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Mount Vernon Square lost one of its last bastions of weird this year. Fort Fringe, the shabby but well-loved home of Capital Fringe since 2008, hosted its last go-round of the annual offbeat theater and performance festival in July. The move was a long time coming—property owner Douglas Development has already begun to convert the lot into a shiny new “mega-complex”—and, just in time to build out for next summer’s 10th-anniversary festival, Fringe made the move to Trinidad.
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The new space, at 1358 Florida Ave. NE, holds much promise for the festival, which has aggressively maintained its lo-fi, DIY chops as it gained in size and legitimacy. While Fringe rented the old place for a mere $5,000 a month, it holds the deed to its new home—the former location of the Connersmith contemporary art gallery, whose owners are looking for a new place—which clears the way for custom rebuilds and will prove a smart investment in a neighborhood with fast-rising rents. (Connersmith founder Leigh Conner bought the space, then an auto body shop, for $1.4 million in 2007; Fringe closed at $1.95 million in October.)
At 12,000 square feet, the Trinidad building is a fraction of the size of Fort Fringe, whose 21,000-square-foot campus boasted black box space, an indoor-outdoor stage, offices, and the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent Bar, a sultry open-air hangout with Prosecco on tap and a who’s who of the D.C. performance scene gathered around its picnic tables. But the old space, a former Italian restaurant, had its pitfalls: rats, water leaks, unidentifiable odors, limited climate control, and wood paneling that was both literally and figuratively tacky. Fringe CEO Julianne Brienza frequently acknowledged that the building at 6th Street and New York Avenue NW was falling apart and the festival’s roots were outgrowing their flowerpot. In a morbidly apt symbol of death and rebirth, Fringe bid farewell to the Fort with one final act of participatory, site-specific theater: a series of zombie-hunting expeditions this Halloween.
With gifts from the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the ShareFund, the Nora Robert Foundation, and three Fringe board members (along with more than $13,000 in smaller donations from Indiegogo), Brienza and Fringe COO Peter Korbel have raised $2.18 million to finance the move and renovations, which will begin with the construction of a black box theater on the building’s first floor and a 24-hour rehearsal room on the second. Plans for a set-building workshop, two additional performance spaces, an art gallery, and a food-serving beer garden are in the (tentative) works, too.
Brienza says she intends Fringe’s new homebase to be a venue for year-round performances and events by other like-minded artists and arts organizations, starting as soon as early 2015, in keeping with the festival’s tradition of lending space and support to emerging art-makers. With the H Street Playhouse nearly two years gone, G Fine Art recently decamped from Fringe’s same Florida Avenue block, and Connersmith moving to unknown pastures, it’s a relief to see a scrappy arts group taking over a building some feared would go condo. And a three-week funky and frisky theater takeover just a few blocks from the homogeneity of much of H Street NE will be a delight to behold. It may take a couple of years for the Trinidad space to earn the character of Fort Fringe, with its layers of hidden murals and dank, mysterious corners. But without a doubt, if Brienza and her ilk have their way, it will.