Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Three weeks before the opening night of the fifth Capital Fringe Festival, its headquarters retains the faint scent of urine.

“We’re washing the parking lot today,” says Julianne Brienza on a Tuesday morning in mid-June. The festival’s co-founder and executive director gazes out from a third-story window at Fort Fringe, the musty, 21,000-square-foot former Italian restaurant on New York Avenue NW that has served since 2008 as the festival’s full-time headquarters, box office, and main performance campus.

In a few days, the festival will erect the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent in the lot next to Brienza’s office, behind a great stone fountain wherein Neptune sits astride three hippocampi, once again transforming the space for a midsummer month’s time into a stage and beer garden that for a certain class of patron is the hottest bar in town.

But today Brienza has something more earthbound than the Roman god of the sea on her mind: Fort Fringe shares its block with two nightclubs, Lux Lounge and the Eagle, which sometimes send unwanted attention toward the lot. “Guys pee here,” Brienza says. “They pee in front of the building, they pee in front of [neighboring restaurant] Marrakesh. I’ve seen girls pee here sometimes, too.”

For Fringe, though, sweat might be the more emblematic bodily emission than piss—and not just because of the pervasive complaints of busted air-conditioning units in years past. Associations with the outré and amateur aside, what’s actually on offer is work from emerging and midlevel artists of wildly varying quality and subject matter. Like “punk” or “indie,” “fringe” is less a descriptor of content than of method and ethos.

“Everyone’s like, ‘It’s edgy.’ ‘It’s cutting-edge,’” Brienza says. “I hate those phrases. It’s a style of producing. It usually means low-cost and small venues with low production values.” The largest venue this year is Studio Theatre’s 218-capacity Mead Theatre. The festival got a quote from the Shakespeare Theatre Company for use of its 451-seat Lansburgh Theatre but decided the space was too large—for now.

A half-decade in, Fringe is still an incubator of rampant creativity. It’s hosting more shows this year and playing to more people. It’s now a smooth-running and respectful home for performances that don’t have to be either. Like its antecedents in Edinburgh, Philadelphia, and elsewhere, this fringe festival is gradually becoming less so as its cultural footprint continues to grow. It’s earned the admiration and participation of some of the city’s biggest cultural players while also managing to stay in the black.

The festival’s maturation raises a question: Do we want Fringe to grow up? Does a bigger Fringe mean a more commercial one? Or is there a way the festival can grow while preserving its fundamentally humble mandate—to throw shows against a wall and see what sticks?

For now, what sticks are, well, sticky notes, in a paper mosaic of pink and yellow and baby blue and Kermit green that covers three walls of a dingy upstairs room at the Fort. They’re affixed to giant sheets of brown paper with marker-drawn grids of time slots and venues. There are 600 notes on the wall, one for every performance set in a Fringe-administered venue.

For the first time this year, the Fringe staff bought the stickies in the smallest size, saving itself the labor of snipping them down.

There’s DIY, and then there’s just ridiculous.

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Cast your mind back to the distant summer of the Year of Our Lord 2006. The great city of New Orleans lay in ruins. On the strength of his promise of transparent governance, Adrian Fenty was enjoying a 10-point lead in the polls over Linda Cropp. Justin Beiber’s mom wouldn’t begin posting videos of him singing on YouTube for over a year.

And in Mount Vernon Triangle, the site now known as Fort Fringe was still A.V. Ristorante Italiano, a favorite dining spot of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Brienza and her comrades were operating out of the fourth floor of the Thomas Circle Sports Club, five people crammed into a medium-sized office donated by a board member.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

By the spring of 2008, however, Fringe was looking to expand. The festival had rented two buildings from developer Douglas Jemal in 2007, so Brienza paid him a visit. “I said, ‘I need a theater space, a box office, and a parking lot. Can I have all that?’ He said, ‘No way, I really can only have you using one building.’”

But then Jemal remembered the restaurant he’d bought the summer before, from a family that had owned and operated it for 58 years. He’d planned to put up an office building there, but the restaurant remained vacant 10 months after serving its final order.

The electricity wasn’t on when Brienza & Co. did a walk-through. They moved in the next day. Now the festival rents the rechristened Fort Fringe for $5,000 per month, a price that Brienza acknowledges amounts to a favor. The lease expires in 2012, but Jemal can boot Fringe out before then if he wants, as long as he provides 90 days’ notice.

Brienza moved here from Philadelphia in 2003 to work for the Cultural Development Corporation—and almost immediately fell into a depression. Her mother had died recently, and her surroundings weren’t helping. In Philly, she’d been heavily involved in theater, completing a 10-month full-time apprenticeship at that city’s Arden Theatre Company, learning how to run a nonprofit theater, and working for a comedy-focused company called 1812 Productions and the Philly Fringe. She’d belonged.

In D.C. she saw suits. “I found it very hard to meet people here,” she says. “The city felt very insular.” The absence of a democratically minded arts festival—a D.C. Fringe—heightened her culture shock. “I’m from Montana,” she says. “I thought every city had one.”

By the time she received a work-related e-mail from Damian Sinclair, an acquaintance from Philadelphia who was working for the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, she was ready for good news. They met up and talked about Philly, bonding over their disappointment in D.C.’s fringelessness. In 2004, they started to kick around the idea of starting a local Fringe Festival themselves.

One day, somebody—Brienza won’t say who, or even why she won’t say—walked into the Cultural Development Corporation with a pitch for a three-day, free-admission theater festival.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, no!’” she says. “A lot of what the Fringe Festival is supposed to do is cause economic development, because people are getting paid.”

After that, she called Sinclair. The Fringe incorporated and was recognized as a 501c(3) in July 2005. Brienza quit her job. “The first year of Fringe, I made the same salary I made at Cultural Development Corporation,” she says. “We’ve always tried to run a business, not a hobby. It’s not a side project.”

Sinclair left after the 2007 Fringe “to save my marriage,” he says. “Doing these events—running any nonprofit, but this one in particular—is extremely taxing, physically, mentally, emotionally. It just seemed best for me to move on.” He’s now director of arts and events for the Reston Community Center in Virginia.

Does he keep up with the festival?

“Not really,” Sinclair says. “Leaving something you helped found is not an easy thing to do…I hope it’s doing super well. I think it is.”

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The first Fringe happened in 1947, in Scotland. Six decades is plenty of time for apocryphal weeds to crowd the garden of historical narrative, but the basic origin story is this: A group of civic-minded artists established the Edinburgh International Festival as a solidarity-rebuilding party for Europe after the numbing horror of World War II. Eight troupes showed up uninvited to play on the “fringe” of the official grounds. More crashers came every year, and, eventually, imitations began springing up around the world.

Of the unjuried festivals, the Minnesota Fringe and the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe are among the largest, each with more than 150 productions scheduled for this year. This year’s Capital Fringe has 137. It declined—”was unable to accommodate” is Brienza’s preferred phrase—113. It’s a matter of resources, Brienza says—specifically, venues, staff, and time. Besides: “There’s only so much audience out there.”

How much isn’t clear. Patrons bought about 19,000 tickets in 2006; last year, they bought 25,500. Advance sales for the 2010 festival began June 21, and the first-week tally bested last year’s by 16 percent. By last Thursday’s Fringe preview, the festival had sold upwards of 5,500 buttons for 2010—not tickets, buttons, which, at $5 a pop, are required for admission to all shows in addition to a $15 ticket.

While the number of butts in seats continues to grow, the rough taxonomy of who shows up to play seems to have stabilized.

You have the extant area companies who want in on the party (see Washington Shakespeare Company, est. 1990, offering Secret Obscenities). You have your start-ups from earlier Fringes that have managed the evolutionary leap into programming outside of the festival (see Happenstance Theatre and Molotov Theatre Group, offering Handbook for Hosts and The Horrors of Online Dating, respectively.) You have this year’s crop of fledgling companies hoping to get that far.

You have your solo road warriors looking to fill out their itineraries, or to use the festival as a springboard to bigger things. Returning solo performer Ed Hamell won the Herald Angel Award at the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe but is still trying to move his act from rock clubs into theaters. Mark Whitney, returning for his third Capital Fringe, is shooting his run for a planned concert-film release and booking a 25-city tour for next year.

And there are the ones that make Fringe Fringe. The ones skeptics invariably mention: the Hey-you-guys-let’s-put-on-a-show! shows.

“There are a lot of those,” Brienza says.

Performers aren’t vetted for competence or for content. This year’s offerings range from a kiddie production of H.M.S. Pinafore and the original video-game musical Super Claudio Bros. to something called My Christian Penis and the easy to remember but difficult to spell Chlamydia dell’Arte: A Sex-Ed Burlesque.

Meanwhile, the name of the festival itself has begun to travel: Producers from the TV show America’s Got Talent phoned ahead to let festival staff know they’ll be present and on the prowl next week. Fringe’s Wattage offshoot stages three new plays each spring. It’s been a catalyst for new local companies like Happenstance and Molotov, which now perform throughout the year.

More significantly, Capital Fringe has remained solvent through a recession without raising ticket prices or reducing the cut it pays artists. “We are a nonprofit organization in an economically scary time,” says Brienza. “We are totally solvent, but it’s a time when foundation support is kind of hard to get.”

Closer to the ground, artists say that logistical management has improved. They’re finding fewer jacked-up light and sound consoles when they show up to perform, which now frequently happens in spaces suited to their shows—spaces that are now, we are assured, all air-conditioned.

Brienza and Producing Artistic Director Scot McKenzie(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Joy Zinoman, who founded Studio Theater in 1978 and has trained thousands of actors in its conservatory, sees Capital Fringe as a kind of successor to D.C.’s long-running, then-defuct, now-revived Source Festival—a laboratory for new plays and developing talent in the 1980s and ’90s.

“The Source Festival has really been supplanted by the enormity and spirit of the Fringe,” Zinoman says. “Because there’s such a strong need for it—that is, an uncurated, free opportunity for people to make work, run by people who have a lot of passion, and an egalitarian, nonelitist, good, democratic spirit—it’s come back.”

Like the majority of its unjuried brethren, Capital Fringe accepts registrants who can pony participant and insurance fees—which this year total $850—on a first-come, first-served basis, space permitting.

The Festival supplies a venue (or you can find and finance your own, and pay a smaller fee), ticketing, and marketing. Producing artists keep, on average, 70 percent of their ticket gross, though the split varies by venue. (Because theater folk are, you know, a famously nonsuperstitious lot, surely none of them will care that payday is Friday, Aug. 13.) Every act booking its venue through the festival gets five or six dates. Those in larger houses get a smaller cut because they have a higher earning potential.

This means a lot of angling for certain venues. Brienza and her team—producing artistic director Scot McKenzie, associate producer Dan Brick, and production manager Kate Gage—insist they ignore that. They put acts in venues they believe the performers stand a decent chance of filling and that are physically suited to the show.

This, too, is progress, say some artists.

Sabrina Mandell and her husband, Mark Jaster, formed the Happenstance Theatre Company, specializing in whimsical mime and clown pieces, just before the first Capital Fringe. The troupe won Best Comedy in the audience-voted Fringe Awards last year with their Cabaret CooCoo.

Mandell says improved responsiveness of festival organizers to artists’ needs has made more ambitious and sophisticated shows possible, provided performers are still prepared to be flexible. Happenstance’s 2007 Fringe entry was born in a monthlong fit of creative panic after it was given a venue incompatible with the show it had planned.

“We submitted a rider saying we needed a proscenium stage with wings and high ceilings,” Mandell recalls. “They gave us Flashpoint”—a low-clearance box. Happenstance considered bailing but elected instead “to build a new show from scratch,” says Mandell. The result, Low Tide Hotel, tied with another show for Best Comedy in the Fringe Awards.

She and Jaster have exploited the model successfully, restaging all their Fringe entries elsewhere: Prufbox, a mash-up of T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Joseph Cornell’s box sculptures from the 2006 Fringe, just concluded a revival at Round House Theater. Fringe has adapted, too. “Now they really look at the tech riders,” Mandell says.

Of course, the festival still runs on love and elbow grease. Call its office phone and more than likely it’s Brienza who answers. When I point out three panels missing from the ceiling above her desk, she says, “We needed those elsewhere in the building.”

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Of course, not every Fringe can stay fringey. “Look at the New York Fringe, and when it became a commercial thing, when it was taken over by commercial interests trying out musicals to see if they could hit the jackpot,” Zinoman says.

One thing is clear: a bigger, better run Fringe means a more visible one. Hence: America’s Got Talent.

At the same time, the festival’s unjuried approach helps preserve its anything-goes ethos. (Some festivals have gone to a lottery system to admit applicants.) And Capital Fringe has at least one other thing going for it, too: For all its cultural growth, D.C. is still a small arts town. Nobody’s going to road-test a big-budget jukebox musical at Capital Fringe. At least not yet.

This fall, Brienza will convene the festival’s 19-member advisory board—an eclectic group that includes Whitney and Sinclair, monologuist Mike Daisey, the directors of the Minnesota and Orlando Fringe Festivals, Shakespeare Theatre Company honcho Michael Kahn, and the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher, among others—to map out the next three years. She plans to stay at least that long, but the idea is to get the organization to a place where a regime change would be survivable.

She has goals that remain unrealized: she wants more international acts, long a strength of the Philly Fringe, in her festival. But things are generally good. The ink on the balance sheet is black.

And the festival was accepted into the Catalogue of Philanthropy for the first time this year. “We’ve gotten a lot of donations through that,” Brienza says. Capital Fringe earns more than 70 percent of its operating budget, relying on grants and contributions for the rest.“It’s a model I have come to learn, through my journey of doing this, that many people envy, because we’re not reliant on that contributed revenue so much.”

Undoubtedly, Capital Fringe is growing up. It might even be, well, professional. But Zinoman, an observer who knows plenty about starting something and watching it grow, says that growing up doesn’t necessarily mean growing huge.

“It’s not about size,” she says. “It’s about the purpose of it, the mission. If the mission stays pure, then I don’t know if the size matters.”