Craig Peterson: Making ‘Fringey’ a verb
by Suzi Nash
Aug 30, 2012 | 820 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Film festival programmers often view several hundred short and feature films, but that’s nothing compared to how many Craig T. Peterson watches. As the director of Live Arts Brewery for Philly Fringe and in his former role as artistic director at Dance Theater Workshop, he’s seen about 11,000 artist performances in his lifetime.

PGN: How is that possible?

CP: Well, when we curate shows, we sometimes fill a three-day program with 60 performances and we have to audition a huge amount of artists to pare it down. I go to see shows here and overseas where we have showcases where, throughout an entire day or week, we have artist after artist come in and do a five-minute presentation. It adds up and I’ve seen some amazing and crazy things.

PGN: What are your responsibilities?

CP: My primary responsibilities at Fringe are to help guide artists through the process of producing a show — organizing a lot and creating a context for what the festival is about. As director of research and development, I do everything I can to assist artists so they can create the best show possible. That way they can do what artists do, which is not only to entertain and engage us, but to teach and inform us and transform us out of our lives for a few minutes into some other exciting realm.

PGN: Tell me a little about yourself.

CP: I’m from rural New England — a tiny town in New Hampshire that topped out at about 800 people. K-sixth [grade] only had 60 students. I quite literally went to school in a little red brick schoolhouse. I lived there until I went to college.

PGN: I imagine a small school like that was a bit homogenous. What were the good and bad aspects?

CP: Very homogenous! There was not much diversity in southern New Hampshire at that time. The good points: It was very intimate and I had a great education. It was idyllic; it was Norman Rockwell come to life. The bad point: the lack of diversity, though at the time I didn’t realize it. My parents were city people from Boston who moved to the country to work at the university there, so they were pretty determined to keep us connected to the cultural scene.

PGN: Who was us?

CP: My brothers and me. I’m the youngest of three boys and we all went to the same schools. My parents were both psychologists, which was kind of an unusual profession back in the ’70s.

PGN: In my experience, the worst kids I know were always the children of ministers/preachers or psychologists/psychiatrists! Who was the troublemaker in your family?

CP: That would be me! [Laughs.] Since my brothers were older, I was home alone a lot with my parents during high school. I had all the attention focused on me and my parents figured out that I was gay at a pretty young age, so that was a rough period. With them being psychologists, there was not a lot of emotional privacy. There was a lot of processing that went on about the subject, which, for a 15-year-old, is the last thing you want to do. But hearing what a lot of people went through, I was lucky.

PGN: Give me an example of your rebelliousness.

CP: I tried to obey the basic rules but the most rebellious thing I did — and the reason for it was because [my parents] were psychologists — [was] I just stopped talking. [Laughs.] I don’t think I talked to my dad for two years and there’s nothing that drives a shrink crazy more than silence!

PGN: Did you go to college?

CP: I did. I loved high school but couldn’t wait to get out and go to the city. So I went to Carnegie Mellon but then transferred to Bard College in upstate New York — oddly, because it’s in an even smaller town than the one I grew up in! But it was a great college experience — a very free and creative community, full of artsy types, and I felt like I fit right in.

PGN: What did you study?

CP: Theater and dance [laughs], with an emphasis on psychology!

PGN: What did you want to be when you grew up?

CP: When I was in high school, I wanted to be a child psychologist. Weird, but at a pretty young age I used to read books on child psychology. Then when I was 17, my best friend had a sister who danced in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. We went up to Boston to see her and it was a lightening-rod moment: This is what I’m supposed to be doing. So I started studying dance and theater. I became obsessed with all things performing arts at that point. Not so much in a mainstream commercial way but in a ... um ...

PGN: Fringey way?

CP: Yes! Exactly. More experimental and postmodern. That became my main course of study and what I loved doing.

PGN: Were you athletic? Switching to dance at 17 seems late.

CP: Yes, I played a lot of sports. I was a swimmer for nine years, I played baseball, I played soccer, I was a total jock. So it was a nice transition. I’d started to become more artsy at the end of high school, so once I discovered the physicality of dance, it became very exciting to me. I still like being a physical person. I never developed into a great dancer, though after graduating I moved to New York and danced for a lot of independent choreographers.

PGN: Making a living as a dancer is pretty impressive.

CP: Yeah, but the life is really hard. I ended up getting a job at Dance Theater Workshop in New York. I turned out to be very good at developing programs and seeking ways to support artists, and I got hooked on it.

PGN: What was fulfilling about the switch?

CP: It was a combination of being inherently good at it and desiring a stability that’s hard to achieve as an artist. When I first started in arts administration, I worked in a program that was designed for artist services, helping to fundraise and promote artists’ shows. We did a lot of workshops for choreographers and dancers to help them develop their communication and business skills. It was really rewarding because it opened up a way to improve the field from within the field.

PGN: What was a best and worst moment onstage for you?

CP: Oh gosh. Well, this was part of the reason I didn’t pursue a career in dance: I hated performing! I loved class, I loved learning, but onstage my thoughts would often be, Can I make it to the wing to throw up without anyone noticing? I got too nervous. The irony is that now I have no problem being in front of large groups, but there was just something about “performing” that scared the crap out of me.

PGN: You mentioned coming out at a young age. When was your first kiss?

CP: Ooh, my first kiss. Well, I won’t mention any names, but it happened at a party. In a small town, oftentimes you have parties where everyone sleeps over so you don’t have to worry about people driving home drunk. Somehow this guy and I ended up in the same sleeping bag and it just happened. It was a total surprise.

PGN: How did you end up in Philadelphia?

CP: In my senior year I got a job dancing for a choreographer in New York, so after college, I moved there and started my whole New York trajectory. I eventually advanced to being the artistic director at DTW; I did a lot of traveling looking for artists, and quite a lot of good dance was coming out of Philly — like the International Children’s Festival and Headlong Dance Company — and I got to know the city. My parents were still in New Hampshire — this is turning into a long answer — and my mother said, “I’m not going to die in this tiny town.” So I suggested they move to Philly and my mom was like, “Philly? Oh God, why would we move to Philly?” And I said, “No, Philly’s great! It’s really revitalized itself, there’s a vibrant arts community there, museums and restaurants.” I talked them into going for a visit and they loved it; they bid on the first house they saw. Then my partner Darrell Martin and I started coming to visit and we fell in love with Philly too. We have two kids and it seemed like a great city to raise kids in, so about four years ago, we moved here too.

PGN: I know Darrell from Hip Philly. When did you decide to start a family?

CP: We’d been together about four years and I’d been at DTW for eight and was getting restless, so like any couple, we were looking at what the next step in our life would be and we decided to start a family.

PGN: What’s something the kids have done that’s made you laugh?

CP: Well, they’re starting to get curious about sex. One night I heard one of them using the word and we asked if they knew what it meant. The younger one said, “It’s when a man attaches his penis to a woman’s vagina” and the older one turned to her and said, “Don’t worry, our daddies don’t have vaginas, so they don’t do that.” They were right!

PGN: Family fun?

CP: Once a year we go up to P-town for the Family Equality Council’s Family Pride Week, which the girls love. They also accompany me to a lot of the shows. [Laughs.] They’re definitely getting exposure to some really wacky stuff! My daughter turned to me after a performance recently and said, “Nobody’s gotten naked yet?” so I guess they’re really used to what we present.

PGN: So that segues into the Fringe Festival. Tell me about it and what makes it “Fringey”?

CP: It started out in Old City about 16 years ago and since has grown out. This year, we have over 140 shows and 800 performances plus the Live Arts Festival, which runs concurrently. That’s the curated festival of more veteran artists both local and international. The Fringe is cool because anyone can apply to participate: It’s very low-cost. We assist in helping the artist get organized and self-produce their shows and we help market and sell tickets. As long as you can afford the $300 fee, that’s all that’s really required of you. It works because there’s such a vibrant arts community here and a lot of spirit from independent artists.

PGN: What’s your goal as artistic director?

CP: I want to really blow this festival up, to try to get us a higher level of participation and attract more national and international attention. I’d also like to do outreach into neighborhoods and get them thinking about the arts economy and revitalizing some of the outlying areas so that it’s really a citywide festival.

PGN: My favorite part of the festival is the unusual venues. I remember one year they had a car parked on Third Street and, for $2, you got inside the car and three to four actors performed a five-minute improv in the car. I went to a play in the back of a Mack truck parked in an empty lot and I’ve been to two or three performances in different cemeteries.

CP: Yup, we have a few cemeteries in use this year! And it’s not just the venues, it’s the creative content as well. My goal is to change Fringe from a noun to a verb, and an adjective.

PGN: What’s the wackiest show you’ve seen?

CP: You know, I’ve spent so many hours in darkened theaters that now “wacky” is so appealing to me it seems normal. We have a lot of nudity this year and I’m excited about that. There’s a lot of female nudity revolving around gender politics, which I think is a reflection and reaction to what’s going on politically and culturally. That’s what artists do: They rise up and respond to the dialog that’s happening in society.

PGN: Anything go too far?

CP: I don’t think anything is too far for me! Sure, I’ve had some shows that were so out there that I’ve had to say to the artist, “Uh, I just couldn’t get ticket sales for that.”

PGN: Now to some random questions. Would you sleep in a haunted house?

CP: I grew up in a haunted house!

PGN: Scariest example?

CP: I think the scariest time was when I woke up one night and saw a woman come out of the hallway — we had a hallway that had horrible energy and the whole family avoided it at any cost. Anyway, my brother and I shared a room and I saw a woman come out of the hallway, sit on his bed and feel his forehead. I’d seen it happen before and always assumed it was my mother but this time I realized it wasn’t her. It was terrifying, but cool too. So yes, I would sleep in a haunted house. I also saw a UFO once.

PGN: You and former President Jimmy Carter! What happened?

CP: It was in college and I was with two friends. We were driving to the grocery store and there was a really bright light in the sky. We pulled over and watched it move. All of a sudden it burst apart and scattered into the sky. It was an undeniable UFO experience. [Laughs.] Darrell thinks I was on drugs but I wasn’t!

PGN: Have you met a lot of interesting people in your job?

CP: Yes, I have an enormous respect for artists, they work so hard for so little. My life is full of artists, both at work and at home, since Darrell is a musician. Though I don’t make art, I try to approach my job artistically and think creatively about developing mechanisms to support our artists, because if I think like a businessman in this field, I won’t be able to give them the help they truly need.

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