Poet, singer, musician and teacher Yolanda Wisher said she first thought about joining SmokeyScout Productions' Nice and Fresh Northwest pop-up performance series last winter, when she was coming out of Big Blue Marble bookstore after a reading.  

SmokeyScout co-founder Josh McIlvain and his performers happened to be leaving the Moving Arts of Mt. Airy on the opposite corner after their December show there.

Wisher and her husband, bassist Mark Palacio, live in Germantown with their five-year-old son, Thelonious, who attends Miquon School along with McIlvain's kids. That was how the two families, including McIlvain's wife and SmokeyScout co-founder Deborah Crocker, first met, Wisher told NewsWorks while warming up for a show in April one night.

Quick Fixx

"We've been playing in Philadelphia together for 15 years," Wisher said of her partnership with Palacio. Now, they often perform in a guitar/bass trio alongside percussionist Karen Smith, who was also on hand for the show in early April. Together, they're Yolanda Wisher and the Quick Fixx.

Wisher said she got her start in music at age five, with the violin. "Technically, I started on a margarine box with a ruler stuck in it," she clarified, before graduating to the instrument itself. In her late 20s, she began to play the cello.

"I always wanted to turn it upside down and play it like a guitar," she said of her evolution to her current instrument.

The founder and director of the Germantown Poetry Festival, Wisher just published her first book of poetry, Monk Eats an Afro, last year. Palacio is also quick to point out that his wife is the first-ever poet laureate of nearby Montgomery County.

She, Palacio and Smith performed a powerful trio of original songs scattered throughout the Nice and Fresh Program: "Trapeze," "Crosswoman Blues," and "Cornrow Song."

Leaps of faith

Many of the performances were as fresh to McIlvain as they were to the rest of the packed house on folding chairs at Cliveden — he curates the artists appearing in the series, but not the work itself.

The circus/dance performance troupe Almanac contributed two short pieces: a mash-up of unique, breathlessly stacked acrobatics and monologues by McIlvain. Starring creator/performers Nicole Burgio, Nick Gillette, Ben Grinberg and Adam Kerbel, they were titled "Leaps of Faith and Other Mistakes," and "The Smoke."

"I am not going to be the kind of person who has one exceptional story," Gillete gabs in "Leaps of Faith," sipping from a Dunkin Donuts cup while his companions exert silent but remarkable physical feats using the pull, strength and play of their own bodies. "I'm going to be exceptional, not in a normal way, but in a moment-to-moment way."

This question is something everyone can relate to, McIlvain said afterwards of his inspiration for the "Leaps of Faith" monologue. Seeing people try to express themselves verbally through remarkable physical contortions could be a metaphor for getting ourselves across with the limited human tools of everyday life.

As Gillette put it, "What's it like to speak inside the duress of some of these moves?"

"A lot of people want to live an exceptional life. What does that mean?" McIlvain asked. Almanac's latest Nice and Fresh performance is actually a lead-up to a new full-length work coming to Philly in late June, billed as "an absurd acrobatic dance piece about sublime human idiocy, isolationist seafarer cults, and the kind of people that devote their lives to becoming acrobats," written by McIlvain with music by Patrick Lamborn.

New roles for Cliveden

The show also included work from The Naked Stark, an interactive dance/music piece from choreographer/performer Katherine Kiefer Stark, with Bethany Brooks on the keyboard. Writer/director McIlvain's new short play, Little Sister Plays Guitar, starring Julius Ferraro, Anna Flynn-Meketon and Francesca Piccioni, rounded out the night.

Cliveden executive director David Young also attended the performance. He was pleased by the number of new visitors coming in the door for Nice and Fresh, noting that Cliveden already plays host to a diverse range of activities, from plays to weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. The site is happy to branch out into new forms of local engagement, he added.

"Cliveden is more and more of a community center," Young said.

Nice and Fresh's next performances are scheduled for Friday, May 22 and Saturday, May 23 at Cliveden.