John Jarbeau performs "The Switch" as part of Late Night Snacks at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. (Cass Meehan-Marinich)

Everyone has a weird Philadelphia Fringe Festival story.

For Chris Davis, his involves sitting in the living room of a Philadelphia row house watching a live television screening of “Moby Dick,” being performed by one man in the bathtub upstairs. 

“It was very weird,” he said, “but “you have to expect the unexpected.”

Every September, Philadelphia turns into a weirdness extravaganza of unexpectedness with hundreds of performances, from dance to music, to theater, to circus, to just plain strange, staged everywhere from old factories to graveyards. This year, there’s been a post-pandemic flood of shows — more than 900 performances of more than 300 different offerings.

Even for veteran Fringe-goers like Davis, who sees 10 to 20 shows a year, it can be overwhelming to choose among them, but Mikaela Boone, a director who handles programming for the Fringe has some simple advice: “Get your risky weird audience on” and go for it.

Check out the background of the festival and nine tips on navigating the performance art bounty. 

A global tradition spread across the city 

The Philadelphia Fringe Festival is modeled after the granddaddy of all Fringes, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland — the world’s largest and oldest (since 1947) performing arts festival.

These days, there are Fringe Festivals all around the world. Philly’s started in 1997 with five days of performances in Old City, from 60 artistic groups.

Now, there are performances all over the city, but most are gathered into “Hubs” — performance spaces that will host several shows from late afternoon to late night, often with time for a beer in between.

Four of the biggest hubs — all within walking distance from Northern Liberties to Fishtown — have been bundled into the Cannonball Festival. The mini fest within the Fringe is presented by Almanac Dance Circus Theater, a Philadelphia dance and theater troupe.

Ching-I Chang in “Rhythm Bath” at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. (Rosalie O’Connor)

Other hubs include Circus Campus Presents in Mt. Airy, Crossroads Comedy at Theatre Exile in South Philly, children’s programming at the West Philadelphia Boys and Girls Club and at Liberty Lands Park, some other kind of programming at the Laurel Hill East cemetery, and the Fringe staff’s picks — primarily at the FringeArts building at Race Street and Columbus Boulevard.

And if that weren’t enough, there’s a completely different festival, the Free Fringe, that mostly occurs in a cozy bar on the third floor of the charming Plays and Players Theatre near Rittenhouse Square, but in other locations as well. The Free Fringe has its own line-up of shows, but Fringe performers often also cross-list their shows in both festivals.

It’s a lot, so how do you sort it out? 

Start with the websites

All the info you need and more, from ticketing to maps to show descriptions is readily available.

List of Fringe websites

Philadelphia Fringe Festival:Through Sept. 24. This is the main ticket-buying hub. You can buy online, at the FringeArts building (140 N. Christopher Columbus Blvd.) or by calling the box office at 215-413-1318.

Cannonball Festival: Through Sept. 30. Hubs: Icebox Project Space (1400 N. American St.), Fidget Space (1714 N. Mascher St.) Maas Building (1320 N. 5th St.) and Liberty Lands Park family programming (913 N. 3d St.)

Circus Campus Presents: Through Sept. 24, Circus Campus (6452 Greene St.)

Crossroads Comedy Theater: Sept. 11-24, Theatre Exile (1340 S. 13th St.)

Daydream: Sept. 23-24, Children’s programming at the West Philadelphia Boys and Girls Club (5843 Catharine St.)

Bearded Lady Late Night Snacks: Sept. 8-Oct. 1, also in partnership with Opera Philadelphia, The Closet (201 South St.)

Free Fringe of Philadelphia: Through Sept. 30, primarily at Quig’s Pub, (3rd floor, Plays and Players Theatre, 1718 Delancey St.), but also at other Fringe locations.

Check your calendar

Figure out when you have the time to go out. You can search the Fringe websites by date. You can also sort by neighborhood, so pick some shows close to home.

Search by category

Dance, theater, music, film, and immersive — there are even shows that involve walking tours. 

Most of the categories are self-explanatory, but immersive means that audience members will be interacting in some way with the performers or the set. To get into the Fringe spirit, choose a show in a category that you like, such as dance, and then choose a show in something completely different.

Drag artist Le Gateau Chocolat is part of the Cannonball Festival at Philly Fringe. (Joe Lamberti)

Search by vibe

The Cannonball Festival, which operates the largest set of hubs in the Fringe Festival, also slices and dices by vibe on its website. Among the options: “Gay (probably),” “Jewish Folklore Introspection,” “Sex!” and “Cannonball Kids.”

Use the hubs

Ben Grinberg, who runs Cannonball, suggests choosing what catches your eye. Then, if you are at a hub, just buy a ticket for the next show — whatever it is. 

“Find the things that seem like gems and add something else. See how you like it.”

Keep on partying 

Besides beer opportunities at performances, both the Fringe and the Free Fringe cap evenings with post-performance, cabaret-style acts. For the Fringe, Bearded Ladies, a queer arts organization, curates Late Night Snacks, promising unapologetically queer performance art nightly at The Closet, 201 South St. The Free Fringe line-up also includes a few late-night shows.

The bar at the Maas building garden, where the Cannonball festival offers nightly programming. (Courtesy Cannonball Festival)

Make a friend

Cannonball offers a blind date option. Included as a ticket add-on is a match-up with another audience member, a drink voucher, and some before and after show conversation starters.

Don’t let FOMO stress you out

You can’t possibly see everything, so don’t invite it into your psyche.     

Get into the spirit

This is probably the most important advice of all. “Go in with open curiosity,” said Davis, a performer who is presenting “The 40-Year-Old Ballerino” during Late Night Snacks on Sept. 22.  

Ben Grinberg at “Fix Me,” part of the Fringe Festival. (Courtesy Ben Grinberg)

“That’s the risk-taking culture of the Fringe,” echoed Boone, the theater director. The artists, she said, push their own boundaries, seeing the Fringe as a time to try out new work, new collaborations, and new ideas. 

“Audiences are also trained — they know the Fringe is riskier and weirder, so there is a higher tolerance for that.”

For all the talk of risk and experimentation, the risk is actually quite low. Tickets are cheap and shows are short, so no matter what happens, you’ll end up with your own weird Fringe story.

Prizewinning journalist Jane M. Von Bergen started her reporting career in elementary school and has been at it ever since. For many years, her byline has been a constant in the Philadelphia Inquirer,...