival was beginning. FringeArts, the overseer of the Fringe and a presenter of work from all over, was opening its new headquarters — the first one it's ever owned.

It was an electrified night, beginning with a reception for donors and others on the sizeable plaza to one side of the building and inside La Peg, the Fringe's resident restaurant operated by executive chef Peter Woolsey, who runs Bistrot la Minette. They filed into the building's 240-seat theater for "What I Learned About Outer Space," a dance work co-created by the Pennsylvania Ballet, Curtis Institute of Music and FringeArts. They poured onto the plaza, where music and chatter and plenty of drinks – and at one point a percussion band — made a din that hit against the nearby huge stanchion of the Ben Franklin Bridge and reverberated onto Columbus Boulevard.

People came and went and the crowd swelled at around 10:30 in anticipation of the first performance in the building of what people call by names like "the late-night bar" or "the after-hours Fringe" — free entertainment each night of the festival, which runs through Sept. 21, plus a scene that has its own constant beat.

The late-night beat was different from the usual one Friday night, because the opening was not at a performance space at the La Peg bar. It was inside the theater, where perhaps 400 people sat in a full-house (including on the performance area) for a show by one of the area's most successful outré acts — drag queen Martha Graham Cracker with her A-one band and, for a real Fringe-y twist, the Philadelphia Orchestra's brilliant string quartet.

"As John Cage said, 'People complete the thing.' Look at this..." Nick Stuccio motioned from the rear of La Peg, where perhaps 200 people were engaged in conversations. For Stuccio, the co-founder, president and producing director of FringeArts, the headquarters with a theater, rehearsal space, offices, a ticket booth, the restaurant and the wide plaza, had been a dream for seven years, now come true. He had arrived Friday at 7 a.m., and came downstairs from his office in earnest about 5 p.m. By midnight, at the Fringe bar, he had been living the dream for many hours.

"They put in the greenway in just the past couple days," said Sarah Bishop-Stone, the FringeArts programming manager, who was in the middle of the action in the outdoor plaza as crowds emerged. At 3 p.m. yesterday, she said, workers were still installing the last decorative touches. "The amazing thing to me," she said, "is when you're in the theater, you can't even tell that there's all this life out here."

The theater is behind a sliding wall that separates it from the restaurant and the plaza – and Bishop-Stone's observation proved on target – when the FringeArts crew slid the wall back at about 12:45 a.m. to blend a few hundred people at the bar and on the plaza with the audience midway through the Martha Graham Cracker show, the folks in the theater were suddenly in touch with the rest of the complex. "Welcome," Martha motioned toward the outside world.

The scene all evening was filled with donors, artists and Fringe audience members. "The idea to combine art and social life is great," noted Blanka Zizka, the Czeck native who founded and runs Wilma Theater. "It's very European — and I'm from Europe!" Zizka is planning to turn the wide lobby of the Wilma to a public space, and to install a coffee shop in the building.

Lori Kaufmann and her husband, Danny, who helped FringeArts on the business end, stood while people around them munched on La Peg samplings (tangy "Fringe burgers," plump scallops, potato cakes) and downed ice cream served by the nearby Franklin Fountain. "He's been talking about it for a while," Lori said, referring to her husband, "and now I see it. It's the coolest venue I've been to in Philly for a long time."

The actor Leonard Hass, whose Wyncote Foundation is a donor along with several others, said that seeing the building finished and open was "like Christmas morning." Nancy Burd, president of the Burd Group and a consultant to Fringe Arts for both the building and the restaurant, stood inside the door "remembering what this place looked like when it was just a dream" — an abandoned fire department pumping station in the era before skyscrapers had sprinkling systems. Arden Theatre co-founder and producing artistic director Terrence J. Nolen pointed to the lights and sweep of the Ben Franklin Bridge, outside the windows of the new headquarters. "There's no place in the city that has such a connection to a performance space and an outside space. The courtyard is just remarkable."

At 11:52, when the string quartet from the Philadelphia Orchestra — violinists Juliette Kang and Jason DePune, cellist Yumi Kendall and violist David Nicastro — took to the FringeArts theater stage, once more the night became all about performance. A few minutes after they began performing, Martha Graham Cracker materialized in a blue and red outfit with a swirly light-colored wig and see-through heels; the eager audience was pumped by the musicians as well as the drag star. (In real life, she's the Pig Iron Theatre Company co-founder Dito van Reigersberg, whose alter-ego Martha became a cult sensation that's leapt far past cult stage.)

She sang diva songs in swelling and classy arrangements from two of the Martha Graham Cracker Cabaret band musicians, Andrew Nelson and Rich Hill, played by the quartet. It was not the normal Martha concert -- although it included the playful elements of van Reigersberg's appeal, it was more about the music, which began with a Martha take on "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" and moved into pieces that spurred the performer's trademark belting. In the second half of the show, the band backed Martha, who took on the looser and stronger persona her fans are used to seeing at L'Etage. Just after 1:30 a.m., she'd given her exhaustive best, and a sated crowd pulled into the bar and on to the plaza. There, the party was still going strong.

 

 


For information about the Fringe Festival: www.fringearts.com.