I’m a Chicago guy to the bone. I used to go out of my way for cheeseburgers on Maxwell and Halsted (can smell those onions now), can identify 120 BPMs from two blocks away (that’s nerdspeak for house music), and if you give me a street address, I can get you to the nearest major intersection (I worked as a messenger).If you need more cred, well, I really hate the Green Bay Packers for no good reason.
But back in 2002, I packed up my station wagon and left the City I Heart for the one of Brotherly Love: Philadelphia. There was some kicking and screaming, but in the end I knew I had to go. Because one day, I woke up, looked around to see if a creator/performer (of color, specifically) in Chicago was modeling a successful cross-genre career in dance and theatre, and to my surprise (and heartbreak), I saw none. When I say "cross-genre" I mean big musicals and conventional plays all the way to experimental dance-theatre and site-specific performance installation. I needed a wide spectrum. I’m a former street dancer turned contemporary choreographer with a theatre and vocal background, so I wanted to flex lots of muscles at once. I love Chicago but the truth is, our theatre cousins don’t share that same love for their dancin’ relatives. So I skipped out…to a land where my crazy dream of “doing it all” was more likely.
I learned a lot about Philly over the last nine years and I’m writing to share what’s going on here—not because it’s better or worse. It’s nothing like that. I enjoy hearing about other places, particularly performing arts-related stuff, and am taking this opportunity to share what I’ve learned. So in no particular order, here are some unique things that make Philadelphia a great performing arts city.
1) Sharing + Art = Better Art
Back in the '70s there were only a few dance companies working in Philadelphia. This number steadily grew through the '80s, and then in the mid-'90s, two companies came into being and forever changed the shape of the Philly performing arts landscape: Headlong Dance Theater (experimental dance and improv from Wesleyan University) and Pig Iron Theatre Company (clown/physical theatre-makers trained at Lecoq and LISPA). Both companies had three co-founders, were well-educated, and were interested in collaborative performance-making with actors, dancers, and designers. They collaborated across genres and shared friends, employees, conversations, training methods, and meals. Headlong won a Bessie and opened Headlong Performance Institute (HPI), Pig Iron won a couple Obies and opened The Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training (APT), and their mometum continues to inspire the next generation of makers and artists.
My friend at Pew Fellowships summed up the significance of these companies when she said: "Before Headlong and Pig Iron, people were not working together. After their arrival, people were.” They laid a foundation of collaboration for other artists (including myself) to build on. They said 'Hey let’s create community by working together and sharing!'—not a new concept by any means, but definitely something easier to say than do. As a result, throughout the '90s, artists were making more and more weird, awesome, beautiful art and it all became propulsive. What better time to create a festival?
2) The Fringe
In 1997, two brilliant Philly dancers visited Edinburgh, gathered data, and came back to launch the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. This quickly became the annual hub for experimental, low-brow awesomeness. It grew each year and soon there was enough money to pay for national, and eventually international touring artists to come to Philadelphia. Then, in the mid-2000s, the grimy Philly Fringe Festival gave birth to the more prestigious international Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. Both fests are still going strong and share the same dates in September, and we locals love and hate it all (for various reasons which I won’t bore you with here). The "presenting” end of the festival (Live Arts) focuses most of its programming on original works of theatre and dance. Some of the coolest stuff I’ve seen and been a part of has been through the festival.
3) Site Work
In 2005 I was working with Pig Iron as creator/performer on PAY UP, an enormous show commissioned by Live Arts about choice, making exchanges, and fungibility. Short explanation: Imagine you (audience member) show up to the venue, pay for your ticket, then are handed back five $1 bills and a map. You’re sent into a large warehouse painted completely white, with five-minute “scenes” taking place in eight free-standing rooms, and a buzzer to announce when they start. Scenes cost a dollar and if you don’t make it into a one at the buzzer, you have to wait five minutes until the “market” opens back up. The only info. you're given about each room are adjectives describing the scene (i.e. "slow," "fast," "ordinary," "extraordinary," "funny," etc.). PAY UP turned out to be an incredible experiment in human behavior. Audiences laughed, lied, and even got into fights. It was probably the craziest and best “site-based” project that both Pig Iron and the Live Arts Festival undertook at that time.
Subsequently, Philly exploded with really well-constructed, sophisticated site-based work. There were outdoor shows designed for single audience members, humongous performance installations, dances with cars, and large-scale interactive shows. These shows weren’t big money-makers, but the fact that so many dance and theatre artists were interested in engaging their audience in an unorthodox way—and succeeding—well, that itself was wild and political. Now we have a biennial performance festival focused solely on unused/unorthodox sites. At this point, Philly artists are audience-moving experts.
4) Homeowner Mentality
A big factor that has allowed for so much avant-garde use of space in Philly is the cost of real estate. It’s cheap—so cheap that people buy homes on their measly artists' income. Now if that’s not radical, I don’t know what is! Here’s an example, courtesy of my actress/writer/bartender friend who just got her home last year through an FHA program: She makes $36,000 a year after taxes, has a credit score of 670, and put down $2,700 on a 1,050 sq. ft. two-story row-house in South Philly listed at $95,000. She got $7,500 from Obama and a few grand from her mama, had an additional $8,000 saved, and put all that into having the bathroom, floors, walls, and windows redone. Her monthly mortgage payment is $650.
Imagine tons of people doing this and how it greatly impacts the mentality of a community. We’re talking about a community of people whose life’s work is fleeting—people who want more to show than a shelf full of mini-DVs, who, in varying degrees, constantly question the idea of building a legacy, who ask themselves “What am I gonna leave behind?” and "How will I be remembered?” Thus, artists becoming homeowners affects the culture and changes people's mindset in a positive way. Of course, homeownership isn’t for everyone (just as we’re learning that buying a building isn’t for most nonprofits—ha!), but at least it settles a piece of the “What am I going to leave behind?” issue, allowing artists to lose sleep over other gigantic questions like “Will I ever make a masterpiece?!”
5) Artists U
In fact, there’s quite a long list of stuff artists lose sleep over...especially the closer we get to production time, right? Balls get dropped, emails get “lost,” checks don’t clear, and relationships and reputations get tarnished. Colleen Keegan, arts consultant and designer of Creative Capital’s Professional Development Program often says artists “will always be lacking in resources, partners, and planning. But out of those three, the one that you can change immediately is planning. Planning can help you increase your resources and partners.”
But artists have a really difficult time planning. I have assumptions about why we have such hang-ups with thinking ahead, but I won’t get into them here. Point is, artists need help thinking/envisioning longer-term, and connecting the dots between NOW and FUTURE. In response to this weird issue, Andrew Simonet (Headlong Co-founder) created Artists U, a nine-month professional development program for performing artists. With major support coming from LINC and other local foundations, AU launched in 2006 and is now in its fifth year. I went through the program in the first year and connected so well with the style and principles that Andrew hired me as a facilitator the following year. Here's how the program works:
- Each year we choose 12 artists to participate, with nominations coming from various places/people.
- The 12 artists and handful of facilitators meet for monthly sessions on topics like grant writing, time management, and financial management.
- One-on-one sessions with facilitators are scheduled 1–2 times a month to identify personal long-term goals and action steps to achieving them. .
There are programs similar to AU throughout the country, but what distinguishes us is that it costs the artists nothing to participate and all facilitators are working artists (not business consultants). Recently we’ve been approved for a grant to expand the program to other cities, one of them being (drumroll)...Chicago! Right now we’re in the early phases of figuring it all out. Since we don’t want to run the program from Philly (it has to be home-grown), this early phase consists of identifying an ideal host site, possible facilitators, and funding sources. Once those are in place, we let go and watch how Chicago artists shape the program appropriate for them and their constituents. (More info about AU in Chicago coming soon.)
Finding My Niche
To return to my reasons/justification for relocating to Philadelphia… In addition to Artists U, I get grants to make and tour my own shows; freelance with dance companies, physical theatre companies, and other theatre artists (including Bill Irwin!); have been commissioned as a writer and choreographer by institutions, and am currently in a two-month run of Miss Saigon at a LORT A house (with no intention of getting my card). Hey, all of that’s not for everyone, but it sure is weird to think that I am now modeling a career as an Asian person in both theatre and dance, as both creator and performer. I am quite possibly the guy I was looking for years ago! Ha! Eh well, it’s just how life is sometimes, right?
Thanks for reading. Next time you’re in Philly, please look me up. I’ll show you around.
Makoto Hirano is an award-winning Philadelphia-based choreographer and performer. His solo and ensemble dance-theatre works have been presented by numerous national
venues and festivals including Yale University, Kelly-Strayhorn Theatre, National Asian American Theater Festival, and Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. Performer/collaborator highlights: The Happiness Lecture (Bill Irwin/Philadelphia Theatre Co.); Love Unpunished and PAY UP (Pig Iron Theatre Company); Wandering Alice (Nichole Canuso Dance Company); the forthcoming Whale Optics (Thaddeus Philips/Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental). Commissions: National Constitution Center, Rowan University, Dance Theatre X, Subcircle. In addition to performing, Makoto is a Facilitator with Artists U, a nine-month professional development program for performance artists. A former U.S. Marine, Makoto earned his BFA in Dance at Temple University.
This story includes editorial support by CAR Dance Researcher Meida McNeal.