Can the Fringe Festival Grow Up? The annual fortnight of low-budget, no-rules performance turns 5 this year. It’s now tightly run and heavily attended. Can Fringe remain Fringe when it’s at the center of the District’s cultural life?

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Darrow Montgomery

Three weeks before the opening night of the fifth Capital Fringe Festival, its headquarters retains the faint scent of urine.

“We’re washing the parking lot today,” says Julianne Brienza on a Tuesday morning in mid-June. The festival’s co-founder and executive director gazes out from a third-story window at Fort Fringe, the musty, 21,000-square-foot former Italian restaurant on New York Avenue NW that has served since 2008 as the festival’s full-time headquarters, box office, and main performance campus.

In a few days, the festival will erect the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent in the lot next to Brienza’s office, behind a great stone fountain wherein Neptune sits astride three hippocampi, once again transforming the space for a midsummer month’s time into a stage and beer garden that for a certain class of patron is the hottest bar in town.

But today Brienza has something more earthbound than the Roman god of the sea on her mind: Fort Fringe shares its block with two nightclubs, Lux Lounge and the Eagle, which sometimes send unwanted attention toward the lot. “Guys pee here,” Brienza says. “They pee in front of the building, they pee in front of [neighboring restaurant] Marrakesh. I’ve seen girls pee here sometimes, too.”

For Fringe, though, sweat might be the more emblematic bodily emission than piss—and not just because of the pervasive complaints of busted air-conditioning units in years past. Associations with the outré and amateur aside, what’s actually on offer is work from emerging and midlevel artists of wildly varying quality and subject matter. Like “punk” or “indie,” “fringe” is less a descriptor of content than of method and ethos.

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“Everyone’s like, ‘It’s edgy.’ ‘It’s cutting-edge,’” Brienza says. “I hate those phrases. It’s a style of producing. It usually means low-cost and small venues with low production values.” The largest venue this year is Studio Theatre’s 218-capacity Mead Theatre. The festival got a quote from the Shakespeare Theatre Company for use of its 451-seat Lansburgh Theatre but decided the space was too large—for now.

A half-decade in, Fringe is still an incubator of rampant creativity. It’s hosting more shows this year and playing to more people. It’s now a smooth-running and respectful home for performances that don’t have to be either. Like its antecedents in Edinburgh, Philadelphia, and elsewhere, this fringe festival is gradually becoming less so as its cultural footprint continues to grow. It’s earned the admiration and participation of some of the city’s biggest cultural players while also managing to stay in the black.

The festival’s maturation raises a question: Do we want Fringe to grow up? Does a bigger Fringe mean a more commercial one? Or is there a way the festival can grow while preserving its fundamentally humble mandate—to throw shows against a wall and see what sticks?

For now, what sticks are, well, sticky notes, in a paper mosaic of pink and yellow and baby blue and Kermit green that covers three walls of a dingy upstairs room at the Fort. They’re affixed to giant sheets of brown paper with marker-drawn grids of time slots and venues. There are 600 notes on the wall, one for every performance set in a Fringe-administered venue.

For the first time this year, the Fringe staff bought the stickies in the smallest size, saving itself the labor of snipping them down.

There’s DIY, and then there’s just ridiculous.


A Critical Taxonomy of Fringe Performers

The big guys, slumming it

Everyone wants in on the Fringe party, and extent area companies are no exception. Take the Washington Shakespeare company, whose Secret Obscenities finds Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud fighting for the privilege of robbing a gaggle of Chilean school girls of their innocence.

The eager start-up troupes

A handful of groups that came together to perform at Fringe have made the evolutionary leap into programming outside the festival. Dedicated to reviving the grisly French theatrical tradition of Grand Guignol, Molotov Theatre debuted at the ’07 Capital Fringe with For Boston. Molotov does two shows per year outside of the festival, but is at home at Fringe. “It brings in the audience that’s really our audience,” says artistic director Lucas Maloney, 28. “It’s not a typical theater audience. It’s people who are young, who have weird inclinations, and who want to see something bizarre.”

The solo road warriors

There are at least 25 solo acts on the docket this year, many of them among the most seasoned performers in the festival. By and large, these are the contenders hoping their participation could translate directly to a career break. San Diego-based Mark Whitney is bringing Fool for a Client, his biography-laced critique of the criminal justice system, back to D.C. for the fourth consecutive year. Whitney, 51, didn’t focus seriously on performing until his mid-40s. Before that, he was an entrepreneur — and a convict. When he was 28, Whitney lied to a New Hampshire bank while seeking a loan to purchase Ben & Jerry’s franchise rights. He now operates an online legal database that lawyers subscribe to for $500 per year. “I sell them legal research data, and then I take that money and use it produce a show that’s very critical of the justice system,” Whitney says. “So God bless the lawyers.”

The Hey-you-guys!-let’s-put-on-a-show crowd

What makes Fringe Fringe. “There are a lot of those,” says the festival’s head honcho, Julianna Brienza. “Sometimes people will blow it out of the water and they’re really awesome. And other times they have a really horrible time, and I get yelled at. Like it’s all my fault.”

Our Readers Say

What a splendid article.

The Fringe has accomplished something that is entirely secondary to its purpose, but nonetheless important. The Fringe has redefined theatre criticism, and put it on a footing more like the one it was on "pre-snark" - in the days before just having a job at a newspaper gave you legitimacy as a critic.

That is, the Fringe couldn't care less what critics say; therefore, critics have to earn a place in the conversation the Fringe artists are having with their (repeat: "THEIR") audience. In order to earn that place, critics have to pay attention, learn about the terms under which the artists judge themselves, understand the interests and proclivities of the audience ... and then try hard to add something of value to the equation.

This article is yet another step in that direction.

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