Sunday, July 23, 2006

In a town that often is at the center of things, sometimes it’s better to be on the fringe. At least, that was the sentiment Thursday night when an eclectic assortment of supporters gathered at Clyde’s Gallery Place to celebrate the Capital Fringe Festival, the District’s most recent attempt to inject a bit of cool into the inevitable summer doldrums.

“The business and arts community has been absolutely wonderful,” said festival director and co-founder Damian Sinclair, who started the event as a low-priced alternative to the sometimes staid and stuffy productions offered in more traditional venues. Over the years, fringe festivals have been produced in cities around the globe, including New York; Philadelphia; Edmonton, Alberta; and Edinburgh, Scotland, where the concept began more than 50 years ago. The District’s own festival, which opened Thursday, features more than 90 productions over 11 days at a variety of downtown venues, including the National Building Museum and Cavalry Baptist Church. Already, 45,000 tickets have been sold.

The festival is more than just a shot in the arm for the arts, said Steve Moore, president and chief executive officer of the Washington, DC, Economic Partnership. “It’s a measure of the city’s vitality, and it’s a chance to get a sense of the ‘creative economy’ that’s right beneath the surface,” he said, presumably including most of the 45,000 new jobs the city is expected to attract and hold over the next five years.

“People want to be in an environment where artists are working,” Mr. Moore added. “Downtown will be the city’s great cultural destination.”

The business and arts synergy was evident at the Clyde’s event, where supporters, including Tony Gittens, executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, Artomatic’s Phillip Pradier and DC Vote outreach director Eugene Kinlow munched on mini crab cakes and carrot sticks.

“It’s a great chance to get a different audience,” said the Goethe-Institut’s Norma Broadwater. “We’re very excited to be downtown.”

Festival board chairman Ian Portnoy, a partner at the law firm McKenna, Long and Aldridge by day, revealed himself as a serial fringer. “It’s an eclectic mix of really fun stuff,” he said before saying that he had “been wanting to do a festival in Washington for the last 20 years.”

The pace picked up a bit later when the suit-and-skirt crowd that dominated the Clyde’s reception gave way to a somewhat edgier mix at Avenue, the trendy New York Avenue Northeast club, for a night of cabaret-style performances by festival artists.

Even some fringe veterans balked a bit at what was awaiting them at the club’s entrance.

“You’re going to be frisked. Just wanted to let you know,” Molly Ruppert of the Warehouse downtown arts complex warned as the fifty- and sixtysomethings uncomfortably lifted their arms for quick pat-downs, their eyes canvassing the younger set for proper post-frisk demeanor.

Inside, the music was loud, the conversation flowing, and the atmosphere … fringy.

“It’s an exciting time,” said the Warehouse’s Paul Ruppert, who also is on the festival’s board. “Seems like now, fringe is the new center.”

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