Fringeworthy

Weekend One After-Action Report: Making Bank

The seventh Capital Fringe Festival is on pace—barring an attendance-depressing heatwave, a (second) rain-induced tent collapse, or another unforeseen calamity—to sell the most tickets of any Capital Fringe yet.

As of midday today, with the first of the festival’s three weekends (but only four of its 16 performance days; Mondays are dark) in the books, the box office had sold 12,079 tickets—about 45 percent of the slightly more than 27,000 tickets sold during the entirety of last year’s Capital Fringe.

2010 still stands as the most-ticketed edition of the performing arts festival that's become a hot-weather institution since its 2006 debut: In 2010, the festival sold 33,897 tickets. The dropoff of individual tickets moved between 2010 and 2011 might’ve been due to several factors, including the smaller number of shows in the festival (137 in 2010 versus 124 in 2011), and the fact that 2011 saw the first ticket price hike since the festival’s inception, with single tickets inflating from $15 to $17 and the ever-controversial Fringe button also going up in cost from $5 to $7.

Ticket prices remain at that level for this year’s Fringe, but the number of shows has come up to 130. In an interview I posted with Fringe Executive Director Julianne Brienza on Thursday night, she credited the extra week between the on-sale date and the Fringe preview event on July 6 with giving initial ticket sales a healthy bump.

Sales figures reported today to the festival board show that overall combined revenue from ticket sales, souvenir T-shirts ($20 each), donations, and bar proceeds is up 20 percent from this period in last year’s Fringe.

Another curious statistic: Fifty-three percent of the artists in the Fringe this year are first-time participants.

One anecdote of the popularity of this year’s festival? The box office ran out of festival guides. Brienza told me she ordered 20,000 guides this year, the same number that got her through all three weeks of the 2011 festival. By Saturday night, supplies were running dangerously low. Brienza placed an order for 7,000 more guides today.

Capital Fringe tickets are selling faster this year than ever before.

That probably caused her less heartburn than Tuesday night’s (gradual) tent collapse, an inconvenient truth brought on by an unexpectedly heavy rainstorm. On the opening night of the festival, just a few hours after the replacement tent rush-shipped from Canada had been erected, Brienza told me her supplier, Tentnology, managed to get her a replacement about 30 hours from the time Artist & Audience Services Director Cory Ryan Frank finalized the order. A coalition of the willing of staffers and volunteers answered her 11th hour distress call, and thus an Act of God that arrived less than 48 hours before Fringe was scheduled to open delayed the opening of the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent Bar by a mere two hours.

My unscientific impression based on the six shows I took in this weekend myself is that quality is strong this festival. I loved two shows, Superhero Celebrity Rehab and R.U.X. (Rockwell’s Universal seXbots), which were also the two I got around to reviewing in a timely fashion. Let me never be branded a hater!

I also responded favorably to Tommy “Rev. Nuge” Nugent’s solo show Occupy This! — Tales of an Accidental Activist, and Izumi Ashizawa Performance’s haunting follow-up to its Director’s Award-winning noh showcase from last year, which I saw but barely remember because it was in the gone-and-good-riddance venue The Apothecary, which was at least 20 degrees warmer than the maximum operating temperature of my higher brain. The troupe's show this year is called Dreams in the Arms of the Binding Lady, and the performance I saw of it yesterday evening—in the Studio Theatre complex's comfortable Milton Theatre—was regrettably its last in the festival, due to other bookings.

Those last two shows I mentioned have exactly nothing in common other than their overall quality. Nuge’s spoken-word piece recounts with much warmth and humor the way he found himself increasingly involved in the Occupy movement in Detroit. His heartfelt tale commingles elements from his own struggle as a performer in a crumbling economy with the efforts of him and his fellows’ to protect peoples’ homes from being foreclosed upon and resold by banks. Binding Lady, meanwhile, is a beautifully staged fever dream of a dance piece that enveloped me in its dark, forbidding world for 45 minutes that seemed to pass in a eyeblink. With a very few simple props—a lace blanket, a mask of an old man's wizened face, a prosthetic leg—the dancers conjured up a vivid, frightening nightmare realm, writing on the floor and groaning like beasts when they weren't harmonizing a live vocal score. (The piece also uses recorded music.)

I also liked Washington Improv Theatre's iConfess, but as it’s an improvised musical built out of written confessions contributed by audience members, it’s quality seems likely to vary, though the skills of its improvisers are readily apparent. banished? productions’s guided-tour-with-recorded-audio accompaniment The Circle didn’t completely deliver on its intriguing premise—a journey through time but not so much space in a area surrounding Dupont Circle (it's been ported, confusingly, over to a site nearer Fort Fringe)—though Fringe & Purge blogger Derek Hills argues in today’s Fringe & PurgeCast that the highly experimental show—if it isn’t utterly redundant to call anything banished? does “experimental”—is unique enough to count as a qualified success.

Which reminds me: We made a podcast! I thought the Fringe & PurgeCast might be a fun way to change up our method of covering the festival this year. We’re still filing our Hip Shot reviews of Fringe shows (18 so far, with many more in the pipeline) and we’ll be profiling a number of Fringe performers as the festival continues. The arrival of the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent Bar in 2008 was, to my mind, the innovation that made Fringe truly feel like a festival. Establishing a central gathering place where artists and audiences could mingle embodied the ideal of the salon in the best sense.

The aim of the podcast was to make that experience somewhat portable. Aside from my opening-night interview with Brienza, you heard our bloggers (and special guests well-known to D.C. theater-folks, like publicist and curator Michael Kyrioglou, general enthusiast and 2010 Fringe Fanatic Lisa Carr, and today, actor and storyteller John Kevin Boggs) talking off-the-cuff about their impressions of the festival. The bloggers are typically discussing their response to shows before they’ve filed their reviews.

As someone who’s been writing theater criticism steadily for about five years now, I can tell you I personally feel a huge amount of trepidation about sharing these still-cooking opinions with a listener in their nascent state—I can usually tell right away if I genuinely like something or don’t, but figuring out why takes longer. That, to my mind, is the real brainwork of criticism. I see these podcasts as in line with the spirit of creative risk-taking that Fringe has always sought to encourage. Responses so far have been mixed, so I’ll be very curious to see how this element of our coverage continues to evolve over the next two weekends.

Also: Making a podcast, even a very Spartan, minimally produced one like ours, turns out to be more time-consuming than I expected.

We'll see you at the tent!

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