The Fringe Festival is upon us. Now in its 22nd season, the DIY theater fest has grown up a bit since its early days. Now run by a year-round organization called FringeArts, the fest’s schedule includes an ever-expanding repertoire of “curated” (read: higher budget) shows, in addition to the usual anything-and-anywhere goes offerings. Fringe shows have taken place in graveyards and in crowded restaurants. They star kinky dancers with Euro-mullets and luddite detectives from Fishtown.

Before going any further, an important caveat for first-timers:

Many Fringe shows are Very Bad. They can send you into a confused, somnolent state of mind and make you begin questioning why you gave Philly’s theater scene a shot in the first place. (The ostensibly vetted shows are no exception to this rule.)

Conventional Fringe wisdom is that you should take a gamble on at least three uncurated shows. Of those, one will be bad, one will be pretty good, and one will change the way you think about the living arts. After years of going to Fringe shows, I can attest this is a fair algorithm.

You can browse the full schedule online, but if you want some direction, here are five places to start.

This play with no actors

No actors? Correct. Stifters Dinge, German for “Stifer’s Things,” is a show made up of props and automatons. But as the show’s creator Heiner Goebbels tells FringeArts, that’s not technically accurate: the audience is the living center of the show. If that sounds too lofty for you, don’t worry, he says. “They don’t need to know anything in advance, even children can just come and see it. The only precondition is openness and curiosity.” This curated show goes up at the Navy Yard on Sept. 7.

This cabaret in an old factory

Do You Want A Cookie? is a rhetorical question of a show title if there ever was one. The Bearded Ladies Cabaret stages the show Sept. 7 to 17 at a theater space in the Callowhill neighborhood, where a converted factory becomes the venue for a cabaret bake-off. It’s likely not geared toward fans of The Great British Baking Show, but hey, bring grandma anyway. As the cabaret’s brainchild John Jarboe put it: “This is going to be some radical shit.”

This flash mob dance piece

A FringeArts insider described this show as a “150 to 200 person flash mob of a dance performance on the Art Museum steps.” But Le Super Grand Continental a bit more orchestrated than that makes it sound. The large-scale show actually held auditions for its army of dancers back in May, and its Montreal-based creator has taken the public-space performance all over the globe to wide acclaim. See it outdoors on Sept. 8 and 9.

This circus act about dead flowers

OK, so it’s likely not really about dead flowers. But the Dead Flowers Circus Sideshow at Vox Populi on Sept 8th looks to be a definitively Fringey spectacle. The show promises “veritable filth olympics” and “entertainment guaranteed” — so probably don’t plan to bring the whole family.

This show about Bon Iver fighting a bear

Remember when infamous sadboy Justin Vernon aka Bon Iver wrote that crooning breakup album in a secluded cabin in the woods? Well, you probably don’t remember the “crazy fucking grizzly bear who thinks his music sucks” but had to put up with him wailing on and on about someone named Emma for months on end — and that’s OK. Philly singer-songwriter Emily Schuman tells this forgotten hate story in “Bon Iver Fights A Bear” at Art Church of West Philly, Sept. 7 through 17.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...