Festival tips from the Capital Fringe Festival’s biggest fan

July 12, 2012

David S. Kessler is a Fringe fanatic.

For 50 weeks out of the year, he works as a small-mammal biologist at the National Zoo. But for two sweltering weeks in July, Kessler devotes himself to consuming as much of the Capital Fringe Festival as humanly possible. The self-proclaimed “theater groupie” has attended Fringe for the past four years (the festival was founded in 2005) and is perhaps Washington’s most ardent Fringe-goer, collecting ticket stubs like an Eagle Scout scooping up merit badges.

Last year, Kessler took in 50 shows, a number that disappointed him because “that means I missed out on 84.” As he prepared himself for his fifth Fringe season, Kessler offered up his insider tips for how to have the Fringiest Fringe of them all.

Binge at Fringe Some magical Fringe math for you: Most of the shows max out at 60 minutes a pop, so in the time it would take you to see “The Dark Knight Rises,” you could watch five Fringe shows. Kessler, who averages three to five shows a day, swears by the more-is-more philosophy: “The more you see, the more you’ll become a part of the gestalt that is Fringe.”

Slam it to the left (if you’re having a good time) Variety, which spices up your life like Posh and Scary, is the key to effective Fringing. “You wouldn’t indulge in only one ride at an amusement park,” Kessler said. “A festival involves more than one aspect.”

Impatience is a virtue Tempting though it may be, don’t wait for the reviews to decide what to see. “The audiences are usually sparse at the beginning, and the performers and directors need you there,” he said. Added bonus: “When you see a show with very few people in the audience, you have the opportunity to talk to the actors.”

Talking heads Step away from the Internet, would-be Fringe-goers. There are blurbs in the official Fringe guide, said Kessler, but “a great show may have a terrible blurb, and a less-than-wonderful show may have a great blurb.” Word of mouth is your best bet: Hang around the festival to get the inside scoop from artists and audience members.

Do call it a comeback If you catch something at the start of the Festival, swing back at the end and scope it out again. “I’ve seen some shows twice in a run and it changes. That’s another exciting way to see the show . . . see how it’s different with a different audience.”

Caution: area under construction “You have to keep an open mind that a lot of these shows are works in progress. They’re inexpensive, short, and if everything isn’t wonderful, don’t be disgruntled or disappointed,” Kessler said. “Even in pieces that don’t work 100 percent, there’s always something you can take away and something you can give back.”

Come as you are “There’s really no dress code at Fringe,” said Kessler, whose No. 1 rule is to be “comfortable.” “Don’t worry about sweating there in the summer. Just be prepared to be warm and pace yourself with that.” When the weather gets too hot to handle, “see at least one show in the Goethe-Institut. It’s really air-conditioned and has really comfy seats.”

Eat, drink and be merry For beer or wine, hit up the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent, Kessler said: “It’s the town hall, the quad, the center.” It’s great for food, too, he said, but only order a bite if you have no more than 10 minutes before your next show; the service can be a bit on the slow side.

With great presence comes great responsibility As a patron, “your responsibility . . . is to pay attention, especially if you’re in a small audience,” he said. “When you’re seeing a work in progress, give feedback.” And don’t forget to spread the word when you see a show you adore (or hate).


Experienced Capital Fringe Festival-goer David Kessler, 58, holds festival buttons as he poses for a portrait Wednesday July 11, 2012 outside his Silver Spring, MD home. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Put your whole self in Kessler believes the best Fringe experience is an immersive one. Get into it. “What I remember enjoying so much,” he said of his first time at the festival, “was seeing the streets filled with people wearing Fringe buttons, carrying Fringe guides, knowing they were part of the same experience. That communal sense.”

Great escape “A lot of us can’t get away for the summer in Washington, but if you immerse yourself in Fringe — even for a day or two — you’ll feel like you’ve been somewhere,” said Kessler. “If art is anything, it’s transportative. And Fringe can transport you.”

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