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Underwater City 

Parcel 5 will again host performances by French street theater troupe Plasticiens Volants for the 2019 Keybank Rochester Fringe Festival. The group, based in Graulhet, France, drew large crowds and favorable reviews for their 2017 Fringe appearances.

Plasticiens Volants has been honing an unusual public art spectacle for more than 40 years. Over the course of the performances, the group members weave in and among crowds, manipulating enormous inflatable, handmade characters from the ground, telling a larger-than-life story that immerses the audience in the experience.

The 2017 performance, called "Big Bang," was ambitious in scope: the only way to describe it briefly is a psychedelic riff on Douglas Adams' phrase, "life, the universe, and everything." This year's "Pearl: Secrets of the Sea" takes viewers into the mysterious depths of the ocean. Occasional voiceover accompanies a sound and light show as fantastic creatures the size of parade floats interact in the night sky.

This year's performances are scheduled for the first weekend of Friday and Saturday on the Fringe. Plasticiens Volants will parade the inflatables down the Chestnut Street, starting at East Avenue and ending up at Parcel 5, where the show will commence. The events are free, but note that lawn chairs and dogs (aside from service animals) are prohibited in the performance area. There is seating in bleachers and will be a designated area for lawn chairs.

In advance of Rochester Fringe, CITY spoke with Plasticiens Volants member Jean-Philippe Hemery about the company, its performances, and their process. An edited version of the conversation follows.

CITY: There is a lot going on in your show! Does every member participate in both creating your creatures and the live performance?

Jean-Philippe Hemery: We are like a Swiss Army knife with many, many blades. Everyone has an area of specialty, from sewing to painting to working with computers to draw up the balloons, but many of us do lots of different things.

Your group's home is in an old industrial building. Is it challenging to bring the show outdoors after developing things inside?

Hemery: It's very different. Indoors, you can check everything and control the environment. Outdoors it depends on many factors, and it's much more challenging. Before it's finished, we always do the show outdoors for the first time in our home town of Graulhet to see the response and learn what we need to improve.

Is that part of what makes the show different every time?

Hemery: The characters are of course the same every time. A lobster is always a lobster, so that part doesn't change. But the setting and the reactions of the people determine how the show is going to work every night.

That aspect is part of what makes it hard to do justice to Plasticiens Volants' shows on video. Are you using augmented reality or virtual reality tools to capture the performance?

Hemery: That's a work in progress. We might do something with it in the future, but an important part of the show right now is the freedom we have without it. In the street you can decide on the spot to go this way — no — this way! You change direction to make the show work with that night's venue and crowd.

The other thing about being in person instead of VR is the audience reaction. Something might arrive behind you and suddenly you're saying "Oh, that's a squid!" But people are very surprised when they make contact with the characters as they move through the crowd. Because they are so large, you might expect that they are massive. But they are lighter than air.

Since the show is always unique, what was your favorite part about the performances in Rochester last time?

Hemery: It was a good show because of the audience reaction. We try to make a link between everyone in the audience and the characters at every scale. No matter whether you are watching up close or at a distance you will be exposed to the flying characters or the ones that move around on the floor.

What would you say about "Pearl" to someone who had seen "Big Bang" last time you were in town?

Hemery: "Big Bang" tried to guide the audience to be in the universe with planets around; they are watching from inside the show. Pearl is a similar project, but under the sea; the audience will see the show as if underwater.

Is there anything else you think folks should know about the performance?

Hemery: Our composer Philippe Bonnet wrote the music for both pieces. But the score for "Pearl" is very different from "Big Bang." It's influenced by the world underwater, and it uses different instruments to convey the sounds of the sea.

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