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Last year, Trey Graham offered this insightful epistle regarding a definition of Fringe. We’ve updated a bit and offer it again, for those in need of definitions.
The concept of Fringe celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. That phenomenon got its start, everybody acknowledges, when a bunch of surly theaterfolk (as if there’s another kind) crashed the 1947 Edinburgh International Festival, a reportedly stuffy affair to which none of them had been invited.
Knowing the place would be crawling with theatergoers, the eight malcontents (six Scottish theater companies, two English) booked venues—unlikely spaces, mostly—near the official festival locales, and set about producing a kind of rough-and-ready art. Naturally, it rapidly outstripped the main festival in terms of buzz and attendance—by 2005, the Edinburgh Fringe was selling more than 1.3 million tickets a year, and dozens of daughter Fringes had cropped up around the world.
I know what you’re thinking: Effin’ D.C., always last at the party. And you’d be partly right. In fact the founders of Capital Fringe, Julianne Brienza and Damian Sinclair, are recent transplants—from Philadelphia, which has been Fringing for nearly a decade now.
Then again, New York—which ain’t exactly short on underemployed artists or potential festival donors—didn’t get into the act until 1996. And although the regrettable truth is that Kansas City and Des Moines are ahead of D.C. on the Fringe curve, we do at least appear to have beat Omaha to the punch. So all things considered…
D.C.’s baby Fringe, like most, is an unjuried affair—meaning nobody’s evaluated the work that’s about to be playing in church chapels and former synagogues and art galleries and embassies downtown. You pays your $400 venue fee (plus a cut of the box office), and you’re in. Your mom could Fringe, and you couldn’t do a thing about it.
Again, though, that’s a norm (though not an absolute universal) at Fringes, and yet remarkable things happen in the hothouse they create:
* The off-Broadway smash Urinetown got its start at the ’99 New York festival (one of the juried ones, incidentally).
* Dog Sees God, the Peanuts parody, broke out at the ’04 New York fest and likewise went on to an off-Broadway run.
*The Tony-winning Broadway hit The Drowsy Chaperone launched itself at the 1999 Toronto Fringe.
The list of Fringe-born successes goes waaay back: The Reduced Shakespeare Company made its name at the 1987 Edinburgh Fringe with the 97-minute Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) — which went on to run for 9 years (9 years!) in London’s West End.
And before he drooled over Bo Derek on the big screen, Dudley Moore was a Fringe-born phenomenon along with actor-playwright Alan Bennett and director Jonathan Miller. (Their Beyond the Fringe, a hit revue launched at Edinburgh in 1960, eventually played Broadway and the West End.)
The upshot? Fringe can be an uneven experience, but it’s all about the ferment. In that respect, Capital Fringe is a kind of heir to the much-lamented Washington Theatre Festival, once run by the moribund Source Theatre; swarms of notable D.C. writers and actors got started there.
In that way, come to think of it, maybe D.C. isn’t a total newbie to the fringe phenomenon. Capital Fringe looks to be better organized and waaaay better funded than the Source festival ever was. But in a way it’s a second-generation thing — and these days the Washington arts scene may be healthy enough to capitalize on the energy the festival generates.
One thing’s for sure: As with the Source fest, D.C.’s arts scene is bound to pick up a little glitter from the tail of the Fringe comet. And, with any luck, CP will still be here blogging the 10th-anniversary Fringe.