Hunter talks with Capital Fringe co-founder and Executive Director, Julianne Brienza
The Capital Fringe Festival is a marathon of organized chaos, made up of hundreds of artists working hard and playing hard every day in July. But some days are quieter, with a little time to kick back and appreciate the scene.
This past Tuesday is one of those days. I stop by Fort Fringe in the early evening and find Executive Director Julianne Brienza at the Tent, chatting with friends. There are 31 shows that day – the catchy hip-hop soundtrack to the show Jilly Manilly is blasting from inside the Tent – but the scene feels subdued compared to many other busy nights here at headquarters.
Julianne and I sit at a table on the outdoor deck and catch up.
“I’m kind of blown away,” she says. “The festival grows every year in different ways, but it’s been especially crazy. Did you know that on opening weekend this year, we sold fifty percent of the total number of tickets sold to last year’s festival?”
She gazes out the main entrance to the lot and studies the neighborhood. It’s sunny, but the heat has dropped somewhat, cut by a cool breeze.
There are 130 shows in the festival this year, compared to a similar 124 last year. Such robust sales, then, aren’t a result of expansion. Patrons are excited, and they know to buy early.
“Also, half of the participants in the festival are new, and many of them are new to DC. That really gave us a leg up this year,” she says. “We have all of our networks that we’ve been building since the beginning, and we’re also bringing in this whole new energy.”
A lot of people have been telling Julianne that the quality of the shows this year seems higher than ever. She smiles and shrugs. She has no control over that. But the Fringe staff has been doing more to prepare artists, and to get them acquainted with one other. For one thing, they re-introduced mandatory group meetings with artists before the festival to go over the grand scheme. Meetings were live-broadcast to out-of-towners. Artists got a 30-page handbook. And everyone showed up. “I’m really glad we did that,” she says.
I ask her for her favorite moment so far this summer. “I’d say it was getting that second tent up in just a few hours after the first one collapsed.”
“Right before the festival started, during tech, I was over at The Passenger with a glass of Prosecco, and I get a text saying the tent has just collapsed. Outside it was pouring. I ran back here, and things were breaking loose. It was just raining too fast, and the weight of the rain on the tent was starting to do damage. So we all ended up staying until 1am, maybe 2am.”
Suddenly, there were forty people at the Tent. “They all showed up to help. People from the Folklife Festival. Volunteers. Neighbors. Friends. People just came. It was a real feat.”
It’s rained since, but Julianne doesn’t mind. “It cools things off, which is nice.”
Rain also means more people huddled together in the Tent – always a cozy experience. The big perk: the Fringe bar, to help us wait out the occasional downpour.
“Technically, it’s a smaller bar this year. It looks bigger, but it’s an optical illusion because of the white floor and the longer bar. We actually have less bar surface space this year, but people really like it.”
Who decides the layout of the Tent and bar area?
“We sort of do it collectively. We figure out what makes sense, and then we submit an official floor plan to the DCRA.”
Do you ever think about keeping the bar open for more of the year?
“Not at all. People ask me about that a lot. The only reason the bar is successful is because the festival is going on.”
That being said, new people must get pulled into the Fringe bar scene all the time, even if they’re not seeing shows.
“That’s true sometimes. LivingSocial has a new space at the end of the block, so we’re seeing some of them over here. I’ve connected with the Wikimania conference and the AIDS conference, so a lot of those people have been coming over here too.”
Julianne has a lot of love for the Tent. Her crew has put a lot of money and time into the Shop space. But her favorite Fringe venue is probably the Apothecary, around the corner. “I know a lot of people didn’t like it because it was so hot in there, but I liked it. The space had been vacant since the 1968 riots. I just really liked being in there and putting positive energy out into the room.”
That space isn’t being used this year. The neighborhood is changing. How does that impact plans for the next few years?
“We’re going to be here next year, and then we’re going to have to move somewhere else for the 2014 festival.”
To call that a big project is an understatement. Naturally, the wheels are already turning.
“It’s interesting because people are saying now that we have this ‘place-making’ ability. Which is awesome. But at the same time, I don’t want Capital Fringe to be moving into new neighborhoods, playing into gentrification, and then getting kicked out once the gentrification happens. I think it’s possible to find a neighborhood where we can avoid that, and to have a space for more than five to seven years. But it’s about having the right conversations.”
It’s also important to Julianne to stay true to the types of spaces that Fringe uses. “I don’t want us to work in new theatres. I want us to have a place similar to the Fort here.”
What makes this place unique?
“The spaces we’re using now are authentic. There’s a special quality to them, because you can see how the community has been using them in past and present terms. And you can observe all that while you’re attending a show. I think people like coming to Fringe because these are special found spaces.”
Clearly, this is a year-round job for Julianne. “I was doing 2013 and 2014 stuff today, as well as planning for our Fall Fringe shows for this year. Plus, having dialogues with even more out-of-town artists takes time. We’re renting out the Shop space, too – right now it’s booked through March of 2013. There’s a lot going on.”
Fortunately, there’s a chance to switch gears. She’ll be in Scotland in mid-August at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It’s the first fringe festival, founded in 1947.
“I’ll be at the first-ever Fringe World Congress. There are over 300 Fringe festivals around the world that have signed up. I know some of these people, and I can’t wait to meet others. I’m very excited.”
What has she learned from talking with artists and organizers at other festivals?
“I’ve learned that we are very lucky to have this tent. A lot of fringe festivals have a bar that they get to hang out at, but that’s mainly for the artists to hang out. For us to have a place like this, where artists and patrons and random folks off the street actually come to have a dialogue and learn from each other… It’s pretty amazing.”
And that dialogue changes over time, right? “Definitely. I think the festival has actually diversified more this year. When I was starting the festival, I had a Board member who always gave me a hard time about it being too white. I’m a white girl from Montana, who moved here in 2003 with a network that was only so big at the time.”
She looks around, as if taking stock.
“The message is the same, but it’s growing. I think the festival’s becoming accessible to everybody. Like a lot of other organic, grassroots things, it just takes time to get the whole community involved.”
Capital Fringe ends this Sunday night, July 29, 2012.