Could Fringe Festival go mainstream?

Before the wake-up summer of 2006, Washington was a theater city that all but slept through July and August. Now look what happens: Hit shows return in the months of swelter for runs at top shops such as Arena Stage and Woolly Mammoth. Musical tours settle in at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Small, embryonic productions with a little bit of seed money make their way into rented spaces, to feel out the theatrical turf.

It took a start-up operation with no performance record and a blanket invitation to outrageousness to invigorate the humidity-neutralized performing arts scene and turn Washington into a year-round drama town. That ragtag outfit would be the Capital Fringe Festival, the annual summer wave of seat-of-the pants plays, tryout musicals, fractured classics and other bursts of inspiration good, not so good and occasionally terrible.

The festival, offering more than 100 productions this time — a marginally smaller roster than last year — begins Thursday and continues through July 24. It will occupy 11 spaces, most of them clustered just east of Mount Vernon Square, in the shadow of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. In its sixth July in Washington, the locally produced festival will not be all that different from its first. Most of the 60-to-90-minute shows are being created by groups from the region, with the usual injections of originality and lunacy: titles include “Tales of Courage and Poultry,” “Insurgent Sonata,” “My Dad Is Now Ready for His Sponge Bath” and “Shall I Compare Thee to a Purple Haze?”

What has changed over that time goes beyond a greater recognition of audiences’ summer theater appetite and a broadening of schedules. (Before Fringe, some theater did occur in July, primarily at the Kennedy Center and 2ndStage at Studio Theatre.)

And although Fringe is greeted in some quarters with a barely tolerant roll of the eyes — oh, goodness, are the kids out of control again? — it has helped to foster a looser spirit in Washington’s art world. It has given further license to innovation and continues to be a necessary counterpoint to the city’s over-arching favoring of monuments and large institutions.


Julianne Brienza, founder and executive director of Capital Fringe, sitting on a fountain left over from the previous tenants of the building she uses, once an Italian restaurant. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

As far as the festival’s executive director, Julianne Brienza, is concerned, Fringe’s influence has not infiltrated nearly far enough, despite the fact that it can count on selling in the neighborhood of 30,000 tickets, as it did last summer. For the first time, it is raising ticket prices, from $15 to $17 per show. The required festival button will cost $7, up from $5.

Over the past six years, the festival has returned more than $1 million to its participating artists. (The nonprofit Capital Fringe, the nation’s fourth-largest fringe behind those in New York, Philadelphia and Minnesota, shares its ticket revenue with the individual shows.)

Brienza, who has been running the festival since its inception, had hoped by this point that Fringe’s imprint would be even sharper — that, for instance, the festival’s youthful ethos would have compelled more communal questioning of what larger purposes theater in Washington sees for itself, and thereby prompted some in the community to take it in new directions.

“I think we’ve really created a great life within the festival,” Brienza says, sitting in the tumbledown headquarters of Fort Fringe at Sixth Street and New York Avenue NW. “But outside the festival, it seems like it’s the same old things going on.”

That isn’t entirely accurate, for out of Fringe has come a fair amount of artistic turbulence, if not on the seismic scale Brienza might have wished for. It’s doubtful, for example, that a spiky troupe such as Solas Nua, which produces contemporary Irish theater, would so adventurously have embraced site-specific work — plays created for and around unorthodox spaces — had it not put on a weird, successful Fringe production in a swimming pool in Georgetown in summer 2006.

Nor, perhaps, would other small outfits with ties to the Fringe, such as Factory 449, Dizzy Miss Lizzy’s Roadside Revue and the Molotov Theatre Group, have found rationales and identities without acquiring experience and credibility through short runs at the Fringe. You sense, too, a fringey vibe in the eclectic, genre-bending diversions of such independent troupes as the four-year-old Taffety Punk Theatre Company.

And the more direct benefits of Fringe are apparent in an outfit like banished? productions, which a couple of festivals ago served up a unique night of theater — an edible one — with its gastronomic performance piece, “A Tactile Dinner.”

“The festival is its own presence now,” says Michael Kyrioglou, a former public relations head of Woolly Mammoth, sometime publicist for Fringe shows and inveterate Fringe-goer. He thinks Fringe has heightened interest in more experimentalist kinds of theater: For example, he has noticed a significant uptick in applications for the incubator program at Flashpoint’s downtown Mead Theater Lab, on whose advisory panel he serves.

“It’s out in the ether, like the Folklife Festival,” Kyrioglou says of the Fringe. “And like any good art center, a good show there is going to feed the other ones.”

Capital Fringe has yet to generate a huge, attention-grabbing hit of its own on the magnitude of “Urinetown: The Musical,” which was born at the New York International Fringe Festival, or, in an even more culturally important vein, “Black Watch,” the acclaimed Iraq war play, which recently played at Sidney Harman Hall. It was originally developed at the granddaddy of all fringe festivals, in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Aiming for that level of successful afterlife is somewhat antithetical to the philosophy of Fringe, which is about the creation of something vital and ephemeral — a work that is concerned with the impact it can make right this instant, not six months from now. Which is why it remains difficult to apply scorecard values to all of the germinating concepts that are being massaged into theater and dance pieces at the Fringe.

“It’s like this fun little commune where people are putting up art. It’s a wonderful thing to be a part of,” says Marshall Pailet, the director, composer and co-book writer with lyricist A.D. Penedo of “Who’s Your Baghdaddy?, or How I Started the War in Iraq,” a satirical musical being birthed at the festival.

The 100-minute “Baghdaddy” is one of those hybrid events of the Fringe, a production (backed by producer Charlie Fink) that will begin as a festival entry — in a rehearsal room it’s renting in Woolly Mammoth’s D Street NW complex — and continue for two weeks after the festival ends. With a cast and crew roughly 20 people strong, “Baghdaddy” needs the box office that can be built up with a run that is a bit more extensive than the traditional handful of slots available at a Fringe.

“You do get an audience, and it’s not just friends,” says Pailet, who lives in New York but grew up in Chevy Chase. “There aren’t people coming to slam you,” he says. “It’s much more supportive and much more nurturing. And it’s okay to fail.”

As she prepares with a 40-person Fringe staff (only three of whom including herself are full time year-round) for her sixth festival, the intense Brienza says she knows all too well the transitory nature of a Fringe. That extends even to many of the festival venues, including Fort Fringe, donated to the festival by Washington developer Douglas Jemal.

The buildings, Brienza says, are to be torn down for a residential project, so the Capital Fringe one day soon will have to find a new place to live. It somehow seems right that an event celebrating works in progress should be one itself. And if Washington has learned anything from a half-dozen summers of Fringe, it’s that the steamy months become more bearable when dreamers are sharing their air.

Capital Fringe Festival

Thursday through July 24 in various performance spaces, centered around Mount Vernon Square. Visit www.capitalfringe.org.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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