- The Washington Times - Friday, July 14, 2006

The Capital Fringe Festival may be new to Washington, but in hosting this 10-day grab bag of oddball and arty performances, the metropolitan area joins a summertime tradition that is nearly 60 years old.

The Fringe began in 1947 in Edinburgh, Scotland, when eight uninvited theater troupes crashed the International Festival. Unable to find lodging or performing space, the groups performed at venues beyond the public main stages. The Fringe was born — without a box office, official programs or advance publicity.

According to the Edinburgh Fringe’s history archives, it was Robert Kemp of the Evening News who coined the name of what has become the largest and most famous independent theater festival in the world, saying, “Round the fringe of the official Festival drama there seems to be a more private enterprise than before.”

By 1958, a Fringe Festival Society had been established, along with the requisite brochure, a central box office and other amenities. That also was the year Dudley Moore and Ken Loach performed comedy at the festival, followed a year later by playwright and actor Alan Bennett.

The famous satiric revue “Beyond the Fringe” debuted in 1960, with Mr. Bennett, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller. “Monty Python” alums Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Eric Idle tried out their brand of academic, schoolboyish humor there in 1964, followed by Tom Stoppard’s premiere of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” in 1966.

Other funnymen who got a leg up at the Fringe include Clive James, Billy Connolly, Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson (who, according to Edinburgh Fringe archives, won the new Perrier Comedy Award in 1981). Fringe performers of the ‘80s and ‘90s — including Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Eddie Izzard and Ruby Wax — are the perennial stars of the “Brit wit” sitcoms still seen on public television.

Americans have gotten into the act as well — Christian Slater appeared in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 2004, although the opening was delayed because he came down with chicken pox. Twice.

From its original eight theater troupes, the Edinburgh festival has grown to more than 16,190 performers and 1,800 shows in 247 venues. In 2005, 1.35 million tickets were sold. The Fringe spread to Canada in the 1980s, and today there is a coast-to-coast circuit of festivals, including the Edmonton Festival, which in 2005 hosted 500,000 visitors in 10 days. In the United States, yearly Fringe festivals spawn artistic mayhem in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Orlando, Fla., New York, Philadelphia and other major cities.

And now, Washington. What took so long?

“We are definitely one of the last major cities to have a Fringe,” Capital Fringe founder Damian Sinclair admits, “but we did beat Chicago, which doesn’t have one yet, so we can take some kind of comfort in that.”

Mr. Sinclair and co-founder Julianne Brienza are former Philadelphians who worked at the Philly Fringe and wanted to bring that distinctive blend of chaos and creativity to the banks of the Potomac. “We missed it,” Mr. Sinclair says. “It was summertime and no Fringe.”

About 11/2 years ago, Mr. Sinclair, a former staffer at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, and Miss Brienza, of the Flashpoint gallery and theater lab, came up with the idea for what is now the Capital Fringe Festival. “We used our experiences at the Philadelphia Fringe as a model, but we also wanted to see other festivals,” Mr. Sinclair says. “The Canadian Embassy flew me up to Edmonton to pick everyone’s brains, and Julianne went to Minnesota.”

The Fringe differs from other theater and dance festivals in that performers are not required to go through that soul-destroying process of selling themselves. Instead, there is an application process that is also off-center. “At first, we didn’t even ask what the shows were about,” Mr. Sinclair explains. “We asked for technical needs and matched the performers to the venues.”

The Capital Fringe received more than 107 applications, and 97 groups will ply their artistic wares at 400 performances in 10 days. “The acts run the gamut from theater, dance and puppetry to one-person shows and musicals,” Mr. Sinclair says.

Where else but the Fringe could you see a “Cheeky Monkey Sideshow” featuring sword swallowing, fire-eating and a bed of nails, a variation on “King Lear” from Cordelia’s point of view and an evening with George Burns at the Goethe-Institut?

Ticket prices are $15 or less for each performance, although some theater-sponsored acts, such as Woolly Mammoth’s presentation of “The One Man Star Wars Trilogy,” run $24 to $32. “Most of the shows are under 65 minutes, which makes it even easier to take a chance on something unknown,” Mr. Sinclair points out.

The festival will be held in the District’s Penn Quarter neighborhood, which has an abundance of theaters, churches, performance spaces, restaurants, bars and galleries. Mr. Sinclair says he’s “hoping to attract an audience of 20,000, although for the first year, we’ll be happy if 8,000 people show up.”

Though the Fringe is known for being very experimental and “letting your freak flag fly,” there are limits. “Some venues did not want nudity,” Mr. Sinclair says, “so we respected that and put the acts with nudity in other spaces.”

Of course, part of the Fringe experience is seeing something that pushes the boundaries. “Jerry Springer: The Musical” premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2004 to great controversy, as did New York’s La Mama Theatre Company’s production of “Futz” at the festival in 1967. The play is about Farmer Futz’s unwholesome feelings for a pig. (This was decades before Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” about a man’s May-December romance with a goat.)

The headline in the Scottish Daily Express for the show read, “Filth on the Fringe.” La Mama, in turn, professed shock over the firestorm generated by the production, declaring that “we must move the audience, otherwise, it might as well be just something to sell toothpaste.”

Mr. Sinclair cannot predict whether the inaugural Fringe will generate such hullabaloo, but he does encourage festival-goers to let down their collective hair. “You can’t see everything, so be open to anything,” he advises. “Sometimes, the worst shows in the festival can be the most fun.”

The Capital Fringe Festival will be held Thursday through July 30 at various venues in the Penn Quarter neighborhood. For a schedule or festival passes and tickets, call 866/811-4111 or visit the Web site at www.capfringe .org.

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