We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Julianne Brienza had lived in D.C. for only a few weeks when somebody mugged her at knifepoint as she was walking home from Union Station.
She didn’t know where to go. The guy had taken her ID and keys. Her landlord was away. Her new colleagues at the Cultural Development Corporation were the only people she knew in town, and she didn’t want to call them at 11 p.m. on a Friday to ask if she could come over. She spent most of the night riding in the back of a police cruiser, talking with the cops who had taken her complaint. Brienza pressed charges and even testified against her mugger. He was acquitted.
She had already been feeling depressed. It was the winter of 2004. Her 29th birthday was a few months off and she was, for the first time in her life, working a boring nine-to-five. She’d grown up a town of 4,000 (Dillon, Mont.), and graduated from a college smaller than that (Viterbo University in Lacrosse, Wis.). In Philadelphia, she’d completed the Arden Theatre Company’s intensive, year-long apprentice program, then spent a couple years working for the all-comedy theater company 1812 Productions and for Fringe Arts, the outfit that has put on the Philadelphia Fringe Festival annually since 1996.
In downtown D.C., everyone she passed on the sidewalk looked like a lawyer or a lobbyist to her. She had no idea where to find people among whom she would feel at home. Maybe at the District’s fringe festival that summer.
“I thought every city had one,” Brienza says.
But it would take more than two years for the first Capital Fringe Festival to open. And she would have to start it herself.
On July 9, the House That Julianne Built turns ten. That’s the opening night of the 10th Capital Fringe Festival—the unjuried, DIY, no-subjects-barred theater, music, and dance bacchanal that for a certain risk-and-discomfort-tolerant strain of playgoer has become as synonymous with July in our nation’s capital as back sweat and tourists. If titles like Ambien Date Night, Girl With Two Belly Buttons, and Shit Stories make you ask, “Why in Hell?” instead of “Why Not?”, then you are likely not part of this crowd. (Sadly, Tinderella and something called Apocalypse Meow have already canceled their engagements.)
What Fringe does is put a sales-and-marketing machine, an often-rudimentary stage, and potentially an audience within reach of anyone who can scrape together $850 ($575 to register, plus $275 for insurance) and then muster the wherewithal to put on a show.
Brienza didn’t start it all herself, of course. Damian Sinclair co-founded Capital Fringe with her in 2005, and served as its executive director through 2007. Scot McKenzie was a founding member of the team, too; he held several posts before departing at the end of 2011. Brienza hired Program Manager Alex Engel, a veteran of the 68-year-old Magna Carta of Fringe festivals, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, in 2013. Peter Korbel—a George Washington University MBA who co-founded the Fojol Bros. food-truck operation—signed on as chief operating officer only 18 months ago, but he and Brienza appeared to gel into a single, two-headed organism almost immediately.
But since the beginning, Capital Fringe’s face and voice have been Brienza’s, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. The first time I wrote about Fringe, in 2010, she told me she had a three-year plan to make it self-sufficient so she could go do something else. Last year, she signed a contract—her first—to stay on as executive director through at least 2019. In the past she expressed discomfort that the organization she created is often conflated with her as a person. As fundraising has become an ever-larger part of her duties, she’s made her peace with it.
“I need to make sure people who give us money really understand where we’re coming from,” she says. “I need to make them understand that [work performed in the festival] won’t always be palatable to them.”
The occasion of the festival’s 10th is more than just an anniversary. This year’s Fringe is the first in the nonprofit arts organization’s permanent new home—a two-story auto-body shop-cum-art gallery at 1358 Florida Ave. NE that it bought for an eyebrow-raising $4.5 million last year and has dubbed the Logan Fringe Arts Space. Brienza and Korbel have ambitious plans to expand the venue. She wants to soundproof the two performance spaces in the building so they can be used simultaneously. She wants the year-round bar to become a year-round cafe. She wants an on-site scene shop: “Even people from the neighborhood could use it,” for their own construction projects, she says.
Most ambitious of all, she wants to build three additional floors on top of the Logan venue to be used as permanent housing for working artists—not just ones who are in their twenties and single, but people with families.
“When I moved to D.C., I made $26,000 per year, and my rent was $900 a month,” she says. “We need to make it possible for artists to live here.”
For now, she’s just glad her office is in a building not shared with rats.
“I would be terrified” to buy a building, says Jeff Larson, executive director of Minnesota Fringe, the only unjuried U.S. fringe festival larger than D.C.’s. (It features about 175 shows this year, to CapFringe’s 129.) “It’s so ambitious.”
But Brienza’s worries about the new locale aren’t about attendance. “I’m more concerned that we’re doing the festival in a residential neighborhood,” she says. “That involves respecting our neighbors. People can’t be outside yelling at 2 a.m. on a Wednesday, even though it’s totally zoned as commercial.”
“I think we’ll bring some people over from our old space who are into the Fringe and who are loyal,” Korbel says. “We could lose a few. But the big wildcard is that we’re in this new neighborhood… There’s a big marketing effort on our part to reach out to this community.”
One of her best customers says he doesn’t think the new location will depress attendance, either.
“People were afraid to go to New York Avenue in 2008,” says David Kessler, a self-described “Fringe fanatic” who says he saw 62 shows in the 2014 festival. “I think it’s going to be hunky dory.”
Kessler will make the leap from patron to performer this year: His show Wombat Drool draws upon his 39 years as a keeper at the National Zoo, a job he retired from in 2014. “The character I’m playing isn’t me,” he says. “But the animal facts in the story are true.”
Kessler is emblematic of what Capital Fringe Board Chair Gerry Widdicombe says is still the festival’s top priority. “They find, nurture, and grow the artists,” Widdicombe says. “There’s the creative side, but there’s a whole business side, too.”
The festival says it pays producing artists 60 percent of their ticket gross—on average. Brienza says what cut each of them gets varies according to the number of seats in their venue, how much Fringe had to pay to rent it, and the number of performances they get, which for most shows is five or six. Find-your-own venue producers earn 81 percent of the net revenue for tickets sold through Fringe, but have the option to sell up to 50 percent of the tickets outside of Fringe’s box office operation. They can perform as many shows as they want.
Assessing profitability is difficult, because what artists spend on their shows varies wildly. I estimate that I’ve seen a cumulative 125 to 150 Fringe productions since the 2007 festival; while their overall level of polish and professionalism has ticked up notably since 2011 or 2012, production values, including performance acumen, still run the gamut from “grade-school play” to something indistinguishable from a professional theater company. (And of course, a number of professional companies produce shows for Fringe.)
For the most part, shows that manage to fill most of their available seats make their money back; some even turn a modest profit. That artists and administrators get paid for their work has always been part of the idea. This year, for the first time, a fourth week will feature additional performances of shows for which demand exists and the artists remain available. Ninety-seven companies or individuals presented work in the first Capital Fringe, in 2006. This year, that number is 129, though, “It will never be bigger than 200 shows,” says Brienza.
Brienza estimates that half the producing artists and companies in the 2015 lineup are new to Capital Fringe. Specifically, she says, about half (48 percent) are from D.C., a third (32.4 percent) are from Maryland or Virginia, 17.6 percent are from other parts of the U.S., and 1.6 percent are from other countries.
There’s a long list of companies that debuted in the festival and have gone on to produce work outside of it: Pinky Swear Productions. Pointless Theatre Co. Faction of Fools. Factory 449. Happenstance Theater, which did shows in the first five Capital Fringes, then skipped a few, and is returning this year.
Some of these established companies have outgrown the old digs. “We got tired of the 15-minute load times,” says Happenstance Co-Artistic Director Mark Jaster, referring to the inconvenience of having to share Fringe venues with other producers. This year, the company is staging an elaborate circus called IMPOSSIBLE! at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre, then bringing a more modest production, called Brouhaha, to Fringe. “It’s about clowns at the end of the world,” says Sabrina Mandell, Jaster’s co-artistic director and spouse. “So, you know: Fringe-y.”
While Capital Fringe has yet to produce a breakout hit like Urinetown, which premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2001, producing breakout companies seems more valuable. The New York Fringe uses a juried admission process. Brienza says that while she’s interested in hiring curators to enhance the music and visual art offerings that the Logan space will host outside of the summer festival, she wants the festival itself to remain open to anyone committed and organized enough to hit a few application deadlines and pony up the fee. “D.C. is not like other cities in the United States,” she notes. “There’s so much highbrow stuff that’s heavily curated, because of all the federal institutions.”
“The core of the festival will always be to serve that independent artist who wants to try something,” she says. “I don’t want some panel of experts going through applications going, ‘Oh, I loooove puppetry.”
Brienza and Korbel have pencilled “Phase 2” of their new building’s renovation on the calendar for Sept. 2017, after the 12th Capital Fringe has wrapped. Widdicombe says the improvements they have in mind will take another $1 to $3 million in funding: “There are Chevrolet, BMW, and Maserati versions” of the expansion, he says. How much Brienza can raise will determine what she can do. “Julianne has done an amazing job on fundraising, both capital and operative,” he says.
But when I ask Brienza about this, she says she isn’t interested in the Chevrolet or BMW versions. “We’re not gonna downplay it,” she says. “Artist housing is what we’re going to do. Someone can fund that.”
Widdicombe, who has been on the board for three and a half years, says the festival’s finances are healthy. “Our debt is good debt,” Korbel says. “It’s real estate debt. People are starting to realize now that Trinidad is hot.”
Widdicombe says that two years from now, the festival will plan to have paid the debt on its $4.5 million building down to a prudent $1.2 million. Korbel tells me they’re seeking a $2.2 million bank loan to replace the seller-financing they got when they bought the building from Leigh Conner and Jamie Smith, which will bring their monthly mortgage payment down and free up funds for other things Brienza and Korbel want to do, such as expanding Capital Fringe’s permanent, full-time staff.
Other objectives, like wanting to attract more international performers to the festival, will have to wait until they’ve brought on more full-time help. Fringe hires more than 40 additional temporary staffers during the festival; some of them, like Communications Associate Ebony Dumas and Bar Manager Matty Griffiths, have returned each summer for years.
Not bad for an organization that four years ago was running a deficit of $86,000, equal to almost 10 percent of its operating budget at the time, and was operating out of dilapidated, rat-infested building that it could be kicked out of with only 90 days’ notice. Among other measures taken to help right the fiscal ship: Brienza says she and two employees took a 10-percent pay cut. That was then.
This year, the festival’s operating budget will be about $1.2 million, according to Widdicombe. Fringe has always relied more on earned and less on contributed revenue than traditional arts organizations, bringing in more than 70 percent of its budget through participation fees from artists, ticket sales, and food and beverage sales. The “contributed” slice of the pie will grow as the organization continues to mature. (Washington City Paper, for example, is a sustaining sponsor of Capital Fringe.)
Ticket sales are a bigger unknown.
Korbel says they’d “like to sell 40,000” individual tickets this year, though they’re not betting the farm on it. That target would represent a 27 percent uptick from 2014’s ticket-tally of 31,395, which would seem awfully ambitious if the festival hadn’t beaten it at least once before. Between the 2009 and 2010 festivals, single-ticket sales grew by almost one-third. The fifth Capital Fringe had 137 shows on the roster that year; since then, it has slightly, but deliberately, scaled back: 129 acts are set to appear. And even if single-ticket sales fall short of 40,000, beating the previous record of 33,897 tickets sold in 2010, seems plausible.
Korbel says Brienza quickly scuttled the notion of a price hike. The only time Capital Fringe has raised ticket prices was in 2011, when tickets jumped from $15 to $17, and buttons increased from $5 to $7. Pandemonium ensued, with one indignant observer going so far as to post Brienza’s salary—a not-particularly-extravagant $63,000 per year at the time—on Facebook.
From 2008 through the 2014 summer festival, Fringe’s headquarters, box office, and four of its performance venues were housed within the crumbling, six-decade-old former Italian restaurant at 607 New York Ave. NW dubbed “Fort Fringe.” Capital Fringe leased the building on a scheduled-for-redevelopment block for a thrifty $5,000 per month, a rate that reflected the beneficence of their landlord, real estate developer Douglas Jemal.
It was a dilapidated husk of a building that never had enough bathrooms—just two for all attendees. But it was also perfect: In 2008, when the festival moved in, Brienza was able to set up the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent Bar in an adjacent parking lot. The addition of a place where patrons and artists could, and actually did, mingle over draft beer (or in later iterations, Prosecco) and half-smokes, all within an easy walk of a half-dozen of the sites where Fringe productions were taking place, was the masterstroke that helped engender a sense of community that felt unique to Fringe.
That continues to grow. The Logan venue’s bar is open year-round. Brienza, meanwhile, wants the festival to spread geographically as well as formally. She sees the music programming as critical — she pushed to have language about music inserted into the charter of the United States Association of Fringe Festivals. A Late Night Cabaret will present bills of bands every Wednesday through Sunday night at the Logan venue during the festival.
Despite the address change, there’s continuity with prior festivals. The Atlas Performing Arts Center, home to two Fringe venues this year, is only a block south of the Logan Fringe Arts Space, and it’s been used in several prior Fringes. Still, the Logan space is, by any measure, far less public-transit accessible than the crumbling former space. From that space, three Metro stops serving five lines were within a 10-minute walk. Their new digs are 1.2 miles from the nearest station, NoMa-Gallaudet, which serves only the benighted Red Line. (Nine bus lines go there, to be fair.) The H Street-Benning streetcar line, which will stop one block away from the venue, is still not carrying passengers. Because Trinidad is more residential than their old ’hood, Fringe actively discourages attendees from driving, and urges them to carpool if they do.
It’s not as though people aren’t used to getting themselves to that corner of the city—the nearby Rock & Roll Hotel has been operating since 2006, and many other nightlife destinations have followed in its wake. And a Fringe shuttle will ferry at 45-minute intervals anyone wearing their $7 fringe button among three different sites, each surrounded by a cluster of festival venues: the Brookland-CUA Red Line stop (five venues), Gallaudet University (two venues on campus), and the Logan Fringe Arts Space, from which eight venues are easily walkable. Brienza says she wants to post a YouTube video poking fun at the idea that Trinidad is hard to get to from elsewhere in the city.
On the mid-June day I visit, she’s anxious about Dance of the Cranes, a performance that’s still a month in the future: It seems 1,400 punters have indicated on Facebook they’ll be attending, a bigger number than expected. (As of press time, more than 3,800 have RSVP’d on Facebook.) For the performance, the Canadian artist Brandon Vickerd is going to make two construction cranes dance, for an hour, to ambient music. He’s going to remount the performance in Brooklyn through the arts organization Franklin Furnace. The festival is suggesting Milian Park at 499 Massachusetts Ave. NW, as an ideal place from which to see it.
“We’re going to set up event fencing. We’re going to cover the park in blankets,” she says. It sounds like something the environmental artist duo Christo and Jeanne Claude would’ve done—or rather something they did do, erecting 7,500 brightly-colored fabric “Gates” in Central Park for two weeks in 2005. Brienza seems pleased by the association when I mention it: Site-specific work, and public art, are both things she’s been trying to get into the festival in a more substantial way for years.
“I find it a very practical way for thousands of people to get exposed to art,” she says. “Lots of schools don’t have art classes any more. But this makes people curious, when they see a large public art thing.”
This serves two Brienzian priorities: getting Fringe into other parts of D.C. geographically, and expanding its content into other disciplines.
“It can’t just be people in theaters watching theater shows,” she says.
Widdicombe says that cultivating an arts audience beyond the one already captured by extant, well-funded institutions is a part of “city-building.” But that’s a city for independent artists, too. Widdicombe formerly sat on the board of directors for Woolly Mammoth, the most adventurous theater company in D.C. He left, he told me, because it was “too establishment.”
“I like to say, ‘Stretch your right hand out, you get the Kennedy Center,’” he says. “‘Stretch your left hand out, you get the Fringe.’”
Editor’s note: Washington City Paper is Capital Fringe’s media partner. In exchange for reduced ad rates online and in the newspaper, the business department of this paper receives free passes and inclusion in Fringe promotional materials. This site also hosts audience award voting. The editorial department receives nothing from Capital Fringe, and business-side employees do not see content prior to publication.