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May 8, 2015 Germantown

Pop-up performances from Nice and Fresh troupe look to push limits


Poet, singer, musician and teacher Yolanda Wisher said she first thought about joining SmokeyScout Productions’ Nice and Fresh Northwest pop-up performance series last winter, when she was coming out of Big Blue Marble bookstore after a reading.

SmokeyScout co-founder Josh McIlvain and his performers happened to be leaving the Moving Arts of Mt. Airy on the opposite corner after their December show there.

Wisher and her husband, bassist Mark Palacio, live in Germantown with their five-year-old son, Thelonious, who attends Miquon School along with McIlvain’s kids. That was how the two families, including McIlvain’s wife and SmokeyScout co-founder Deborah Crocker, first met, Wisher told NewsWorks while warming up for a show in April one night.

Quick Fixx

“We’ve been playing in Philadelphia together for 15 years,” Wisher said of her partnership with Palacio. Now, they often perform in a guitar/bass trio alongside percussionist Karen Smith, who was also on hand for the show in early April. Together, they’re Yolanda Wisher and the Quick Fixx.

Wisher said she got her start in music at age five, with the violin. “Technically, I started on a margarine box with a ruler stuck in it,” she clarified, before graduating to the instrument itself. In her late 20s, she began to play the cello.

“I always wanted to turn it upside down and play it like a guitar,” she said of her evolution to her current instrument.

The founder and director of the Germantown Poetry Festival, Wisher just published her first book of poetry, Monk Eats an Afro, last year. Palacio is also quick to point out that his wife is the first-ever poet laureate of nearby Montgomery County.

She, Palacio and Smith performed a powerful trio of original songs scattered throughout the Nice and Fresh Program: “Trapeze,” “Crosswoman Blues,” and “Cornrow Song.”

Leaps of faith

Many of the performances were as fresh to McIlvain as they were to the rest of the packed house on folding chairs at Cliveden — he curates the artists appearing in the series, but not the work itself.

The circus/dance performance troupe Almanac contributed two short pieces: a mash-up of unique, breathlessly stacked acrobatics and monologues by McIlvain. Starring creator/performers Nicole Burgio, Nick Gillette, Ben Grinberg and Adam Kerbel, they were titled “Leaps of Faith and Other Mistakes,” and “The Smoke.”

“I am not going to be the kind of person who has one exceptional story,” Gillete gabs in “Leaps of Faith,” sipping from a Dunkin Donuts cup while his companions exert silent but remarkable physical feats using the pull, strength and play of their own bodies. “I’m going to be exceptional, not in a normal way, but in a moment-to-moment way.”

This question is something everyone can relate to, McIlvain said afterwards of his inspiration for the “Leaps of Faith” monologue. Seeing people try to express themselves verbally through remarkable physical contortions could be a metaphor for getting ourselves across with the limited human tools of everyday life.

As Gillette put it, “What’s it like to speak inside the duress of some of these moves?”

“A lot of people want to live an exceptional life. What does that mean?” McIlvain asked. Almanac’s latest Nice and Fresh performance is actually a lead-up to a new full-length work coming to Philly in late June, billed as “an absurd acrobatic dance piece about sublime human idiocy, isolationist seafarer cults, and the kind of people that devote their lives to becoming acrobats,” written by McIlvain with music by Patrick Lamborn.

New roles for Cliveden

The show also included work from The Naked Stark, an interactive dance/music piece from choreographer/performer Katherine Kiefer Stark, with Bethany Brooks on the keyboard. Writer/director McIlvain’s new short play, Little Sister Plays Guitar, starring Julius Ferraro, Anna Flynn-Meketon and Francesca Piccioni, rounded out the night.

Cliveden executive director David Young also attended the performance. He was pleased by the number of new visitors coming in the door for Nice and Fresh, noting that Cliveden already plays host to a diverse range of activities, from plays to weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. The site is happy to branch out into new forms of local engagement, he added.

“Cliveden is more and more of a community center,” Young said.

Nice and Fresh’s next performances are scheduled for Friday, May 22 and Saturday, May 23 at Cliveden.


‘Nice and Fresh’ curated show series gains popularity in Northwest Philly

Brian Ratcliffe and Isa St. Clair. (Alaina Mabaso/for NewsWorks)
Brian Ratcliffe and Isa St. Clair. (Alaina Mabaso/for NewsWorks)

On Friday night, Mt. Airy couple Josh McIlvain and Deborah Crocker continued what is quickly becoming a popular event in the Northwest, with the first “Nice and Fresh” installment of 2015 at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts in Germantown.

The “Nice and Fresh” series, now in its second season, is a program of McIlvain and Crocker’s own company, SmokeyScout Productions, founded in 2008. In December, they brought a two-night run of pop-up theater, dance and circus performance to Moving Arts of Mt. Airy. Their latest show, on Jan. 30 and 31, offered five short world-premiere pieces, including Crocker’s “Nice and Fresh” performance debut.

“The audience thing has picked up,” Crocker told NewsWorks after the show. The series started small, but it’s drawing a bigger crowd each time as locals make a habit of picking up the $7 tickets.

For his part, McIlvain curates the artists who are invited to appear in the show, but not their work.

Whatever they decide to bring on opening night is as fresh to McIlvain as it is the audience.

Last week’s participants included the all-female circus-theater company Tangle Movement Arts, which presented two pieces: “Unwind/Rewind” (performed and created by Lauren Rile Smith) and “Touch” (choreographed by Lee Thompson and performed by Thompson, Smith, and Caitlin Donaghy).

They included strong, sensuous and contemplative movement in dance and various aerial arts from the three daring and accomplished acrobats.

Murmuration Theater debuted “Looks Like Everyone Has Left,” in which a trio of young adults grapples with an inability to come to terms with the finer points of adulthood. Miles (Brian Ratcliffe) and Felicia (Isa St. Clair) turn a darkened server room at the office into their own Shyamalan-esque fantasy scape, where they patrol the perimeter in the face of howling winds and ominous roars.

The expense reports can wait.

Written by Jessie Bear and directed by Craig Getting, and also starring Nell Bang-Jensen, the short play explored the problems of childhood collections, and the way these externalized remnants can become an embarrassingly tangible part of your personality. This can bring “a very real layer of shame” when you’re ready to move on, or, even worse, you’re not.

Melissa Krodman’s “Sunny Days” with Sea-Side Simon was an aggressively surreal solo performance, part hospital-ward monologue, part exuberant homage to “gay 1990’s dancing,” complete with pajamas, two wigs, electric blue leggings, a gold-sequined bra and high-heeled lace-up platforms to match.

Christine Sanchez, who came from Chestnut Hill for the show, said it was all very “avant-garde,” but that’s not a bad thing.

A new short play written and directed by McIlvain, “The Beauty of the Program Is,” wrapped up the show. Lampooning America’s motivational speakers and authors, it was a solo performance by Crocker, playing a “leader whose specialty is leadership,” with a slight Sun Tzu and Machiavelli obsession.

Crocker was a professional dancer before earning her master’s in arts administration, and now she works at the Miquon School. She’s been helping to mount the “Nice and Fresh” shows from behind the scenes since they got started, but it was her first time onstage in one, and her first time being directed by her husband.

“I wasn’t sure how it would go,” she said of their living-room rehearsals after she got the script about a month ago. But it turned out to be “so much fun.”

“Nice and Fresh” fans can look out for the next show on Feb. 27 and 28 at Moving Arts of Mt. Airy at Greene Street and Carpenter Lane.

—Alaina Mabaso


‘Nice and Fresh’ brings up-close, curated theater experience to the Northwest
Two performances from the Putty Dance Project bring live music-and-movement duets starring dancer Lauren Putty White and trombone player Brent White. (Photo courtesy of Said Johnson)
Two performances from the Putty Dance Project bring live music-and-movement duets starring dancer Lauren Putty White and trombone player Brent White. (Photo courtesy of Said Johnson) 
In the theater world, you don’t get fresher than setting the lighting and sound cues just 20 minutes before showtime.
In Josh McIlvain’s curated performing arts series, running in different locations throughout the city, the Chestnut Hill native hopes things turn out pretty nice, too.It’s even called “Nice and Fresh.”SmokeyScout Productions, founded in 2008 by McIlvain and his wife, Deborah Crocker, launched the eclectic assortment of pop-up performances (now in its second year) with the goal of bringing compelling new works and independent artists together for intimate premieres with local audiences.The latest round offered four performances— two each on Friday and Saturday nights — at the Moving Arts of Mt. Airy space on Carpenter and Greene Streets.

Getting ready for curtain

On Friday afternoon, the space was a pop-up Christmas shop, and the artists, none of whom (including curator McIlvain) had seen each other’s planned performances, had a mere hour in which to take down the holiday store and ready the space with the bare bones of sounds, light, the skeleton of a set and seating for up to about 30 audience members.

Serving as curator, box office, stage manager and stage hand as the minutes ticked away to curtain time (a strong scent of evergreens the only clue to the space’s daytime use), McIlvain, in jeans and a t-shirt bearing the word “KALE,” had precious little time for press.

DIY theater

Anna Flynn-Meketon, a Mt. Airy resident, starred alongside writer/director John Rosenberg in his short play, “Aaliyah (rock the boat).”

Flynn-Meketon just graduated from Temple’s theater program last May, and since then, true to the “Nice and Fresh” vibe, has been “figuring out how this happens.”

Her varied student career included roles in Temple shows like “Urinetown” and “Macbeth,” where she played Lord Banquo (she says cross-gender casting seems to be a theme in her work so far). She’s volunteered at Acting Without Boundaries and interned at Norristown’s Theater Horizon.

She admires versatile artists like McIlvain who take a do-it-yourself approach to theater.

“The whole multi-terrain thing is what’s up right now,” she said of the local arts scene.

At 13 minutes to show-time, the audience began to arrive, but one of the night’s eight featured performers was still missing.

Everyone arrived in the nick of time.

A curated experience

“You’re just now realizing how much you overpaid for that row home in South Philadelphia,” McIlvain intoned in a recorded intro, welcoming patrons to the Northwest.

As for any audience members caught using their phones during the performance, “we’ll slice your head off and call it performance art.”

The show kicked off with “Aaliyah,” which Rosenberg’s wife Yael Wulfhart said was inspired by a real-life family incident at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. It’s a brief, compelling and foul-mouthed dialogue between a brother and sister on the consternations of religion.

Next were two performances from the Putty Dance Project, “A Hip and a Swing,” and “Emoticon,” live music-and-movement duets starring dancer Lauren Putty White and trombone player Brent White. The engaging choreography celebrated the slides and sounds of the trombone as much as its music.

At intermission, Ken and Ruth Feldman explained that though they’re Wilma Theater subscribers who catch many of the bigger-budget plays downtown, they’ve been fans of “Nice and Fresh” since its inception, when shows were mounted in Kensington.

“It’s great to have it in the neighborhood,” Ken said, since the couple lives just a few blocks away.

Next was “Get Up,” a short but high-flying and perilously acrobatic performance from circus arts duo Nick Gillette and Lauren Harries, both alums of the Pig Iron School. Gillette is a founding member of Almanac, a “dance theater circus troupe,” now in its second year.

Finishing off the show was SmokeyScout’s own “Joni and the Doorman.” Sarah Knittel and Ethan Lipkin starred as Joni, a rich young divorcee, and Paul, a sympathetic, fur-trimmed bear of a doorman with serious Mafia connections.

“What’s the best thing about being divorced at 28?” Joni asks, pounding on the door after imbibing two bottles of Cristal. “You’re like Cleopatra, but American and available.”

She and Paul debate the finer points of how to properly spend drug money, and the hazards of getting grandma too liquored up (hearing more about your origins than you ever wanted to know).

The scene has a predictable end for someone so drunk, but then the theatrical results, cunningly staged in a plastic wastebasket, splattered a little further than anyone expected.

The faithful Feldmans, ardent supports that they are, caught the brunt of it from their front and center seats in the tiny venue.

“That doesn’t happen in the downtown theaters,” Ken said.


Philly arts get personal with the second annual “Nice and Fresh” series

From BROAD STREET REVIEW, Sept 26, 2014

Josh Lay, Bill Grandberg, and Cory Cavin of New York comedy troupe Awful DJ. Image courtesy of SmokeyScout Productions.

Is a new and diverse artistic experience worth $7 to you? For that amount, you could buy a cheeseburger and fries or a latte and a half, or spend about an hour marinating in four unique short works of theater, dance, performance, and/or circus arts. That’s what SmokeyScout Productions’ Nice and Freshperforming arts series is all about.

The series was created by husband-and-wife SmokeyScout co-founders Josh McIlvain and Deborah Crocker, and it “creates work that brings the absurdity of contemporary life to the stage with brilliant acting, bold humor, inventive staging, and a respect for audience intelligence.”

Second anniversary show

The duo produced the first series last year because they wanted to offer shows with an informal vibe but with professional pacing in their Mount Airy neighborhood, rather than downtown. McIlvain believes there is a large audience for theater and performance art in his area. “There are few options in the Northwest for professional-level theater and for something that’s more original,” he said.

He also wanted to collaborate with other artists to create new, finished performances, which encourages artists to create regularly, and combine several disciplines into one evening. Each show features four pieces, about 12 to 15 minutes long, “enough to be artistically substantive, but not so long it will kill the artist to make it,” he said. “The goal is to showcase great artists and interesting art being made.”

The first event this year features the New York City comedy troupe Awful DJ; a duet choreographed by local dancer Barbara Tait; and a piece by Washington, D.C. dancer Katie C. Sopoci Drake. It also features a play by McIlvain — he wrote and directs The History of Rock and Roll, a semi-autobiographical story about being in a band: “It’s about what it’s really like and what interpersonal relationships of that kind are.”

Though he enjoyed being a musician, his focus is theater now, and he’s happy about that. “I feel connected to it, and I like writing plays,” he said.

Keeping the actors in the room

He also likes making theater feel less stagy. “Sometimes it feels as if [the actors] are not in the room with you,” he said. From his time being in a band, “I’m conscious of how to play a crowd. I like using some of that to insinuate actors into the audience’s physical and emotional space.”

Last year’s show featured performers from Philly only; this year, two performers are from outside the city. That just goes with the show’s theme and title: new people, new ideas, and new performances that even McIlvain hasn’t seen. He asks the artists, whom he knows or who are recommended to him, to create something, and then he waits to see what they come up with. “I’m trusting them to do something and it will be cool,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m getting until the first night.”

That’s exciting and helps to remind him of why he and other performers do what they do: “The important thing is that artists need to create and performers need to perform.”

The venue for the Nice and Fresh fall performances is Moving Arts of Mount Airy at Greene Street and Carpenter Lane (across from Weavers Way Co-Op), in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia, at 6 and 8pm on Oct. 3 and 4. Tickets are $7. For more information, check out the 2014-15 season online.

The lineup for the rest of this year’s Nice and Fresh performances, on November 15 and 16 and December 5 and 6, will be announced soon.


Performing-arts series closes inaugural season with Germantown show

FROM WHYY NEWSWORKS, March 4, 2014.Photos by Bas Slabbers


The Nice and Fresh performing-arts series closed out its inaugural season with three weekend performances at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts in Germantown.

Josh McIlvain of Smokey Scout Productions said he “began the series as a way to bring various disciplines into one show, as well as to establish a regular outlet for artists to test out new work and to bring high-quality presentations of original, contemporary performing arts to Northwest Philadelphia.”

Justifiably billed as show for adults, the opening script featured a little profanity, and touched on delicate subjects, including race and God.

What it was like

“Think about how many dead chickens must be floating around heaven. That’s a lot of chickens,” was heard as patrons took their seats before a performance piece that started with an original song by Sweet Soubrette.

With a supporting ukulele, the all-girl trio crooned about love.

The Biblical “Cana of Galilee” also got updated and refreshed, before traditional circus performances began.

Talking to the artists

Kendra Greaves and Cole Della Zucca performed acrobatics with the help of silk sheets tied to the ceiling.

“I went to grad school and realized that wasn’t for me,” said Zucca, a former gymnast, of how she became involved in the Nice and Fresh production.

Greaves was a swimmer before realizing she wanted to become involved in performing arts.

“Exhausted,” said Greaves, who has performed on five continents, about the toll that the difficult lifestyle takes. “Brazil was my favorite. They had the best crowd.”

Following that performance, Megan Mazarick and Les Rivera performed a humorous dance piece questioning the media’s views on race, highlighting issues of interracial relations.

To close the show, Langston Darby delivered a speech calling on the audience to find God. McIlvain said the second season of Nice and Fresh performances will start in October.

–Sinead Cummings

 Click here to read Philadelphia Inquirer recommendation in the Weekend Section and  “A Fresh Combination” by Rita Algorri on, a preview of the March 2014 show 


Jawnts: Performance anthology, quickly in Mount Airy
Jenna Horton and Annie Wilson in a dance piece that is part of the "Nice and Fresh" program presented by Moving Arts of Mount Airy.

Jenna Horton and Annie Wilson in a dance piece that is part of the “Nice and Fresh” program presented by Moving Arts of Mount Airy. SAID JOHNSON


POSTED: Sunday, December 1, 2013, 2:02 AM

Neighborhoods with theater and dance performances of their own are relatively few. It helps to have a lot of middle-class people who don’t want to wait on a SEPTA platform or in traffic. That’s why Josh McIlvain of Smokey Scout Productions brought “Nice and Fresh,” a variety show of sorts, to Mount Airy.It’s housed in Moving Arts of Mount Airy, but this sort of pop-up production can be put on anywhere with a floor and room for an audience. (This site gets crowded at 25, and max is 40.) Two theater productions and two dance performances, each a quarter of an hour, each put together by a different creative team. It has the feel of a short-story anthology: If you don’t like one, don’t worry. Another will be along in a few minutes.This week’s “Nice and Fresh” includes a play written by McIlvain, Jesus and the Sister-in-Law. It’s a one-woman play about the struggle to cope with a powerfully disliked addition to the family, one who will be around until somebody dies. Cheery holiday fare!The other play-ette showcases two American spies doing their thing while Edward Snowden runs around the Moscow airport. The two dance performances are a send-up of hip enthusiasm for burlesque and a ballet about skull fragments. (There’s only one way to find out what that means.)Performances are at Moving Arts of Mount Airy, 6819 Greene St., at 7 and 9 p.m. on Dec. 6 and 7. Tickets are $7 at the door or at (This isn’t kids stuff.)



More coverage: Chestnut Hill Local previews December 2013 Nice and Fresh in  New theatrical production team performing in Mt. Airy


NICE AND FRESH November (SmokeyScout): Get punched in the face by art at SmokeyScout Productions’ NICE AND FRESH

November 4, 2013 – Julius Ferraro

SmokeyScout is named after artistic director Josh McIlvain’s cats: Smokey and Scout. The program of the November NICE AND FRESH thanks them, along with Moving Arts of Mount Airy (MAMA), the intimate, neutral space in which the variety show—or “Pop-Up Performance of New Theater and Dance Works”—is being presented.

Each of the four pieces in the November program is about ten minutes, and there’s a five-minute breather in the middle, making your $7 ticket go far while keeping your legs from cramping up.

Emily L. Gibson and Steve Lippe in MAKING the WORLD a BETTER PLACE through MURALS.

Emily L. Gibson and Steve Lippe in MAKING the WORLD a BETTER PLACE through MURALS.

Program opener THE CHASE is a wordless action-clowning farce in the precise style of GDP Productions’ recent Do Not Push. Nick Gillette, playing an over-exuberant, ticket-punch wielding SEPTA employee, pursues truant passenger Ben Grinberg across land, sky and sea. Ben and Nick bend space, climbing train cars, creating motorcycles and airplanes, and dangling from cliffs, all in an approximately 5×10 foot, unadorned patch of floor.

McIlvain’s own short play, MAKING THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE THROUGH MURALS, is a titillating denouncement of an unnamed Philadelphia mural-producing program. In it, a veteran mural-maker (played by both Steve Lippe and Emily L. Gibson) goes rogue after losing faith in the belief that a painting of happy multicultural people standing in a garden can improve a neighborhood. The plentiful chuckles in McIlvain’s irreverent script have a guilty tinge to them, reminding us how much stock we place in the massive arts programs of our city.

“You’d never put one of those in an uplifted neighborhood. An uplifted neighborhood would say ‘don’t put that shitty mural here’”

The other talky-piece is by John Rosenberg of Kensington-based Hella Fresh Productions, who has worked with McIlvain on multiple productions in the past—and whose theater company is similar to SmokeyScout in that both are run by Philly-based playwrights self-producing in areas outside the usual theatergoer’s path. PLOT: SECTION 46 LOT 366-11 GRID O/P-22.5 (whew!) treads the well-worn short-play path of mismatched strangers meeting and swapping philosophical ponderations. Rosenberg’s idiosyncratic voice comes out in the cynical twist: one’s a war widow (Francesca Piccioni) fiercely bitter about not being in TIME Magazine, and the other’s a sad old man (Rosenberg) picking up chicks in Arlington National Cemetery.

The weird highlight of the night is CITY BIRD SINGS THE CAR ALARM, a dance choreographed and performed by Shannon Murphy of idiosynCrazy productions (the company which created Private Places for the 2012 FringeArts Presented Festival). Outrageous, posturing, and irreverent, Murphy’s physical vocabulary borrows from overt seduction, self-conscious grooming, childish acrobatics, and drunken provocation, all within the balletic framework of a bird rising from its nest, singing and dancing, and then returning. The result is an exploration of a sassy, messy femininity larger and more complex than societal expectations. The music, designed by Steve Surgalski, mixes Annie Lenox’s 90s pop hit “Little Bird” with car alarms and other city noises. Murphy effectively mixes vulnerability with truculence. Her persona is much larger than the little space, and manages to intimidate more than a few audience members while telling her story.

“Fresh” is a good word for this pugnacious collection; each short piece manages to make a definitive twist to its respective medium. “Nice,” maybe less so; someone’s bound to be offended eventually, but that’s all part of the fun. The downside is its out-of-the-way location; though it’s only a twenty-minute train ride, audiences balk at leaving familiar pastures. But the radius of the arts is expanding in Philly, and if McIlvain continues to cultivate work of this quality and coolness, he might lure broader audiences out of center city. November 1+2, 2013 (subsequent events December 6 + 7, 2013)

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