Julianne Brienza, prime mover of Capital Fringe, on making lemonade

In a series called 'The Companies We Keep,' DC Theater Arts spotlights the good work done by theater companies in the DC region. This month we focus on the Capital Fringe Festival and its visionary founding director.

The DC area prides itself on its vibrant theater scene, often touting itself as second or third behind New York for the number of theaters and shows as well as acting and technical opportunities. But Capital Fringe Festival founder Julianne Brienza has another take on the DMV regional theater scene. “We talk about ourselves like we’re a great theater town,” she said bluntly. “But maybe we’re just a great theater town for the institutionalized regional theaters — they are the ones that control the spaces.”

Brienza knows what she’s talking about. She arrived in Washington, DC, 21 years ago after a stint at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre and experiences working in a variety of capacities at Philadelphia’s Fringe Festival. She was a theater kid from small-town Dillon, Montana, the daughter of visual artists, who discovered the stage through Missoula Children’s Theatre and a community theater whose season was heavy on melodramas and musical reviews.

Julianne Brienza photographed by Mariah Miranda. Background graphic courtesy of Capital Fringe.

Upon moving to the District, she signed on with the Cultural Development Corporation, now CulturalDC, but had a hard time getting through to the theater community. “It was a very insular group. I found it really challenging to meet people or to even really understand what the voice of theater was here. I ended up working the box office and house-managing outside of my full-time job for Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and the Atlas Performing Arts Center.”


Fringe Foundations

Brienza reflected on her time with Philadelphia FringeArts: “In Philadelphia, even to this day, everyone really supports the festival, whether they’re a large institution or small. And it’s very much a community gathering. When we worked to start the Captial Fringe, it was thought that this was needed here in DC to get rid of the silos. A group of us started talking and planning about it, then the whole thing just snowballed.”

The fringe movement has been more than a half-century in the making. “Fringe originated in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1947 when the locals were not allowed to participate in the international [Edinburgh] Festival that was happening there,” Brienza explained. “They didn’t like that, so they did shows where they could: in bars, alleyways, churches, anywhere that the rent wasn’t too high. When a journalist wrote in The Scotsman newspaper that the international festival was ‘getting fringed,’ those artists took that word and created the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.” Thus an act of rebellion transformed into an international artistic movement. Today Edinburgh Fringe is the largest arts festival in the world when it takes place because other festivals occur at the same time in throughout the city. And fringe has gone global, with an estimated 250 independent fringe festivals taking place around the world.

“There is literally nothing else like it on the planet,” Brienza said of Edinburgh Fringe. And that concept of giving space and voice to local artists and talent remains integral to the fringe ethos. Another fundamental principle of fringe ensures that artists receive the lion’s share of ticket revenue. But, Brienza added, “the primary philosophy and focus of fringe is that there is no gatekeeping” — something that was in her eyes the antithesis of the Washington, DC, theater culture.

Brienza committed to shifting the landscape of professional theater in the city and beyond, and she’s still working toward that goal two decades later. “Look,” she said, “DC is a very pretentious town and [theater-wise] it’s also a heavily curated town. We are really good at curating. Since starting the festival and even to this day, I am constantly told that audiences need to be told what’s good and what’s bad. We were really told a lot the first year that this wasn’t going to work because [fringe] is very un-Washingtonian.”

As elsewhere, Capital Fringe insists on no curation of the productions. “It’s really not that complicated,” Brienza said. “[Artists] really just have to write a synopsis of their show. It’s first come, first served, up to what we can accommodate in our venues.” While the application is simple, that doesn’t mean Fringe artists don’t need support. In fact, Capital Fringe aims to be accessible and open to first-time artists, artists out of the mainstream, and those representing all eight wards of the city — and beyond: “We do a lot of ‘How to Fringe’ workshops, to ensure that we’re reaching everyone.” There is also a detailed handbook for producers or performers that explains the ins and outs of Capital Fringe from marketing to tech to load-in and strike.

Capital Fringe in 2014 at Fort Fringe. Photos by Paul Gills (top) and Darian Glover.

Making Lemonade

This year’s Capital Fringe — its 16th with two years off during 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic — touts the moniker “Find the Sweet. Find the Sour.” A nod to this post-COVID, politically challenging, and divisive era, the bright yellow lemons on the marketing materials and signage also reflect the current societal zeitgeist. It’s been a crappy couple of years on the economic, political, and social policy fronts here in the DMV and beyond. From lemons come lemonade, cool and tart, and this thirst quencher is served up an apt metaphor for this year’s Fringe productions.

With more than 300 artists, more than 75 percent of them from the DMV region, 25 percent from outside the area, Capital Fringe runs July 12 to 23 at venues in Georgetown and at the Edlavitch DCJCC near Dupont Circle. With 43 theater productions and five free weekend music concerts, there’s a lot to choose from. Most shows are 60 minutes, while some clock in at 75 minutes — all with no intermissions. Brienza advises interested audience members to check out the online festival program booklet with its show descriptions and schedules and select what sounds interesting, or fun, or weird. Or just show up and talk to the box office staff or other fringers at the concerts.

“Fringe is just one big surprise every year,” she said. “It’s like Christmas morning for a week while all the shows open for the first time.”

Over the years, Brienza said, political or cultural issues of the moment would often pop up in themes of Capital Fringe plays. Aside from a larger than usual roster of stand-up comics this summer, Brienza said about 2023: “We live in a time period that’s very different; [in the past] you’d have predominant themes in the shows, but now we’ve got so many things going on on the planet that the stories are all over the place.


Highlights from the 2023 Capital Fringe preview party at Powerhouse DC! Catch these shows and more from July 12-23. Tickets in sale now. #dctheatre #capitalfringe #capitalfringe2023 #fyp #foryoupage

♬ Prologue (We Might Play All Night) [Live] – Stew

“The best way to talk about [Capital Fringe],” she added, “is to note that if you’re interested in the human condition right now and how [people] are traveling through this time,” you’ll find something relevant at the festival. “The Fringe is a great place to listen to people’s stories. If you care about hearing people’s stories go to a show.”

Finally, Brienza thinks about Capital Fringe holistically. While each year it’s a heavy lift to find funding, secure flexible and affordable performance spaces, and organize the two-week event on a shoestring budget, Fringe is about more than just opportunities for performers — and this year 20 percent are first-timers. “Especially in the first seven to 10 years of [Capital] Fringe, a lot of theater artists were trying to become a part of the regional theater institutionalized model, and many grew to sustain themselves as mid-sized theatres in DC; some still survive to this day.” But more important, she noted, is the role the festival plays in generating audiences for all types of theater in the region. “I have said for almost two decades now that what happens at the festival is not necessarily important. What is important is what fringe inspires people to do outside of the festival. That can run the gamut from an audience member feeling like they may explore the opportunity to tell their story. Or a visual artist seeing that we did something crazy on the side of a building and they’re going to try to do something like that. Or a musician going to one of our free live music concerts and thinking, ‘I want to be a part of a band.’”

That creative inspiration knows no boundaries and is exactly what lies at the foundational ethos of that very first fringe festival in Edinburgh. “I have just wanted small theater companies and independent artists to have more access to space,” Brienza said, “and people to have more freedom to express ideas and to realize that you don’t need someone to give you permission to do something creative.”

Capital Fringe runs from July 12 to 23, 2023, at multiple locations in Georgetown and near Dupont Circle, with free weekend music events at the Powerhouse. Tickets are $15 each plus a $2.51 processing fee and are available online. To learn more about Capital Fringe, click here. For the complete 2023 Capital Fringe program, click here.

2023 Capital Fringe Festival to pop up in Georgetown and Dupont (news story, April 28, 2023)

About the Wendi Winters Memorial Series: DC Theater Arts has partnered with the Wendi Winters Memorial Foundation to honor the life and work of Wendi Winters, the DC Theater Arts writer who died in the Capital Gazette shooting in Annapolis, Maryland, on June 28, 2018. To honor Wendi’s legacy, the Wendi Winters Memorial Foundation has funded the Wendi Winters Memorial Series, monthly articles to be produced by DC Theater Arts to bring attention to theater companies and theater practitioners in our region who engage in exemplary work that makes our community a better place. The centerpiece of these articles is a series we are calling “The Companies We Keep,” articles offering an in-depth look at one local theater company each month. In these times of division and conflict, DC Theater Arts chooses to celebrate those who do good.

For more information on DC Theater Arts’ Wendi Winters Memorial Series, check out this article graciously published by our friends at District Fray Magazine

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Lisa Traiger
An arts journalist since 1985, Lisa Traiger writes frequently on the performing arts for Washington Jewish Week and other local and national publications, including Dance, Pointe, and Dance Teacher. She also edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online eJournal. She was a freelance dance critic for The Washington Post Style section from 1997-2006. As arts correspondent, her pieces on the cultural and performing arts appear regularly in the Washington Jewish Week where she has reported on Jewish drum circles, Israeli folk dance, Holocaust survivors, Jewish Freedom Riders, and Jewish American artists from Ben Shahn to Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim to Y Love, Anna Sokolow to Liz Lerman. Her dance writing can also be read on DanceViewTimes.com. She has written for Washingtonian, The Forward, Moment, Dance Studio Life, Stagebill, Sondheim Review, Asian Week, New Jersey Jewish News, Atlanta Jewish Times, and Washington Review. She received two Simon Rockower Awards for Excellence in Arts Criticism from the American Jewish Press Association; a 2009 shared Rockower for reporting; and in 2007 first-place recognition from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association. In 2003, Traiger was a New York Times Fellow in the Institute for Dance Criticism at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C. She holds an M.F.A. in choreography from the University of Maryland, College Park, and has taught dance appreciation at the University of Maryland and Montgomery College, Rockville, Md. Traiger served on the Dance Critics Association Board of Directors from 1991-93, returned to the board in 2005, and served as co-president in 2006-2007. She was a member of the advisory board of the Dance Notation Bureau from 2008-2009.


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