Fords at the Fringe

Haverford students and alumni are playing featured roles—both onstage and behind the scenes—at the 2009 Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe.

From starring in shows to writing grants to planning programs, Haverford students past and present are making significant contributions to the 2009 Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe, a series of cutting-edge performances in theater, dance, and music that will take place September 4-19 throughout the city.

Jesse Paulsen ’09 and Emily Letts ’11 are two of the most visible participants: They’re both featured in FATEBOOK: Avoiding Catastrophe One Party at a Time, a “performance theater work” directed by local theater artist Whit McLaughlin that takes place in both cyber and real spaces. Presented by theater company New Paradise Laboratories, FATEBOOK focuses on a group of 20-somethings as they navigate the trials of modern life.

For the past few months, visitors to the show’s website have been able to track the characters’ emerging storylines on Facebook and Twitter. It all culminates in a series of live events at a warehouse in Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties neighborhood, where each audience member will draw a character’s name out of a hat and follow that person’s activities for the remainder of the show.

Paulsen’s character, Andrew Wilson, is a Mormon missionary a year into his mission in Philadelphia, and is struggling with doubts about his religion and his life. “He hadn’t previously been exposed to the realities of urban life,” he says, “and he’s having a hard time reconciling his beliefs with what he sees.” Paulsen, who received the Hurford Humanities Center’s E. Clyde Lutton ’66 Fund for his original play Service, based the character on his own Mormon relatives.

Current theater major Letts plays Anita Prowler, an artist marked by her intensity and her extreme devotion to her creative expression. “The whole experience has been so enlightening,” she says, “seeing what theater can be when it has no restrictions or expectations.”

Another performer in this year’s Festival is Alexis Simpson ’03, who will appear with her three-person improv troupe Rare Bird Show. Simpson and her cohorts will act out scenes based on a single word or phrase suggested by an audience member.

Because Rare Bird Show usually performs half-hour shows in a variety of venues—bars, schools, even yoga studios—Simpson welcomes the opportunity the Festival provides for the group to offer hour-long shows in a centralized location, the Adrienne Theatre in Center City. “Rare Bird has been around for six years, and the Fringe Festival has played an important role in helping us develop a following,” says Simpson, who co-founded the Haverford improv group Throng during her undergraduate days. “You can’t beat the promotion the Festival gives us, or the audience it draws. It’s great what it does for artists in Philly.”

Simpson reunites with fellow former Fords (and Throng members) Nick Mirra '06 and Scott Sheppard '06 in another Philly-based improv group called Illegal Refill, which also features Amie Roe '06 and Nick Kerr '04. The group's shows follow a similar format to those of Rare Bird's: informal conversations based on single audience suggestions. This is Illegal Refill's second appearance at the Fringe, and, like last year, Haverford improv troupes Throng and Lighted Fools (of which Nick Kerr was a member) will open two shows, September 11 and 19. Haverford students who show their IDS can see any Illegal Refill performance for free.

"Performing in the Fringe provides great exposure to us," says Amie Roe. "We all love improv, something that started for all of us at Haverford."

The logistics of Festival shows are handled by another Ford, Festival programming director Pia Agrawal ’05. She schedules shows, secures venues, and oversees hospitality for the artists. She also helps the Festival’s producing director scout new work across the country and assess the possibilities for future Festivals.

Agrawal, who began working for the Festival shortly after graduating in 2005, got her first taste of event planning at Haverford, where she arranged on-campus concerts through the Student Activities Office. Her present involvement with the Live Arts and Fringe Festival keeps her tuned in to the Philly arts community. “This is a place where artists support each other, collaborate, and welcome new people,” she says.

Kate Miller ’06 also works behind the scenes at the Festival, assisting the director of development with writing grants, obtaining sponsorships, and cultivating donors. This year, she’s been particularly active in arranging for what she calls “unique, Philly-based products” (such as the Buttercream Philadelphia Cupcake Truck) to be incorporated into the Festival’s hospitality offerings. She also writes articles for the Festival blog.

“Doing this kind of work makes me excited to see the shows,” she says. “It’s also been interesting to see the tangible effects of writing grants, and how they make it possible for international performers to be part of the Festival.”

Mara Miller ’10 is the latest Ford to lend her talents to the Fringe. Miller spent the summer interning with the Festival through the Hurford Humanities Center. She worked on the Festival Guide, a full-color catalogue offering in-depth descriptions of every show, and also wrote feature articles for the blog.

The best part of her job, she says, was meeting and interviewing dozens of choreographers, directors, actors, and dancers: “They are just really awesome and passionate people.” She feels that the Festival is an asset to the city, because “innovative stuff like this keeps the cultural engine of Philly running.”

For a complete schedule of Festival shows, including FATEBOOK and Rare Bird Show, visit

-Brenna McBride