Andrew Simonet, co-founder and co-director of Headlong Dance Theater, believes in enticing theatergoers into taking risks in the pursuit of big rewards. Risks like buying tickets to a show whose location is a secret and rewards like getting to know neighbors you might otherwise never have met. In This Town is a Mystery, he and fellow co-directors and co-founders Amy Smith and David Brick are betting Live Arts & Philly Fringe Festival audiences will be willing to plunk down $35 purely for adventure's sake.
When you buy your tickets to This Town is a Mystery, you only know two things: 1) You'll be leaving Center City to travel to a volunteer family's home for showtime. 2) You're expected to bring a dish for the potluck dinner that follows each performance. The exact show location will be revealed to you via email once you've made your purchase.
This Town Is a Mystery was inspired by the variety of disparate neighborhoods and families throughout the city. "I've been in the city for 20 years and I'm still so curious about what goes on here," Simonet says. "People live such different kinds of lives here and in such different kinds of neighborhoods."
For two weeks during the Fringe festival, four homes in four different neighborhoods in Philadelphia will be turned into theaters. Four households of what Simonet calls "citizen dancers" will each perform stories that reveal details about their personal experiences in Philadelphia and around the world. "Everybody's life is really epic when you look at it close up," Simonet says.
We spoke with the Aryadarei family (pictured above) in South Philadelphia during a recent rehearsal. Shannon Aryadarei was reading The South Philadelphia Review when she saw an ad looking for families to perform in an upcoming Fringe Festival show. She thought it sounded like the perfect project for her three children to undertake during their summer vacation. The idea of 10 to 12 strangers making themselves at home in her home every night for two weeks didn't phase her. "If you have a real home," she says, "you should invite new friends every day."
Shannon and her husband Zahed are eager to present Zahed's Iranian heritage to audiences in a new way. Their children Sulaimon, 11, Sydney, 9, and Shaheen, 6, are clearly ready for audiences to applaud their dance moves and their karate skills. Not to mention their boundless energy as they race from the upstairs to the basement between acts. Without giving too much plot away, we can say the performance is amazingly tender, made all the more so because each act is built around real stories from Shannon and Zahed.
Headlong had more than 40 household applications to sift through after they deliberately advertised the show in smaller, neighborhood-centric vehicles like The South Philly Review and at community meetings. Households were required to be fully on-board. No dads sitting out performances or older sisters playing too cool for school. In addition, households had to reveal a typical day and what interested them about the project. Smith said the theater company then worked with each of the four selected households to develop scripts and movement. She said they interviewed families to determine plot points for each performance and sent them home regularly with writing and movement assignments.
Simonet said the goal of the show is to expose audiences to neighborhoods and residents they might not meet otherwise. "You're basically stepping into someone's world and seeing how their home works and seeing how their world works," he says. If the Aryadarei performance is any indication of the rich experiences that result from leaving your own comfortable zip code, Mayor Nutter's office might want to look into a intra-city household exchange program.