Alumni Focus: EAM's Zach Blackwood ('14) on Festival Programming and a Career in the Arts
March 28, 2019
Westphal College Communications Coordinator Laurel Hostak spoke with Entertainment & Arts Management alum Zach Blackwood (Class of 2014) about his role as an Artistic Producer for FringeArts in Philadelphia. Now presenting a series of performance works by Philadelphia artists, Zach’s EAM education helped pave the way to a career in creative leadership.
Tell us a little about your position at FringeArts as Artistic Producer. How did you first come to work with the organization, and what’s the path been like?
Well I've been a bit of a Fringe-o-Phile most of my life. I started volunteering at Orlando Fringe back in 2007 and had self-produced in that festival a few times. When I moved to Philly in 2010, I definitely wanted some large-scale festival experience so I co-op'd with Fringe University in 2012 so that I could work on some shows in the Edinburgh Fringe. The following summer, I took a weird little sabbatical from my part-time work at the Kimmel to take a seasonal position at FringeArts in the Programming department. I had a truly lovely time, and made it a goal to return to the organization in a full-time position. In 2017, I left my Programming Coordinator position at the Kimmel and returned to FringeArts. While still early in my time there, I took a big interest in helping to stress-test and plan strategies for the new, festival-based programming model and subsequently took on a great deal more responsibility at the institution as Artistic Producer. Now I'm responsible (together with Katy Dammers and Nick Stuccio) for scouting and curating all of our presented work, as well as representing the institution at our peer festivals across the globe. Ultimately the position is about long-game relationship management with some of the most imaginative and rigorous creative minds working. I adore that dearly.
What courses or projects in your major helped prepare you for the kind of work you do at FringeArts?
EAM is a fantastic and actionable course of study. The capacity to work with professionals in the field across the Mid-Atlantic and within other markets is truly the hallmark of the performance. Many instructors from special topics coursework are now my friends and colleagues. Looking back, I think the opportunity to get face-time with those professionals and wringing out their oral histories was a crucial aspect of my career development. In a lot of ways, being external of the university environment is dreamy, but I truly miss the opportunity to do the comparative analysis and case study work that I loved as a student.
FringeArts started as an annual performance festival with live events all over the city. While the Fringe Festival is still a huge part of the programming, the org now has its own space and presents local and international work year-round. Now you’re involved in a new presenting series, High Pressure Fire Service. What is HPFS, and why has FringeArts decided to package these performances as a series?
FringeArts has definitely experienced a growth spurt, it's true. The organization has grown over 23 years into a company with the capacity to leverage relationships with artists from across the world all year round. This means we're getting more inquiries and building out the bandwidth to present much more work in this market. What we found in our internal audit is that the Fringe Festival takes up a lot of space in our branding within the public imagination. Even after the rebrand in 2012/2013 that removed 'festival' from our name, people have continued to think about FringeArts as a 'September thing' to a certain degree.
Our new model is very much focused on meeting our audiences where they want to see us-- in festival settings. To us, that comes down to a few simple tweaks. We want to make sure that we're building legible curatorial frameworks for each of these festivals, as well as creating community partnerships where mutuality of purpose emerges. Furthermore, we want to do strategic placemaking, altering our space strategically to match audience behaviors and experiences we're trying to encourage. Finally, it means explaining how the works within each festival platform interact and correspond with one another within that framework. It's all a very technical strategy for doing what lots of great performing arts centers do very well: building presentation series that are more easily comprehended in our storytelling process. Ideally this practice of binding together presentations under gestalt umbrellas makes it easier for our various constituencies to interact with us so that we can build deeper relationships year-round.
With High Pressure Fire Service, we are affirming an investment in those artists living and working in Philadelphia. Over the course of this first iteration of the platform, we are excited to present five new works and one expanded remount—works that exemplify the ways in which these artists are deepening and expanding their practices. Through residency support, commission funding, technical advising, programmatic counseling, and community engagement each artist has approached this opportunity uniquely. It's been a dream thus far.
Without playing favorites, are there one or two events in HPFS that you’d recommend to Westphal students as an intro to the Philly performance scene?
You've definitely got to get to A Hard Time. It's no secret that I'm a bit of a comedy snob. I book Blue Heaven Comedy Festival each year at FringeArts and have a personal investment in comedic work that subverts a straight white male hegemony and foregrounds identity across difference. This new piece from Pig Iron Theatre Company's Jess Conda, Mel Krodman, and Jenn Kidwell is so impossibly smart. It really blows up our thinking about comedy and gender. It builds on the conversation we've had around Hannah Gadsby's Nanette, but goes even further insofar as foregrounding intersecting identity. Ultimately, it's one part lecture demonstration and one part one of those "try not to laugh" YouTube videos, with the goal of challenging your own adherence to your social contract. Free cocktails on select nights!
Any advice to soon-to-be graduates looking to start their arts careers in Philadelphia?
As you start making art and culture your vocation, you need to find an outlet for your creative self. I spend all day and night watching archival footage and making budgetary adjustments and arguing about visas. It's enough to make anyone feel so jaded. I write a lot and I really do protect my poetry practice closely. I love being able to turn my curator brain off and to write essays and poems about Vanderpump Rules, NASA's Moon Tree Project, or emotional affairs. It's nice to be on the other end of the business in one way or another-- applying for grants and residencies for yourself, writing your project descriptions, and submitting work to publishers and festivals. It keeps you sane, but it also gives you a stronger curatorial eye and a greater sensitivity for the concerns and values of your artist peers. Buy my book this summer.
Learn more about High Pressure Fire Service and other year-round arts programming at FringeArts.