There's something undeniably intimidating about the Fringe Festival, a massive explosion of theater, dance, and music that seems designed for serious theater lovers.
But don't be fooled. Fringe, which runs through Sept. 24 at locations throughout the city, has never been more family-friendly or more inviting to newbies.
"Twenty years ago, there essentially weren't any programs" for families and kids, said FringeArts' Hallie Martenson. "Particularly in our curated programming, that was not a priority."
But this year, there are two major family shows in the program, including A Billion Nights on Earth, a gorgeous fable from Fringe veteran Thaddeus Phillips about a magical journey taken by a father and his young son that plays like a pop-up picture book writ large on stage.
For kids who like a more interactive experience, there's Kate McIntosh's Worktable, a multiroom walk-through installation that allows participants to take apart ordinary household objects using tools and then to create their own piece.
Martenson said that, each year, more Fringegoers have asked organizers for more family-friendly fare. Things finally changed when the writers, directors, and actors who performed each year began having families of their own.
"The fact that there are more shows for young audiences this year is a natural evolution of where the artists are," she said. "Folks who started producing shows in 1997 [when Fringe was founded] are 20 years older now and have children of their own."
Take Billion Nights' creator Phillips, Martensen said.
"He was in his 20s when he first produced at Fringe in 1997, doing a Shakespeare piece with Barbies in an alleyway," she said. "Now, he has children of his own, and a lot of his creative energy is spent on fatherhood, so channeling that into his art is natural."
The other factor is the exponential growth of noncurated or independent productions.
"There's been a real increase in independent shows specifically geared toward younger audiences, but we also have an uptick in the independent entries that are produced by youth groups."
Several shows are produced by teens, including the shadow play The Other, a production of Yes! And … Collaborative Arts' Shadow Company in Northwest Philly. Kids are also behind Dragon's Eye Theatre's Follow Me Through the Gates, an interactive adventure story at Independence Library in Center City.
Here's a small selection of recommended shows.
A surreal adventure story, a bedtime story, a heart-to-heart talk between parent and child. Thaddeus Phillips' A Billion Nights on Earth is all these things.
Most of all, it's a show Phillips hopes his own son will love.
"My son was 4½ when we started working on this about a year and a half ago," said the acclaimed performer, playwright, and theater creator.
"I wanted to create a piece I could bring my son to, and all his friends, and kids he knew."
A two-character show staged on a minimalist stage inspired by Kabuki theater, Billion Years stars Michael Fegley (Real Rosie! at Bucks County Playhouse) and his real-life son, 8-year-old Winslow, in his first play.
The story is simple: The boy loses his toy whale, leading the two to go off on a quest to retrieve the critter — through an interdimensional portal that happens to open into the boy's room.
The play features eye-popping effects, without any digital or video tricks.
"I think it's really exciting the way we are going to present to you things like the ocean by making the stage transform before your eyes," Phillips said by Skype from Sweden, where he's working on another children's production.
"Plus, we have a 60-foot whale" that looks just like the boy's lost toy, he said.
Fully aware that children's attention spans aren't what they used to be, Phillips wraps up each scene in a couple of minutes, creating a montage of rapid-moving action.
"It's like an illustrated story book," he said, "and the pages are always turning."
"A Billion Years on Earth" from Sept. 14-17 at FringeArts, 140 N. Columbus Blvd. $29, $15 students.
Have you ever wondered what mad your alarm clock tick? Wanted to take apart the toaster — just so you could put it back together again?
This year's other curated family show allows you to do that. Viewable by appointment Sept. 15-18 at Bok in South Philly, Worktable is a three-room installation created by Kate McIntosh that allows visitors (all children must be accompanied by an adult) to pick one object and, using tools of your own choosing, to take it apart — as gently or as roughly as you'd like.
"I wanted the objects to be very familiar objects we use every day, that we share a history with," McIntosh said by Skype from her home in Brussels, Belgium. You'll have 40 objects to choose from — they may include alarm clocks, typewriters, books, ceramics, posters, but also natural things like pine cones and apples.
"These objects are a part of our lives, and we have a relationship with them, but in the act of taking them apart, we learn more about them, and we see them differently."
Participants sign up in advance: Only one person (or one child-guardian pair) is allowed in at a time. Once inside, you're allowed to as long as you want.
"My background is in performance, and this was really my first installation," said the artist, who has taken the installation to 35 cities around the world. "And I really wanted to make a performance without any theater, without any performer, and without an audience."
Users have total privacy inside the installation — they won't be monitored or taped.
"I don't know what happens inside," McIntosh said. "As an artist, I'm not trying to harvest material by spying on" participants.
So what happens once you take apart your object?
"I would rather not explain," she said. "I'd rather leave that a surprise."
Worktable by appointment Sept. 15-18 at Bok, 1901 South St. $29, $15 students.
'Mistress of the Maze.' A sophisticated but family-friendly retelling of the myth of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur from artist Sarah Carr's troupe WeftWorks, the show includes fiber art, dance, object performance, masks, and puppetry. Sept. 16 and 17 at CHI Movements Art Center, 1316 S. Ninth St. in South Philly. $15.
The Fren Banklin Experience. This one sounds like a laugh riot: Book in advance and have an actor-historian playing a fictional 18th-century chap visit your home and tell you all about the Revolutionary era. We kid you not. Described as the "notoriously unreliable cousin of Ben Franklin," Fren will regale your family with stories for 25 minutes. By appointment, Sept. 13-24. $17.
The Edge of the Rock. A group show featuring vignettes designed and performed by young musicians, actors, and dancers from around the world, including alumni of the show's host, The Rock School for Dance Education. Sept. 23 at the school at 1101 S. Broad St. $10.
Aunty Ben. ReNew Theatre Company's instructive show about tolerance is about a 9-year-old girl and her favorite uncle, Ben, who happens to be a cross-dresser. Sept. 15-18 at William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce St. $20.
Mesmerized. Comedian-mesmerist Frank Perri performs a hypnosis show that will have him work his magic on audience members. Through Sept. 17 at Warehouse on Watts, 923-29 N. Watts St. off Broad and Girard Streets. $19.
Movemakers Philly presents i.d. Members of the hip-hop dance school Movemakers Philly "presents a poetic experience of sound and movement for all ages," as their poster promises. You can also watch a video about their work and participate in a performance. Sept. 15-23 at Movemakers Philly, 2100 Chestnut St., second floor. $15.
"Lost in the Woods." Described as "a movement for music," writer-director Jessica Renfro's family musical features vocalists Eva Kastner-Puschl and Jessica Renfro and pianist Lynda Saponara. Sept. 17 at German Society of Philadelphia, 611 Spring Garden St. $20.
Pride Parade. Show off your Philly Pride — or pick some up — with guided walking tours through historic spots in Center City. Storyteller and guide Wesley Flash will illuminate the walk with tales tall and short. Through Sept. 17. Meet at 2 p.m. in Rittenhouse Square at 18th and Chancellor Streets. $20.
Philadelphia Fringe Festival