The Philadelphia Fringe Festival built its name on raucous, outside-the-box productions unlike what audiences could expect at traditional theatrical venues. Although the event has become polished with age, a segment of Fringe performers and production companies have endeavored to keep that edgy, do-it-yourself aesthetic alive.
Director Elaina Di Monaco and playwright Haygen-Brice Walker are among that cadre. The out pair of University of the Arts graduates, who operate under the collective name On the Rocks, have put on a Fringe show every year since 2016. Their performances quickly gained notoriety for the freewheeling environment they created, fueled by alcohol, unapologetic sexuality and, until recently, a lack of air conditioning. Audiences have been required to sign a waiver before taking their seats.
This Fringe will be no different. When I met up with Walker and Di Monaco for drinks at a Gayborhood watering hole in early August, they were deep into rehearsals for their latest venture. The title? “our Ouija board, the games we played, the s—t we conjured & the dead dude we hate-f—d.”
In other words, don’t expect “The Sound of Music.”
The pair see themselves operating within a tradition of queer outsider art, which is central to their vision.
“We need our audiences to know that our work is really gay,” Di Monaco said. “That’s at the forefront of everything we do. Some gay s—t will go down.”
Walker highlighted another element of their overarching style: “We are deeply influenced by horror,” he said. “And in terms of vibe, we try to create a house party. All of that mixed together is what you can expect.”
That description certainly tracks with prior On the Rocks experiences. Their 2018 Fringe show, “WOLFCRUSH: a queer werewolf story,” reimagined the traditional teen thriller through the lens of forbidden same-sex desire. It also spoofed the tropes of small-town Southern religiosity, football fetishism and barely hidden secrets. (Walker hails from Virginia, Di Monaco from Florida.)
“Our Ouija board” operates on similar terrain. Although the pair were mum on details during our interview — “I’m rewriting as we speak,” Walker said, only half-joking — the basic plot centers around a 10-year high school reunion, which revives memories of a tragedy experienced by a group of friends during their senior year. You’ll have to see the show to learn how the Ouija board fits in — along with other topics name-checked in the promotional materials, including necrophilia, celebrity ghost hunters and Destiny’s Child band member Kelly Rowland.
In early drafts of the script, the inciting incident was a school shooting. That detail was definitively scrapped in the wake of the mass tragedies in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Tex.
“We’re not about shielding our audiences, but there are some things we can get across without reminding and traumatizing people,” Walker said.
Walker and Di Monaco view this production as a stepping stone for them. It will be presented at the Asian Arts Initiative, their largest venue to date, and will feature a cast of 10 actors. The company includes a mix of returning performers, including Barrymore Award winner Campbell O’Hare and local favorite Jenna Kuerzi, and six newcomers, some of whom are still in drama school.
“It’s nice to have some new energy and new blood, and to have these different kinds of brains in the room,” Di Monaco said. “We do have people who have been with us so long that they understand all the phases of how we work. But everyone, old and new, feels raw in a way that I’m excited about.”
Working with new collaborators also allows the duo to stretch their creative capabilities. “We’re inviting people in so that we can write for them,” Walker said. “Because a lot of these people are new to us, I’m finding out who they are, and we’re creating roles that suit them. It’s really easy for me to do that for people we’ve worked with many times, because I know them, but there’s excitement in getting to do it for the first time.”
On the Rocks also find itself welcoming new audience members with each passing Fringe Festival. “Last year, we were looking at ticket presale lists and saying, who are these people?” Di Monaco said. “We were talking to people, and a lot of them were saying it was their second or third show with us. To hear that from a stranger feels absolutely amazing.”
Cultivating an audience has been an important element for Walker and Di Monaco. Although both have worked extensively outside of the Fringe Festival — Di Monaco is a sought-after freelance director, and Walker recently returned from a yearlong playwriting fellowship in St. Paul, Minn. — they feel an understandable loyalty to the crowds that built their company to what it is today.
“At various points, we’ve discussed presenting work outside of Fringe,” Di Monaco said. “But we don’t know if it would have the same effect. And we love our Fringe audiences. So we don’t want that to change.”
Still, both Walker and Di Monaco quipped that after each Fringe, they contemplate throwing in the towel. Yet it seems unlikely the partnership will dissolve any time soon. In fact, during the course of our interview, it often felt like we were inside a draft for a future production.
At the bar where we posted up, the bartender and the only other customer got into an escalating yet affectionate argument, their Philly accents growing more pronounced as their volume increased. Later, a different patron, whom the same bartender described as “flagged from every other place on this street,” misheard a snatch of our conversation and started screaming at us about the economy.
Walker chuckled and took a sip of his tequila and grapefruit juice. “This needs to go into a play,” he concluded. Maybe next year?
“our Ouija board, the games we played, the s—t we conjured & the dead dude we hate-f—d” runs from Sept. 13-22 at Asian Arts Initiative, 1219 Vine Street, as part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. Tickets can be purchased on Fringearts.com.