Fringe, at the Center
Wherever the Capital Fringe Festival is, people keep wondering where it's going. "Can Fringe grow up?" Washington City Paper asked in 2010. "Could Fringe Festival go mainstream?" pondered the Washington Post a year later.
If you spent any time at the seventh Capital Fringe Festival, which wrapped up Sunday, it was clear that it did, and clear that it has. The scrappy amateur has turned pro.
Fringe still has its low-fi charms/annoyances — makeshift venues offering varying degrees of protection from July's heat, oddball performance times — but in every observable way, from the variety of shows and the baseline quality level of the ones I saw, to the retention rate of artists and staff, to the amount of time you had to wait for your burger at the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent bar, this felt like a festival that has, six years after it first sought to prod D.C.'s theater scene from its sticky-weather slumber, finally found its groove.
That's not to say everyone gets what they want out of it. But everyone knows what it is.
Julianne Brienza, Capital Fringe's founder and executive director, has always maintained she's running a business. This year you could tell, and not just when you forked over $7 for the button required to see shows. It's not that the festival has become too impersonal or mercenary. Rather, it's gone from being a hip, hardworking, broke, but largely carefree kid to something more like a responsible if overextended young parent.
Consider the troupes that came up through Fringe and now produce outside of the festival: Pinky Swear Productions and Nu Sass Productions, both dedicated to theater about and by strong women. Pointless Theatre, one of two recipients of the Director's Award this year. And Happenstance Theater, which eschewed Fringe entirely this year in favor of the new, concurrent Over the Line Festival at Round House Silver Spring.
Eventually, your offspring crave independence. They get tired of being told they have to be home by 11 p.m. — or that they have to perform at 10:30 a.m. on a Saturday. They leave the roost. That's how it's supposed to work.
Beyond incubating small companies and providing an outlet for the significant homegrown talent — playwrights especially — that the city's big theaters are in large part not hiring, Fringe can likely claim some credit for shaping the Mount Vernon Square neighborhood into a hip destination, too. Taking over the former A.V. Ristorante Italiano in 2008 and repurposing it as Fringe's headquarters, multivenue performance-plex, official saloon, and unofficial salon has been key to the festival's development.
Fort Fringe was there before The Passenger and other bars opened around the corner, and way before LivingSocial moved its headquarters down the block. (The Warehouse Theater has been in the neighborhood since 1994.) Now Fringe is literally surrounded by ghosts of old buildings: facades that can't be demolished because they've been deemed historically significant ring Fort Fringe and its environs, mounted on pylons. Some of these structures across New York Avenue NW. The former Hodges Sandwich Shop actually sits within the Baldacchino bar area. Landlord Douglas Development relocated it there this spring.
Capital Fringe has completed its coming of age just as its neighborhood has done the same. It's a familiar cycle: A scrappy arts institution comes in where space is cheap, sometimes thanks to the noblesse oblige of a developer sitting on property. Restaurants and bars cautiously follow. Over time, the area acquires some cachet and rents balloon. And then the artists, if they don't own the land they sit on, often have to move on. So where does Capital Fringe go from here?
Back to the fringes.
In the very short term, Fringe isn't going anywhere. Brienza says that Douglas will allow the festival to remain on New York Avenue for another summer. But come 2014, Capital Fringe likely will have to find a new home.
Possibilities Brienza has raised this year: NoMa. Anacostia. Maryland. (In February, Brienza warned the D.C. Council the festival might consider moving half of its programming to take advantage of state art funding.) Wherever Fringe goes, it'll have to rebuild the structural part of its identity.
In its new home, Fringe will also have to keep up with the art it fosters. Perhaps the most compelling evidence of the festival's maturation is the work it enabled this year. You could make the case that this was the most successful Fringe artistically, if not the most attended. (That prize belongs to 2010.)
This year, there were 130 productions for which patrons bought 29,000 tickets, up from 27,000 last year. And there were fewer empty seats: Of 736 individual performances, 377 of them sold at least 50 percent of their houses, Brienza says. Eighty performances sold out completely.
As before, some shows will live beyond Fringe. Emily Todd, director of Tent of Dreams: An Occuplay says Nu Sass Productions has been asked to bring the show to New York City in mid-September coinciding with the one-year anniversary of the start of the Occupy Wall Street encampment. Evan CrumpÃ¢s Shock/Trauma will be remounted at 1st Stage in Tysons Corner Aug. 3 to 12. Playwright Steven Spotswood, whose We Tiresias was voted Best Drama in the Theatermania Pick of the Fringe Awards, is fielding offers to remount his well-received riff on the soothsayer from Oedipus Rex and other Greek tragedies.
Spotswood, who's participated in five Capital Fringes, says he's seen an uptick in administrative support for performers. Complaints from artists about their venues — not just the wonky air conditioning, but the quality of light and sound equipment — seem to be quieter. (Complaints about how much of ticket gross the festival keeps are perennial.)
Brienza says payouts to artists would top $209,000 this year, where last year it was around $180,000. Fifty-three percent of this year's artists were first-timers, but with one exception, most of the big hits and award winners came from veterans.
That exception was DC Trash, a truly left-field hit from Ron Litman, a 62-year-old garbage man who decided to register after showing up at Fort Fringe in January to haul away the stone fountain on its patio. The statue had to come down to make room for Hodge's Sandwich Shop, that detritus of neighborhood change. Even as Fringe becomes a steadier ship and its physical identity morphs, Litman's success was a reminder that some part of the festival will always thrive by serendipity. Lucky us.
File photo by Darrow Montgomery