The Capital Fringe Festival, now in its seventh year, has been the kiddie pool of theater for many aspiring companies. The unjuried platform provides an opportunity for writers, directors and actors to dip a toe in the water, putting on a show without the added stress of securing a venue, finding an audience or putting together a marketing plan. More important, it’s not exclusive.
“I saw that the Fringe was a place where the barriers to entry were pretty low,” says John Feffer, who returns this year with his fourth Fringe foray. “And that can be good. It can be bad, of course, for the audience. But it’s great for folks who want to get into the theater world, who want to see what it’s like.”
And although Fringe has often been compared to a flea market of productions, with as much junk as gems, the festival has facilitated quite a few success stories. Below, meet a few Fringe mainstays that may have gotten their feet wet at the festival but now manage backflips off the high-dive.
Then: In some ways, the inception of Washington Rogues took place in New York when artistic director Ryan Taylor went to see the weirdest performance he could find — “Busted Jesus Comix,” performed in a six-floor walk-up — after taking in such big-name shows as “The Lion King” and Baz Luhrmann’s “La Boheme” (“which was awful,” Taylor recalls).
“It really showed me what theater could be,” he says. “It was my first time seeing new, cutting-edge, politically relevant stuff.”
The Rogues made their debut eight years later at Capital Fringe 2008 with a version of “Busted Jesus Comix,” a comedic drama about a boy whose audacious comic strip places him on the wrong side of the law. The company has continued along that path of political theater while performing at Fringe every summer since. The group also took part in Arena Stage’s Edward Albee Festival with readings of “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia” and recently launched a reading series at BloomBars.
When it comes to selecting material, Taylor has a straightforward philosophy: “If something scares you, you should do it.”
Now: This year’s Fringe installment finds the Rogues circling back to its “Comix” roots with a stylistically similar show, “Mitzi’s Abortion,” by Seattle-based playwright Elizabeth Heffron. The production follows a woman at a heart-breaking crossroads: When she finds out she is carrying a child with a birth defect, everyone has an opinion on what her next move should be. Lighter moments break up the heavy story line, including scenes with Mitzi’s spiritual adviser, the gluttonous ghost of Saint Thomas Aquinas.
Then: As the name suggests, Pinky Swear started with a promise. When Karen Lange and Allyson Harkey watched a 2008 Fringe show with degradingly stereotypical female characters, the pair vowed to do better.
“I think the playwright could have used an editor,” Lange says. “And maybe a smack upside the head.”
The following year, the pinky swear paid off. “Freakshow” captured the group’s preferred ethos — “a little dark and a little edgy,” Lange explains — and looked at female outsiders populating a sideshow act under the big top, including an armless, legless woman.
“It felt so good putting this thing together, this concrete piece of art, that I actually cried afterward,” Lange says with a chuckle.
Since then, the ever-expanding group has taken home the 2011 Fringe award for best musical with “Cabaret XXX: Les Femmes Fatales” before staging “Killing Women” at Spooky Action theater earlier this year.
Now: Pinky Swear returns to the rock musical format with “Cabaret XXX: Love the One You’re With.” While last year’s show was about the sadness, anger and acceptance of breaking up, this year’s entry looks at relationships in progress.
Then: Although he had wanted to mount a one-man show for decades, the exceedingly affable co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies had never appeared onstage before he brought his first solo show, “Krapp’s Last Power Point,” to 2009’s Capital Fringe Festival. The key takeaway was that acting can be a terrifying, stressful situation. At least until the good reviews start rolling in.
“After the first night I told my wife, ‘I’m never going to do this again,’ ” he recalls. “And then after the last night, about a week went by, and I said, ‘Here’s my idea for next year.’ And she said, ‘Wait a second, you said you were never going to do this again.’ ”
Feffer has returned to Fringe every year since with well-received shows and honed his acting skills on the job while mounting ever more complicated productions.
Now: Feffer draws from his own experiences for “The Pundit.” His first ensemble production looks at the consequences after a person is pressured into appearing to be an authority on a subject that he or she doesn’t fully comprehend, just to feed a 24-hour news cycle.
“I create a character who goes out on a limb to talk about a situation he’s unfamiliar with, and the consequences are considerable,” Feffer says. “The consequences are considerable in a comic mode, but about halfway through the play you realize it’s not a comedy anymore.”
Another first this year: Feffer will take his show on the road, to the New York Fringe Festival in August.
Then: Banished? Productions artistic director Carmen Wong likes to joke that the group is the problem child of Fringe, always creating quandaries for festival co-founder Julianne Brienza. For example, how do you sell traditional tickets to a performance-art piece that also doubles as a mobile dining experience?
Such shows raise more questions than answers, so maybe it’s appropriate that there’s a question mark in the middle of the company’s name.
The group’s first production, Pablo Picasso’s “Desire Caught by the Tail,” took place during Fringe 2006, and Banished? has returned every year since, offering increasingly audience-inclusive performances. The group’s most notable show, “A Tactile Dinner” (which spawned last year’s spin-off, “A Tactile Dinner Car”), exploded the fourth wall and gave viewers an avant-garde multi-course meal of dance, music and squashed snack cakes.
“We work in a mode that really allows the audience to sink in and relax with us and be part of the show, or at least be part of the spirit of the show,” Wong says. “And, increasingly, we’ve made them do more.”
Now: After “Into the Dollhouse,” February’s well-received examination of adolescence at Flashpoint, Banished? returns to Fringe with more experimental work. “The Circle” is an audio walk that blends fiction and non-fiction stories inspired by Dupont Circle. Theater-goers simply don their headphones for a guided amble, but, for a requisite twist, the walk unfolds around Fort Fringe instead of Dupont, taking the geography-based tour out of context.
Then: Given that Fringe performers share stages with other groups, putting up and taking down sets can be its own fast-paced art form. As a result, most companies go with the less-is-more approach.
Not so with Pointless Theatre Company, formed by a group of friends who met at the University of Maryland.
“One of the running jokes in our company is: ‘More stuff,’ ” says Lex Davis, who directs this year’s production.
Pointless has gained a reputation as a puppet company, beginning with Fringe 2010’s “The Sleeping Beauty: A Puppet Ballet” and moving on to “Hugo Ball: A Super Spectacular Dada Adventure,” both of which took home Fringe awards for best experimental production.
“But once we started branching out into trying to develop new shows, it wasn’t just about puppets,” says co-founder Matt Reckeweg. “[We said] let’s add masks, let’s add dancers, let’s add fights, let’s add any sort of technical element, so that what we have now is not a puppet company but more of a spectacle company.”
The result is a kind of magical ambience, which has extended to shows such as “Minnie the Moocher,” last spring’s sellout at Flashpoint that featured a lot more stuff, namely, a seven-piece jazz band.
Now: With eight actors and three musicians, “Imagination Meltdown Adventure” looks at — and subverts — the archetypal hero’s journey, which begins when the main character unleashes a fantastical apocalypse. Next up, the group begins work on an adaptation of “The Canterbury Tales.”
Thursday-29. Various locations. 866-811-4111. www.capfringe.org.
$17, plus a one-time purchase of a festival button, which is $5 through
July 12, $7 thereafter.