For the past 12 years, DC’s Capital Fringe Festival provides performance space and resources to small theatre companies, solo and performance artists, dance troupes, musicians, and more. Founder and Chief Executive Officer Julianne Brienza, has managed the festival since its inception, including overseeing a major shift in location from a rented space near the Convention Center to the permanent Logan Fringe Arts Space in the Trinidad neighborhood. The new space has brought many positives to the Festival: the ability to program year-round, a dedicated indoor bar space, and much more. But the move has also carried some growing pains.
As the festival enters its 3rd year in this new space, Sarah Scafidi sits down with Julianne discuss its impact on the festival and the future of Fringe:
What you have created from the ground up is simply amazing. Tell me a little about that journey? Why did you start Capital Fringe?
I lived in Philadelphia before I came to Washington, DC, and I worked at the Fringe festival there. It was the way that I learned about the community, met people, and understood the voice of the theatre in Philly. I thought it was really amazing how the larger theatre community really embraced, supported, and understood what the Fringe was.
Then, I decided that I didn’t want to work in theatre anymore. So, I moved to Washington, DC, for a job at the Cultural Development Corporation (now CulturalDC), running their Flashpoint project. But, I think once you’re in theatre, you’re always in theatre, and I found it really challenging when I first moved here to obtain any information about what was going on locally. It was a pretty tight-knit circle.
About a year in, I ran into Damian Sinclair who had also been in Philly, and he was working at Woolly Mammoth. We went out and chatted and decided it would be a good idea to start a Fringe festival here as a way to really connect people. And in an organic manner, get people to produce shows and maybe be a little more laid back. DC tends to be a pretty buttoned up town. So, I left my full-time job and started the Fringe festival.
How do you feel about the festival this year?
We have a lot of new companies in DC and a lot of traveling shows, as most Fringe festivals do. In general, I do not feel support from the theatre community for the Fringe Festival at this time.
Yeah. There was this theatreWashington symposium that happened at the beginning of the year. It was an all-day event, and all of the top leadership from the regional theaters and some of the smaller theater companies were there.
There were a series of community breakouts, and Fringe held one to talk about where we are headed. I had been feeling like the theater community wasn’t following the story, and we are servicing so many communities now, whether it be visual art or music or creative entrepreneurial people doing events. But no one came to our breakout.
When the group got back together, everyone that did a breakout had to go up and say what happened, and I was really nervous about having to stand up and be like, “none of you came,” but I did. I was very honest and implored people to check us out. A lot of the gathering was about partnering together with groups who use Instagram efficiently and have a good mailing list. Fringe has a lot of those things. So, I’m waiting to see if anyone connects with us. But overall, I’m not sure where things are headed with the community to be honest.
But the festival is going well. We have about 90 productions, and all of the festival is taking place within the H Street and Trinidad neighborhoods. So, everything is within a five to ten minute walking radius – which is really good for our festival to have.
I hear there are fewer shows this year?
Yeah, I did that intentionally so we could have the walking radius. We actually turned people away this year. The first year we were here, we used space at Brookland, and the second year, we were more downtown. It’s just been too complicated for audiences to make decisions. You are already asking them to make decisions about shows they don’t know anything about, and then you try to add a 20 to 30 minute travel time in there. The first year, we even tried to do a shuttle bus, but that really didn’t help. I really wanted to have that ease for the audience, but also for the artists to be able to go to each other’s shows and then come back to the bar and have a gathering point. It really matters for the overall flow and connection that the human beings that are coming to the event feel.
How has the new space affected the festival? What are some challenges and some positives?
It’s really interesting. We are growing more audiences outside of the festival. So, it’s really a hard nut to crack. The theatre leadership in DC has said things like, “what does the community do now, post-Fringe?” As if we are dead. We’re still here! I think the Fringe Festival has a really good brand and a really good reputation and so does the space. So, I think it is more the question of “how does the festival change to support the communities that we are serving?”
So, you think this new space is supporting your changing audience?
We really do fill a need for the music community, as far as a decent venue where they can do shows. With visual art, we are growing in the amount of shows we present. We are servicing the people that want us to provide space and resources to them.
How has the festival changed over time? Have you seen trends in the type of performers or the amount of risk being taken?
We’ve always had a really strong component of Shakespeare adaptations, and we’ve still got that going on. In 2009, we really dipped down in terms of the dance that was a part of the festival, but in the last three or four years, those numbers have gone back up, which is good. A lot of the companies that started at Fringe between 2006 and 2009 do not participate in the Fringe festival anymore. I don’t really know what to attribute that to, but in the last five years, we’ve had a lot of new companies starting in a similar way that they did at the beginning of the festival. I think that cycle is starting again, which is something positive about the community despite the increase in the cost of living.
This is a very traditional theatre town. I have never categorized, nor has any of our marketing categorized the festival as having “the most unconventional performers,” because we don’t really have that. Fringe festivals are different depending on the DNA of the cities that they are in. So, starting in 2011 and 2012, we began to weave in a lot more music to the festival intentionally.
I think the type of shows and the caliber of artists that the community brings to the festival haven’t necessarily changed.
I just want to circle back to what you said about feeling under-supported by the community – why do you think that’s happening?
To be honest with you, I don’t have a good answer. If I had the answer, I’d go solve it. My board and myself have done a lot of outreach to try to unearth it. I just think the calendar has gotten really busy. When Fringe started, there was nothing else going on in July. So, we proved that you could continue to run during that time. I don’t know how to communicate it, nor do I think anyone would listen to me, but: if every theatre in town is operating full-tilt in the month of July, is there a need for a Fringe festival anymore? Yes, the population has grown, but it’s not like there are suddenly 30,000 new audience members in town. We’ve tried to rent from regional theatres within the last three to four years, and the price quotes we get back are so high, we could never afford it. It’s a quandary that we are trying to get the right information to hopefully answer.
Do you know if this is a problem for other Fringe festivals in other cities?
No. I don’t think so. In Philly, people support it. New York City is a totally different thing, so you can’t really compare it to that. In Minneapolis, they have a pretty good regional theatre scene, and they seem to be supported in that manner.
So, we’re trying to ask the right questions to hopefully get an answer. The benefit has to be understood and wanted by the community overall, otherwise, it’s just challenging. Yes, it is challenging for the organization of Capital Fringe, but it’s also challenging for the artists, because in DC, the regional theatres do not have the mentality to hire local actors first. So, what does it mean if the Fringe festival is not being supported?
And when I say supported, I don’t mean some official partnership agreement that everyone signs. I just mean community-minded, like a regional theatre could send out over their social media, “the Fringe festival is happening this month, get out and see the local artists involved!” Stuff like that. It really is more about the support of the local theatre artists that are taking part in it than it is about supporting Capital Fringe.
What are your hopes and dreams for the festival in the coming years?
Well, we are exploring having the festival move around the city. I’m thinking that it might be a way to spark new dialogue within the community overall and generate new audiences for the Fringe festival if we’re going into a totally different neighborhood where people don’t have to travel.
We have also started a new program that will begin next year called Fringe Tour where we actually present – meaning we pay them – Fringe touring artists from other parts of the country or the world. And every three years, we are looking to tour local companies to various Fringe festivals, whether that be to Canada or Edinburgh or one of the other Fringe festivals around the world. We’ll see if people really want to do that. We have things set in motion for the 2018 festival.
Do you have any advice for aspiring arts administrators?
Don’t read textbooks and think you know what’s going on and think you know how to solve a problem. It’s really about listening and using your gut to make decisions. And if you’re not able to use your gut, and you don’t trust yourself, find a mentor and talk to them.