INTERVIEW WITH A FRINGE DWELLER: Q&A With Nick Stuccio, Producing Director Of The Live Arts Festival And Philly Fringe

Illustration by GRAHAM SMITH

BY BRANDON LAFVING ARTS CORRESPONDENT Nick Stuccio has been the producing director of the Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe Festival from the very beginning. This year marks the 16th time that performance artists from Philadelphia and across the globe will showcase their work, communicate new and sometimes radical ideas, collaborate, brainstorm, party and, in some cases, get naked — not necessarily in that order. Before Mr. Stuccio became a presenter of the performing arts, he danced for the Pennsylvania Ballet and started the AIDS fundraising program Shut Up and Dance in the mid-1990s. Now, he aims to consolidate the operations of his nonprofit in a single base of operations, which will house a theater, practice room, bar, restaurant, cabaret, and offices where interns will peck away at keyboards far into the dark and lonely night. I wanted to figure out what he is about, how the hell he transitioned from traditional, often-stale ballet to presenting mind-blowing pieces of art, and how Philadelphia’s arts scene has changed since then.  For a man who was named Philadelphia Weekly’s “Person of the Year” in 1997 and whose resume rings with profound success, Mr. Stuccio is surprisingly amiable, humble even, and full of fresh ambition. He is an idealist, and what is more, he makes idealism look good.

PHAWKER: Why did you start producing the Philly Fringe and Live Arts Festival?

NICK STUCCIO: I needed something to do. I was on the Pennsylvania ballet for nine seasons and quit in 1995. I wanted to do something with my life. I knew I wanted to become a producer or presenter and wanted to work with artists. I didn’t know what the hell shape that would take. Back then, AIDS was a very serious matter especially in the ballet community. We had colleagues who were getting sick both in Philly and New York. So we started this AIDS benefit, called Shut Up and Dance. The idea was we’d do our amazing thing. Bunch of young twenty-somethings doing this great work of art doing a dance, few always did it in these big houses for this narrow niche, this small white wealthy older crowd. So we thought we’d take this opportunity and democratize it and make it broad fun and make it cool and reimagine the context for what we did. We knew what we did was a really cool thing but literally we’d take a literally 73-year-old average audience.

So we did the first benefit in the Trocadero. We plopped it down right there and it was awesome. It was $10 and people were buying and drinking beer during the show, and it was awesome. And that was a radical shift in 1993 for Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Ballet dancers in the Trocadero. You know, it was such a hole back then. The toilets didn’t work and we had ballerinas working out in there. So I fell in love with being a producer and presenter. I danced in the first one or two years, but then I decided I didn’t want to dance, I just wanted to produce. So I learned how to write a press release, how to talk to a reporter, how to raise money for this event. You know we were very passionate about it, because our colleagues were getting sick. I learned fundraising from calling the Tasty Baking company and asking for $500 dollars to calling donors, to photography and design. I learned the whole business of what I do now by trial and error on a very DIY scale. That was very beneficial. I learned the trade. That was 1993 and 1994, and I wanted to quit in 1995 and knew I wanted to do something with that. Actually I tried to get Shut Up and Dance to go to the national level. Absolut Vodka was going to be a national sponsor. I couldn’t do it.

Then I dove into the local community and met a bunch of contemporary artists. At the same time, I was having this transformative experience. The choreographer then director Christopher D’Amboise brought in these contemporary choreographers. I was a serious classical ballet guy, and in came these crazy guys. I had this conversion experience. This choreographer was pushing me and I had a fit, cause I didn’t like it. Then he said, that fit, what you just did there, that is what I’m looking for. And I thought that was fun. It was so much more expressive and crazy. I learned the formal restraints of ballet, and I fell in love with contemporary, experimental ballet. And that’s how things went down. As a producer, the arts I was interested in pushed in that direction. So that’s why we do what we do.

Then I met a bunch of artists in the community. Back then, in the mid-1990s there was a vibrant community of artists, and I met them all. They were doing these little shows in basements, back alleys and dungeons. They were full of people who were interested in this kind of stuff. I met one guy, Eric Schoefer. He had one show and asked if I’d produce it. Eric and I went to Edinburgh in 1996, where there was this great arts festival and basically stole their ideas and spent a year building the notion of having a festival in Philadelphia. We met Conrad Bender, as well, who’s still on staff. We basically stole all the ideas and took the ideas and built the notion of having a festival in Philly. We had the first one in 1997 with very little money and just a lot of prayers and gumption. And the response was great. People loved it. They organized 50-40 shows. Then we started knocking on the doors of foundations and some individuals. We started getting an infrastructure and getting help. The foundations wanted to help because they were giving money to promotions, and there was no vehicle for getting the artists in front of people. I had this little bit of success with Shut Up and Dance, which had really taken off. Some key supporters took some leaps of faith, and here we are, 16 years later.

Honestly, I needed something to do. There’s nothing like being an unemployed dancer. I could have still danced, but I wanted to do this. Like many things in life it was a set of circumstances that was kind of lucky. There wasn’t a presenter in town. There was a nadir of institutions getting work in front of the public. But at the same time there were a lot of artists stuffing these little, out-of-the-way places.

PHAWKER: How has the experimental arts scene changed in Philly?

NICK STUCCIO: Fringe has another meaning, which is an anti-curatorial, non-vetted platform for art. That’s what the fringe movement is, in a sense. But it is also used as a synonym from that aesthetic perspective – people who don’t do classical art. They do fringe, which is pushing boundaries. Just to clarify terms.

So, the scene has definitely grown and evolved. Pig Iron went to Swarthmore and then to this very famous clown school. And not just circus clowns. It’s acting, but it’s called clown because it’s very character based. You develop this persona. You train for years how to get in touch with this character. What makes them really good actors is that their characters are really complete. They completely inhabit those characters, mind and body. I see the difference. They are European, very international. They are funny. They know comedy. They know body. They know text. It’s great. They landed in Philly, and that training has percolated all over. Their ideals have infiltrated so many aspects of Philly. So Geoff Sobel and Charlotte Ford also trained in clown. Also Whit McLaughlin of New Paradise Laboratories. Thaddeus Phillips also landed here. Headlong Dance Theater, very smart folks, they landed here. So all these amazing artists began making work at the same time we started the festival, almost in the exact same year, they all descended on Philly in 1996 and 1997.

What that created was a seedbed for an ensemble theater community. That’s a big group, and their influence is mighty. Pig Iron started a school. I spoke with a class of students at Pig Iron this year, and I could see they were headed down a really great path. I think we’re all growing and we’re all maturing. You know, we’re like a 16 year-old and we’re like a 16 year-old in many ways. A talented 16 year-old. But honestly, we’re still learning, and so is Pig Iron and Headlong and New Paradise. I’ve seen their work evolve. They’re becoming more mature, mid-career artists.

The dance sector has really evolved, as well. There were some great progenitors of what’s here now. The IQ of dance and the sensibility and how to do research and how to make provocative dance and theater has really gone up. Ballet X realized the need for contemporary ballet. Here in our city, we don’t have that kind of work. Pennsylvania ballet dabbles in it occasionally, but we’re not fed that kind of ballet. We should have it, because it represents the form of ballet today and what’s happening – the current living choreographers, who are seeing where pushing the boundaries of the form and seeing where ballet intersects with other mediums and other kinds of dance. They saw that and they went for it. Christine and Matt they all saw what we did with Shut Up and Dance. They saw juxtaposition between this classical art form and the need to contemporize it and make it lively and current and relevant. The ballet didn’t unfortunately, but it has a different mission. Ballet X is awesome and they know where their niche is in terms of pushing it forward.

PHAWKER: Does the Fringe Festival give artists a way to get their art out and get funding?

NICK STUCCIO: The Fringe is a great gateway opportunity, and many have taken advantage of it. It’s also kind of hard too, because there’re so many shows. It’s a training ground. There are a lot of artists just coming out from school, and we help. We give them a list of places to call to find a venue.  We give how-to books. People call for advice on how to get insurance, how to get technical advice. It’s a great introduction to presenting your own work, and the stakes are relatively low. We have the audience, the attention of the media and the public. One-thousand-plus artists have had debuts. Some have crashed-and-burned, never to come back, and that’s okay. Some learn a lot, go underground and come back years later. Or they find a collaborator at another show. There’s so much density of artists and ideas. There’s a myriad of potential for interaction and interfaces that led to god-knows-what. You can see the whole picture has risen and grown.

The audience is also a really important part of the equation. The audience has evolved and grown dramatically. In some ways, that’s the most important part. Making work is great, but at some point you want to communicate that work to another human being. It’s the point, I guess, for most of them. Some say – No I’m just going to do this for myself, in my own home – which is also fine.

Audiences have grown in size, but also in their boundaries. We like to push the boundaries. We like to provide a platform for high-quality experimenters. I’ve seen over the years. I remember we brought in Rich Maxwell with the New York City Players. It’s a really silly name but super experimental. People couldn’t stand it. They walked out of the Arden Theater. But this guy is good. I love this guy’s work. He rips all the intonation out of language. It’s about communication. It’s about how the words don’t matter as much as the way we say them.   And in fact he hires non-actors, because non-actors speak in monotone. He mixes actors and non-actors, and then adds back intonation at the weirdest moments. So you get this really weird effect. It can be really moving and compelling through this collage of language and movement. People were not ready.

But Aaron Posner, artistic director at the Arden Theater, said. This is really interesting. You should bring this back. Give people another chance. So I brought it back the next year. And in literally in one year, it went from this one small group of people who liked it – I guess they spread the word and people had the opportunity to see what the artist was saying – to the second year, which was this huge success.

Now, we’re ready for pretty much anything. In 2007, we brought Jérôme Bel’s piece called The Show Must Go On to the Kimmel Center. It was this radical piece about what is dance and theater, asking questions like why do you sit there, and why do we stand up here. What is this weird transaction? That’s what the show was about: 18 pop songs and the cast of 20 did whatever the pop songs said to do. The first song was the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.” Nothing happens except the lights slowly come up for two minutes and 38 seconds. And then “Let’s Dance.” The cast stares at the audience and then freaks out, takes their clothes off and dances. “My Life in Red” – the cast just sat down on the stage, and the entire theater was bathed in this beautiful red light. We all just sat and appreciated just being in this red light while the song was playing.

On “The Sound of Silence,” there was just silence. They pressed play, and there was no music, except the sound man heard it. For the chorus, he would turn up the music, so we all could hear it, and then he would turn it back down. So people were like, what the fuck is going on. There was a riot. This is the Perelman Theater. People were going, what the fuck did I just pay $40 for?! Each night, the audience was just about ready to destroy it. But by the end of the night, we got packed houses, standing ovations. Some people left in the middle. By the end of the run, people loved it. Sweet beautiful ideas, and it was so powerful. It’s a great piece.

If I had brought that in 2000, they would have thrown me in a bus to Kansas City to go run a theater somewhere out there. It took years of bringing people along, and just culture changing slowly – becoming more interested in provocative ideas. And having a tolerance and willingness to be open to these new brilliant and new ideas. Slowly we’re moving along that continuum to now bringing Back-to-Back Theater this year. It’s a really provocative, experimental work. I have no problem bringing that back now, but it’s taken 16 years for audiences to mature as we do. As we’re getting smarter, we can contextualize it better. We understand what we’re doing better and audiences get what we’re doing more and more each year.

I went to Auvignon Arts Festival this year, a 66-year old festival, and I could see what a mature arts festival is like. The public has such a deep understanding of what the perspective of this provocative arts festival is. I took a bus to some venue and this lady could tell me all about the artist. She had seen them four times. She was a local. She understood her relationship with that festival, and we’re developing that maturation, but we’re a 16 year-old not a 66-year-old [festival]. But still, I’ve seen these turning points, and that’s my biggest reward by far when we nab something out in the world, when we put in front of people when they reject it and then embrace it. John Jaspers was a very provocative piece. I was sweating. It was a tester. I think he’s brilliant. He’s been making work in our country for 25 years. We should see his work. We have obligations to people who put on culture, to bring these known, accepted, brilliant artists to our city. It’s part of being a first-tier place and an important city. We should see who has the cool ideas, in science and art. That makes us connected and part of the conversation. Too often I think there’s not enough of those artists coming to Philly. It’s pretty horrific that we don’t have a year-round presentation for this kind of work. They have them in Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis, Columbus, Ohio, Vermont. In New York they have all kinds of them, in Burlington… In Philadelphia, we don’t have one.

PHAWKER: So you’re consolidating the Fringe in a year-round venue?

NICK STUCCIO: We want to plant a stake in the ground here, in Philadelphia, to be connected to those other places where these thinkers are making work and sharing work and discussing their ideas with the public and with other people who work in culture. That’s what connects us and elevates us. That’s what makes us relevant. Philadelphia’s a great place, but it could and should be better, in terms of those things. That’s what we’re excited to provide. And also for those artists who make work here. I think that having a place for not just once a year, but year ‘round we’ll be able to have a different relationship with audiences and begin to say, if you really want to know what dance is like, in Philadelphia, then you know where to go.

PHAWKER: So in terms of moving into the new building and organizing this new space, what requires more sophistication, bringing in a Polish opera or purchasing a new venue?

NICK STUCCIO: Well, this is a big project. That was great. Love those guys. Those guys got so drunk in the bus on the bus from Newark Airport to Philadelphia, they left their passports. Most of them had never been out of Poland. So they were like, woohoo!

This is a big, multi-tiered effort, to have this center: a real home base with this idea of marrying social culture and performing arts. Ever since Edinburgh, I’ve been saying this. That’s what they do there. When they do it, they’ll rent a city park, no joke, like literally Rittenhouse Square. They’ll lay down astro-turf and they will then make the biggest most awesome biergarten. That’s the first thing they do. And around that they’ll create these revival-like Spiegel tents and put stages in them around the confines of this biergarten. Imagine Rittenhouse with 400 people in picnic tables and these giant tents interspersed around this biergarten with shows every hour on the hour. Seven different venues. Imagine you see some whacky guy from New York, then you go back to the garten, have something to eat, and you’re drinking by 10 a.m. The lines are like crazy to the beer at 10 a.m. It’s this beautiful intermingling of fun socializing, vacationing, and interacting with performance art. It’s intoxicating and brilliant. I want to add that as the operating idea. I’ve been trying to do that forever.

PHAWKER: It sounds like you have a trajectory in mind. This is a big step, but you have more ambitions in the future?

NICK STUCCIO: It’s never ending. It’s like learning ballet or golf. It’s a process. You’re never going to arrive, really. Again, 16 years. I do look at Auvignon. I’ll have my time running this thing and pushing it along. Then I’ll give it to someone who will take it, and so on. This building will enable us to take a step and develop new relationships with audiences and the artists, a much more stable platform for the organization. The more stable we are, the more, better things we can do. You know, there are only a certain number of things we can bring in because of our size. Why shouldn’t we be able to bring in anything in the world, or even instigate projects, which cost a lot of money and resources and energy? Why can’t we hold conferences about devised theater if we want to do that? And that stable home base will provide us the opportunity to do a lot more international work, a lot more producing, and to do things like a 16 year-old is taught to do. The context materials – things like being able to really contextualize a show, hire writers get some brilliant folks to help us write some pieces about it, all that we need to evolve into to take a work and tease out the ideas, bring them to life, make the most of them in Philadelphia, involving more young people in what we do. We have a lot of room to grow. I think we have a lot of upside potential. But I do think that stability, of knowing where our offices are, where our home base is every year. Every year, we have to find it, and so do audiences. It’s a pain in the ass. But now we’ll be in a distinct location. We’ll be able to work with artists in a much more profound way. We’ll become a real international destination for contemporary arts and culture.

PHAWKER: What’s the thing this year that’s going to push the boundaries of audiences?

NICK STUCCIO: Food Court really is a very powerful piece. It obliterates taboos that we have about people with disabilities. It really punches you in the face and goes like how do you really feel about people unlike yourself with disabilities? For instance, in the work, there’s a disabled person. Every time I see it, I’m reeling to be thinking about those things myself. You know they strip a physically disabled person? They literally take her clothes off. We’re not really supposed to see a nude person with severe physical disability.  And they brutalize her. And it’s like, what is going on?! And they’re saying, who has the power? Let’s look at the power dynamics. We’re powerful people. We’re human beings, and we have the power now. Watch us have the power now. Especially since my brother in law, who works with kids with disabilities, says, you don’t see kids with Down Syndrome as much any more, because the tests are really accurate, and people are willing to end the pregnancies. So it’s like, wow, at some point there will be no Down Syndrome. So here this is a group of people with Down Syndrome. It’s like a dying epoch of time. So all of these things are going through my mind as I’m watching this. It is very human, about power dynamics, and about how we’re forced to deal with people who aren’t like ourselves. It also has an aesthetic, beautiful side. Some people are going to be like, you fucker, I can’t believe I’m watching this right now.