Fringe births talent; now D.C.'s theaters have to help raise it


Wyckham Avery. (C. Stanley Photography)

Even before the crowds sporting their official admission buttons began receding from the Capital Fringe Festival, which ended Sunday as one of the most artistically successful in the event’s seven-year history, the speculation started about which plays and acts might turn up somewhere in D.C. again.

Surely, we’ll be seeing a hit like “The Brontes,” the clever literary concert-musical that rocked out under the festival tent just off Mount Vernon Square, courtesy of the troupe that calls itself Dizzy Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Revue. “DC Trash,” Ron Litman’s sold-out solo show redolent of indigenous wisdom and humor, seems by the reactions of reviewers and audiences to cry out for a spot on some other club program. And “Beertown,” the endearing exercise in democratic drama that proved wildly popular throughout its run in Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s rehearsal hall, has demonstrated its ability to settle in for a longer stay.

Under the auspices of the Fringe Festival itself, a small number of shows will indeed return on Nov. 1, as part of the 18-day festival extension known as Fall Fringe. But as for the city’s year-round arts institutions figuring out how to annex the output and harness the energy of Fringe? That’s still not occurring. The town’s performing-arts companies remain far too detached from what’s going on at ground level to take advantage of some of the theatrical developments happening just beyond their doorsteps. And at a time when established groups are dealing in ever more visible ways with leaner times, engaging the modest works and motivated younger artists of Fringe might lead to some apt and smarter programming choices.

What this year’s Fringe — which ran from July 12-29, mostly in makeshift venues in and around downtown — spoke to so vibrantly (and poignantly) was the passionate desire of emerging play- and dancemakers from this region to claim a larger share of respect and attention. Capital Fringe has truly matured into an enriching regional showcase. It’s not anything like another stop on the international Fringe circuit, for artists taking modest shows on the road. In the entries I surveyed, what I found again and again was a fulfillment of one of the most consequential goals of Fringe: the presentation of a satisfying caliber of home-turf talent, the kind needing to be both supported and nurtured. And audiences are responding: By Sunday, Fringe officials were reporting more than 29,000 tickets already sold to this year’s festival, outpacing last summer’s totals.

If you sampled the wares over the past 17 days, you would have been able to gauge the magnitude of the embrace of Fringe by small local companies like Banished Productions, with its cheekily bewildering “The Circle,” Faction of Fools’s “Tales of Marriage and Mozzarella”—during which actual weddings took place — and Pinky Swear Productions’ saucy “Cabaret XXX: Love the One You’re With.”

Playwrights from the region spoke up, too, in promising works by Danielle Mohlman (“Stopgap”), Stephen Spotswood (“We Tiresias”) and Timothy Guillot, whose “Webcam Play” inventively used technology to portray a romance that was virtual in every sense of the word. Under director Sasha Bratt’s sensitive guidance, actors Steve Isaac and Sarah Ferris gave amusing and appealing accounts of young people crossing paths, purposes and wires on an online dating site. (I should note that Guillot was a student of mine several years ago at George Washington University.)

Most of these productions, performed only a handful of times and often at a cost of less than $2,000, are works in embryonic stages. Not every show is meant to survive for anything longer than the life cycle of a mayfly, and some Fringe pieces are probably best left in the dust of a dismantled set. But seeing the care, intelligence and craft that have gone into many of Fringe’s offerings, you have to ask why the development of some of them — or the mentoring of the artists involved — does not continue with greater frequency under the roofs of theaters, universities and other local incubators of the arts.

Some companies are indeed reaching out to Washington writers and theater-devisers whose only alternative in the area has been Fringe. Theater J, for example, launched a Locally Grown theater festival last winter, featuring plays in staged readings and full production by several D.C. area playwrights. This season, the company will produce the premiere of a drama by Washington dramatist Jacqueline Lawton, “The Hampton Years,” about black painters tutored at the Hampton Institute during World War II by a Jewish refugee. Later this summer, Theater Alliance is unveiling “Reals,” a new play by D.C. playwright (and veteran of Fringe) Gwydion Suilebhan.

Other companies have begun to interact with small Washington troupes, but still, no reliable mechanism exists as a development bridge between successful Fringe material and the city’s better-known stages. I wonder, for example, whether the Cultural Development Corporation, which runs both Source Theatre on 14th Street NW and the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint on G Street NW— and is exploring changes in its mission after the departure of its longtime head, Anne Corbett — might be positioned to be one such conduit, helping to shepherd strong Fringe pieces to fuller productions.

Finding affordable spaces in the city is another huge barrier to exposure for artists and productions finding success at Fringe. Rick Hammerly, director of “The Brontes,” says that’s the situation Dizzy Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Revue is in, at the moment. “When you sell out a show and you have the critical success with it, and then an extra performance and that sells: of course we’re looking to remount it,” he says. “We’re looking at potential venues and potential theater partners. But since this is all an emerging part of the community, it doesn’t have an existing infrastructure.’’

Julianne Brienza, the Fringe Festival’s co-founder and executive director, says she thinks a critical mass is being reached, and that Fringe artists from the region will be engaged in ever more varied conversations with the big-name arts organizations. The artists are displaying staying power. The shortage of small theater spaces in the city has become so dire, she adds, that the festival is renting out its own stages in the off-season and is booked by smaller companies through March.

“I think Fringe started at a good time here,” Brienza says. “And the city is getting to the point where it’s a place, and not just a municipality.” What she means, in part, is a “place” for younger makers of theater to feel as if they’re becoming part of something for which it’s worth sticking around. That feeling can’t sink in deeply enough, and it’s up to the community’s leaders to make sure it does.

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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