2016 Philadelphia FringeArts Preview: Exploring Food Culture with Applied Mechanics and The Renegade Company

There are more than 175 shows in this year’s Philadelphia Fringe Festival, spanning eleven different genres and covering a wide array of subjects. Two experimental Fringe regulars, Applied Mechanics and The Renegade Company, are each creating food-based pieces for September’s big event, considering the greater context of what we eat and sharing a communal meal with the audience.

Brett Robinson, Thomas Choinacky, and Mary Tuomanen. Photo by Maria Shaplin.

I had the opportunity to discuss their immersive ensemble-devised works with Applied “Mechanicians” Rebecca Wright (director) and Maria Shaplin (production designer) of FEED, to be presented in the bi-level gallery space of the Painted Bride Art Center, and Renegade’s founding artistic director Michael Durkin, who conceived and directs Animal Farm to Table, inspired by George Orwell’s dystopian novella and produced in community partnership with Urban Creators’ Farm.

Deb: How did you arrive at a food-based theme for your upcoming Fringe show? 

Michael Durkin. Photo Courtesy of the Artist.
Michael Durkin. Photo Courtesy of the Artist.

Michael: I have always been interested in food culture in the city. I worked at a branch of the Free Library in Nicetown in North Philadelphia, adjacent to the Urban Creators’ Farm, and saw what the food culture was like and what my students would be eating. I am also a cook and love playing around with recipes. I am interested in the relationship we–the audience and general populous–have with food. Food is an engine to conversation, as well as understanding a culture that is unlike our own.

Maria: FEED has been in slow development, on the backburner for quite some time. At Applied Mechanics, we keep a list of dream projects and this one pushed its way to the top. Food has been at the core of our artistic practices since the early days; we serve a meal at every rehearsal, and many of us love to cook. FEED expands and elaborates on our continuing exploration of food as a sort of time-capsule. Recipes and seeds both contain coded information, giving us a window into the past; in this show, they might also give you a glimpse at the future. FEED is part of our “Chronotope” series of works, which explores time–not as a linear experience, but as one that is stacked. This theory fits very well with our performance style: multiple co-existing stories and non-linear narrative.

Rebecca: We also have been extremely interested in how cuisines talk to each other across space: how, for example, the cuisines of the American South and Korea have similarities (pickling, BBQ, spice) because of similar climates and growing seasons (this idea is sometimes called “food latitudes”) or how every culture has its version of the dumpling (ravioli, shumai, pierogi, to name a few). Food is an interesting lens through which to view the conversations we’re always having about connection, communication, civic life, and transformation.

Were you aware that another company would be offering a show with a similar theme in this year’s Festival? Maybe there’s a little bit of Zeitgeist going on here?  

Michael: I am aware, and I am so excited that this is happening! Food is the most important part of our lives. We need it to survive, and we totally take advantage of food.  SO, having more conversations around it is important.

2.Maria Shaplin. Photo by Maria Shaplin.
Maria Shaplin. Photo by Maria Shaplin.

Maria: We hope so! The more people explore food, the better. Human understanding of food continues to expand in a staggering number of directions. This goes way beyond molecular gastronomy or an obsession with organic. For example we know the origins of the vegetable thing we now call an “apple” or a “potato” and we know roughly how it morphed, traveled the world, and co-evolved with humans to become the thing we now eat. Food is one of our basic human rights. Our ownership and consumption of it has political and economic implications. Yet it’s one of the most personal, intimate, and enjoyable things we do. We eat a staggering variety of it every day. And that’s just food; then there’s cooking! It’s a universe of subject matter to explore. We are happy to contribute to the Zeitgeist, for sure.

Rebecca: Yes, food is really so at the core of our personal, social, and global lives. We need to eat to survive, but food is also a pleasure, a commodity, and inextricably linked to questions about sustainability, culture, and climate change. Our relationship to what we eat and how we eat says so much about the moment we live in and all its broad socio-economic contexts. So in this moment, when there seems to be some growing and shifting awareness of the interconnectedness of our lives and the effects of globalization on individuals, it makes sense that food would be the site of a major conversation about how we live and what we do. Zeitgeist-y for real!

How are you approaching your piece? Will it have extensive scripted dialogue or just a basic scenario with impromptu interactions? Will your focus be on word or movement?

Michael: Renegade’s piece will be a combination of improvised conversations with each audience for the production. There will be a physical structure to the work, but day-to-day interactions will sculpt the performance. The piece will be a mix of movement, text, and improvised conversations.

Maria: FEED features our smallest cast to date, so it will be a more intimate experience than previous shows, but it will have the same pillars of an Applied Mechanics show; each character has its own trajectory, but they are all in orbit around each other. There will be quiet, intimate moments that only one or two audience members will catch, and there will be grand synchronized sequences that everyone will be party to. Yes, words and movement. Live place-making, eating, discarding, burying and digging and repurposing.

Rebecca Wright. Photo by Plate 3 Photography.
Rebecca Wright. Photo by Plate 3 Photography.

Rebecca: The show is also a meal served to the audience, but not in the way you might expect. No one will leave the performance hungry, but the play itself explores many different ways food is part of our work and daily lives. It’s like an ambulatory progressive dinner party with a narrative. But the narratives are scripted and the performance is structured, even if it contains within it lots of opportunities for the audience to be part of the action.

Since both shows involve extensive audience participation, what are Fringe-goers expected to contribute to the experience?

Michael: This piece is not a passive experience. The audience will be walking around the farm, smelling the flowers and produce, having the bees buzz around their heads, feeling the dirt on their feet, all while they are picking the ingredients for the meal we will be making together.

Maria: Our expectation of an audience member is pretty open-ended. We shy away from formal invitations to participate, like you would find in a cabaret or vaudeville tradition. Our shows feel a lot more like you are attending a theme party, or going to a new place and discovering what it has to offer. Our audiences are generally invited to imagine, and therefore co-create the show with us. Some audience members will also have obtained specific objects before the show even opens, which they can then use during the show. How will they get these objects you ask? We have pop-up performances planned in the month leading up to the show that will involve handing out objects, so keep an eye out! Ah, our show is also free!

Rebecca: All of our shows ask audience members to be active participants in the performance event; they walk around and get to choose what to watch and from what angle, which is already asking lots more than a typical “sit back, relax, and enjoy the show” seated-audience experience. In FEED, we’ll also ask them to break bread with us!  But they don’t have to perform.  Really, we just always ask our audience to come, to be present with us, and to engage open-heartedly.

What do you hope they take away from the work? Is there an ethical viewpoint that you’d like to impart?

Michael: This summer has been super valuable in how I approach the work. Through many conversations with various community members the piece wants to be about understanding. We all have different perspectives on food and of specific events that are around us, much like a family dinner. At Renegade, we are interested in audience members discovering parts of themselves that they may struggle with, and have them access that. Most importantly we want to hear everyone’s perspective so we can be more informed in the conversations we can have. Ultimately we want to inspire change. I do not know what the change is, but through conversations with one another during the performance we hope to formulate concrete plans to change the landscape around us.

Maria: We present a multiplicity of ethical and political viewpoints in FEED. No doubt our audiences will be able to identify each character’s unique set of values, and understand how the contrasts mirror our societies and histories. Applied Mechanics is always looking to make a story that’s more rich, complex, and messy, not simple and pedantic. We’ve never presumed to “teach” our audiences what’s good for them, but if our show provokes ethical questions for our audiences, that’s great!

Rebecca: I totally agree. Our interest is more in creating and presenting a prismatic reality, than in delivering a message.  Rather than shining a spot-light on a stage and telling you to look at the one thing up there, we create a whole world with multiple options for things to see and stories to follow. So there’s an underpinning viewpoint to the form, which claims that no single story is more important than all other stories. But there’s no one message in this piece or any other–only questions and narratives.

Who can we look forward to seeing in your cast?

Michael: We have Lesley Berkowitz-Zak, Lisa Fischel, Ife Foy, Doug Greene, Shamus Hunter McCarty, and Kevin Rodden.

Maria: The delightful Mary Tuomanen, Thomas Choinacky, and Brett Robinson, and there’s a special appearance by Jessica Hurley!

Rebecca: It’s really exciting to be making a show with both long-standing Applied Mechanics’ members and an amazing new collaborator like Brett.

Is there a specific mood you want to evoke with your direction and design?

Michael: Animal Farm to Table is taking a satirical tone with the events that have surrounded the North Philadelphia community. We are also inspired by the neighborhood and the food idea of stem to leaf/nose to tail and recycling and repurposing items we find.

Maria: Our choice to perform the show in the Painted Bride gallery has done a lot of mood-setting already. It is a white-wall gallery space that will receive more and varied treatment through the course of the run. We hope that audiences will see a show that is in process, which is not to say that it will feel unfinished. FEED will be transforming throughout those two weeks, and audiences will feel that they are part of a continuum.

Rebecca: I’m also very interested in how food exists at the nexus of the domestic and the global. I think FEED will have a feeling of intimacy, with its small cast and small space, but we want it to have a great sense of scope, too.  I think food can do this. And I think a show that, in its storytelling, engages the senses of taste and smell, along with sound and sight, has the potential to invoke, quite delicately, mystery and enormity, as well as camaraderie and comfort.

What’s your favorite memory of a shared meal? 

Michael: My favorite memory is having Sunday dinners with my family in high school; we would always have some sort of pasta. The week was super hectic and this was a time to come together and just eat.

Maria: In one of our development sessions for FEED, we had a food challenge, where each person had to make a dish with a very limited number of ingredients. We presented and ate them in a series of courses. The variety and range that we accomplished was pretty great.

Rebecca: When we made Vainglorious in 2012, there was a cast of 26 people, plus stage management and designers. So on the first day of tech, we prepared and shared a meal with 30 people. It was just so amazing, to look around at all of these incredible artists who’d gathered together to make this strange, beautiful, ambitious piece—all with their bowls and spoons, just sitting together in the theater at Christ Church Neighborhood House and connecting through art and labor and breaking bread. That experience gave rise to our bi-annual “Community Dinners” and to some of the questions and impulses that have informed the creation of FEED.

What’s three things do you always have in your refrigerator?

Michael: Ketchup, yogurt, and baking soda.

Maria: Butter, pickles, and carrots.

Rebecca: My fridge is pretty shifty, but I almost always have brown rice, whiskey, and yogurt in the house.

As a vegetarian, I’m very happy to hear those answers! Do you believe in the old ‘60s saying, “You are what you eat?”

Michael: You are what you “want” to eat.

Maria: Pretty much. If it’s true, then I’m soooo many things. Today I’m ramen. MMMMmmmmm.

Rebecca: Given how much our food choices indicate about our social, cultural, historical, and personal context, I’d say YES!  So far today, I’m coffee.

Many thanks to the three of you for giving us a taste of what to expect in your shows and whetting our appetites for the Fringe!

8b327eb8-f7e0-4c59-b6a4-4c9aef3aea62

Animal Farm to Table plays September 8-18, 2016, at The Renegade Company, performing at the Urban Creators’ Farm – 2315 North 11th Street, in Philadelphia, PA.

FEED plays September 9-19, 2016, at Applied Mechanics, performing at Painted Bride Art Center – 230 Vine St., Philadelphia, PA. Ticketing/reservations go live on August 1st; call the FringeArts box office at (215) 413-1318, or go online.