Receipt Wisdom: Are Tickets to Fringe Shows Too Damn High?


There's an invaluable, hotly pursued commodity at the Capital Fringe Festival this year, and it isn't nudity, air conditioning, or a properly carbonated draft beer.

It's the swing voters, you might say. Civilians. People who appreciate, but do not participate in the making of, theater. Normals.

Besides presenting unconventional or unfinished work that perhaps doesn't lend itself to a traditional stage presentation (or that simply has "Fuck" in the title), Fringe is supposed to reach atypical audiences, too—people who dont make a habit of seeing theater. Between the inaugural Capital Fringe in 2006 and last year's edition, attendance grew steadily. Between 2009 and 2010, it fairly exploded: The 33,897 tickets the festival sold last year represented an increase of nearly one-third from 2009's tally of 25,500.

With this year's Capital Fringe now two-thirds in the books, the numbers appear to be slightly down. Meanwhile, one thing has gone up: the price of tickets. In March, the festival announced the increase as a necessary response to the increased cost of licensing, equipment, insurance, and staff salaries. Show tickets went from $15 to $17. The perennially divisive Fringe button (required for attending performances) went from $5 to $7.

Some artists are fingering the price hike, the first in the festivals history, for the slump. Gwydion Suilebhan, a D.C.-based playwright who blogs prolifically about theater, fired off a post last week opining that the increase is costing the festival audience. (Suilebhan has presented work at the festival in prior years, but not in 2011.)

Nothing Suilebhan said was new. Gripes about pricing are as endemic to Capital Fringe as gripes about the humidity. The button, especially, has been a contentious topic since its introduction in 2008.

But the litany of digital Amens! in Suilebhan's comments section—and in debates that spread on Facebook, where one local theater artist even posted Capital Fringe Executive Director Julianne Brienza's salary, and among patrons in the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent Bar—indicate the price increase clearly touched a nerve. "We've passed a tipping point," Suilebhan says two days later—as he's driving to a Fringe show, in fact. "The combination of an increase in price and the economic downturn has resulted in people being unwilling to hold back their feelings anymore."

It's unclear if the market will bear the price increase. The drop in ticket sales could be partially attributed to a decrease in programmed shows, but finding more causes get trickier after that. The debate over ticket prices has revealed two things, though: that the Fringe organization's finances aren't as healthy as they've been in past years, and that as consumers, artists can get pretty prickly.

In fact, most of the complaints seem to be coming from artists—people who are, as one who declined to go on the record told me, "culture-rich but cash-poor." In other words, they're folks who will probably show up for Fringe shows, or at least hang out in the festival's Baldacchino Gypsy Tent bar, even if they think it's too expensive. To a point.

The overwhelming majority of past and present Fringe artists I know say they're pleased if they break even on their shows; they're not complaining they don't make money. (Artists get back about 70 percent of their gross, but they pay participation and insurance fees that come to $775, plus whatever they spend on sets, props, costumers, actors, etc.) Rather, they're upset that even with the festival's artists passes, they can't afford to see their friends' shows, and that the buttons make it hard for them to invite their friends from outside theaterworld.

As for the civilians, the people that vote with their feet: It's tough to argue with Suilebhan's basic premise that $24 (or $27.75 after the $3.75 "convenience fee" if you book online) is a lot to ask someone to gamble on a show that in many cases will run an hour or less, may be performed in a suffocating room sans air conditioning, and is subject to far less quality control—none, actually—than a show at a comparably priced theater company, like, say, Solas Nua.

Of course, a festival is a different beast than a regional theater company.

Brienza wishes people would understand this.

The Facebook debate became the cocktail chatter of choice Saturday in the Gypsy Tent. Jessica Lefkow, who is directing a Fringe show and works steadily in D.C. as both director and actor, told me she doesn't doubt $17 is the price point the festival, as currently conceived, needs to stay viable. But she's convinced a more accessible model can be found, perhaps by engaging an organization like the New York-based arts nonprofit Fractured Atlas. "This is a challenge for an inventor," Lefkow says.

Suilebhan thinks someting drastic is in order. "Maybe a corporation should buy the Fringe Festival, like the way the Humana Festival [in Louisville, Ky.] is paid for by Humana," he says. "The right corporation may not exist in D.C."

Brienza has never made any bones about the fact that the festival's pricing is designed to encourage patrons to see more than just one show. That's the position with which Suilebhan fundamentally disagrees.

"Weve decided to favor theatergoers who are frequent theatergoers, which is a problem endemic to all of the theatrical ecosystem," well beyond Capital Fringe or Washington, Suilebhan says. "Making theater for people who already like theater is making us more and more secluded, more and more provincial, and disconnecting us from the larger audience of America."

Sales have dipped this year, but it hasn't been apocalyptic. Not even close: As of 4 p.m. Sunday, overall ticket sales were down slightly from at the same point last year, falling from 20,134 to 19,093—a drop-off of 5.1 percent. Button sales were down, too, albeit by only 77 buttons, or less than 1 percent from the 9,073 sold by the festival's second weekend in 2010. Some performers, like Faction of Fool's Barbara Papendorp, say their shows are playing to smaller houses. But with about a 10 percent overall decrease in shows, the drop in attendance is probably minor. Box Office Manager Cory Ryan Frank, who's worked for Fringe since its inception, says that while fewer shows are selling out than in years past, fewer are playing to single-digit houses. He estimates the average Fringe crowd this year is about 40 people.

Meanwhile, sales of multi-show passes (offering four, six, or 10 admissions at a reduced per-show freight) grew from 1,158 to 1,411. Those passes make it difficult to handicap audience trends, because pass buyers dont have to allocate all the admissions on their pass at the time of purchase—they can save some or all of their ticket-punches, to bring a friend or catch a show on the fly. Pass redemptions aren't recorded as admissions until they're actually redeemed for a ticket to a performance.

And a festival can't be accessible if it doesn't exist. Ticket sales cover about 23 percent of the festival budget, Brienza says, a figure that doesnt fluctuate much year to year. She says that nearly everything the festival must pay for, from utilities to lumber to permits issued by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory affairs, costs more than when the festival began. Until now, the festival hasn't been passing those costs on to consumers.

In an interview at her office Sunday evening also attended by box office manager Frank, Brienza was visibly wearied both by the manner in which the conversation had started (online, without any outreach to her staff) and by its timing (right in the middle of festival, when, she says, the focus should be on the art). "Everyone is saying they want to have a discussion, but no one is talking to anybody here," Brienza says.

Everyone I spoke to felt compelled to point out that they were not attacking Brienza personally. "She deserves a medal for having contributed to the artistic diversity of Washington, D.C.," Suilebhan says. "The festival is not going anywhere. It's not going to die."

That's the paradox: The price of Fringe shows is undoubtably steep, but the festival's critics also take its sustainability for granted. When Brienza moved here from Philadelphia in 2003, there was no Fringe festival and nothing very close. Working with collaborators like Damian Sinclar and Scot McKenzie, she built Capital Fringe from nothing. Now it's a quintessential part of cultural life in the District. After Independence Day, it's Fringe time.

But it could still fall apart. Since 2009, the Festival has run a deficit that'll amount to about $86,000 this year, almost a tenth of its $900,000 budget. The organization hired its first full-time business manager in March and has a plan to get into the black by the end of 2012. Among other cost-saving measures, Brienza and the festivals two other full-time employees took a 10 percent pay cut this year. Brienza's 2011 compensation will be about $63,000.

Most of the artists complaining know none of this, says Brienza. "How can you have a discussion when you don't have the information?" she asks. "It's just unfounded. That's what's exhausting about it."

I interviewed patrons exiting Saturday's 2:30 p.m. performance of Gallantry, an opera I chose because it is, to the best of my knowledge, the shortest show of the 124 on the roster. Its run time is listed as 45 minutes, but a Washington City Paper critic clocked it at 27. (She also noted the show features soprano Emily Casey dressed in a sexy nurse costume with stockings and garter belts—surely a perceived value-add for some patrons.)

Mindy Raithel of Bethesda had no complaints about the brevity (possibly an opera first). She was splitting a four-ticket pass with her friend Cindy Petit, of Howard Country. Raithel and her husband had shared a six-ticket pass the prior weekend. "I think the pricing is fair," Raithel said. "I'm willing to take a chance to support the arts."

The couple I grabbed coming out of Meagan & Davids Original Low-Cost Creativity Workshop a couple hours later might represent the festival's targets of opportunity. Max Fischlowitz-Roberts and Alli Gold had each paid $24 for a single ticket plus a button. Their motivation was the same as a lot of attendees: friendship with the performers.

Their $7 Fringe buttons glinted in the early-evening sunlight. Would the couple be sticking around, or perhaps returning, to take in another show? "I dont know," said Gold. "We haven't really looked at the schedule."

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • Pingback: Weekend One After-Action Report: Making Bank - Fringe & Purge

  • Pingback: If D.C. Funding Shrinks, Will Capital Fringe Move to Maryland? - Arts Desk

  • Frontline

    I know this is very late in the game, but it should be stated here. When Shirley Serotsky posted Julianne's salary on facebook, it wasn't about the Fringe ticket price conversation at all. Instead it was posted as a vindictive comparison to a Mike Daisy piece in which Serotsky insinuated Julianne was making too much money because she's not an "artist" but an administrator instead. It was just petty and uncalled for. Talking about tickets and what they should cost is very welcome. Let's just not throw punches below the belt. We are all on the same team here!

  • Pingback: Fringe, Purged: Year of the Woman - Fringe & Purge - Washington City Paper

  • Pingback: Look Ye Now Upon the Kindly Face of Fringe Fanatacism - Fringe & Purge - Washington City Paper

  • JEM

    I have attended the Edinburgh Fringe Festival twice and the Capital Fringe Festival three times. In my humble opinion there is no comparison. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is an experience that you will never forget for the rest of your life. The quality of the shows, the variety, the environment, and the atmosphere is exceptional. The Capital Fringe is a very weak sister by comparison. It is rare to be disappointed at Edinburgh versus a 50-50 chance of sitting through a lemon at the Capital Fringe. Personally, I still think the first Capital Fringe was the best.

    The prices continue to increase without a corresponding improvement in the average quality of the venues and the shows. Right now I am still pondering whether to risk seeing two shows with my wife over the weekend. The fact that I am worried about sitting through a lemon says it all.

    No doubt there are challenges for the organizers. Washington, DC is a pretty expensive area to host an event like this. July is a pretty tough month weather wise (heat and humidity). Lastly, quality control in venue and show needs to be more rigorous for the prices that are being charged.

    The Capital Fringe could be successful but much needs to change.

  • Pingback: Fringe Festival Press Roundup « Capital Fringe Blog

  • Rick

    Can I just chime in that I am amused that as the conversation/debate continues on this comment thread, that as of 5 minutes ago, there has been only 1 comment in the new article about the fact that ticket prices have been reduced drastically for the last 3 days of the festivall...Rabble rabble rabble...

  • Joe

    I understand the desire to push people to go to multiple shows, but as prices rise does it really work? As the ticket price has gone up, my attitude has gone from "maybe I'll see another show to make the button worthwhile" to "I'm not going to any so that I don't feel like I got screwed." I don't go to that many shows as it is, so trying to go to two or three in a month seems like a lot.

  • Fan

    I simply observe here that the AD of that "Tony Award-winning" entity (a description that fits only two companies in the area, I believe) is supported by a couple dozen full-time salaried administrators, publicists, ad salespeople, art directors, house managers, fundraisers, community relations officers and others to put on six or eight shows a season. Maybe the best investment the Fringe could make is to hire more administrators to raise money year-round, locate better performance spaces, identify and invite the best shows from other festivals, promote the festival to out-of-town tourists, develop a bigger web presence, establish partnerships with other local arts organizations and more. Or maybe established local theaters should lend some of their staff to support the Fringe as a benefit to the whole theater community. But it's not reasonable to expect one person to run an event that has hundreds of participants, thousands of moving parts and tens of thousands of customers, then claim that she's getting rich on the equivalent of a government clerk's salary. This focus on one person's pay is just a distraction from the bigger issues.

  • On Staff

    I would like to second Steve's comment about salary posting. The information, as he so rightly stated, is already available online for all to see due to the fact that it is legally required. The simple cross posting of this information is not only not an offense, but logically needed since non-profits are kept afloat by patrons and donors. They have an absolute right to see where their money is going and able to weigh the financial feasability of a certain company and whether or not to donate to that institution. And as someone who is on the executive staff of a local company, I can assure you that most of the commenters below have no idea what local ADs are making to run, sometimes, multimillion dollars theaters. A certain AD at a Tony Award winning regional theatre in the area makes around $105,000 a year. (Again, this information is public)I find it hard to believe that running the Fringe festival, while the work leading up and during must be horrific as far as putting it all together, is really worth half of what the top ADs are making. Keep in mind, there are only 4 or 5 ADs in the DC area that pull in anything close to $100,000 or more. Most ADs hold second jobs and are paid next to nothing. And these individuals most run almost every aspect of a full season and have to balance budgets that are far more complex than Fringe.

    And on another random tangent, I don't think Fringe will be worth the hike in prices until it shows that something worthwhile will actually come of it. The point, yes, is for new work to be displayed and new talent to be found, but it is of my opinion that the festival will not become econmincally feasible or taken more seriously until a breakout company or production establishes itself because of Fringe. Factory 449 comes close, but until it produces a Urinetown, we will be stuck with shows that, while exciting and new, do not speak to the breadth of work able to come from DC to appeal beyond those regular fringe goers. A hit show or 2 that makes a splash beyond its originally fringe run just might make the whole thing more viable.

  • Pingback: This Weekend, Humanity Shall Be Made to Pay for Its Crimes, and, Oh, We Meant to Tell You, TICKETS SLASHED TO $12 - Fringe & Purge - Washington City Paper

  • Cathy Walter

    I have attended the Edinburgh Fringe festival 3 times, and the cost of tickets is not as expensive. The shows are all restricted to 1 hour and mainly do not have props. The shows are all about the dialogue and acting. The do not have one “Fringe Tent” but local vendors who host a variety of events, to include some of those plays right in their bar areas. You may be able to fit 10 people into a venue or 50. Maybe a look at the Edinburgh Fringe model might show a way to reduce the cost and keep the creativity. Colin's suggestions above are good ones.

  • gg

    I am curious, like Allyson, to know how many of the fringe audience are "civilians". When attending fringe shows, it certainly seems to me that the majority of the audience are either friends/relatives of the performers or other artists. If we are marketing within our own community, that changes things. As an artist who's performed in fringe for the past several years, I would much rather make less money off ticket sales and have better attendance. A full house of people paying $10 each is better than a meager house of full-price seats.

    Either way, I bought a 10-pass this year, instead of purchasing $10 tickets at the door of shows with the Artist pass. It's worth it to me to be able to set them up online ahead of time, and to get the infernal button.

    Overall I know that the Fringe producers are trying to make a lot happen with very little resources, and that it's been a struggle this year. But this is an important discussion to be having, and hopefully it'll lead to better decisions for next year's festival.

  • Pamela Nash

    Randy, believe it or not, the $200 IS to buy in to the umbrella policy through Fringe! And yes, all 100 shows pay that. I tried to get my own insurance and the quotes came in at $250, so I thought paying in to Fringe made sense. I can't imagine that Fringe pays $20,000 in insurance to cover the festival, but it's per venue, so maybe they do.

  • Ameneh bordi

    I'm glad so many people are chiming in - ive had this complaint from the start - clarity, price, and ease are huge issues. I bought packages and buttons myself to be able to have them on hand and a little cheaper, at big cost to myself and loss to my company - but in the end I had to remember it's not about the money, but about how many people get to see my show!

    I'm not just griping, though- I have thought of a few solutions.

    1. If the purpose is to give fringe a little extra money, sell the first ticket for $20, then give a code. Have each subsequent ticket cost $15. Fringe gets the $5, and the shows get the net of the ticket, and it's simpler and encourages repeat attendance.

    2. Make the tickets more expensive ($20?) and make the button a perk, or a discount - not required.

    3. Keep ticket prices low, and just take more - we the artists will figure out how to make it work - maybe we can get more donations at the performances if they aren't so highly priced.


  • Randy

    If you are going to do a festival, you should do everything possible to keep the costs low so that you can keep the ticket prices low.

    I spoke with a producer of one show who told me that he had to pay $200 for insurance. I understand insurance is important to have in case someone gets injured, but that's simply a ridiculous amount for such a short time the theater is used. If every single show is obligated to pay $200, then there is a huge ripoff here. By comparison, the non-profit that I operate pays $1000 for an entire year of events.

    Suggestion: Fringe Festival should negotiate an umbrella insurance policy that covers every production, then divide the cost among everyone else. (If a production is high risk for some reason, then a rider could be purchased). The cost could easily come down by at least 50% or more, and you would still have the same insurance.

  • Don

    I don't think Brienza's salary is inappropriate considering the responsibility involved. However I think she's tacitly made it a legitimate part of the conversation when she stated that people should consider the Fringe Festival's costs when they talk about ticket prices & the button. If we are asked to make allowances based on how much they spend then isn't it fair for us to question those expenses and whether they're wise?

    Personally I don't think that salary is out of line for a director. It's a high-pressure job and I suspect she's effectively on-duty for about 30 days straight till the festival closes.

  • K

    This is the first year I didn't even bother reading up on the shows, nevermind buy any tickets.

    I'm not particular about the button/show ticket split. Bottom line, its too expensive for a short dice roll production. I like theater but, if I'm going to spend, it'll be on an established show. This festival only work for me if I won't lose much on a lemon.

  • Fan

    Another thought about the Edinburgh Festival: It is actually TWO concurrent events, the Fringe Festival and the International Festival. (There is also a giant book fair.) The International Festival brings dozens of internationally renown musicians, orchestras, dance troupes and theater companies to the city's biggest venues, and the Fringe Festival is home to thousands (literally) of shows by shoestring theater and dance troupes, monologists, comedians etc. performing in spaces all over the city. Maybe the Fringe Festval could find a way to promote itself by working more closely with Washington's established arts venues. I'm not sure exactly how that would work, but maybe if you show your ticket stub from a July show at Woolly Mammoth, Studio, even the Kennedy Center, you'd get a half-price Fringe button. Or maybe your Fringe button or stub would get you a couple dollars off at an established venue. Or maybe established companies could produce some staged readings or other low-cost shows specifically for the Fringe. There should be some way for the Fringe to be more closely integrated with the D.C. arts world.

  • rls

    I try to see at least 1 fringe show each year because it affords the opportunity to see something different. I do find the cost prohibitive, though, because of the button. When you see multiple shows the button price isn't bad, but, if it's only one, the button adds too much to the cost. What with Goldstar, Groupon, ticketplace, and pay what you can performances, there are many opportunities to see great theater for less than the fringe costs. Often those other opportunities are also inventive theatre. It is also a consideration for me that many of the fringe venues are not air conditioned, presented during the hottest month of the year, and not performed in places designed for theater performances.

  • Kate

    Joe makes a great point when he says “It also seems pretty generous to say that Fringe is “quintessential part of cultural life in the District.” Most of my co-workers and neighbors know Fringe exists, but they couldn’t tell you anything about it other than “I’ve seen ads on buses” or “Oh, is that the colorful place that used to be an Italian restaurant?” I think there is a much bigger question of community engagement. Perhaps potential audience members are turned off by the ticket price, but perhaps they don’t even know what is happening at all.

    Do I find the ticket price too high? Yes. We’re purchasing about half the tickets we have in past years, and we are being MUCH more selective about what we see. At $17, I’m less likely to take a chance on something that hasn’t had good word of mouth or reviews. As an actor in shows as well as an audience member, I understand the need for more income. This is a bigger problem of the arts not getting the support they need to foster growth.

    As for Julianne’s salary: personally, I don’t see the point in arguing about this. She’s not making some obscene amount of the budget. But the logical part of me has to respond to some of the comments made. If you must do a salary comparison, it should be to other Fringe directors and what percentage of the budget goes to their salaries. A quick search shows salaries ranging from $53,000-$78,000. Someone else can do the percentage math so that I can get back to my day job to pay for my $17 ticket.

    Salary comparisons to other local ADs do not give the right picture; they are producing in a different way over a longer period of time. You also can’t make generalizations based on the salaries of the “big” companies alone. Yes, there are some people making a boatload of money. But spend some time on GuideStar and you will see AD salaries ranging from $42,000 to $350,000. There are also companies producing multiple shows a year with AD compensation ranging from $2,000 down to zero. Yes, zero.

  • P. Overty

    Hey Tom,

    So I get your concern that Ms. Brienza is getting dragged through the mud but fundamentally, non-profit execs should have information about their salaries available to the public as it's both legally mandated and a mechanism to keep shit honest.

    I don't think anyone should get paid less--frankly, I think I should get paid more (teaching at a university pays fucking less than when I was doing male stripping once a fucking week). But the question is a relative one--when you're making 63K per year, it's probably harder to understand why some people are so frustrated by the cost. I grew up on theater (on my parents' dime obviously) and I want to keep going but at 24 bucks for one show, I can't. I do other cultural things to and this is something that just falls by the wayside.

    And what's criminally batshit stupid is that it really shouldn't. Theater shouldn't be an ancillary part (if at all) of cultural life and discourse for the under 35 crowd. But what the fuck am I supposed to do?

    I'll probz try volunteering next year but without a tiered system where people who make money pay more to compensate for broke people (i dunno, maybe i can pay with my food stamps through some elaborate fraud) or something else equally unrealistic, it's going to be hard for me to not be a little iffy about the whole thing.

  • Elizabeth Wallace

    Price is too high. I could only make it to one show and had to pay $24 (including button) I almost walked away....but glad I didn't. Really enjoyed FlyBoy. Am interested in New Space a la Virgin Galactic and this was Old Space thinking. But useful. New crop of "astronauts" won't be going for 40 years but for 2 hours out of Spaceport America.

  • Tom

    are you saying that she should be paid less? i do not work at a non-profit. i was only trying to point out that her salary should not be part of the discussion. it is not a part of the problem. $63K for what Julianne Brienza brings to our community and her skill level compared with other executive directors in her same field is very low. If DC wants to keep her - something needs to change.

  • P. Overty

    Also, 63K is a lot of money. Maybe it's not a lot to people who are used to white collar salaries, but for those of us scraping to get by, that's a lot.

  • P. Overty

    Tom, all salaries of non-profit execs are required to be posted publicly. If that's something you think is disrespectful, you shouldn't work at a non-profit.

  • Sam

    you know you can volunteer for the festival and get free tickets, button and even drink tickets? i have never paid for a ticket at the festival but volunteer. maybe try to give back to the festival and all the artists. all you have to give is your time. just the box office.

  • Fan

    I think Colin's suggestion makes a lot of sense. A ticket to a fully staged musical in the comfort of Studio Theatre SHOULD cost more than a one-person improvised monologue in the back of a sweltering tent. Maybe Fringe management should collect a guaranteed minimum from the sale of each ticket ($6? $8?), then share any excess proportionately with the producer. If the producers want to sell cheap tickets, more power to them. If I recall from my one visit there, admission to some Edinburgh festival shows is free. That means that producers are footing the whole bill just to get the exposure. If somebody at the Fringe Festival wants to do a free show to build an audience, there should be a mechanism to permit it. Edinburgh also offers discounted rush tickets to some shows. If Capital Fringe sold remaining tickets at half-price (or less) at the door an hour before curtain, they might wind up selling out a lot more shows. And people who happened to get turned away from one show might be inspired to pay full-price in advance for another one.

  • P. Overty

    Great to see this. I've been wanting to go to a bunch of Fringe stuff but I've never been able to because it's a recession, I'm only intermittently employed and on food stamps in between that, paying college debt, and loathe to drop cash on something that is might be great but also might suck. I like the Fringe is a bit of a crapshoot and you can find gems, but at the cost, it's a risk I'm not willing to bear.

  • Don

    Kudos on the piece, Chris - a nice job of rounding out the different points. My only complaint is that nobody brings up the most important response to Brienza's discussion of the total costs involved with running the festival: "Okay. So?"

    Capitalism 101 is that something is worth what someone is willing to pay for it. What it costs to make the item or provide the service is only relevant to the organization providing it, not the buyer. You can see that in the decline in hand-made objects and the rise of assembly line manufacturing. There's a lot of things that aren't made or aren't made the way they used to be because people won't pay the necessary price for someone to make them.

    We can feel it's unfair that the arts are subject to this pressure or that there's an intangible benefit from live performing arts - I know I do. But it doesn't change the fact that someone faced with a $17+7 purchase to come to a single show at Fringe doesn't care about the underlying costs. They care about the fact that they will be parted with $24 they could have spent on something else.

    I also don't think the point about ticket sales not covering the majority of the costs really helps Brienza's point. If the organization doesn't intend or need ticket sales to cover all expenses then why is 23% the magic number? You could use that to justify a ticket increase so that 28% is covered. Or you could assert that tickets should comprise a smaller percentage and sponsorships or higher artists fees should increase and ticket prices decrease.

    Regardless, it's irrelevant. The costs behind the curtain aren't the problem of the artists or the patrons, they're Fringe's. The cost of attending - or putting on - a show need to be set such that it supports the mission. If the mission is to bring in folks who wouldn't otherwise come to theater events then that's one set of considerations. If it needs to be affordable to an incestuous clientele where the majority of attendees are already active in the theater community then perhaps it needs a different price.

    Saying "well, you have to understand..." doesn't change the priorities of the target audience, it's just an excuse and that only goes so far in setting customer expectations. If Brienza and the Fringe board are convincing themselves that their economic realities will simply have to be accepted and compensated for by the audience then they're making a management mistake that no organization, non-profit or not, cannot afford to make.

  • Colin

    In response to those who fear seeing something not worth their time and money: have you missed the fact that there are a LOT of reviews out there about the shows going on at Fringe? If you don't want to go in blind, you don't have to, and if the specific show whose name grabbed your eye hasn't been reviewed yet, there are still plenty of other shows to choose from that have, particularly by this point in the festival.

    Another idea I'd like to throw into the discussion:

    I worked one summer for a venue provider at the Edinburgh Fringe and performed with a production the following 2 years. Most venue providers (which in the context of Edinburgh function rather like the Festival itself does here) allowed artists to set their own ticket prices, within limits. The venue provider would also make some general pricing suggestions based on popularity/name recognition of the producing company, time slot, length of performance, type of performance, and venue. Then it was up to the artists to do some math (I made a lot of graphs), decide what made sense to them, and live with the consequences. Because there was a split between the venue provider and the artist of ticket sales (no buttons) the provider did get final approval, but this was rarely an issue as far as I could tell.

    So, recognizing that this would put a significant additional burden on both Fringe employees in planning and the box office volunteers in execution, what do people think about this? What if a well-established Fringe artist that consistently drew big crowds charged $20 for a ticket and a new company with a short show and smaller budget only charged $10 or $12?

  • Pete

    I am going to the festival tonight and buying a four pack. I attend theater all year long in the area. Fringe is my favorite time of year. I have been attending since the first year. The price does not bother me or my family that attends with me. The quality and type of festival that it has grown into far surpasses the first three years. It is worth it to me and my family.

  • Fan

    Julianne Brienza appears to be earning less than a GS-9 paper shuffler with seven years of experience, and no doubt she is getting fewer benefits. Whoever thought that posting her salary would embarrass her doesn't understand the D.C. marketplace. Fringe supporters should be grateful that this devoted administrator isn't looking for an easier job that pays better.

  • Joe

    Capital Fringe should be applauded for their work. Who is Gwydion Suilebhan? his blog post was ignorant. since when does that city paper get their news tips from blogs from amateur playwrights?

  • Charlene

    This is great discussion going on everyone, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I do have to disagree with Fan who asks for a juried process. Some Fringe Festivals do do this, but I feel it kills the spirit. The very point of Fringe, I've always thought, was to give artists the opportunity to experiment, to try things that wouldn't be produced in a regular commercial venture. Yes, there are shows that are remounts, or done by established companies, but the festival should always include room for new works, premieres, and experiments. I think that is why many people feel the $24+ for a single ticket is too high.

    I'm a little disappointed that concerns are being dismissed as people "complaining," without all the information. A request for information is precisely what the discussion is that I have heard. People were concerned about the prices and were asking why.

    The article also seems to suggest, along with some of the comments, that patrons are fine with the prices, and it's just been artists making noises. I will note that as a box office volunteer I have had patrons happy to support the arts, but I have also had patrons confront me angrily about the price (and the button, an element common to Fringe Festivals, but confusing to the non "in-the-know" crowd), one even saying, "I will never attend this festival again."

  • Rich

    whomever posted julianne brienza's salary should make a public apology. so off point and target of starting a discussion. they should be ashamed.

  • Ty

    Karen, that last point is excellent. Fringe was created for us. I believe we have a responsibility as a community to discuss this and brainstorm solutions for it. Julianne should not have to go this alone. I'm glad it's come to public forums like this. Perhaps after the Festival is over, Fringe can host some sort of feedback/brainstorming session. I can't imagine how that would not be productive.

  • Beth

    didn't catalyst theatre go out of business because of large deficit - they offered $10. I would not call or even put Taffety Punk in the same league of most of Fringe shows I have seen this year. "yup" have you been to the festival this year? the shows are stellar. much better artistically than many of the shows taffety punk produces during the year.

  • Karen

    This reply is to yup regarding the quality of shows & how prepared the performers are. It's slightly off topic, but bear with me. I'm a producer & performer at Fringe, with my own professional theatre company. While I get that there are hits and big misses, I haven't met a single other artist who rehearsed for 2 weeks and called it a show. The application process requires that you have a solid idea for your show. Most of us read play after play after play & then decide on one that tells the kind of story we want to tell. We then spend time conceptualizing how we will interpret the script, what we need for set/lights/sound, and select a few venues that we can tell Fringe might work. There is a lot of work involved. We hire directors, stage managers, actors, musicians. Affordable rehearsal space is really hard to come by in this city, but we find it & pay for it. This process starts in October and runs through July. Personally, my company spends between $3,000 - $6,000 per festival in putting on a high quality, entertaining show.

    Conclusion, we're not putting up a bedsheet and saying "let's put on a show!" We've developed our company by doing Fringe shows & are gaining a following and a reputation by presenting ourselves well. And you know, even the turkeys follow a similar process. Artists don't set out to perform a piece of crap. It takes work & a willingness to be vulnerable by presenting something with your name on it. So, yes, there are shows that are craptastic. But those people have tried their best to make something to be proud of. Their execution just may not be as polished.

    With regard to price, I wish it were lower. I'd like to make theater that people with $10 and a desire to be entertained can see. But I think the festival founders have been a bit unjustly maligned. I do find it disgraceful that someone posted Julianne's salary. I mean, what does that accomplish? If she was making $700k out of a $900k budget & swanning about in a solid gold dress, that might be salient. But she's making less than most non-profit directors in this town and she & her team are creating something that many of us feel very passionate about & greatly enjoy. I may bemoan the ticket increase & wish that there was some way I could pass the savings on to my friends. But what's done is done. I'm starting to be more interested in ways I can creatively help solve problems for next year.

  • Pamela Nash

    I have participated in Fringe in different capacities for the past 4 years, and I would like to know

    (a) who are the producers getting 70% of their box office? we got 70% the first year, and 60% the last three years, yet all the media keeps saying the artists get "about 70%." Based on what? Is this an average, and we're just on the low end of the scale? Or is this a failure to update the media that the payout to artists has gone down?

    (b) what is "the purpose" of the button? The first year the button was introduced, the money from button sales was divided among the productions. The following year, it was not. When I inquired, I was referred to my contract, which "did not guarantee" that the button money would be distributed. Hopefully someone can enlighten me as to whether that money was paid out to artists last year, and if it will be this year.

  • Tom

    I wish the City Paper could of written a better piece - maybe have a reporter that understands business. It would be great to see the Washington Business Journal do a piece on Fringe. To say that it is not "That disrespectful, low-class, and distracting to the main points" to post Julianne Brienza's salary is pretty ignorant. Julianne Brienza is a very intelligent and creative business leader in our community. She makes pennies to many other non-profit ED's in the town and has a much bigger impact.

  • Brian

    My girlfriend and I wanted to attend a show but it would have been about $27+ for each of us ($20 single ticket fee + $7 button + online fees + travel). For this price we could both see a full production at STC or Arena thanks to their youth/student ticket prices. We opted to skip Fringe this year since the festival fails to accommodate those on a budget. I understand that Fringe is trying to get out of the red, but they're pricing out a chunk of their audience.

    Also, the website was a bit confusing. Did we have to go to the main Fringe venue to pick up our button and tickets? Or could we just go to the venue hosting our show and get them there? The site needs to be clear about these things.

  • Sara

    Matthew - with all do respect I believe you are wrong on fringe performers % of overall sales. We buy more tickets and see more shows that non-performers. Lets say the average "civilian" buys a 4 pack and sees to shows with a friend (or 4 shows alone). My husband and I produced a show this year. In addition to that we have seen 10 shows each, many at full price. We will probably see another 5 each this weekend. So 30 tickets from 2 people.

    In addition to that family and friends who have came in specifically to see our show have seen other shows at our recommendation. Not counting tickets for our show, we have been responsible them purchasing another 13 ticket sales (all at full price). That number will most likely go up to 18 at the end of the festival. So thats 2 artists responsible for 48 tickets at this years festival. Artists quite simply ARE a substantial base of the festival and our opinions should matter.

    That being said I agree - we should be greatly outnumbered by non-artists. I do think you are right that Fringe needs to be better about drawing the non-artist audience in. I think pricing is part of it and my anecdotal experience this year has been that the ticket price made non-artists see less shows. But it also goes to marketing, both by the Festival and by the individual performers. It is incumbent on all of us to not only reach out to the rest of the city but to put on a quality product so that commentators like "Yup" will not have complain about shows that are "craptastic."

  • yellowliner

    Yes, I am not going this year because of the price. Way too high for what you are getting. The $7 button thing was the nail in the coffin.

  • Dan

    Matt: As the producer of a Fringe show in 2008, I think the artists are both consumers (purchasing services provided by Fringe) and providers (creators of artistic events).

  • yup

    Taffety Punk produces high-quality performances for $10 a ticket. Source Theater can put on amazing shows for $15. So why would I shell out $24 for a craptastic failure at Fringe? Writing your play 2 weeks in advance and rehearsing it a few days does not make you "edgy", it makes you a CON artist.

  • Matthew

    I'd like to respond to Allyson and Ty. My point was not that Fringe performers are "merely" providers, but that they *are* the providers. That is, they are creating the product here, and they cannot also (by virtue of their numbers, but also because they represent one far end of the audience spectrum) represent the average or majority Fringe-goer. So performers get a voice, like everyone else.

    If you want Fringe to draw in people who don't usually come to theater, and to appeal to a wide audience, then you have to make it accessible to the 99.9% of people in the DC area who are (a) not performers themselves, (b) don't want to be, and (c) do not live in the theater world. Those are called patrons, or consumers, and you simply cannot be successful if you orient your productions for other theatricals first, and the rest of the world second. Imagine this unrealistic but illustrative scenario: two festivals, one where *only* the performers buy tickets, a second where performers *never* buy tickets. Which one do you think will last longer?

    And Ty, I never said anything about no listening to the voices of performers - in fact, right know performer voices are being heard out of proportion to their numbers. You do not, can cannot, make up "a substantial base" of ticket-buyers, unless you actually believe that there are thousands and thousands of performers buying tickets. And as I noted before, you could find that out - but you seem more interested in complaining and acting put-out, rather than exploring the problems here. I'll make a public prediction right here: if someone actually tallied the ticket-buying base, you would find that Fringe performers are purchasing less than 15% of the total tickets.

    And finally, Steve, the act of making Julianne's salary public is itself not disrespectful. I never said that; you have over-simplified my point. What I said was that posting it on Facebook, as a point for semi-anonymous people to cavil over, is indeed low-class and disrespectful. If you want to discuss salaries of Fringe employees, then there are much more responsible ways of doing so, as part of a respectful conversation about the organization and its purpose, benefits, and finances. But that sure wasn't it.

  • Pingback: This Week in WCP Arts: Hardcore Reunions, Fringe Prices, Meredith Bragg - Arts Desk - Washington City Paper

  • Joe

    I haven't gone this year to any shows, and am pretty unlikely too. There is just too great a likelihood of getting a turkey to drop $24 on a single show, when I could go to a show that I know will be good for the same price. The button also comes off as a scam (it really did before I knew what the reason for it was; now it just seems like a small scam instead of a big one).
    It also seems pretty generous to say that Fringe is "quintessential part of cultural life in the District." If the article's quotes and commenters are any indication, it's attended mostly by theatre folks to watch their friends and colleagues. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not reaching much of a mainstream audience that way. I know few people who go anymore.

  • Dan

    I was a Fringe artist this year, briefly, until I learned my show had been assigned to an un-air conditioned tent (The Gypsy Tent Bar). By citing health concerns (i.e. heat injury) related to this venue in DC heat, I was after a few carefully worded emails able to secure a refund of my participation fee ($575). It seems to me that there are many Fringe venues that are not air conditioned and that during this heat wave Fringe should prominently display which venues are not climate controlled, and offer ticket refunds or exchanges to anyone with health concerns. Economic problems aside, Fringe does have an obligation not to put the public health at risk.

  • Ty

    Absolutely agree with Allyson. It is insulting to imply that performers are merely providers and too bad for them if they cannot afford to see the shows. It is the performers that are most invested in the success of the Festival. I dare say it is also the performers who are the most interested in seeing several types of shows - and not just their friends shows, but shows they've heard buzzed about while spending many an hour and consuming many a beverage/food item in the Fringe Tent. Performers make up a substantial base of Fringe ticket-buyers and goers and their voices should (and thankfully have been) heard throughout this conversation

  • Fan

    As somebody who attends a lot of theater around town year-round at venues large and small, I think what hurts the Capital Fringe Festival more than anything else is a lack of quality control for contents and venues. Without some sort of selection process, literally anybody can do anything and call it a show. Even a neighborhood bar auditions musicians before they're allowed up on stage. In a sense the Fringe Festival is a giant open-mike night for anybody who wants to be a star. I'd be more willing to take a $17 chance if I knew that a show was by an established theater group or had been performed elsewhere and arrived with good word-of-mouth or was endorsed by some theater professional or SOMETHING. Maybe the Fringe web site could make a page available where patrons could post their comments about shows they've seen. The other problem is that many venues seem to be improvised spaces without AC (in July!), comfortable seats, decent sight lines, suitable lighting, etc. Maybe some of the smaller professional venues around town, or even church halls and school auditoriums, that stand unused for the summer could rented for a few performances.

  • Allyson

    In response to Matthew's comment about Fringe artists as Fringe providers, rather than consumers: I think that's short-sighted. I'd be very curious about how many tickets are sold to artists versus non-artists, because I can say after 3 years of producing/performing and 3 years of attending before that, a significant number of audience members are artists. We're not just seeing friends' shows, we're also seeing shows by companies we want to work with, companies we might not normally get to see due to cost or scheduling (everyone works at the same time the rest of the year), and companies doing truly inventive works. We might not be a huge majority in the audience, but without our dollars, I bet Fringe would be a lot worse off. We buy multi-ticket passes, we spend money at the Tent, and we tell our non-theatre friends about the other shows we recommend. We're incredibly invested in everyone's shows doing well--a non-theatre person who likes your show is more likely to try out mine than a person whose first Fringe experience sucked. We spend a lot of time, money, and sweat putting up Fringe shows--whether ticket prices are too high, we should not be discounted as consumers of this wonderful art. Shoot, I've already performed 4 times, seen 3 out of 6 other shows I plan to see (including one I paid full price for), and spent almost every night at the Tent, eating, drinking, and tipping my bartenders. My money is as green as anyone's. It's insulting to imply that artists shouldn't have a voice in the conversation.

  • Steve

    The posting of Julienne Brienza's salary is neither disrespectful nor distracting and certainly not low-class. As an administrator of a non profit her salary is open to the public on There is a reason that non profit 990's are published. We the public have the right to know where money is being spent. If you care at all about The Fringe, particularly if it is experiencing financial troubles, then it is not only not disrespectful it is responsible to open up the discussion of where money is going.

  • M

    I've attended the festival all six years and always enjoy it. I am an avid theater-goer, attending events throughout the year and look forward to the Fringe Festival each summer. I was disappointed, however, to learn of this year's ticket/button prices for Fringe. I think the festival erred in raising ticket prices 13% while simultaneously raising the price of the dreaded button a whopping 40%. The double-whammy price hike was simply too much for one year. Several friends attended fewer shows because of the increased costs.

  • Matthew

    Thanks for providing this measured summary. I’ve been following this conversation with some interest, as a multi-year Fringe-goer and –supporter. And I’d also been curious about how much of a price increase is too much for the Festival. For the first time, the price was enough that I noticed what it was. Not because it was prohibitive but because it now “felt” like paying for a regular theater production. I wondered whether that sort of informal mental math could lead people to feel discouraged about attending multiple shows.

    But the proof is in the ticket-counting. I’ve heard a lot of comments about sales being down, but I’ve seen absolutely nothing in any reported numbers to support that. We’ll have to see at Festival’s end, but a drop in sales of 5% when there are 10% fewer productions (and 9% fewer performances to purchase tickets at) is not a meaningful drop in sales. You simply cannot sell the same number of tickets when there are fewer tickets to sell. Rather, it may actually amount to a proportional increase in sales per-performance.

    (This is different from whether the Festival is in the black, which is indeed concerned with absolute numbers, but that’s another issue entirely.)

    From that perspective it looks like there’s little truth to the argument that ticket costs have hurt sales. Which is not surprising, given that it relies primarily on anecdotal comments – which in this conversation have been heavily biased toward the complainers – while ignoring the fact that the Festival is apparently selling tickets at a better per-performance rate than last year.

    The button? I absolutely understand the point of the button, but I do wonder whether other models might accomplish the same goals. I fully support giving more funds to the artists. And as someone who usually attends many shows at each Festival, the per-show cost of the button is negligible. But it may provide a hurdle for those who may only see a show or two. To them the cost is proportionately high.

    A bigger argument seems to have branched out over the purpose of the Festival and the target audience(s). If, as Suilebhan offered, Fringe should “(above all else) be accessible to lots of people,” then it’s important to actually find out whether current pricing matters to lots of people. That’s something that could be investigated, and perhaps should, as the Festival moves forward. The key word is “investigated” – rather than speculated upon in the absence of real information.

    But reading many of the comments to his post, I felt discouraged that this conversation would proceed helpfully for Fringe. The salient points are largely buried among complaints from Fringe performers. And Fringe performers are not the primary audience – by definition, they are the providers, not the main consumers. I sympathize with performers who feel frustrated at not being able to afford attending all their friends’ shows, but I don’t think that is in fact key to the success of Fringe.

    And finally – posting Julianne Brienza’s salary on Facebook? That was disrespectful, low-class, and distracting to the main points. It’s also based on the fundamentally flawed sensibility that Fringe should be run solely by starving artists. Julianne is not making bank running this Festival, she’s working her ass off to keep it alive and growing. It’s worth remembering that before her, Capital Fringe simply did not exist.