Fringe Fest expands its horizons
How do you move an annual summertime festival of 100-plus acts in dozens of downtown venues?
Pretty easily, it seems. Capital Fringe has fully abandoned its makeshift warren of converted storefronts, storage rooms and shared spaces around Sixth Street and New York Avenue NW. The new headquarters — purchased last year as part of a $9 million plan to become a permanent and stable year-round operation – are on Florida Avenue NE. That’s the nerve center and party central as the 10th annual Fringe Festival launches Thursday, and the funky operation gives every sign of running on cruise control.
“We’re in Northeast,” says Julianne Brienza, Fringe’s president and chief executive. “Trying to be the coolest neighborhood ever.”
The new building at 1358 Florida Ave. NE, previously owned and occupied by the art gallery Connersmith and now dubbed the Logan Fringe Arts Space, is a definite upgrade that’s still well short of slick. The rough DIY vibe is intact, as is the sense of adventure that comes when patrons grab the thick festival guides — bigger than ever this year — and flip to the page with the map, figuring out where everything is.
Fringe says there are now three hubs — Trinidad, H Street NE and Brookland — although there is practically no geographical separation between Trinidad and H Street. Fringe edged in this direction last year, partnering with the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street for a quarter of its performances. But there’s no telling how this transitional festival will do as Fringe tries to herd customers east.
“This year is a bit of a wild card,” says Peter Korbel, Fringe’s chief operating officer.
The biggest challenge? “Debunking the fears of getting here,” Brienza says. Echoing the festival’s pioneering spirit a decade ago as it lured audiences to found spaces around what became Fort Fringe, Brienza adds, “People have to start walking around this neighborhood.” The outposts in Fringe’s new frontier:
Logan Fringe Arts Space. Already open for months and host of a couple of shows, the two-story building features two stages. The Trinidad Theatre, named for the site’s neighborhood, is a modest black box that seats about 100; so is the in-the-round venue upstairs. (It’s called Upstairs.)
The popular Biergarten tang of Fort Fringe’s outdoor Baldacchino Tent has been re-created in the high-walled concrete courtyard that runs from the street to the alley. There is a full bar under a tent and another bar indoors. A food truck functions as the back wall against the alley. A DJ booth is set up under the tent; the live music of the late-night cabaret series will be in the Trinidad.
Indoors and outdoors, the colorful furniture is courtesy of the 14th Street NW boutique Miss Pixie’s. It’s all for sale.
Box office. The main box office is the small former library at H and 13th streets NE, just across from the Atlas. (Look for the letters “f-u-n” painted in a childish hand.) It’s highceilinged and bright — roomier and more inviting than the dingy Fort Fringe. This is where volunteers will answer Fringe’s inaugural information phone line.
Atlas Performing Arts Center. The upscale complex on H Street is a short walk from the Logan Fringe Arts Space; the Sprenger and the Lab II will host nearly two dozen acts. Ten additional shows will be on the same block — nine at the bar and the Argonaut restaurant and one at Gallery O on H.
Gallaudet University. Site of 11 shows, Gallaudet is about a 10-minute walk west on Florida Avenue from the Logan Fringe Arts Space. On the way is the Tree House Lounge, which will be the venue for 10 acts.
The other hot spot in Trinidad is W.S. Jenks & Son, a hardware store a block east of Logan on Bladensburg Road. Eleven shows are slated there.
Dance Place. The Brookland mainstay next to Catholic University reopened in September after a $4 million renovation, and nearly 30 acts will be seen in three spaces there. Fringe has hired a shuttle service to carry audiences on a circuit with three stops: Brookland Metro, Gallaudet and Logan. The shuttle is free if you have a Fringe button, the one-time $5 item ($7 after July 9) you need to get into each show.
As usual, there are an additional half-dozen or so venues off the official grounds, and it wouldn’t be Fringe without a little something off the wall. With “Dishwasher,” Fringe veteran Brian Feldman will wash dishes in your kitchen if you live in the District. Torontobased sculptor Brandon Vickerd’s “Dance of the Cranes” features choreography between two high-rise construction cranes at 600Massachusetts Ave. NW. (July 15 only; free — no tickets required).
The festival is still un-curated, with entrants accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. By design, it’s a grab bag, a splotchy inkblot generated by the hive mind. You can see variety acts, burlesque artists, Shakespearean adaptations, solo storytellers, comedies, dance troupes — you name it. Some of the frisky titles are great, though two of the best have been canceled (“Apocalypse Meow” and “Tinderella”). Other titles you can resist (“S--Stories”).
Tickets went on sale June 22, and while Brienza cautions that it was just one day, that first day’s take was better than in either of the past two years, including the 2013 high-water mark. What drove the sales? “Anticipation,” suggests box office manager Curtis Stedge, figuring that people are eager to survey the new terrain.
Korbel believes it’s helped to have a running start, going back to the Atlas collaboration last year and getting the new space online this winter. “We’ve been open since February 3 and doing things on the regular,” he says in the office he shares with Brienza. (There’s a hammock in a corner.) “I think people love this building.”
How it will fit in the neighborhood remains to be seen. The long-delayed streetcars still glide up and down H Street on a testing basis, and signs on the doors read “Do Not Board,” a marker of how the fast-changing area is still in mid-process. Infrastructure isn’t totally ready to support evolving patterns and habits.
New businesses and residences keep popping up on Florida Avenue and Bladensburg Road, but during a Fringe preview event in late June, the largely black residents on sidewalks and rowhouse porches gazed at the largely white hipster crowd drifting into the Logan space. In the alley, three officers in a police cruiser peered around the food truck into the crowded courtyard and asked what was happening. Told it was an arts festival and a new year-round performance spot, one officer replied that it could be good for the neighborhood. “It might take a minute, though,” she said. Inside, the preview event filled to overflowing.
“Fringe is sticky,” Korbel says. “People really just like the festival.”
Capital Fringe Festival July 9-Aug. 2. Main festival box office, 1300 H St. NE. Logan Fringe Arts Space, 1358 Florida Ave. NE. Information phone line: 866-811-4111. Tickets online: www.capitalfringe.org.
Capital Fringe’s new home base is on Florida Avenue in Northeast. The biggest challenge, according to chief executive Julianne Brienza: “Debunking the fears of getting here.”