At the close of last year’s Capital Fringe festival, Executive Director Julianne Brienza was saying what had always seemed inevitable: Fringe’s time in Mount Vernon Square was running out. At the time, the scrappy, massive theater festival was operating under the assumption that 2013 would be its last summer in its ramshackle campus at 6th Street and New York Avenue NW—-land that is owned by Douglas Development Corporation, which has big plans for the block.
Last night, at a “State of the Fringe” meeting in the festival’s Shop venue, Brienza and Fringe board members were less sure about their drop-dead move-out date. (Although Douglas is still planning to build its Square 450 project on the site to the immediate west of Fringe, it won’t be with the anchor tenant it originally banked on, LivingSocial.) Nevertheless, real estate is on their minds—-as is its impact on the future of Fringe.
Brienza said she’d like to see Fringe relocate to NoMa or the abutting area near Union Market—-or, less realistically, remain downtown. “We cannot be away from the city,” she said. Whether the future of Fringe means buying a new complex, renting one, or operating the festival’s business out of a small office while using temporary spaces for performances is dependent on the real estate market, as well as Fringe’s vision for its future. The festival currently pays a minuscule $5,000 a month for 22,000 square feet; a new space, especially a purchased one, would be a significant investment for the eight-year-old nonprofit.
During a discussion following presentations by Brienza and the Fringe board, Jeffrey Herrmann, the managing director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, cautioned Fringe to be “very, very careful” before purchasing a space, citing the challenge of balancing the fixed costs of a building with an organization’s mission and flexibility. Steve McWilliams of the troupe Dizzy Miss Lizzy’s Roadside Revue pointed to the examples of Woolly Mammoth and Signature Theatre, which graduated from rough-around-the-edges homes to shiny, impressive-looking venues—-changes, in McWilliams’ estimation, that cost both companies their DIY feels. “They lost that thing,” McWilliams said. “Don’t lose that vibe.”
Brienza said not to worry. Even if Fringe buys a building, “I don’t want a new space,” she said. “That’s not our scene.”
The gathering—-attended by Fringe supporters and performers, theater professionals, and a few other notables, like Ward 6 Councilmember/mayoral candidate Tommy Wells and Filmfest DC Director Tony Gittens—-offered an unusual look into an arts organization’s books. Judging by the numbers that Brienza presented, the state of Capital Fringe is strong: In 2012, the main summer festival included more than 130 shows and made—-thanks to ticket, bar, and button sales, plus participation fees and contributed income—-$776,958. After three years in the red, it posted a $60,945 surplus. It paid more than $200,000 back to its artists. And it did all this with only 26 percent of its revenue coming from contributed income: $197,000 in 2012, of which only around $40,000 came from individual donors. (The rest came from corporations, foundations, and the D.C. government.)
One suggestion that came out of the discussion: Why not hire a full-time development director? Currently, Fringe only has three year-round employees: Brienza, a director of finance and administration, and an artist services manager. The rest of the work is done by contractors, including a development consultant, and volunteers. The small amount of individual giving isn’t a weakness but an opportunity for growth, one participant offered.
Certainly, Fringe has already come a long way. During the first year, Brienza said, she sent unsigned checks to vendors in order to delay payments; now the organization is financially healthy and often helps fledgling theater troupes get their own organizational houses in order. Still, if Fringe has become downright professional, its current home has all the trappings of a DIY undertaking, like cheap rent, leaky buildings, and the occasional rodent. “We’re basically squatting here,” Brienza said.
A document handed out to participants laid out a few scenarios for the future home of Fringe: 1) a Fringe-owned performance complex that might cost $3 to $5 million; 2) a rented one that would cost $300,000 to $500,000 a year; or the rental of two or three venues that could vary from year to year. Already Fringe rents and adapts performance spaces in the Mount Vernon area in addition to its operations at 6th Street and New York Avenue NW—-an approach that is true to the spirit of Fringe, Brienza said, but also a consistent logistical hassle.
The conversation frequently returned to benefits and drawbacks of owning a space. A permanent home for Fringe would offer stability, certainly; but even a building handpicked to fit an organization’s mission can eventually restrict it. Or, as Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks put it in a prematurely fired tweet from the event: “It’s tough.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery