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Back for Year 2, The Theater Fest Expands Its Offerings And Its Local Roster

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 15, 2007

The sophomore edition of the Capital Fringe Festival -- 11 days of wake-you-up theater and dance in the languid chasms of late July -- promises to be even more capital than last summer's. That is to say, a higher proportion of the offerings will be homegrown, presented by ensembles and individuals who have already put artistic roots down in Washington.

About 40 percent of the 116 entries at the festival -- which begins Thursday in nearly two-dozen performance spaces around the city, many concentrated in Penn Quarter -- come from District sources, says festival director Julianne Brienza. That is a significant increase from last summer, when fewer than one-third of the 97 productions were from the city. And artists from the larger metropolitan area are contributing 84 percent of the offerings, up from 80 percent last summer.

Such upticks are more than a little encouraging. They suggest that the Fringe -- a forum open to any performer of any level with the germ of an idea, a little bit of cash and the ability to meet an application deadline -- might be having an impact where it is needed most: on the imaginations of local actors, writers, directors and designers.

The most obvious potential beneficiary is Washington itself, and a theater scene that, while filled with skilled practitioners and avid companies, still lacks a diversified infrastructure for the development of original work by locally based, entry-level artists.

If an initial concern after the birth last summer of Capital Fringe -- brainchild of Brienza and executive director Damian Sinclair -- was that it could become a way station for out-of-town shows moving on the circuit from one Fringe Festival to the next, this year's could put such fears to rest. The event appears to be taking on a distinctly Washington flavor, from the increasing participation of well-known local companies, such as Signature Theatre ("Glory Days") and Theater J ("Voices From a Changing Middle East"), to the efforts by area start-up troupes to use the Fringe to introduce themselves to the world.

Last summer's festival sold nearly 18,000 tickets, a remarkable achievement for an event assembled from scratch over the previous fall and winter. This summer, Brienza says, the hope is that the event, with a roster about one-fifth larger, might hit the 20,000-ticket mark. Other indications of expansion include the second installment's $800,000 budget, up from about $450,000 last year. (General admission tickets are still $15 and can be bought at the door, the box office or online at http://www.capfringe.org.)

The festival's spacious new box office in a storefront next to the District Chophouse and Brewery off the high-visibility corner of Seventh and E streets NW, speaks in its own way to the event's growing prominence. Even the name that has been given to the Fringe box office -- "Unified Launch Theory" -- evokes the idea of an esoteric birthplace.

Geographically, too, the festival is trying to reach beyond the core it has established in Penn Quarter and spaces such as Warehouse Arts, Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Goethe-Institut and Flashpoint. This year, the festival will also use the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE as an official site, and several other Fringe shows will be staged at far-flung satellite locations such as Busboys and Poets, Georgetown University, the Museum of Contemporary Art gallery and the soon-to-be-renovated Source Theatre.

"We've gotten to know that D.C. is a city of different neighborhoods," says Brienza, a Philadelphia transplant. "We're trying to figure out how to get into each neighborhood and try to take Fringe there."

Washington, too, is getting better acquainted with "fringe," a decades-old movement stretching from Edinburgh to Orlando. The point of Fringe is to serve as an alternative to establishment forms of theater, to liberate performance from some of the constraints institutions impose, in terms of content and even merit. Although the governing bodies of some Fringes, such as New York's, admit only the shows they want, Capital Fringe is not juried. Provided an application is submitted on time and the fees are paid, anyone can participate.

"The Fringe is a low-risk opportunity to get in front of an audience," says Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of Woolly Mammoth, one of the catalysts, in a sense, for the festival. (Sinclair was Woolly's marketing director prior to co-founding Capital Fringe.) Woolly was the only major theater in town to be a principal home to Fringe shows last summer; one of the festival offerings, in fact -- Josh Lefkowitz's one-man piece, "Help Wanted" -- was so well-received that Shalwitz brought it back for a short run during Woolly's regular season. Lefkowitz's follow-up effort, "Now What?" is scheduled to be unveiled at Woolly this fall.

This sort of nurturing process has become a hallmark of many Fringes, and although the vast majority of festival productions will come and go in the blink of a spotlight, some can blossom and find a vital afterlife. The oft-cited "Urinetown," a product of the New York International Fringe Festival, is one notable success story.

Gwydion Suilebhan, a playwright who lives on Capitol Hill, is a prime example of a theater person adapting the Fringe for his own needs. Last summer at Capital Fringe, an engaging, 70-minute reading of his play "Abstract Nude," a clever piece about a painting and the lives it touched, was held. This summer, he's bringing it back, with many of the same Washington actors, in a more fully staged, 90-minute version.

Suilebhan and a director he'd met at last summer's Fringe, Merry Alderman (whose full-time job is in casting at Shakespeare Theatre Company) got together after the festival and agreed to collaborate on "Abstract Nude's" return.

"I gave Gwydion my candid opinion of what had to be changed," Alderman says, sitting with the playwright recently in Olsson's on Seventh Street, before a planned tour of local lampposts to put up posters for the production, which begins Friday at Source.

"All directors make your work different," Suilebhan adds. "Merry makes it different in a good way."

It is a measure of the limited resources for play development here that Suilebhan must resort to developing the play himself. (An earlier play of his, "Let X," had a short run at the Mead Theatre Lab last year, and Suilebhan says that he and Alderman have been accepted into a Lab program this fall for improvisatory playmaking.)

"I'm a D.C. playwright," says Suilebhan, a part-time college teacher who also works as director of user experience for a Web company. "I like living here, and I like being inspired by the things that happen here." But, of course, he'd also like to know, he says, that there were more theater companies interested in helping him along.

From the Shen Family Foundation's $1 million grant to Signature for the creation of new musicals, to the attempts to foster world premieres by troupes as varied as Woolly, Theater J and Rorschach, inroads have been made. Still, the perception is widely held that the city is less than a hotbed for incubating the plays of area-based writers.

"It's kind of like the missing link in D.C. theater," Alderman says.

Fringe is no panacea, but it is certainly letting in more air, giving the next generation a chance to show its stuff. Who knows what might blow in as a result? At the inaugural festival, Solas Nua, the exciting young local company that champions contemporary Irish writers, mounted a play, "La Corbiere," in a pool in Georgetown. This summer, it's getting out of the pool and into the sauce to stage Tom Murphy's adaptation of "The Drunkard," a 19th-century American temperance play now uprooted to Ireland.

Linda Murray, the company's artistic director, sees the Fringe as a kind of lab itself. Some people, she says, professed admiration for "La Corbiere," a deeply enigmatic poem-play about prostitutes who drowned in a shipwreck. "And others were like, 'What was that ?' I actually felt great about that. The Fringe is a great opportunity to push the boundaries of what's acceptable. It's a safety zone for companies to go back to the drawing board and say, what do we really think theater is?"

For Lucas Maloney and his partners in the Molotov Theatre Group, Tara Garwood and Alex Zavistovich, the Fringe provides another sort of opportunity -- to tell people who they are.

Never heard of Molotov Theatre? Neither has anyone else. Maloney and his friends have just created the company, with the idea of concentrating on Grand Guignol, a dramatic style emphasizing blood and horror. The troupe exists, at this point, as a Web site and a wish: The company is making its bow at the Fringe with "For Boston," a contemporary play by Maloney and a friend that incorporates the style.

"We have higher aspirations for where we want this to go," he says. And it's Fringe that's letting them dream.

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