Putting on 130 shows in a little more than two weeks is a daunting task. Julianne Brienza manages that feat with grace, talent, and a lot of hard work. Since she helped launch the Capital Fringe Festival in 2006, more than 250 new works have been staged before more than 80,000 people, raising more than $1.2 million. And Julianne is just getting started. Her dream is to create a collective space for the festival, which she describes as a “theater barn,” resembling a movie multiplex. “If you want the theater artists to stay here, you need to give them a place to do shows,” said Julianne, now the festival’s executive director. “All the space is going away. And it’s not enough to say that you can rent the regional theater space when they are dark. Most of them aren’t dark any more.”
According to Julianne, the response to this year’s festival has been “absolutely amazing.” Quite a few shows have sold out and many others have sold at least 50 percent of their seats. “There are so many new faces and familiar faces at the festival this year so it’s really great,” she said. “It’s actually a celebration of the performing arts in D.C.”
Besides quantity, the quality of the festival has improved. “The festival is becoming more of a place to really showcase your work,” she said. “It’s just great that the bar is continuing to be raised on the quality that you need to bring to the festival. For the artists, it’s a self-producing festival so they pay a participation fee. They do all the marketing for their individual shows. They are very invested in it. So if you’re not doing something that you feel very good about, then why are you doing it?”
Fringe productions feature original material, usually run around 60 minutes, and require minimal sets. Ticket prices are kept low and multi-play passes are available for those who are game to take in many shows. “People of all demographics come to the festival, meeting each other and talking about the shows,” said Julianne. “That’s one of the most unique things. We really do have a great communication place for people to talk to each other and become friends and then see each other outside of the festival.”
Planning for the festival is a year-round job, with great consideration given to space. By March, Julianne and her team knew how many productions they would have for the festival. “We had to scramble a little bit [for space] because we are losing a lot of black box-like theaters in D.C.,” she said. “And while we do build some of our own venues, we have to balance it out, so we were able to get it done. But as we move forward, it is a challenge.”
As a non-profit, the festival receives grant money and donations from individuals. “We also run a bar during the festival and that really helps,” she said, adding that fundraising is an ongoing process.
About half of this year’s artists in the festival are from D.C., “a chunk” from Maryland and Virginia, and about 20 percent from outside the metropolitan area. “We have a puppet show from Israel, a solo performer from Japan and people from other parts of the U.S.,” said Julianne. “Every year the dynamics are a little bit different.”
What happens to the plays after the festival? “Many of them go and tour fringe in the United States or in Canada or other places in the world,” said Julianne. Some artists go on to launch their own theater companies and produce a season outside of the festival. Still others have their shows picked up by more traditional, regional theaters.
While other cities have fringe festivals, Julianne believes the one in Washington is special. “D.C. has always been a very cultured city,” she said. “We have all the museums and there’s pomp and circumstance. A lot of fancy cocktail hours where you wear your special clothes.” And the festival is unique to the capital, she added, because it’s all about independent art with affordable ticket prices. Seats at other venues, like the Kennedy Center, often run more than $100.
Julianne was born in Dillon, Montana in the southwest corner of the state. At Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin, she studied theater performance, visual art, and philosophy. After graduation, she moved to Iowa where she worked as a graphics designer for a newspaper and then ran a campaign for a man running for the Iowa legislature. “And then I decided this was probably a good time to use my degree,” she said.
She sought out internships and was accepted into the art and professional apprenticeship program in Philadelphia. “It’s a program that teaches theater artists how to run a non-profit theater,” she said. “You work about 80 hours a week.” A bonus is that it is one of the few paid apprenticeship programs in the country that also offers health insurance. “I loved it,” she said. “During that time I went to my first fringe festival and I thought it was amazing.”
During her three years in Philadelphia, Julianne managed a theater program, started an inner city arts festival, and studied puppetry, eventually launching a company called Mum Puppet Theatre. In 2003, she moved to Washington, taking a job at the Cultural Development Corporation. By 2004, along with other people in the arts, she was asking the question: “Why is there no fringe festival?” By 2005, the Capital Fringe Festival was born. “The first year we thought it would be super cool if we had 50 groups participate in the festival,” she said. “We ended up having 96. I don’t even know how we made it through that first festival, but it was great.”
Julianne believes that timing was right for launching the festival. “The theater community was ready for it; I think audiences were ready for it,” she said. Also, the city understood the value and benefits that would accrue with a structure to support independent performing artists.
Year round, the festival operates with a fulltime staff of just three people including Julianne. During the festival, 50 people are hired and more than 200 volunteers come on board to tackle other tasks, including helping to run the local box offices. Julianne praises the volunteer coordinator, Shilpa Joshi. She said: “I tell her—and she hates it every time I tell her—you have the toughest job at the festival. It’s a job that you are always on. You can’t really step away when you are communicating over email and text messages. With that many people, it’s all hours.”
No sooner will this festival end than planning begins for the Fall Fringe Festival, a smaller event involving 10 to 15 productions. Long range, Julianne will be working on a strategic plan to bring about her dream for a permanent home. Until that comes about, she will campaign for needed space. “We will be trying to get some of these local regional theaters more often to take shows from the festival because they can and they should be supporting the local theater artists, really giving them more affordable space,” she said.
What was the most challenging space she ever had to work with for a fringe production? For four years, the festival used a building at 7th and New York which now houses the online company Living Social. “It’s a building that had been vacant since the 1968 riots; nothing existed in there,” she said. “So if you went up to the very top floor, you could see where the building was burned. There was always flooding in the basement. We had to do things to make sure it was structurally sound and had a structural engineer come in and certify it. Despite all that work and despite working with the air conditioning people, it was always too hot. There were always problems.” She laughs. “Now it’s beautiful. Living Social has completely renovated it. I obviously don’t use it as a theater anymore, but it looks lovely.”
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Eat: Bistro D’Oc, 518 10th Street, NW
Favorite Place to Shop: I don’t really like shopping.
Favorite Washington Sight: When the metro goes above ground.
Favorite DC Moment: Election Night 2008
What You Love About Washington: The people/community
What You Hate About Washington: I am not a hater.
For more information, go to the website for the Capital Fringe Festival