Poet Heather Bowlan and musician Melinda Rice feature their new work at this year’s Philadelphia Fringe Festival

Melinda Rice and Heather Bowlan at the Laurel Hill Cemetery, one of the official Phildelphia Fringe Festival spots in 2023.Photo: Melinda Rice

Collaboration, location, and reaction to space and history in Philadelphia blend to create an ambient narrative at this year’s Fringe Festival, told by two artists living in Germantown – Heather Bowlan and Melinda Rice. 

re:claim, a site-specific performance series combining live string music and spoken word will debut this September at the 2023 Philadelphia Fringe Festival, an annual multidisciplinary festival featuring artists from Philadelphia and worldwide. The two artists will also perform at Young American Hard Cider and Tasting Room later this month to celebrate the neighborhood launch of Bowlan’s newest poetry book, Highlights and Blackouts.

Bowlan and Rice have known each other for years but only recently started collaborating in art. It started with Rice reading some of Bowlan’s “erasures” (what Bowlan calls the poems that are created from redacting other work) in Highlights and Blackouts. Highlights and Blackouts is Bowlan’s first poetry chapbook, featuring poems she recently wrote to work over a decade old. 

Rice, a violinist, musician, composer, and teacher/professor, wanted to react and respond to the poems in a musical language. She says she is interested in creating music with space for reaction and interaction and freedom to make choices as she plays. “I’m interested in creating pieces that include and interact with the surrounding area,” said Rice.

Bowlan was born and raised in Northwest Philly and has been writing poetry her entire life. She said she followed what she thought a normal trajectory of art was: a solo journey of creation and expectations of literary success.

But after time passing and having a baby, she came back into artistic expression via visual art and collage when poetry felt limiting. She said the process became more playful again. 

“Then I began collaborating with people to juxtapose photos they had taken, videos they made, sometimes in response to the poems or the erasures, or sometimes just independently, seeing how they talked to each other, next to each other,” said Bowlan. 

She continued, “So Melinda and I worked together in that way; she composed a few pieces, we made videos with images from both of us for a couple of those erasures, and that was the beginning. We wanted that to be the beginning, but we wanted to keep going…  we wanted to see what it would be like to just create everything together. Instead, really making it a live conversation, rather than responding.”

Out of that initial collaboration, their Fringe Festival performance came together. Musical improvisation and poetry will come together and draw inspiration from the life and work of Philadelphia publisher Edward Bok, held at the Bok Pergola at historic Laurel Hill Cemetery, located at 3822 Ridge Avenue. 

After walking around the physical space, Bowlan and Rice knew it was the perfect spot to create a site-specific performance together. The history of Edward Bok, a man who helped shape conventions about families, gender, and success in his role as editor of Ladies Home Journal, also gave them plenty to interact and respond to. 

As they say on the performance site: “Together we’ll explore the change in relationship between humans and our physical environment in the transition from life to death, as well as other meanings of progression–legacy, relationships, economy—through the lens of Bok’s far-reaching life.”

“Our collaboration came to be with getting to know the systems that made it so he was the person he was. And made it so he could buy and build a pergola in Laurel Hill,”  said Rice.

Rice took musical pieces from when Edward Bok was alive, taking notes and creating chords in a repurposed way. She also listened to the phrases Bowlan wrote and found the meter she heard in them, guiding her into a rhythm for the music. Patterns and shapes in the musical language also referenced a cellist who died during Bok’s time.

“What would it be like to explore this person (Bok) who helped systemize so many huge ideas about the nuclear family?” asks Bowlan. “What does it mean to know that now all of his own personal grasping of legacy, we get to literally walk all over it, at least in this one location? And how else can we push back on these larger concepts that he’s pushed on us very thoughtfully?”

re:claim will take place on September 16, with two showtimes available at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. In the event of inclement weather, a rain date has been scheduled for the following day, September 17, at the same showtimes. 

Heather Bowlan’s Germantown poetry chapbook launch for her Highlights and Blackouts will be on September 24th at 5:00 pm at Young American Tasting Room alongside poet Warren Longmire and Melinda Rice.