Providing regional artists an opportunity to create new work always has been the goal of Reading Theater Project’s popular 5-Minute Fringe Festival. Beginning in the fall of 2015, when it was presented in RTP’s then-headquarters in the GoogleWorks Center for the Arts in front of an audience of about 40 people, the event has come a long way.
“We wanted a space that was flexible, an empty space,” said Vicki Haller Graff, artistic director of RTP and the director of the eighth-annual 5-Minute Fringe Festival, entitled “Shadows,” running Thursday, Feb. 16, through Sunday, Feb. 19.
“We then moved to the gallery at the former Yocum Institute for Arts Education in Wyomissing,” she said. “When Yocum moved to its new facility at 3000 Penn Ave. in West Lawn, we moved with them. We like working with other groups, and Yocum’s black-box Schumo Theater is an ideal performance space for this kind of event.”
Only once in the past eight years did the Fringe not appear on a stage. That was in 2021 when the show went virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I remember our talking in February 2020 about this strange coronavirus that was spreading across the country,” Graff said. “It changed everything for theater companies.”
Each Fringe festival has its own theme, which reflects the company’s theme for the season (September to August). The 2022-2023 theme is “Shadows From the Past.” The Fringe this year is slightly broader: “Shadows.”
“Artists can interpret that anyway they want,” Graff said. “Some do so literally and others more metaphorically.”
There are nine performances in this year’s festival, comprising about 20 to 30 people. And the entertainment is nothing if not diverse: music, dance, monologues, poetry and theater.
“Making each performance five minutes allows it to be more accessible for artists to try it,” she said. “For anyone to try it. It’s a safe space to create something new and edgy, which is why we call it a Fringe festival. It’s an opportunity for artists to explore their creative voices. It’s very much actor-centric. Performers will find something that they feel very deeply while at the same time allowing the audience to discover something new for themselves.”
The rehearsal process for the Fringe is unlike any other. The performers work outside the company on their own. Then on appointed dates, all the artists come together for what RTP calls Creative Labs. They each do their performances for all the other artists, and for Graff and stage manager Sean Sassaman.
“It’s different than a regular rehearsal,” Graff said. “Of course, we expect that the performers are working outside of the labs. This offers them a chance to come together with other artists, to be held accountable, if you will. It’s a way to get ready for performance and get feedback from other artists at the same time. It encourages artists to ask for the feedback they need.
“As the director and stage manager, we (Graff and Sassaman) are able to give more feedback because we’re thinking about the big picture.”
The hope is that when each piece is placed in a particular spot for the evening’s lineup, it will be determined whether or not an intermission is required. However, more than that it will allow each piece to reflect on the one prior to it and the one following it. It will add something meaningful and enlightening to each artist’s unique insight.
Three of the artists who have created innovative and exciting work for this year’s Fringe are musician/composer Chris Heslop, dancer/choreographer Jessica C. Warchal-King and playwright David Nice. Each explained his or her process and the story they intend to share.
Chris Heslop: Music
Someone as artistically acclaimed as Wyomissing resident Chris Heslop finds ideas for music in the most fascinating places. For example, the germ for his Fringe piece this year came from “Grave Concerns,” a play by Susan E. Sneeringer that RTP performed in November.
Directed by Jody Reppert, the play contains a scene in which all the characters are talking at the same time.
“I liked that idea,” said Heslop, a man of few words but each one pointed. “I wanted the piece to represent all of time, through the present, even before time begins. I imagined a person wandering the space, saying a word once in a while. And then another person wanders in saying a few words. And this continues up to five people, some of whom are dancers, and builds until it reaches a frenzy.”
The principal set piece at the middle of the stage is a monolith, about nine or 10 feet high, with a large timpani drum sitting on a platform at the top. During the pandemonium, someone climbs up to the drum and pounds loudly on it.
“That is the Big Bang,” Heslop said. “Meanwhile, a piano player (Andy Roberts, the evening’s pianist who has a background in jazz and theater) hits every note on the piano, representing everything that happens since the Big Bang.”
This approximately four-minute aural experience, featuring sound intermingling with silence, creates a rhythm, Heslop explained. In essence, it is a musical piece with voices as the instruments. A kind of homage to the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the work is entitled “Together and Disarray,” only it is spelled with the two words embedded, with alternating upper-case and lower-case letters: “TdOiGsEaTrHrEaRy.”
When asked how the piece connects to the evening’s theme of “Shadows,” he answered: “We are exploring the shadow of time, chaos and humanity. But the question remains: Which is which?”
Heslop holds a bachelor-of-music degree, with honors, from Temple University. He later studied with several composers in Philadelphia and New York City. He has been affiliated with RTP for about 15 years. In 2010, he won the Frank Scott Award, which honors an individual who has contributed and been involved with jazz in the Berks County community.
He is a member of the Alex Meixner Band, the Hot Club of Reading (a gypsy-swing ensemble that honors the musical legacy of Django Reinhardt) and Hesse’s Hot Jazz (his own group). His resume includes compositions in several genres: jazz, choral, opera and film scores.
Jessica C. Warchal-King: Dance
Dancer and choreographer Jessica C. Warchal-King, a resident of Exeter Township, knew from a young age that she wanted to be a dancer. She grew up in the embrace of Berks Ballet Theatre and went on to earn a degree in dance and anthropology from Muhlenberg College.
“Dance is one way in which cultures tell their stories,” Warchal-King said. “It uses so much symbolism. Hence, my reason for studying anthropology.” Later she received a master-of-fine-arts degree in dance performance and choreography from Temple University to seal the deal.
However, the challenge immediately became to find a way to forge a professional career in dance as an adult who loves to perform. After her first professional gig at age 18 in Philadelphia, she began working summers at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va., while an undergraduate student at Muhlenberg. Later she began taking various jobs teaching and dancing up and down the East Coast. She also worked with a ballet company in Philadelphia for a few years. But through this transition period, she yearned, as she put it, “to go back home.”
“So, my goal became to create opportunities for people who live here (Berks County) because they can dance here,” she continued. “We can make dreams happen here.”
On its website, Warchal-King’s dance company boldly describes its mission as follows: “JCWK Dance Lab is an ongoing research project combining education, physical dance practice and performance. Using dance as its medium, JCWK Dance Lab investigates the ways that dance can be a vehicle for nonviolent, positive social change by creating Joy, Connection and Wellness through Kinesthetic stories.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer once called her a “post-mod(ern) ballerina,” and that description perfectly captures her inventive movement stylings. She began working with RTP at the 2019 5-Minute Fringe Festival. Following that performance, Alvernia University invited her to be a lecturer and artist-in-residence as part of its arts series.
For this year’s Fringe, she has created a work entitled “Seeking” to delve into the theme of “Shadows.” To bring her concept to life, she will perform the seven-minute piece with three other dancers: Cady Monasmith, Arielle Ridley and Richard Maldonado. It’s the first time the four will perform together, she revealed.
“This group effort will push the limits of my artistry,” she confided. “The lifts and partner work demand trust.
“The piece we’re preparing incorporates the music of composer Stephen Grieco of Cabrini University,” she said. “The work is based on celestial bodies, exploring the space between light and shadows. Are we alone? What kind of journey do we go on when we have support? This reflects the ‘Connection’ aspect of what the company is: moving forward together with our past through the shadows in between.”
David Nice: Theater
Lancaster playwright David Nice describes himself as “a theater kid from age 12.” Due to family responsibilities, it took him a little while to become a theater adult.
Born in Bucks County (he calls himself a suburban Philly kid), he earned a B.A. in English from Franklin and Marshall College, where he met his wife, Lilia.
“I married early, and we had three kids very fast,” Nice said. “For the next 20-25 years, I worked, went back to school (earning a master-of-science degree in organizational development from St. Joseph’s University) and became involved with politics and political campaigns. I got back to theater at age 50.”
That sharp turn arrived for a profoundly personal reason. An older brother (he has two) passed away suddenly in 2004.
“I re-evaluated my life,” he said. “That event changed my trajectory. I’m very close to my late brother’s kids. They’re all adults now. Those relationships centered my creativity. I knew this is what I wanted to concentrate on. I always wrote, mostly poetry. And some plays in high school and college. But since 2005, I’ve been more serious about it. There’s poetry in a number of my plays. And theater isn’t as lonely as poetry.
“Hanging out with actors is part of the appeal.”
Nice, who has written both full-length and one-act plays, has worked extensively with RTP. In his hometown, his theater of choice is Creative Works of Lancaster. He says the two companies share similar missions.
For this year’s 5-Minute Fringe Festival’s theme of “Shadows,” Nice has written a 7-minute piece entitled “Seed of Life,” directed by RTP’s literary director, Adam Richter.
“It’s a comedy,” Nice said, “and I don’t write comedies that often. However, comedies fascinate me. The play is about memory: how people remember things differently. Especially the older you get. That’s the shadow part. We’ve told ourselves these stories over time, and soon you begin to believe them. There’s a husband and wife, and the husband thinks that long ago, after the couple’s last child was born, he had a vasectomy.
“His wife refutes that. In my circle of friends, I’ve known men who say they’re going to have a vasectomy, but delay doing so. Then suddenly, they have additional children. It just seemed like an idea that had the makings of a comedy.”
RTP veterans Joel Lesher and Amy Young play the couple. Lesher has performed in six plays by Nice; Young has been in four of Nice’s pieces.
“Joel is like my alter-ego,” the playwright said. “And since most of my plays are about my life, he’s a perfect fit.”
Nice said he enjoys writing short plays because they feel finished.
“Full-length plays never feel like they’re done,” he added.
Other artists participating in the festival are Martin Bonk, Kayla Re Laucks, Michael Malfaro, Christopher Paul Paolini and Elaine Soltis.
The 2023 “5-Minute Fringe Festival: Shadows” will be performed Feb. 16 through Feb. 19 in the Yocum Institute for Arts Education’s black-box Schumo Theater, 3000 Penn Ave., West Lawn. All tickets are Pay What You Will, including $0. The recommended price is $20. For additional information and to purchase tickets, visit readingtheaterproject.org/5-minute-fringe-shadows/ or call 484-706-9719.
George Hatza is the former Entertainment Editor of the Reading Eagle. He is retired and living in Exeter Township.