A list of Philly Fringe highlights is at the bottom of this article.

The Philly Fringe Festival turns 21 on Thursday night, when 18 days of theater, dance, music, comedy, improv and just plain unclassifiable shows take to stages and other sites around the city.

This year, 13 are curated by the festival's overseer, FringeArts, and another 158 are independently produced in a free-for-all that has just about every stage light and microphone in town in use.
The Philly Fringe also includes 17 digital shows for free — you needn't go somewhere to see them, just fire up your device.

And after the shows are over each night, the festival continues at 10:30 p.m. with a roster of free entertainment at the inside and outside bars at the FringeArts building, Race Street and Columbus Boulevard, in the shadow of the Ben Franklin Bridge.

How do you know where to begin? Experienced Fringers either pick up the 142-page Fringe Festival guide at various points around the city or get online to see the list of shows, at fringearts.com. But for newcomers, it can appear daunting.

In fact, it's not. Leaping through the festival guide is a simple way to make choices — the curated FringeArts shows are well described, the rest of the bunch not so much. But you can get an idea what you're getting into. Here's a suggestion for anyone who wants to jump into the fray at the last minute, with no guidebook in hand:

Go to fringearts.com and click on "festival," a choice at the top of the homepage that comes onto your screen. After the festival page comes up, scroll down and on your left, you'll see a list of all 18 days of the festival.

Click on the day you'd like to join the crowd and you'll get a display of all the shows running that day. Each has a red box: "read more." Click on it, and you'll see whatever description FringeArts has of the show. You can reserve tickets — some of them free, and ranging up to $100, depending on the event. Most shows, though, are priced at the lower end of the scale, and you can have a night of several Fringe shows for under $50 if you work it right.

The festival page also lets you filter shows by themes and by the nine neighborhoods where they appear.

The Philly Fringe is modeled after the huge one in Edinburgh, Scotland, and — like its sponsor, FringeArts, which presents shows all year — is an institution in the city. That's strange — when you think about a festival on the fringe of traditional offerings, institution isn't a word likely to come to mind. But over the years the Philly Fringe has gained many sponsors, aware of a large adventurous audience willing to take risks on work that could be solidly memorable or instantly forgettable or something in between. Other U.S. cities have Fringes but arguably, none as ingrained in local cultural life as much as FringeArts and its festival; New York City's festival didn't even operate this year, and next year may be relegated to a single venue. Not so here, where you might be racing across town, or just ambling down the street, from one show to another.

Over two decades, local stage companies have either come into their own because they began in the Fringe Festival, or their fortunes have been bolstered because they present the first show of their regular seasons in it. You'll find several of these on the Fringe schedule this year, plus a lot of newbies. Some of the work is serious, some of it traditional (but usually with a twist or two), much of it for fun.

No single theme emerges from the work many producers decided to stage this year; in years when a theme pops out, it's coincidental in any case. And this year, the festival is pretty much home-grown, unlike past festivals at which FringeArts has produced shows from around the world. The single curated show is "A Love Supreme," a dance presentation from Belgium.

The Philadelphia-based artists who have created many of this year's curated shows are heavy hitters in the Fringe and at venues around the country, and their new productions represent years of work and polishing.

Here, in no particular order, is a sampling of shows in the festival that could be highlights. Some run throughout the 18 days, others only a night or two. Of course, I can't vouch for them — they haven't yet been performed yet or if they have, not here. The shows curated by FringeArts are noted; all others are part of the general Fringe Festival. Click on the title of any show to go directly to the FringeArts site for that show, for more information.

For a full festival schedule on the Web, go to fringearts.com.

WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED. Celebrated choreographer/director Bill T. Jones stages this new opera about five teens from North Philadelphia who hole up at a West Philly location that happens to be the former headquarters of the MOVE organization. This fusion of musical styles by composer Daniel Bernard Roumain and librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph is a co-partnership between Opera Philadelphia and FringeArts, and is part of two concurrent festivals – the Fringe and the opera company's O17 festival of three world-premiere operas and other performances.

HELLO BLACKOUT! is the latest from Philly-based New Paradise Laboratories but its characters have been on stage before. They're the Kissimmee family -- a set of triplets, their mom, and a dad who's not quite there – who were also the characters in a New Paradise show called "O Monsters." I'm assured that you needn't have seen that show to grasp this "horror-farce with philosophical undertones," as the avidly innovative company describes it. We join the Kissimmee family at time's beginning, when blackouts abound. Bhob Rainey wrote original music, which a quintet will play live. Although the Fringe begins officially Sept. 7, "Hello Blackout!" debuts with two days of previews on Sept. 5 – appropriate for a show that starts at the beginning of time. It's curated by FringeArts.

A PERIOD OF ANIMATE EXISTENCE is Pig Iron Theatre Company's grand-scale project examining the way humans might react to extinction in a time of rapidly changing technology. It's a mix of music, design and theater with three generations of choirs, a chamber orchestra, actors and more: upward of 85 performers on the Annenberg Center stage. The FringeArts-curated world premiere is the largest production to date from Pig Iron. The show is conceived by composer-filmmaker Troy Herion; scenic designer and Pig Iron company member Mimi Lien, and Pig Iron co-artistic director Dan Rothenberg.

17C , the official opening of the festival on Sept. 7, is a FringeArts-curated work of dance, theater and music inspired by the 17th-century diaries of Samuel Pepys, the British naval administrator with endless curiosity and interests. The show is created by Big Dance Theater, an ensemble based in Brooklyn and known for its own endless curiosity in developing work.

IPHIGENIA AT AULIS. In Euripides' tragedy, the Greeks are at the beach in Aulis and ready for war with Troy, but they can't sail out because the wind has disappeared. It turns out that interference by an angry goddess is the reason, and the troop leader, Agamemnon, can appease her only by sacrificing one of his daughters – Iphigenia. So he sends her some fake news in order to get her to the beach. Whew! Deceit long before the Internet invited it! The excellent Philadelphia Artists' Collective starts its season at the Fringe, on the historic USS Olympia, where they're staging the drama. Several years ago at the Fringe, the group produced sea-related plays by Eugene O'Neill, to convincing effect. Euripides gives the artists' collective a reason to do it again.

FISHTOWN – A HIPSTER NOIR. No stage company constantly captures the essence of Philadelphia and Philadelphians better than Tribe of Fools, which has launched several dark-horse Fringe hits over the years – all heavy on acrobatics and local commentary. This time, avatars, plus a high-tech app that lets you live out your wildest fantasies, The Shadow and other elements come together for a show that purports to explore what's real, what's not, our addiction to wireless living and a new definition of loneliness. Serious intent aside, Tribe of Fools has a track record for fun.

GHOST RINGS, from Brooklyn-based Half Straddle and its artistic director Tina Satter, is structured like a live concert with two women and their "spirit animals" – a sassy deer and a seal. The FringeArts-curated show is said to explore the complexity of personal relationships.

HOME. This exploration of what makes a house a home comes with live music, choreography, illusion and construction. It's from theater artist Geoff Sobelle, who apparently sets out to show that a home has a character and life and an evolution of its own, provided by the people who make it and live inside it. It's a FringeArts-curated show.

STRAND. At Crescent Trail Park in the city's Gray's Ferry neighborhood south of Center City, you put on headsets and start off on foot. What you'll find – depending on which of four tours you've selected – will be rugged, semi-apocalyptic, medieval or futuristic. In the end, everyone gets together for a woodlands finale. The show comes from JUNK, the dance troupe led by Brian Sanders, which has provided many surprises (and gasps at dare-devil choreography) at the Philly Fringe since 1999.

A BILLION NIGHTS ON EARTH. Theater artist Thaddeus Phillips and installation artist Steven Dufala team up to create a story for children and adults alike about a father and son who journey through space and time after a stuffed whale goes missing. Landscapes "open like giant pop-up books," according to the production's description – and you can believe it, given the work of Phillips in the past. The score for the show is by Colombian composer Juan Gabriel Turbay and the father and son are played by Michael and Winslow Fegley – in real life, father and son.

ALCHEMIST. Very little is known about this show – I'm told it's about time and transformation and the FringeArts material tells us nothing of the content. But it's by two local Fringe veterans – Philly-based theater artists Mary Tuomanen and Chris Davis. They're longtime friends, and this is the first play they've written together or performed in together. If you base your Fringe choices on track records, this one's a solid bet.

THESE TERRIBLE THINGS. The unpredictable Berserker Residents – they're calling themselves an "alt-comedy" company these days -- are creators of Fringe hits that typically mock ideas and character types by taking them to the far side of logic. This time, the group teams up with University of the Arts to present "an old-ass play ... Lord Ham Hillerson's accidentally bone-chilling" drama called "Cracker and Shiv." Gee, it's not one I've ever heard of. But it's one I'm going to see.

CLOSE MUSIC FOR BODIES unfolds on the floor of the theater at Christ Church Neighborhood House, where the movements of singers who weave through the audience plan to create an immersive sound design that's an ode to singing. The Fringe-curated show is the creation of Michael Kiley, a Philadelphia-based sound designer, composer, teacher and performer. Kiley's recent work has incorporated technology, but for the Fringe he decided to put that aside and "create a piece for the acoustic human voice," he told festival producers.

LEAPS OF FAITH AND OTHER MISTAKES. What do people do when they find themselves lost at sea? Whether the question is literal or not, it's the one Almanac Dance Circus Theatre – a troupe that combines original music, unlikely acrobatics and theater -- is asking in this year's Fringe. The troop has earned it bona-fides: Last year, its mystical piece named "Exile 2588" about a society that operates after the earth has been wrecked by environmental disasters, was a Fringe hit.

AIRSWIMMING, from Philadelphia-based Half Key Theatre Company, is taken from a true story about two women who were confined to a British mental hospital a century ago after they defied the standard definition of womanhood at the time. (Wearing men's clothing, bearing a child out of wedlock...) They spent more than 50 years there, bolstering each other and adopting alter egos to get by. British playwright Charlotte Jones wrote the play, a critical success Off Broadway four years ago.

A LOVE SUPREME is this festival's single international performance – a dance set to John Coltrane's jazz masterpiece "A Love Supreme." The FringeArts-curated show features four dancers on an empty stage with a spotlight. Each also plays an instrument and mixes choreographed movement with improvisation, just as jazz mixes composition with improvisation. "A Love Supreme" is the creation of the Belgian dance company Rosas and dancer-choreographers Salva Sanchis and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.

GATZ. Playwright and director Harrison Stengle says that we receive lots of subliminal messages through life, and he'd like to take them so deep in his work that they become spiritual awakenings. So he's bringing his show "GATZ," which he calls "a modernist parody" of "The Great Gatsby" to this year's Fringe, subliminal messages and all.
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The Philly Fringe Festival runs from Sept. 7 through Sept. 24. For more information: www.fringearts.com.