Life on the (Capital) Fringe

Life on the (Capital) Fringe

Late one night this week, fresh from seeing some of DC’s best sideshow performers, I watched two of my friends dress up as giant whoopie cushions as they fake-tap-danced and told hilariously stupid jokes. Then we were all led in prayer to cilantro by St. Jimmy and sang auto-tuned hymns to Rachael Ray. Sound like the kind of night you’d have on some crazy lost weekend adventure? Could be, or as we devotees of the Capital Fringe Festival like to call it, “Thursday”.

Karen Beriss and Rich Potter as Elasto and Plasto, the Whoopie Twins

Karen Beriss and Rich Potter as Elasto and Plasto, The Whoopie Twins, at the Late Night Cabaret

I was introduced to Cap Fringe back in 2009, then in its fourth year. My show was in the (now late lamented) Warehouse theater and all I really remember was a hot, sweaty, frantic whirlwind that had a Gypsy Tent and really strict load-in/out times and one hell of a cast party at the end. I was hooked. I didn’t get to be in Fringe every summer, but I jumped on every chance I got. I worked the production side of a show, and then I took the plunge and produced my own original show, Mirabilia, with amazing collaborators in 2013.

This year, which is Capital Fringe’s 10th birthday (they grow up so fast!) and its first in its new Florida Avenue home, I was privileged to be part of two of Fringe’s most successful shows, Barenaked Comedy and Burlesque Classique’s Vaudevillian Romp with some of my favorite friends and colleagues in the variety arts scene. I took advantage of how often I’d be there for my own shows to soak up the atmosphere at Fringe Central and see as many other shows as time and finances would allow. And because one of my goals with this blog is to share with you, my Darlings, all the marvelous things you can find in DC when you scratch the stuffy surface, I want to tell you what it’s like to be immersed in Fringe and why I truly believe this festival is one of the most important parts of the DC performing arts scene.

Think of a movie you’ve seen where at some point there’s a place where the beautiful freaks gather, some party or makeshift oasis where the music is loud and the drinks are cheap and people are dressed like the circus and it’s a sensory overload, and your little bohemian heart swelled up with longing to be someplace like that, with your mascara artfully smudged and the string lights glowing on your skin. Hanging out at Fringe Central (and before that, the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent) is that experience come to life. It’s the traveling carnival of parties, spilling out of 1358 Florida Ave and sprawling across the asphalt for a few short weeks, full of colorful mismatched furniture on loan from– and for sale by– Miss Pixie’s, every surface confetti’d with graphically-gorgeous postcards from Fringe’s 123 shows.

Chairs get moved around like the pieces of those little puzzles with just one empty space as tides of people ebb and flow, surging and swirling and crashing up against the food trucks at the far end. It’s almost impossible not to be social here. If you don’t run into half the people you know, you’ll know half the people you run into before you leave. Everyone’s hawking a show and it’s a great excuse to strike up conversation with a total stranger. The introverts stake out any spot that doesn’t feel in-the-way and people-watch while dyed-in-the-hair extroverts like me take an hour to cross the space to get to our next show.

“Hey Glitter, what are you having?” I’m greeted by one of the team of fantastic, friendly bartenders who quickly start to recognize the regulars and keep us all more or less hydrated in DC’s trademark summer weather, which is either “sultry” or “swampy” depending how much of your stage face has been melted off by it. Let’s take a moment to salute the small army in their matching t-shirts that keeps the festival running for all of us: the aforementioned bartenders, the ever-sharp venue managers, a social media team that I suspect never sleeps, the tidy ninjas who whisk away empty glasses and food truck trash, the box office mavens, the countless volunteers, and of course the permanent staff who drive this art bus home.

Street view of Fringe Central

Lazy late afternoon at Fringe Central. Photo by Paul Gillis

This beating heart pumps theater-lovers through the streets, on foot or aboard the wisely-provided free shuttle buses, to the shows. Oh, the shows! If your image of DC’s arts scene is all Kennedy Center and Shakespeare Theater and Smithsonian Folklife Festival, you need to meet their punk drag prodigal siblings. For the cost of a movie ticket (if you get a discount pass, and I’ll tell you why you should in a hot minute), you can see just about anything you could imagine at Fringe. Yes, I’m talking disciplines, everything from comedy and drama to dance and puppetry and multimedia and musicals and cabaret and wacked-out performance art and freaking CRANES for gods’ sakes, but also just about every conceivable genre and subject and weird-ass fusion mashup because someone had $700 and a “why the hell not?” attitude. Where else could you see, in the same day, a serious drama about sex trafficking, a live-action cartoon, DC’s resident sideshow, and Burning Man devotees telling their stories?

Weird does well at Fringe, unsurprisingly, and you might as well leave the kids at home because audiences are lured in by the lurid here. I’m convinced that there’s an art to a Fringe show title, that writers and producers indulge in a little keyword-stuffing to create pulpy WTF-sounding names like The Gore-Chilling Slaughter at Sex Freak Hall, A Gothic Dubstep Musical (don’t steal that, bitches, that one’s going in my “ideas for next year” file). The year I produced Mirabilia, I attended the “How to Fringe” workshop for producers and as we introduced ourselves and our shows, one guy said his was Disco Jesus and the Apostles of Funk and the entire room immediately crowned him King of the Fringe. (Sure enough, it was a huge hit.) Sometimes you can just tell.

With so many shows and only two and a half weeks on the schedule, it’s probably impossible for one person to see every show, but part of the fun is poring over the program book and making a wish list of everything that intrigues you. This year, I think my initial cut was about 50 shows between the ones that friends and acquaintances were in and the ones that just caught my eye. Time, energy, and finances being what they were, I think I made it to roughly a dozen.

Remember how I said I’d tell you why you should get a discount pass? Because of that wish list. Because if you only get out to one or two shows, you’re not really getting the full Fringe experience; that’s like going to a crab feast and having one crab cake sandwich. You need to go in with a hungry belly and plan to stick around all day and just keep eating and get kind of messy in the process. So you get your multi-ticket pass (or for the truly hardcore, the “all access” pass that lets you see as many shows as you can stuff into your brainmeats) and save some per-ticket bucks and have a much more unique experience than you’d have at happy hour or the multiplex. Of course, if you’re IN a Fringe show, you have the cherished Artist Pass that lets you see shows for ten bucks as long as they aren’t selling out.

There’s two main ways to go about your Fringe Binge, and they each have their merits. You can do it the German way, like I do, where you choose and rank your shows in tiers like “I will surely die if I do not see this” or “I’m a terrible friend if I don’t make it to that one” and then you put everything in spreadsheets and calculate travel times between venues and end up with a detailed itinerary for each day you attend. But then there’s also the Go Where the Universe Takes You approach, where you roll out of bed feeling theatrical enough to put on pants and make it to brunch, and then you show up at Fringe Central and hang out either until you run into someone you know and go see what they’re seeing, or someone who’s out flyering their show does a good enough job that you’re like, What the hell, the theater’s right off the bar.

My hyper-Type-A method usually means that I end up picking really good shows and I don’t miss anything I really care about. But there’s something beautiful that can happen with the what-the-hell approach, which is that sometimes you end up catching something you would never have seen otherwise but end up loving. This year, for me, it was DC Trash– Recycled! which I recall being intrigued by, but not enough to put into my spreadsheet. But then I happened to have a big chunk of downtime one afternoon on one of my Fringe days, and the food truck wasn’t there yet, and my friend was going, so I pulled out my trusty artist pass and gave it a whirl, no expectations. And it was AMAZING. A one-man show about being a DC sanitation worker, about race relations, about a Jewish deli in the middle of last century, about DC’s physical history being erased from its streets, and it had music and it was funny and it was passionate and it was angry and I learned a huge fucking amount yet I did not feel once like I was getting lectured about social issues in the guise of drama (something I personally hate in theater). I love that I almost didn’t see that and then I did. That’s a thoroughly Fringe experience.

Diva and God at Fringe

The devilish Diva chilling with God (Rich Potter) at the Preview Night party

And maybe you’re thinking, but Diva, it’s summertime and it’s hot and gross out and the streets smell like feet and I get chub rub and there’s a lot of free things to do in the city in summer and you have to shell out for a Fringe button and it seems just too overwhelming to see that much theater all at once, I mean, come on, NETFLIX. And I say, shut your cakehole and bring a pocket fan, you can shower when you get home and in six months you’re going to be snowed in with nothing BUT Netflix. Get stinky and sweaty with the rest of us for ART.

Why? Because DC is full of some of the most wildly creative and outspoken and resourceful performing artists you’ve never heard of, and you will never see this kind of stuff in the mainstream cultural scene, but now you’ll know the city’s secret, that under its wonky buttoned-down exterior DC is a glorious freak factory. Because the dollars you spend there not only go to pay the artists and arts groups to keep doing their work, but also go towards building more permanent and affordable arts spaces for smaller and experimental work as Fringe creates a year-round arts hub. Because where else do you get to go to shows and then meet and hang out with the artists afterward? Not at Merriwether Post Pavilion, that’s for damn sure. Because you’ll see things that really blow your mind, that get your own creative juices pumping, that haunt you, that make you laugh till you cry, that change how you see the world, that make you a more interesting person to talk to.

(I mean, jesus. If you struggle with small talk, and who doesn’t, and if you feel like the next time someone opens a conversation with that DC standard, “What do you do?” that you will spork them in the eyeballs, and who hasn’t been tempted to do just that, what more can you ask for than to go someplace where the instant you make successful eye contact with someone you want to talk to, the Fringe Fairy has gifted you the perfect opening gambit: “So what are you seeing/have you seen today?” Conversation literally does not get easier than that without a fucking script in your hand.)

And if all that wasn’t enough, to top it off, there are parties upon parties. Preview Night and Opening Night and Closing Night and then all the Late Night Cabarets, and it’s all FREE. Just show up at Fringe Central around sunset and there’s going to be a live band or a DJ outside, people dancing, people hanging out. Inside, in the Trinidad Theater, the Cabaret might have a band playing or you might get to see samples of stuff from the shows and you never really know what you might see, but who cares? It’s free and everyone’s having a good time and if you don’t like it you can just wait for a break and slip away to another area where something else is going on.

Late Night Cabaret Crowd

Life is a Late Night Cabaret, old chum. Photo by Paul Gillis

I firmly believe that Fringe is hugely important to DC culture. As an unjuried performing arts festival, it gives space and opportunity to shows that might get shut out and artists who aren’t mainstream. It’s incredibly good networking for anyone in the arts. With its own huge following, well-honed marketing and brand recognition, it’s a deep well of audience development for new and emerging groups who have the savvy to draw from it. It can be a loss leader or an outright money pit– as I learned the hard way– but some artists *do* make money, and anytime an indie artist gets paid, as we all know, God uploads a new adorable baby otter video to YouTube for us to watch at work. And even for those that don’t make much if any money, they’re still going to get anywhere from one to five reviews guaranteed, and good pull quotes are worth their weight in ticket sales later on. If you produce for Fringe and you don’t learn something about being disciplined, organized, focused, and better at the business end of show, you’re just not paying attention.

Now you might be thinking, All that sounds amazing, so thanks for telling us about it after the festival’s over, DIVA. Well, I have good news for you: It’s not entirely too late. A handful of shows that did really well (including one of my shows, Burlesque Classique’s Vaudevillian Romp *ahem*) were selected for an extended run that goes through this weekend. It’s your last shot for the summer to come out, see some top-rated talent, and stay for music and good company on a gorgeous blue moon night.

YOU’RE WELCOME.

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