"Over the Rainbow" took on new meaning on Thursday evening at the FringeArts headquarters on Columbus Boulevard, in an impromptu sing-along as PATCO trains roared overhead on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.
The instigator was cabaret performer John Jarboe, of Bearded Ladies fame, leading a group of Donald Trump protesters in the Wizard of Oz classic about idealistic hope. It was, Jarboe said, his way of "finding unison."
Overhead at the FringeArts building was a banner that read, "I love you, stranger." Marine Corps veteran Stephanie Sparti pledged to make art matter, no matter how foolish she might look while making that happen.
The event was one of hundreds that composed the Ghostlight Project, a pro-equality event coordinated among theaters across the country, with artists holding symbolic lights. "Be a light" was the buzz phrase used in the website www.TheGhostlightProject.com. Approximately 20 Philadelphia-area theater companies participated. Those without an actual brick-and-mortar venue were invited to cluster at the Wilma Theater, FringeArts, and Pig Iron Theatre.
Being physically present at the event, which drew 60 or so people at the Fringe headquarters, was particularly important to Sparti, 30, who served in the Marines from 2006 to 2009 and is relocating from South Jersey to Philadelphia. "This is more than just words," she said. "This is expressing it. ..."
In the speeches that began around 5:30 p.m. and the casual conversations as participants warmed themselves over a bonfire, the name of Trump was barely mentioned. More important to the speakers was expressing the inclusivity of art in general and theater in particular.
Not everybody was from the theater world. Conrad Benner, 31, is engaging local artists to create banners that are being hung all over Philadelphia, among them the one reading, "I Love You, Stranger," hung high enough on the FringeArts building to be seen by passing motorists on I-95. (One of the more humorous banners he posted in recent days read, "We Shall Over-comb.")
While the protest was obviously out to make a statement of solidarity among theater artists, composer Ryan Johnstone, visiting from New York but soon to move to Philadelphia, was drawn by the forward motion of the project, with its encouragement to make ongoing contact with government organizations and create dialogue. "Connect with institutions in your neighborhood," advised the website. "Visit the mosque down the street."
Benner had numerous more banners to hang, the next one on a building on Spring Garden Street. "I'll be working until midnight," he said.
For Fringe president and producing director Nick Stuccio, that dialogue will hopefully take the form of a theatrical exchange between FringeArts and venues in his hometown of Wilkes-Barre. "It's a big Trump region," he said. He envisions not simply theatrical events in a sister city's tradition, but also ones that involve local participation.
The Ghostlight website shows a series of individuals with standardized signs reading, "I am" (fill in the blank) followed by "I fight for" (fill in the blank). "Be creative. Go deep," advised the website, whose origins are difficult to determine amid the plethora of participants and mission statements. The issues centered on equal rights among special-interest groups and welcoming diversity of opinions.
The name "Ghostlight Project" refers to a light left burning on stages during the night, as a safety feature to keep people searching for a light switch from bumping into scenery or falling into the orchestra pit.