The Capital Fringe Festival is a movable feast, a shot of urban adrenaline and carnival flair downtown each July. Shows erupt all over the place, this year with 140 acts delivering an average of five performances each in more than two dozen venues — all in less than three weeks.
The slogan this summer is apt: “Move Me.”
As always, the festival feels like a thing on the go, with patrons pinging among theater, dance, solo works and novelties as they take in shows by the cluster. The home base, as it has been since 2008, is the lively warren around Fort Fringe on New York Avenue NW, with a host of venues scattered nearby (and a few far away).
That’s Fringe now, with the festival previewing Tuesday and formally launching Thursday, running to July 27. What’s next: a planned move of the scruffy mother ship across town to Trinidad, where Fringe recently announced a contract to buy the building owned and operated by the Connersmith art gallery. If all goes smoothly (and a lot of money gets raised; the selling price is undisclosed, but Fringe has announced a $9.2 million fundraising target), next year’s festival will anchor on Florida Avenue just north of H Street NE.
Fringe has become a reliable grab-bag of performances gamely parading through every kind of space, from rough converted storefronts and storage rooms to conventional theaters and wide-open public streets. Upstairs at the Fort, there is a small, unfurnished room with a bunch of colorful daily charts taped to the walls. The charts puzzle out which acts will be where, and when.
“I don’t know what these shows are about. I don’t read their scripts,” says programming manager Alex Engel, who sorts events by type and technical need.
The matchmaking of artist and stage is largely figured out by Engel, in consultation with production manager Austin Byrd. The center of gravity is Fort Fringe: 75 shows are being presented within a block, with 38 more within six blocks. An additional 29 will be at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, a block south of Connersmith.
The ground rules are strict. In each venue, performers have 15 minutes to get in before a performance and 15 minutes to get out after curtain. Each venue hosts roughly 10 acts during the festival, with each act giving an average of five performances.
The tight schedule and shared space means making do with little scenery and rough lighting plots. Not every artist gets this. Then it’s Engel’s job to raise a flag and say, as she puts it, “Dudes, you’ve got five sofas in your show.”
Two weeks before the festival kickoff, five members of the Fringe team — founder Julianne Brienza, chief operating officer Peter Korbel, Engel, Byrd and general manager Ebony Dumas — led a tour through a number of this year’s venues, nearly all of them slated to host an overstuffed clown car’s worth of shows.
The festival’s calling card and party central; the place to eat, drink, connect and dash to one of the many nearby stages for the next hour-long something-or-other. The outdoor bar has a new shape this year, and the disco ball now has a motor.
The tent’s flaps will be open for the first weekend so live music can pour out to the patio. Music will dominate the offerings this year, organized by Jim Thomson, recently the music programmer for the club Tropicalia. Nearly all of it will be free.
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of the Universe,”
a tripleheader of bands including Chop and Quench, featuring Sahr Ngaujah and musicians from the musical “Fela!,” July 13.
The biggest venue in the Fort, the Shop seats 90, with a steel-framed catwalk serving as a short irregular balcony running around the edge of the space. The catwalk was constructed in 2007 for a short-lived venue on D Street NW dubbed the Scientarium (now an upscale butcher shop).
Small as it is, Engel says the Shop is one of the better venues Fringe has for dance, though most dance events this month will be in the Atlas. The Shop is also prime for solo shows, since the audience wraps around the stage. Like the Tent, it’s newly outfitted with more and better color LED lights.
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“Balloon Plays,” clowns and balloons for all ages, July 12-27.
“Captain Tickle Britches,” sketch comedy for adults only, July 10-26.
“Murder” spelled backward, of course, and you get there by walking up a slightly creepy concrete stairwell and into a small room where the walls were red when the Fringe gang first walked in several years ago. It’s still deeply red-walled. Most of the seating is in front of the thrust stage — one of Fringe’s biggest, roughly 20 feet deep by 14 feet wide — with strips of seating on the sides. The ceiling is very low: the lights hang less than eight feet above the stage, which means they’re practically on the actors’ heads. Yes, it can get hot in Redrum. It’s July, and these are semi-converted rooms in an old downtown building. “This is a great space for really physical stuff that you want a great view of,” Engel says.
See it here: “Walken in
a play about a woman crashing an all-male Christopher Walken fan club, July 11-19.
A newer addition, the 66-seat Gearbox is on a third floor and isnamed for ancient giant gears in the window overlooking Seventh Street NW. The gang doesn’t know what the gears were used for.
For Engel and Byrd, Gearbox is a favorite. The seating is tiered, and the ceiling slopes upward as it moves to the back of the stage, creating an expansive height over the performers. The walls are exposed brick. The three windows behind the stage get blacked out from the outside.
“It’s clean and industrial,” Byrd says.
“It’s got a nice aesthetic,” Engel agrees, noting that it’s especially receptive to small dramas.
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“The Monster Songs,” presented by Dr. Dour and Peach, Toby Mulford and Rachel Spicknall Mulford of D.C.’s Faction of Fools in an original cabaret, July 12-27.
This open-air walkway and fountain is planned as part of this year’s site-specific category, a designation for projects that don’t want the four walls of a theater. “An opportunity to animate an unexpected location with performance,” according to the festival guide. This newly “pedestrianized area,” as Engel calls it, will feature “Mobile Personal Series” (July 11-20), a “performance sculpture” by Satisfixation LLC which seems poised to question our relationship to technology. “He’s been super on it in terms of permitting because of the way he looks,” Engel says of Satisfixation’s Gregory James. Apparently the getup involves a Hazmat suit, goggles and gloves.
SEE THIS ELSEWHERE: “Installment 1: relax(h)er,” by Pittsburgh dancer/choreographer Jasmine Hearn, a solo performance about hair, July 19 at 2 p.m. in Brookland at Jet Set Hair Designs (3530 12th St. NE) and 5 p.m. at Plush Beauty Box (3617 12th St. NE).
On Barracks Row near the Navy Yard, tucked in an alley between Eighth and Ninth streets SE, the Fridge has been established as a gallery and performance space since 2009. The festival has always forged these kinds of connections, even with venues orbiting far from Fort Fringe. Closer partners include Goethe Institut and Mountain, as Fringe dubs the theater in the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church.
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“Brick Penguin Tries Its Best,” sketch comedy,
Fringe and Atlas partnered once before, but not on this scale. The Atlas will host 29 acts in three venues: the 70-seat Lab II, the 160 seat Sprenger and the 260-seat Lang.
For Fringe, this is as polished as it gets. But even the Lang, a warm, traditionally shaped auditorium, is far from a barn.
“If it doesn’t sell out — and sure, 260 seats is huge for a Fringe space — it won’t feel cavernous,” Engel says.
What’s the Lang best for? “Dance, dance, dance,” Engel says.
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“#albatross,” Moveius Contemporary Ballet, July 11-25.
“Blue Moon/Red River,” by Jane Franklin Dance with music by Tom Teasley, July 11-27.
“We’ve Come to Play,” Aras Dance, July 12-25.