‘Manifesto!’ is a Fringe show from the Happenstance Theatre

A brief history: The concept of fringe festivals spread to the U.S. from Edinburgh, Scotland, where performers who were shut out of the 1947 Edinburgh International Festival staged their own performances nearby.  As more performers joined their impromptu festival, the Fringe became an organized force, and Edinburgh's remains the largest performing arts festival in the world, with more than 2,000 shows last year. Fringe came to D.C. in 2006, created by Julianne Brienza, formerly of the Cultural Development Corporation.

Who: More than 2,000 artists from D.C. and around the country. Some of them are established performers, like the members of the Washington Shakespeare Company, and the No Rules Theatre Company, both darlings of the Helen Hayes Awards. Others include solo comedy acts that tour the Fringe circuits around the country each summer. Still others are emerging playwrights and actors who are just getting their feet wet. Local musicians are in on the Fringe too, with bands playing at the festival's headquarters each night.

What: Performances of all types: Magic, comedy, Shakespeare, clowning, dance, performance art, puppetry, drag, and even martial arts displays. Because the Fringe is not a juried festival, part of the fun is the grab-bag element of unpredictability. Shows can fail or succeed in spectacular ways. Performances are often low-budget, with scrappy sets and lighting, and improvisation is key. One thing you can always count on at a Fringe show is originality.

Where: All across D.C. This year, there are 19 venues, ranging from the large (Woolly Mammoth, Studio Theatre), to the small (a black-box space in the 1409 Playbill Cafe). The nerve center of the festival is Fort Fringe, a collection of buildings with a big-top circus tent at 607 New York Ave., N.W. Many performances take place in a few adjacent buildings with names like "Bedroom" and "Redrum." But it's important to note: These are rough spaces with folding chairs and no air conditioning. It's helpful to bring a bottle of water.

When: Through July 24. Theaters are dark on Mondays, but the rest of the week, you have several dozen shows to choose from on any given night. If you're hoping to make it to multiple shows, note their locations — with some shows as far away from Fort Fringe as the Capital Hill Arts Workshop, it's important to leave ample time to arrive. Because Fringe venues are so small, there is no late seating.

Why: To give emerging artists a chance to produce new work, and established companies a chance to leave their comfort zones. To give voice to projects that might never make it to a mainstream venue. To stimulate the arts economy (all artists are paid for their work in the festival). To shake up the entertainment offerings of summer's dog days.

How: Check out the full listing of Fringe shows on the Going Out Guide, and read our critics' reviews and Fringe news here on Arts Post, every day. To get you started, the Going Out Guide has a few must-see picks. You can buy tickets for Fringe shows on the festival's web site. Each show is $17 after a one-time purchase of a $7 Fringe button, which helps defray the costs of the festival. The button also entitles you to discounts at local restaurants and businesses. And on Twitter, you can keep up with Fringe news by following the hashtag #CAPFringe2011.