Since my initial tour of the new FringeArts headquarters in August 2012, the projected opening (originally set for the Spring of 2013, then for the 2013 Festival in September) has been subject to delays and controversy, and the construction costs have increased from an estimated $4.5 million to $7 million. But progress has been made and the partially restored 10,000-square-foot High Pressure Fire Service Building of 1903, at the corner of Race Street and Columbus Boulevard, began hosting events early this month.
The first show scheduled for the building’s “Phase One soft launch” was a remount of the 2011 Live Arts Festival hit, The Elephant Room. Unspecified technical difficulties resulted in the postponement of the opening by one day, from October 10 to October 11, and the ticket price of $49 (tickets for the 2011 premiere of the show at Plays & Players sold for $15-30) caused an outcry among Philadelphia audiences and the local press. FringeArts was not unresponsive to the criticism; it offered half-price discounts and then $20 tickets to the show, preceded on October 4 by a free main-stage performance of Lucinda Childs, Selected Dances, 1963-78, for invited patrons and supporters.
While the FringeArts’ lobby is presently under construction, the box office is not yet begun (tickets are currently being checked and sold from a folding table and laptop set up in the raw entry space), and signage consists of computer print-outs on paper taped to the historic glazed blond-brick walls, the completed 240-seat theater offers excellent sight lines from its steep risers, as the view from each row clears the heads of the people in front. The plush upholstered seats are comfortable and functional, with cup holders built into the armrests, and an impressive sound and light system is managed from a state-of-the-art control booth at the top. Restrooms and water fountains are open for theater-goers, and, behind the scenes, the rehearsal studio and dressing rooms are finished, and the FringeArts staff has just moved into its administrative offices.
Still to come in the public parts of the building are an upscale restaurant-bar and cabaret stage in the lobby, and an adjoining outdoor garden plaza for open-air dining and seasonal performances on the Race Street side, in the shadow of the landmark Ben Franklin Bridge. The revised timetable for the beginning of Phase Two construction is January 2014, with a projected grand opening celebration in June. In the meantime, the FringeArts inaugural season continues in November with the American premiere of Svadba-Wedding (November 2, 3, 6, and 7), a co-presentation with Opera Philadelphia of an hour-long Serbian a cappella opera that culminates in a Balkan-style feast with live music by the West Philadelphia Orchestra ($69 per person, includes dinner).
Also in November, FringeArts presents former Live Arts Festival favorite Thaddeus Phillips in his self-devised 17 Border Crossings (Nov. 13-17), a 90-minute solo performance based on twenty years of Phillips’ own international travel experiences (the workshop production was previously presented as a world premiere at The Painted Bride Art Center in April 2011, after which it toured the around world from 2011-13). Comprised of seventeen action-packed mini-play monologues, the show promises to be “a dramatic, visual, and surreal performance that is funny, haunting, and surprisingly human.” General admission tickets are priced at $29, $20 for students/25 and under; fringearts.ticketleap.com.