Capital Fringe Festival Fanatic Mike Riley Watched 47 Shows in 2008

Mike Riley took in 47 shows in 2008.
Mike Riley took in 47 shows in 2008. (Family Photo)
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By Jonathan Padget
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 3, 2009

If it takes military precision to conquer the Capital Fringe Festival and claim the title "Fringe Fanatic," then Mike Riley is the man for the job.

Last July, the 13-year Navy reservist (with a dozen years on active duty before that) was working at the Pentagon when it came time for Washington's massive annual celebration of alternative performing arts -- roughly 120 events packed into little more than two weeks. (This year's event gets underway Thursday and runs through July 26.)

Riley, 48, dabbled in his college theater scene in Oregon, but he had never been to a fringe festival. Yet when he considered the Capital Fringe roster -- filled with such titles as "The Naked Party," "Sex, Love & Vomit" and "Wiener Sausage: The Musical!" -- he responded thusly: "I want to see that, that, that and that. . . . "

One $300 all-access pass and 47 shows later, a Fanatic was born.

"There have been many shows I have enjoyed so much I have recommended them to others," Riley wrote in his Fringe Fanatic contest essay that earned him a moment in the spotlight at the festival's closing party. "Some have touched my heart, one I saw twice, and a very few I wish I hadn't seen but enjoyed them anyway because that is Fringe."

But doesn't one run the risk of going from Fringed to Frayed with that much festival-going?

"No, not at all," Riley says. "It was always exciting. It was so energizing."

Still, he does allow that there are logistical challenges a Fanatic must take into account.

Like eating.

There were days when Riley saw as many as eight shows and could barely eke out 15 minutes for lunch. But "you've got to go with a mind-set that you're going to be doing plays," he says. In other words, Fringe comes first; food will come eventually.

"Really plot it out on a spreadsheet," Riley advises those considering gorging themselves on the cultural buffet during this year's festival. You have to be aware of your options, he says, in case you encounter sold-out performances or unforeseen schedule gaps.

Of course, not everyone is cut out to be a Fanatic. If you're up for only a show or two, Riley recommends two criteria: "Look for something that tugs on your heartstrings" (for him, that was the Iraq war-themed "A Report of Gunfire," which turned out to be his favorite show) and "look for other things you would never consider seeing."

But if there is a Fringe Fanatic inside of you yearning to break out? Go to the Fringe box office by 11 p.m. July 25 to submit your essay and list of shows attended, then show up for the closing party July 26 to see who the next Fanatic will be.

And know that the reigning champ is taking it a little easier this time around.

Riley, who moved recently to the Norfolk area for a civil service job as a health physicist, is coming back to town for Fringe, although he expects to have time for only 20 shows or so. As for the Fringe Fanatic title, he's happy to step aside:

"Let someone else have it this year."

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