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Brienza

There’s an invaluable, hotly pursued commodity at the Capital Fringe Festival this year, and it isn’t nudity, air conditioning, or a properly carbonated draft beer.

It’s the swing voters, you might say. Civilians. People who appreciate, but do not participate in the making of, theater. Normals.

Besides presenting unconventional or unfinished work that perhaps doesn’t lend itself to a traditional stage presentation (or that simply has “Fuck” in the title), Fringe is supposed to reach atypical audiences, too—people who dont make a habit of seeing theater. Between the inaugural Capital Fringe in 2006 and last year’s edition, attendance grew steadily. Between 2009 and 2010, it fairly exploded: The 33,897 tickets the festival sold last year represented an increase of nearly one-third from 2009’s tally of 25,500.

With this year’s Capital Fringe now two-thirds in the books, the numbers appear to be slightly down. Meanwhile, one thing has gone up: the price of tickets. In March, the festival announced the increase as a necessary response to the increased cost of licensing, equipment, insurance, and staff salaries. Show tickets went from $15 to $17. The perennially divisive Fringe button (required for attending performances) went from $5 to $7.

Some artists are fingering the price hike, the first in the festivals history, for the slump. Gwydion Suilebhan, a D.C.-based playwright who blogs prolifically about theater, fired off a post last week opining that the increase is costing the festival audience. (Suilebhan has presented work at the festival in prior years, but not in 2011.)

Nothing Suilebhan said was new. Gripes about pricing are as endemic to Capital Fringe as gripes about the humidity. The button, especially, has been a contentious topic since its introduction in 2008.

But the litany of digital Amens! in Suilebhan’s comments section—and in debates that spread on Facebook, where one local theater artist even posted Capital Fringe Executive Director Julianne Brienza‘s salary, and among patrons in the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent Bar—indicate the price increase clearly touched a nerve. “We’ve passed a tipping point,” Suilebhan says two days later—as he’s driving to a Fringe show, in fact. “The combination of an increase in price and the economic downturn has resulted in people being unwilling to hold back their feelings anymore.”

It’s unclear if the market will bear the price increase. The drop in ticket sales could be partially attributed to a decrease in programmed shows, but finding more causes get trickier after that. The debate over ticket prices has revealed two things, though: that the Fringe organization’s finances aren’t as healthy as they’ve been in past years, and that as consumers, artists can get pretty prickly.

In fact, most of the complaints seem to be coming from artists—people who are, as one who declined to go on the record told me, “culture-rich but cash-poor.” In other words, they’re folks who will probably show up for Fringe shows, or at least hang out in the festival’s Baldacchino Gypsy Tent bar, even if they think it’s too expensive. To a point.

The overwhelming majority of past and present Fringe artists I know say they’re pleased if they break even on their shows; they’re not complaining they don’t make money. (Artists get back about 70 percent of their gross, but they pay participation and insurance fees that come to $775, plus whatever they spend on sets, props, costumers, actors, etc.) Rather, they’re upset that even with the festival’s artists passes, they can’t afford to see their friends’ shows, and that the buttons make it hard for them to invite their friends from outside theaterworld.

As for the civilians, the people that vote with their feet: It’s tough to argue with Suilebhan’s basic premise that $24 (or $27.75 after the $3.75 “convenience fee” if you book online) is a lot to ask someone to gamble on a show that in many cases will run an hour or less, may be performed in a suffocating room sans air conditioning, and is subject to far less quality control—none, actually—than a show at a comparably priced theater company, like, say, Solas Nua.

Of course, a festival is a different beast than a regional theater company.

Brienza wishes people would understand this.

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The Facebook debate became the cocktail chatter of choice Saturday in the Gypsy Tent. Jessica Lefkow, who is directing a Fringe show and works steadily in D.C. as both director and actor, told me she doesn’t doubt $17 is the price point the festival, as currently conceived, needs to stay viable. But she’s convinced a more accessible model can be found, perhaps by engaging an organization like the New York-based arts nonprofit Fractured Atlas. “This is a challenge for an inventor,” Lefkow says.

Suilebhan thinks someting drastic is in order. “Maybe a corporation should buy the Fringe Festival, like the way the Humana Festival [in Louisville, Ky.] is paid for by Humana,” he says. “The right corporation may not exist in D.C.”

Brienza has never made any bones about the fact that the festival’s pricing is designed to encourage patrons to see more than just one show. That’s the position with which Suilebhan fundamentally disagrees.

“Weve decided to favor theatergoers who are frequent theatergoers, which is a problem endemic to all of the theatrical ecosystem,” well beyond Capital Fringe or Washington, Suilebhan says. “Making theater for people who already like theater is making us more and more secluded, more and more provincial, and disconnecting us from the larger audience of America.”

Sales have dipped this year, but it hasn’t been apocalyptic. Not even close: As of 4 p.m. Sunday, overall ticket sales were down slightly from at the same point last year, falling from 20,134 to 19,093—a drop-off of 5.1 percent. Button sales were down, too, albeit by only 77 buttons, or less than 1 percent from the 9,073 sold by the festival’s second weekend in 2010. Some performers, like Faction of Fool’s Barbara Papendorp, say their shows are playing to smaller houses. But with about a 10 percent overall decrease in shows, the drop in attendance is probably minor. Box Office Manager Cory Ryan Frank, who’s worked for Fringe since its inception, says that while fewer shows are selling out than in years past, fewer are playing to single-digit houses. He estimates the average Fringe crowd this year is about 40 people.

Meanwhile, sales of multi-show passes (offering four, six, or 10 admissions at a reduced per-show freight) grew from 1,158 to 1,411. Those passes make it difficult to handicap audience trends, because pass buyers dont have to allocate all the admissions on their pass at the time of purchase—they can save some or all of their ticket-punches, to bring a friend or catch a show on the fly. Pass redemptions aren’t recorded as admissions until they’re actually redeemed for a ticket to a performance.

And a festival can’t be accessible if it doesn’t exist. Ticket sales cover about 23 percent of the festival budget, Brienza says, a figure that doesnt fluctuate much year to year. She says that nearly everything the festival must pay for, from utilities to lumber to permits issued by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory affairs, costs more than when the festival began. Until now, the festival hasn’t been passing those costs on to consumers.

In an interview at her office Sunday evening also attended by box office manager Frank, Brienza was visibly wearied both by the manner in which the conversation had started (online, without any outreach to her staff) and by its timing (right in the middle of festival, when, she says, the focus should be on the art). “Everyone is saying they want to have a discussion, but no one is talking to anybody here,” Brienza says.

Everyone I spoke to felt compelled to point out that they were not attacking Brienza personally. “She deserves a medal for having contributed to the artistic diversity of Washington, D.C.,” Suilebhan says. “The festival is not going anywhere. It’s not going to die.”

That’s the paradox: The price of Fringe shows is undoubtably steep, but the festival’s critics also take its sustainability for granted. When Brienza moved here from Philadelphia in 2003, there was no Fringe festival and nothing very close. Working with collaborators like Damian Sinclar and Scot McKenzie, she built Capital Fringe from nothing. Now it’s a quintessential part of cultural life in the District. After Independence Day, it’s Fringe time.

But it could still fall apart. Since 2009, the Festival has run a deficit that’ll amount to about $86,000 this year, almost a tenth of its $900,000 budget. The organization hired its first full-time business manager in March and has a plan to get into the black by the end of 2012. Among other cost-saving measures, Brienza and the festivals two other full-time employees took a 10 percent pay cut this year. Brienza’s 2011 compensation will be about $63,000.

Most of the artists complaining know none of this, says Brienza. “How can you have a discussion when you don’t have the information?” she asks. “It’s just unfounded. That’s what’s exhausting about it.”

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I interviewed patrons exiting Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. performance of Gallantry, an opera I chose because it is, to the best of my knowledge, the shortest show of the 124 on the roster. Its run time is listed as 45 minutes, but a Washington City Paper critic clocked it at 27. (She also noted the show features soprano Emily Casey dressed in a sexy nurse costume with stockings and garter belts—surely a perceived value-add for some patrons.)

Mindy Raithel of Bethesda had no complaints about the brevity (possibly an opera first). She was splitting a four-ticket pass with her friend Cindy Petit, of Howard Country. Raithel and her husband had shared a six-ticket pass the prior weekend. “I think the pricing is fair,” Raithel said. “I’m willing to take a chance to support the arts.”

The couple I grabbed coming out of Meagan & Davids Original Low-Cost Creativity Workshop a couple hours later might represent the festival’s targets of opportunity. Max Fischlowitz-Roberts and Alli Gold had each paid $24 for a single ticket plus a button. Their motivation was the same as a lot of attendees: friendship with the performers.

Their $7 Fringe buttons glinted in the early-evening sunlight. Would the couple be sticking around, or perhaps returning, to take in another show? “I dont know,” said Gold. “We haven’t really looked at the schedule.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery