Three of the most enthusiastic veterans of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival are each doing not one, but two shows this year. Jenna Kuerzi finishes out the final installment of On the Rocks’ “Dead Teenager Trilogy” with The Groom’s a Fag; The Bride’s a Cunt; The Best Man’s a Whore; and the Maiden of Honor (Just) Hung Herself in the Closet and makes her debut with Tribe of Fools in Fishtown – A Hipster Noir. Eric Singel revives his drag performance of Joan Crawford in Her Own Words with JC Productions and directs the WaitStaff Sketch Comedy Troupe’s cabaret show Labor of Love. And Hannah Van Sciver appears in Die-Cast’s inaugural production of Pericles and co-stars in The Greenfield Collective’s Tilda Swinton Adopt Me Please, which she co-created. All six are among my Top Picks for the 2017 festival.
I spoke with Jenna, Eric, and Hannah this week prior to the opening of the Fringe, during their busy rehearsal time, to discuss the shows, their hectic schedules, and their views on the value of the festival and what it has to offer.
Deb: What made you decide to participate in two Fringe productions this year?
Jenna: I’ve done it before, during the 2015 festival, with On the Rocks’ Spookfish (also by Haygen Brice Walker) and Exit the King with the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium, so I was like, “This is a piece of cake!” (which is only half true). Tribe of Fools is one of my favorite companies in town, because nobody does what they do, but I don’t think they typically hold auditions, since the style and training are so specific for the acrobatics, parkour, and circus arts incorporated into the shows. When I saw there were auditions for Fishtown, I needed to be seen by them and I needed to be in it. I already knew I was going to be in The Groom . . ., because we’d been workshopping the script for a little while, but I wasn’t sure what specific parts I’d be playing until we had a complete cast.
Eric: A few of the people who saw Joan Crawford in Her Own Words when we did it the first time have been asking for years (decades, actually) when we were going to bring it back. Seeing the Ryan Murphy miniseries Feud: Bette and Joan made me realize that now was probably a good time to do it, while I still have enough brain cells left to learn 75 minutes of text. Of course, doing Joan meant I couldn’t perform in the WaitStaff show, but they had no Director as yet, so I signed on for that.
Hannah: I think severe over-excitability mixed with a healthy dose of masochism? Tilda Swinton Adopt Me Please has been slotted for the Fringe since August 2016, and when Brenna Geffers asked me to work on Die-Cast’s inaugural production of Pericles, it felt impossible to say no.
How have you been able to manage your schedules for both rehearsals and performances?
Hannah: HA. A lot of emailing, coupled with a lot of compromising, coupled with a lot of “Where are you?” texts.
Jenna: The joy of being in late-night shows with my On the Rocks family is that we are all able to do more than one show, if we so choose. Tribe of Fools has a very rigorous training schedule with the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts included in rehearsals, because we have to if we don’t want to hurt ourselves. The short answer is: I don’t have days off. My friends and loved ones know when late August/early September hits, they’ll never see me unless they are in the show with me. I have good friends and loved ones.
Eric: The rehearsal schedule turned out to be much less of a nightmare than I thought it would be, as my Joan director and I both had daytime availability, and WaitStaff rehearsals are traditionally in the evenings. Once Labor of Love opens and I’ve turned it over to the stage manager, I will miss most of its performances, which means having to rely on second-hand reports of what’s working and not working. Actually, the performance schedule will feel like a vacation compared to the rehearsal schedules . . . Did these shows open yet?
What are your roles in and contributions to your two shows?
Eric: As I said, I play Joan Crawford in the one-man show Joan Crawford in Her Own Words and I am directing the WaitStaff’s Labor of Love.
Hannah: I’m co-creating and performing in Tilda Swinton Adopt Me Please with Nicholas Scheppard and producing the project through my company The Greenfield Collective. I’m playing Marina in Die-Cast’s Pericles, and also composing some original music for the production.
Jenna: In Fishtown, I play Claire, the “assistant” to a tech mega-mogul with some deeper plans behind her thick-rimmed glasses. The general structure was already in place when I came on board, but as a company (Joseph Ahmed, Zachary Chiero, Tara Demmy, Kyle Yackoski, director Peter Smith, and our writer Caitlin Weigel) we devised the show. In The Groom . . ., I’m a wedding planner who is trying desperately to make a difficult client’s wedding THE BEST, DAMN IT! And I’m also a prostitute at the bachelor party. Who isn’t interested in any of that? Campbell O’Hare and I have now done four of Haygen’s shows in the Fringe together, and every year it’s equal parts amazing and terrifying to find out who he has written for us.
Are there similarities between the shows you’re doing, which allow you to adhere to a particular style or genre for which you’d like to be known, or are they very different, so that you can show your range in performing?
Jenna: Both shows are comedies, until they aren’t, and both are physical, but we’re not doing cartwheels or lifting people in The Groom . . ., like we are in Fishtown. I’m playing three (really four – I have another small part in Fishtown) very different characters in both shows. So hopefully I’m showing range! Haha. I don’t think I’m known for anything in particular, except maybe my hair. I’d like to be the go-to for real life cartoon characters that are rooted in truth. But I also want those characters to be kind of mean, but we like them because they’re definitely funny, and we probably see ourselves in them, for better or worse. Both shows have that bite to their characters.
Eric: The only “particular style or genre for which I’d like to be known” is as a working (read: PAID!) artist, so both of these shows have that in common. They are also both very funny, although in very different ways. Since Joan is composed of actual things that she said in interviews and the like, a lot of the humor there comes from the things the audience knows about her that she DOESN’T say.
Hannah: It’s funny. They couldn’t be more different – one’s a devised piece about celebrity stalking and adolescence, and the other is a rarely done psycho-sexual Shakespeare play – but they have a surprising amount of overlap. Both are physically demanding, and feature a lot of movement choreography. Both heavily feature Greek gods. In both productions, I play a young woman deeply at odds with the world around her. And both plays exist in worlds that are epic and ethereal. As far as performance goes, I think I’m putting different parts of myself forward. Pericles is expressionist, gritty, and musical. Tilda is frenetic and chaotic and, I think, unexpectedly heartfelt.
What do you envision as your ideal role or show?
Jenna: It changes every day, but right now it’s Yitzhak in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Rose in The Flick, and I will play Janis Joplin somewhere, in something, at some point.
Eric: The one with the next paycheck? I’ve done dinner theatre, for God’s sake! Actually, though, I am very enamored of the one-man-show format, having done a number of such shows (in addition to Joan, Dan Butler’s The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me . . . and my own pieces The Wedding Consultant and Looking for Uranus: Starzina Starfish-Browne’s Comeback Tour). Sketch-comedy-wise, I’m toying with some ideas for two-handed evenings.
Hannah: Oh man. I like to be challenged. To be honest, in an ideal world I’m doing a combination of weird new work and bold classical material. I’d say I’m pretty happy with my Fringe. But also, an ideal show would change the way people relate to the world around them, so here’s to hoping both can do that in some small way.
What do you find most appealing about appearing in the Fringe?
Jenna: Fringe is my favorite time of year. Personally, I get to make art with old friends and new friends. As a community, people are given a chance to do something stupid or fun or interesting or smart or dumb or silly, and if it’s bad, well, it’s Fringe. It’s refreshing and inspiring.
Hannah: The Fringe always has this truly wild energy, I think because so many artists are throwing so many different strands of theatrical spaghetti against the wall. There’s an air of daring and openness that permeates the whole festival, and it makes it exhilarating to perform. Also, everyone is out and about supporting each other’s work! It rocks!
Eric: Publicity opportunities like this one, and all the other attention the Fringe generates, enable small production companies to reach much larger and more diverse audiences than they ever otherwise could. When I approached the creators of Joan back in February about bringing it back, there was never any question that we would do it at Fringe. And the WaitStaff is essentially the Fringe poster child; we are the longest-running continuously-producing company in the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
At this point are you exhausted or exhilarated?
Jenna: Both. I love being busy and I thrive when I’m overwhelmed, which is probably not great, but it’s fine because I’m drinking lots of water. I’m so excited to get into tech and to see these two shows come to life. It also helps that I love everybody I’m working with.
Hannah: Both! For sure.
Will you have time to see any other offerings in the festival?
Jenna: I’m trying! I made a very ambitious schedule for all of the shows that have strange show times, or are on off days.
Hannah: I have yet to tessellate my Fringe calendar, but I’m trying to catch Sam Tower + Ensemble’s Strange Tenants, and On the Rocks’ The Groom . . . So many good offerings – it’s theater Christmas!
Eric: That’s one of the only things wrong with Fringe – there’s so much great stuff happening all at once, and if you’re participating, you can’t see a lot of it. I just learned of Hannah’s Tilda Swinton show through this interview, and it sounds fascinating. I was already aware of Jenna’s The Groom . . . (in fact, we reference that show in Labor of Love); and although I don’t know them personally, I have seen some excellent work done by a few of her castmates (Campbell O’Hare, Josh McLucas). And I am an enormous fan of Tribe of Fools. So those would be the first shows I will try to see if I’m standing upright at any point after opening. This seems as good a time as any to point out that The Groom . . ., Fishtown, and Joan Crawford in Her Own Words all have crowdfunding campaigns still running.
Do you have anything lined up in the 2017-18 season, after the Fringe?
Eric: We are hoping that this is just the beginning of the second coming of Joan Crawford in Her Own Words, so hopefully we will have some bookings for that coming up.
Hannah: Pericles is touring to Provincetown immediately after the Fringe closes for the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, and I’ll be working with Delaware Shakespeare in October on a Shakespeare-and-Poe project. I’m also looking forward to helping direct some new work this fall for First Person Arts and Philadelphia Young Playwrights. There are a couple other exciting things on the back burner, but mum’s the word at the moment!
Jenna: I’ll be in By the Bog of Cats with Irish Heritage Theatre in November and I’m playing Dot/Marie in Sunday in the Park with George at Wilmington’s City Theater Company in December. Other than that, 2018 is free and clear, so somebody should hire me.
Can we look forward to seeing you again in the 2018 Fringe?
Hannah: I certainly hope so.
Eric: No doubt. Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
Jenna: For as long as I live in Philadelphia, I intend on making, and being in, weird shit in the Fringe. Count on it.
Thanks, Jenna, Eric, and Hannah, for taking the time to discuss the joys and challenges of your work in this year’s Fringe!