Philly’s Fringe Festival is an almost month-long festival that happens every September here in the city of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.
The festival is wide and varied with performances taking place in both mainstream theaters and places that are a little more on the… fringe. Those offbeat shows are my favorites. In past years, I’ve seen a show staged in the back of a giant Mac truck, a play acted out in the bathroom of a pizza shop and I’ve followed dancers through the back alleys of Old City and through gravestones in Christ Church Cemetery.
The whole festival is a little bit queer, but there are several shows and performers that are especially of interest to our community, and we’ve featured quite a few of them over the years. This year has newcomer artist and performer Dana Suleymanova performing “Dear qupid” — a free interactive performance where Suleymanova doles out love advice to anyone in need on Sept. 9, 15 and 22, 2019 in Love Park.
PGN: Where do you hail from?
DS: I was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. When I was around six years old, my parents decided to move to the U.S. So I’ve been here for most of my life, but my parents are and my first language is Russian. I grew up in a very Russian environment.
PGN: Where did you land in the States?
DS: We moved to Cleveland, Ohio.
PGN: Do you have any memory of living in Uzbekistan?
DS: Some, mostly related to kindergarten, just doing typical kids things. It’s a little hazy since it’s been so long, but I do remember some of the food…delicious. I wish I had the funds to go back for a visit, but it’s a little expensive, not to mention all the paperwork. We’ve moved most of the family over, but some of my grandparents are still there.
PGN: What was or is a favorite Russian meal?
DS: One of the best is a dish from Uzbekistan called plov. It’s a fried rice dish with shredded carrots, chickpeas and beef, garlic and golden raisins. There are a lot of dried fruits and nuts in that part of the world, and they use a lot of them in the cooking.
PGN: I grew up originally near New York and my parents used to take me to the Russian Tea Room where I loved the pierogis. They even had a drink named after me, the Suzi-Q! It was probably just a Shirley Temple but they called it that when I was there.
DS: Yeah, I’m finding there’s a big Russian population in Philly too. Well, at least compared to Cleveland and Texas where I went to college! It’s cool to be out and about in Philly and hear people speaking Russian on occasion.
PGN: Did you always have an artistic bent?
DS: I think so; my parents were always supportive. From ballet to opera to the fine arts, Russian culture has always been very supportive of the arts. More than in the U.S. I would say. My dad is a translator but we always had music in the home. They met in the theater where they were both actors. They both loved the arts and encouraged me in my love for sculpture and drawing as I was growing up.
PGN: Any siblings?
DS: Yeah, I have an older sister who lives in D.C. She’s 30 and I’m 23 but we’re really close.
PGN: So tell me about Cleveland.
DS: They call it “The Mistake on the Lake,” but I think it’s underrated. There are a lot of cool things about Cleveland.
PGN: Who was your best friend as a kid?
DS: I used to do synchronized swimming and one of my best friends was my duet partner. I did it for about seven years and competed on a national level. It’s kind of weird I guess, but I guess I’ve always been performing in a way.
PGN: I just saw an actress on a talk show who said she did synchronized swimming and didn’t shave her legs because the hair helps with buoyancy.
DS: Interesting, I never heard that. We all shaved our legs as per the societal norm. It’s a strange sport. I think some people think it’s not a real thing, just something that’s seen in tampon commercials, but it’s for real and very difficult actually.
PGN: It really takes strength and talent!
DS: Yeah. Similar to gymnastics and figure skating, it’s a real blend of artistry and athletics, which is something I really enjoy about it.
PGN: I think people don’t realize that through the whole thing, upside down, sideways, jumping in the air, your feet never touch the bottom. What was your hardest move?
DS: Pretty much anytime you were upside down, there were a lot of pointed toes and straight legs while trying to spin at the same time. There’s a lot of difficulty in balancing while treading water. You have to flail your arms in a way that circulates your body around while keeping the legs moving smoothly. There’s a lot with breath control too.
PGN: Do you sing? You must have amazing lungs after all that!
DS: Just a little choir in school, but I never really fit in. I dabbled in a lot of stuff. After a while, I moved away from synchronized swimming too. There were aspects of it I wasn’t crazy about.
PGN: What didn’t you like?
DS: The sequins! And the hyper-feminine aspects of synchro, they were really uncomfortable for me as I was navigating my own feelings.
PGN: Where did you go for college?
DS: I went to the University of Texas in Austin and just graduated about a year ago. I got a BFA in Studio Art and a certificate in Digital Arts and Media.
PGN: What brought you to Philadelphia?
DS: I really wanted to move to the East Coast. After being in Texas for a while, I wanted to have seasons again and though I have friends in New York, Philly seemed more manageable, and I’d heard a lot of good things about Philadelphia’s art scene.
PGN: Have we lived up to your expectations?
DS: Oh yes, I love it here. I love how walkable the city is; I love how honest people are about their feelings here. [Laughing] I see a lot of loud, heated altercations on the street. Down South people just give those backhanded compliments, “Bless your little heart” types of things. No one is really going to tell you what’s going on. But the accents are kind of weird here! Water or “wooder” is not my favorite word to hear in Philly. People will say it and I’m not sure what’s being said; it takes a minute to register.
PGN: Let’s talk about your Fringe show, “Dear qupid”
DS: It’s a free love advice service that’s kind of like a cross between a janky childhood play and a lemonade stand. Cardboard props and poorly constructed costumes, etc. I’ll be sitting on a ladder dressed in a baby cupid diaper giving out love advice. It takes place in Love Park which is a perfect setting.
PGN: What makes you the love expert?
DS: Nothing! I don’t really know anything about love, which was really brought home the first time I did it and people much older than me were asking questions that were above my pay grade. But that’s kind of the satire — that this baby in a diaper is the symbol for something as sophisticated as love and is in charge of putting people together by randomly shooting off arrows. There’s a lot of humor in the piece. I make fun of myself and the ideas of shame and embarrassment as I’m sitting in public looking ridiculous in a diaper. There’s a lot of camp in the show.
PGN: Do you read a lot of “Dear Abby” to learn how to respond?
DS: I’ve been watching a lot of “Sex in the City.” I do read a lot of “Savage Love,” which I like, and I’ve been going to love advice columns on the Internet. It’s interesting to see how people listen to random “experts” online without ever questioning their credentials.
PGN: How would you describe yourself: performance artist, actor, fine artist?
DS: I wouldn’t say an actor, I don’t really have any authority in that department. I’ve definitely been getting more into performance art. It’s a weird niche thing, and I have a complicated relationship with it and its controversial history. It can be really esoteric and weird, but it can also be exciting and intradisciplinary and interesting. But sculpture is a first love and always something I’ve been interested in. I’ve done gallery shows with that, and I also do drawings and video animation. I do stop motion and teach animation to kids sometimes.
PGN: So has your dad figured out how to translate “cofefe”?
DS: I love that word. I’m thinking about getting it as a tattoo.
PGN: I see you have a few already, which was the first one?
DS: It’s a contour of a moth. My grandfather was an entomologist and used to collect butterflies, beetles and moths — so that's for him. I have two scissors, scissoring. My sister has the same one; she's very queer as well.
PGN: [Laughing] Subtle, I like it.
DS: Yeah, a lot of people just think I cut hair.
PGN: Are you single?
DS: I am not. I moved here from Texas with my partner. She’s in the arts as well. She also does a lot of video and sculpture. She’s very talented.
PGN: Is she enjoying Philly too?
DS: Oh yeah, she loves it. But she’s lived in Texas her whole life, so we’ll see what happens when the first snowstorm hits.
PGN: What’s your favorite piece of clothing?
DS: I’m a real sneakerhead, so my favorite thing is a pair of Jeremy Scott wing sneakers, white with black embroidered wings attached. They’re pretty [cool], I only wear them once or twice a year when I want to feel flashy.
PGN: What’s a quote your parents used a lot?
DS: There are a lot of Russian proverbs. One that’s kind of sad or self-deprecating is, “We wanted what’s best, but it turned out as usual.”
PGN: Would you take free skydiving lessons?
DS: Skydiving? Yes. Bungee jumping, no.
PGN: Ever have any paranormal experiences?
DS: No, but I work at the Mütter Museum now, and they have a lot of dead bodies around so hopefully that will change soon.
PGN: You have your own talk show, who are your first three guests?
DS: LeBron James, he’s my favorite person. Drake would be cool, and I think Andy Warhol would be a fun guest.
PGN: What’s the most mischievous thing you did as a kid?
DS: I got in trouble when we first moved here. Some boy was teasing me so I kicked him in the butt, which apparently was acceptable to do in Russia but frowned upon here. My parents got called in to the office and it was a big deal, but privately my mother told me she was proud of me for sticking up for myself. It was very dramatic; I was sent to detention and everything.
PGN: What kinds of pets did you have as a kid? Their names?
DS: I had a pet chinchilla named Dunya for 16 years. She was my true love, and I miss her dearly. She was extremely soft and adorable but also very sassy. I also have had parakeets my whole life growing up and they’re probably some of my favorite animals because of their ability to talk and repeat back anything I tell them.
PGN: Scariest moment?
DS: One of the scariest moments of my life was when a bug crawled into my ear while I was sleeping and wouldn’t stop flying around in my head. I had to wash it out with a water and oil mixture. I haven’t been the same since.
PGN: What’s your hidden talent?
DS: I used to write raps when I was 10 years old and record music videos with my friend. I wasn’t great, but I’d like to think I wasn’t awful.
PGN: The accomplishment I’m most proud of is…
DS: Probably getting a chance to perform this qupid piece at Love Park. I’ve always had a love for performance but just never thought it could manifest into a large public work such as this with such institutional support. Especially being young and just graduating college, I’ve been getting my fair share of rejections from jobs or other art opportunities, so getting a chance to do this is pretty exciting for me.