D.C. dons its fringe

Inaugural fest makes a splash

WASHINGTON — You say your theater company got bumped from its performance space just 10 days before opening night? No problem. Simply move from the fountain you had booked to a public swimming pool across town.

So it went for one inventive troupe at the inaugural Capitol Fringe Festival, which ran July 20-30. Fest reps the newest entry in the fringe theater movement that has grown throughout North America since debuting in Edinburgh, Scotland, more than 50 years ago.

The company in question was Solas Nua, a new D.C.-based theater org that specializes in contemporary Irish plays. It made a splash — literally — with its production of “La Corbiere,” Anne Hartigan’s 1989 poem/play about French prostitutes who drowned in a shipwreck during World War II. The sudden change in venue was ordered by the U.S. Park Service after it discovered the actors intended to perform inside, rather than in front of, a government-owned fountain.

Solas Nua was one of 97 acts that performed 400 shows here before generally enthusiastic auds during the 11-day fest, which organizers deem a success. “We came in right on our projections (17,700 tickets sold at $15 each, about 50% of capacity), but the energy and spirit greatly exceeded our expectations,” says the festival’s executive director, Damian Sinclair.

A former marketing employee at Woolly Mammoth Theater, Sinclair co-founded the event with festival director Julianne Brienza, a veteran of the Philadelphia Fringe. They have spent the last two years generating interest for the planned annual affair, including some $250,000 in funding from foundations, individuals, the D.C. government and frequent Washington arts supporter the Canadian Embassy. They also lined up a variety of downtown performance spaces, ranging from theaters to churches and synagogues, museums and other facilities.

Participants ran the gamut from quirky solo performers to established companies such as Liz Lerman Dance Exchange from Takoma Park, Md. They included both newcomers and veterans of an informal circuit of U.S. and Canadian fringe fests.

Popular among the latter were K. Brian Neel, a Seattle musician who performed his solo ukulele operetta “Vaude Rats.” Also showcased was Canadian author Daniel MacIvor’s 75-minute play “Never Swim Alone,” which played the 2005 Edmonton Fringe and Off Broadway.

One SRO perf was Charles Ross’ “One-Man Star Wars Trilogy,” a condensed solo adaptation of the original George Lucas films. Another hit was “The Eddie Lounge Show,” a faux lounge act performed by Arena Stage development director Ed Spitzberg and colleagues rounded up for the occasion.

This being Washington, political satire was represented, including an acerbic take on Vice President Dick Cheney called “You Don’t Know Dick” and another called “The Worst President Ever.”

In all, some 107 acts petitioned to perform at the festival, says Sinclair, all of them accommodated except those with unworkable technical demands. Restrictions included 75-minute limits on running times and easily assembled sets.

The fest drew a broad audience base, attracting a multicultural blend ranging in age from twentysomething to 70-ish, and garnered lavish attention from local media. The Washington Post had no fewer than seven scribes contributing articles and reviews, while the City Paper offered coverage and a daily blog that became an instant community for the festival.

Among the clear beneficiaries were participating theaters including Woolly Mammoth and the Warehouse Theater, which introduced new auds to their stages. Ditto Solas Nua, which is preparing for its second full season and perhaps an aquatic follow-up for next summer’s Capitol Fringe.

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