A Performing Arts Festival That's Always On Edge

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By Marc Fisher
Sunday, July 6, 2008

As the clock ticked toward an unforgiving deadline, Julianne Brienza and the crew of the Capital Fringe Festival experienced in a single morning last week the perils and pleasures of creating cutting-edge art here in the world capital of stodgy. They obtained a credit card, killed a rat, built a stage, painted an awning and tried to hack a path through one of the planet's most impenetrable bureaucracies.

That last bit looked like it would be the hardest job. Nobody beats the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, not even Brienza, a dynamo who started the festival of theater, music, dance and other performance in 2006, basically by walking around town, commandeering tiny theaters and then inviting any and all to come mount a show.

But first, the triumphs of the morning: Brienza virtually skipped into her office as she returned from the bank, where, after months of trying, she had persuaded a manager to approve a credit card for the festival.

Finally, three years into the venture, with 120 shows to be performed in 20 venues over 18 days, she would not have to carry the entire finances of the operation on her personal credit and ATM cards.

"I got the card!" Brienza announced to the rest of the staff. "This is big-time. This legitimizes us. It has a $30,000 limit."

By definition, the Fringe is out there. Struggling without corporate support or high-end donors, a fringe festival is a gathering of performers for whose quality no one vouches. The festival staff does not vet the plays, solo performances and other acts that will be presented Thursday through July 27 in a tent, warehouse, church, bar and a slew of theaters grand and obscure.

Washington's festival isn't even a tenth the size of the mother Fringe of them all, in Edinburgh, Scotland. But it's quickly becoming both a worthy competitor of similar events in New York and other U.S. cities and a real downtown crowd magnet during otherwise quiet July.

"It's a lot bigger than I ever thought it would be," Brienza says. "It's really a business now. The first year, we just did it. Now we have a cash flow report, a development staff, an executive committee."

Still, it's the Fringe. The office, in the former A.V. Ristorante, a Washington landmark at 607 New York Ave. NW, used to be a bar. The theater was once a storage room for the A.V.'s famous pizza ingredients. And the parking lot is being transformed into an outdoor stage -- if the D.C. government deigns to grant a permit.

Which is what brings Brienza to the District's bureaucratic labyrinth on North Capitol Street for the tenth time in two weeks. To win a permit to hold performances under a tent on the A.V. parking lot, she needs signatures from the city's food services, police, corporations, tax, emergency medical, health and safety, special events and fire departments. Having shuffled endlessly from office to office, she is finally down to one last approval, from the fire inspector.

Inside the Permit Service Center, Brienza waits 40 minutes until the fire guy shows up. The last time Brienza was here, he told her to take her plans back and change the word "Exit" to "Exit Sign." Now, faced with redrawn plans, the inspector focuses on the fact that the tent includes a stage curtain.

No document certifies that the curtain is fireproof, the city's man says. "It has to be verifiable," he says. "Then you can rock-and-roll."

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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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