On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Guest Host: Dan Reed
In 2005, a group of creators gathered in a house in Columbia Heights to perform progressive theatrical works in front of a welcoming audience. That gathering on the fringe of D.C.’s arts scene eventually became the Capital Fringe Festival.
This year’s Fringe Festival includes the quirky, the poignant, and the political; with this year’s theme of “Selfies From the Artists,” many of the performances are likely to be all three. About 70 percent of the performers from all 90 of this year’s shows hail from the DMV.
We’ll meet three artists lending their talents to the festival this year, one the creator of a 30-hour one-man show on American history, one a monologist who’s “eulogizing the living,”, and one an artist whose work you might have seen projected on the Trump International Hotel.
And we’ll also hear from the founding director who’s helped the festival grow out of her house in Columbia Heights and into the rest of D.C.
Produced by Maura Currie
- Robin Bell Multimedia artist, creator of "Arcade"; @bellvisuals
- Adriana Hillas Playwright, director and performer of "Mamita: Eulogies to the Living"; @adrianahillas
- Mike Daisey Writer and performer of "A People’s History"; @mdaisey
- Julianne Brienza Director and Co-Founder, Capital Fringe Festival; @juliannebrienza
DAN REEDWelcome back. I'm Dan Reed, in for Kojo Nnamdi. The Capital Fringe Festival began as a gathering of artists in a house in Columbia Heights. Fourteen years later, the 2019 Fringe Festival can't be contained in one building, or even 10. Starting today, 90 performances will spread across three weeks and 14 locations throughout DC, some of them meandering through the city as walking tours.
DAN REEDThe theme this year is "Selfies From the Artists," and the performers have taken that to mean anything from the quirky to the poignant and political. Here to talk about this year's festival is Julianne Brienza, a founding director of Capital Fringe. Thank you for being here.
JULIANNE BRIENZAThank you.
REEDJulianne, for people who have never experienced it, what is the Capital Fringe Festival?
BRIENZAThe Capital Fringe Festival is a first-come-first-served performing arts festival. We started 14 years ago. We also started a curated series that this is our second year of. And the shows really run the gamut from comedies, dramas, dance performances and stuff that really can't be fit into a category. We try to take over a neighborhood during the festival. This will be our second year in Southwest DC. We love Southwest. It's a great festival neighborhood, lots of places to walk, lots of awesome restaurants that patrons can partake in.
REEDSo, DC is known for its arts events and festival. How did the concept of the Fringe Festival come about, and does it serve a different purpose than other arts events that already take place here?
BRIENZAI moved to DC in 2003, and I was dismayed at how gray, and I felt really alone here. I had worked the Philadelphia Fringe when I lived in Philadelphia before I came here. And it was always such a great time to network, get to know the voice of theater in the city, and I missed it. So, a group of us got together and started the festival.
BRIENZASomething that's unique about the Capital Fringe Festival and that I think makes us stand out with other events around the city is that we really are a local festival. This year, 70 percent of our participants live in the DMV area, with 47 percent residing here in the District of Columbia. So, it's always great to hear what your neighbors or the folks, you know, artists from your community are actually thinking about.
BRIENZAAnd I think this year, almost 80 percent of the shows are new. They've never been done before. So, if you look at the festival guide and you're, like, I don't know what any of this stuff is, that's because it's never been done before. And these are stories from members of your community. And we also have a lot of touring artists that come to the festival, as well, because Fringe is a worldwide concept.
REEDSo, every year, Fringe has a theme. This year, it's "Selfies From the Artists." What's your favorite thing about this year's festival?
BRIENZAWell, I actually -- I was the person that got all the emails with the selfies attached. And, you know, in true form, I got emailed about 200 in one day. And it was so amazing to see everybody's faces. And after doing this for 14 years, I hadn't actually had that experience of actually seeing everyone's individual faces. I get really inspired by helping artists put on their shows and, you know, calming them down when they're freaking out about something that isn't really that consequential to their actual performance.
BRIENZAAlso, I love the passion that the artists have in the stories that they're telling. I mean, the groups that may be working on the shows, that is what sort of drives me to continue to work on the festival. And I think it also inspires the audiences when they come to really see these raw stories and the passion that the performers have.
REEDIn addition to all these new performances, is there anything else that visitors can expect different this year?
BRIENZAOne of the things that is different, you know, we've had a required button. The Fringe button is sort of a North American Fringe tradition, and we have been requiring a button since 2008. And, honestly, for five years, I've been trying to get rid of it, but it's kind of a big math story problem that I needed to unravel, because that really does help us at the festival, because we take 100 percent of the button revenue.
BRIENZASo, we still have the button. So, don't be confused by things you may have read. We still have the button. It's $5, and you can still get button discounts, just like you have in years past. We have a lot of local businesses, and also, you know, it's The Wharf, so a lot of corporations that also have businesses over there that are offering button discounts. So, we still -- but it's not required to enter the venue.
REEDSome of those artists are here with us today. First off, we have Mike Daisey, the writer and performer of "A People's History." Thanks for being here today.
MIKE DAISEYThanks for having me.
REEDMike, tell us about "A People's History."
DAISEYWell, it's a history of America that begins on a crisp, fall day in 1492, and goes from then all the way to the current moment right now, in July of 2019. Because that is a very large amount of time, it's actually a show in 18 chapters. So, there are 18 different, full-length monologues, about 30 hours of show that tell the history of America, primarily through Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States” and "My U.S. History Textbook."
REEDThirty hours is a substantial amount of performance time. What led to your decision to give this story so much space?
DAISEYWell, I feel like grappling with the legacy of this country and where we stand today, that this country was founded and built on two pillars that stand in the basement of our country, that we don't want to talk about, that being genocide and slavery. And in order to actually grapple with the depth of that and the size and scale of it and to tell the story in a way where you're not abridging history unnecessarily, it's actually as concise as I'm currently able to make it.
REEDI'm also here today with Adriana Hillas, the playwright, director and performer of "Mamita: Eulogies to the Living." Thanks for being here.
ADRIANA HILLASThank you.
REEDWhat is Mamita about and do you see this as a very personal project?
HILLASYes. So, "Mamita: Eulogies to the Living" is a performed love letter from daughter to mother, a strange and funny performed love letter. And it's based around Charla, who is the daughter figure. And she has developed a persona, Tabby, to cope with grief, inherited grief. And it's a very dream-like poetic and spontaneously goofy expedition in navigating this inherited grief. But I would say it is personal. I think my relationship with my mother has probably illuminated some of the biggest questions in my life. But it's also based on a lot of interviews with young women and their mothers and a lot of literature and music based around the kind of knotted relationship between mothers and daughters.
REEDWhat does it mean to eulogize the living?
HILLASYeah. I wanted to basically perform letters to people, inspired by people in my life. And they are the things that I'd rather kind of investigate and eulogize about before they're dead, really.
REEDAdriana and Mike, you both wrote your own shows and you're both the sole performers in them. Are these shows that you feel could only be done by you?
HILLASI think so. Well, this -- I mean, I think maybe one day I could see it, if it had evolved sort of enough away from me. But right now, these are really people that I -- it's basically me talking to myself and the voices that I've -- I mean, that's how the writing came about, voices that I had talking to myself. And so I started to record and write them down. So, I think for now, yes.
REEDAnd how about you, Mike?
DAISEYOh, I would hope that other people would choose to become a monologist and then tell -- this history belongs to everyone, and frankly, I would love to see other people telling that story. I feel like my place in it is that I'm a straight-presenting white guy, and so it's an opportunity for you to speak to a lot of theatergoers who are, a lot of them, straight-presenting white people. And it's an opportunity to talk to them about the fact that we are culpable for this legacy and how we're going to actually grapple with it. But I would love other people to grab a hold of it and tell this story.
REEDDo you write differently for yourself than you would with a different performer?
DAISEYYou know, I've had some transcripts of my shows -- like the show I did about Trump -- transcribed and then performed by lots of other people who I gave them away and let the people perform them. And I think it is inherently different. I always encourage people to, like, adapt my work if they're going to be performing for them, because I want to see it live inside of them and use their experiences.
REEDAlso here today with Robin Bell, the creator of "Arcade," an interactive installation that's taking over The Wharf. Robin, thanks for being here.
ROBIN BELLGlad to be here.
REEDSo, is this your first time performing at Fringe?
BELLIt is. And this is -- you know, our installation and experience and what it is is pretty unique. And I'm really excited to be able to bring it this year, which is we're creating a space where people will actually interact with the arcade. They'll come in and work together as teams and play these games. In the process of working on this, you know, just trying to figure out how do we interact in general in public, and then in private spaces, and specifically around games.
BELLYou know, I grew up playing video games. I love going to arcades. Those kind of experiences have changed since I was a kid, and they're different for the different generations of people who play games. So, we've created the spaces where people will come in. Some games will be familiar, some will be new, but how we interact with them is, you know, we'll play as groups, and we'll try to win the games together.
BELLAnd, you know, I'm really excited about this idea of someone coming in from different generations and how they interact with games and their experiences of them. It's awesome and, you know, the way I look at how we've curated the games, it's like how a DJ would make a music set. And so trying to gear the games towards a certain kind of interaction with each other, and then it'll change up, depending on how people interact. And, you know, at the same time is this going to -- you know, I think it looks pretty cool.
BELLLike, we've been doing these tests in the studio where we have, like, 15 games playing at the same time. And then I'll bring people over, and I'll say, have you seen this game? And people don't know how to play it. And so these interactions with, I don't know how to play this game, and you talk to the person next to you, say, how do you do this? And that's, I think, part of the arcade process as a kid that I loved was you didn't know how it works. But working together, you do it together, and you learn how it works.
BELLAnd I think that -- you know, I spent most of my life as a filmmaker, and as an editor, in particular. And, you know, I'm pretty fast as an editor, and people would also go, how did you learn how to edit so fast? And I'd always say, video games. I worked with other people, and I would -- hand-eye coordination, but also looking and interacting. So, you know, creating a public space where we can do this is really, I think, it's essential. And I think it's -- I'm super-excited to see how people come into it and go, I want to play, and then, wait, how do I play? Oh, wait. I need to talk to somebody else in order to play. You know, I'm excited about it.
REEDJulianne, how could you create or curate such a diverse range of acts and events like the ones we've been talking about today?
BRIENZAThat's a great question. (laugh) I guess the way -- since we've been doing the curated series, I'm not curating the shows based on a theme, per se. I mean, a lot of -- with Robin, Robin has sort of been part of the Fringe family since about 2008. And he did a film series at our space, the Logan Fringe Art Space, “Directed Actions.” And through his work, you know, protesting against the president, I've been really wanting to help him sort of kind of become a full artist and not just be protesting, and I think to give him an opportunity to do something that's outside of that, I wanted to do that.
BRIENZAAnd then with Mike, you know, I've been aware of Mike since he was part of the festival with Woolly Mammoth Theater Company. I think it was like 2007. And he's just a really powerful storyteller that we have, you know, on the planet right now. And the show "A People's History" is one that I think needs to be told here in the nation's capital. And so those -- I mean, it's kind of that simple. We also have a new play commissioning program that we're doing, which we have three plays with that program. And they're all very different stories.
REEDWhen you say commissioning, do you mean plays that are put together specifically for this festival?
BRIENZAYes. We did a commissioning program that was in, it was, like, in January through -- in January we accepted the plays, and then we started working with the playwrights. We've been working with them since February.
REEDWhat kind of audiences do you get at Fringe?
BRIENZAThat is always an interesting question, because we actually get a lot of folks. We do, of course, get some, you know, regular theatergoers that go to, you know, regional theater. But we actually get a lot of folks that are not typical theatergoers and sort of are just curious about storytelling, or they may be really stuck on one show that has their daughter or cousin is in it. And then they just kind of jump in and see a lot of other shows.
BRIENZAIt really isn't a traditional kind of audience. And a lot of our folks are local. We did have a ten -- our capacity field went up 10 percent last year in the Southwest, so we're hoping to have another great year this year.
REEDWe've got an email from Steve: this is a truly extraordinary group of artists. Julianne has produced another incredible festival. This is just so good for DC. Can't wait.
REEDSo, one thing that -- Robin, one thing that Julianne mentioned was your political work. You're probably best known for your projection of protest messages onto the Trump International Hotel. Is all of your art inherently political?
BELLI mean, I'm gonna throw it back. I think all art is political. And, you know, as an artist, I think what we do is we look at the world around us, and we see things that affect us personally, and then we see things that affect our community. I'm an artist from Washington, DC. My studio's in Mount Pleasant. I'm surrounded by a vibrant community that's under threat. And, you know, as an artist, I'm looking for inspiration, you know. And with the medium in particular that I choose is projections, for the most part.
BELLProjections are light, and so what I like to think is I'm not -- I'm illuminating issues, and I'm trying to create discussion points. And, you know, with a lot of film work, I've always tried to document people who are trying to make the world better within whatever condition they're in. So, this is what really excites me about the arcade, is I'm able to kind of take this process of thinking about games. And, at the same time, we're operating in the middle of the Trump administration, while children are in cages.
BELLAnd it's hard. Like, at one point, it was like, I shouldn't be working on Arcade. I should be out projecting on the hotel. At the same time, these problems, like especially with -- you know, when you look at what Mike's doing, is these problems didn't start or end with Trump. And, you know, as an artist, I feel I need to -- you know, I do need to expand consistently and constantly and grow. And, you know, I think that this is in tandem with the work that I do projected on site-specific buildings around the city and around the country. this form of kind of exploring these ideas.
BELLAnd with any luck, with any good art like we do, what it does it starts a conversation. So, I think it's, you know, I think -- yeah, all work is political. Because if you're not talking about it, than that's political, as well.
REEDWe'll continue our conversation after a short break. Stay tuned.
REEDWelcome back. I'm Dan Reed, in for Kojo. We're talking about the Capital Fringe Festival here, with Julianne Brienza, the director of the Capital Fringe Festival. So, this festival is un-juried. Could you talk about that means for the performers in the festival?
BRIENZAWell, it means that if you would like to do a show, you can fill out an application in October where we ask for a 20-word synopsis of the story and just, uh, you now, a few other, like, kind of logistical information. Just like how many people you need to have on stage. And then we go through all those applications. And then, in February, we notify the artists of their acceptance. And we really accept people just first-come, first-served, and it's based on what we can accommodate in our venues. So, that's -- there's no judgments. I mean, you could just show about whatever.
BRIENZAWe do have some -- if a show is, like, dealing with hate speech, we have some issues with that. That sort of kind of goes beyond the bounds of what we really can accommodate.
REEDAre there any awards given during the festival?
BRIENZAWe do have awards. They will go live on July 9th at, like, 7:00 a.m. We have best drama, best comedy, best solo performance, best dance, best musical theater and best of the festival, and other audience awards. So, like I say, every year, they're very meaningful to people. But, at the end, of the day, it's a popularity contest. So, we do have awards. (laugh)
REEDYou mentioned working on the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. And, of course, Fringe is an international phenomenon. How would you say Capital Fringe sets itself apart from others?
BRIENZAWell, one thing that's great is that some of us are actually very similar. And it's really great to be in company with like-minded folks. But, like I said, it's really that we've stayed true to keeping it a local festival. That is something that as, you know, festivals kind of continue on -- because we're going to be in our 15th year next year, which is crazy -- to keep that commitment to keeping it a stage for local artists. Especially in the nation's capital, where we have so many larger regional theaters and federally funded institutions, to really have a place for local artists to kind of express themselves and use us as a launching pad. Or some people have been doing the festival since the first year, so they just continue to launch year after year from the Fringe festival.
REEDMike Daisey, you've performed in a variety of different settings. What appeals to you about doing Fringe?
DAISEYWell, you know, I started in the garage theaters of Seattle, and so, for me, it feels like getting back to my roots of, like, working with the Fringe Festival. It feels like the place where my work came from, originally. The show of mine that became a national show years ago about me working at Amazon.com was originally performed in an unheated garage with -- the back wall was a garage door that, occasionally, people would bang against or throw up behind, and you could hear on stage.
DAISEYAnd it, like, directly transferred from there to eventually run Off Broadway. So, I feel like it's the place where I actually started. And so I really love being able to reconnect with a community that way.
REEDAdriana, you're one of the playwrights in this year's Fringe festival. What appeals to you about doing it?
HILLASI think it was an opportunity to kind of have a goal in mind and build up towards, and also to connect with a lot of different artists from and around DC, and also transplants who aren't from DC. And it's an opportunity to, I think, also have a different relationship with DC. DC can get shattered a bit by the politics and government relations center that exists here. But there's really a strong and deep history of a community here and a lot of arts and culture that's been, you know, going on for, obviously, years and years and year. But I think that can get really -- at least in my experience, is that that can get shouted out quite a lot by, you know, the clout of politics.
REEDThat's an interesting point. You know, I want to jump on the idea of art and the political climate that we're in. You know, if you had to articulate it, is there a current event or political thread that you feel like your work is responding to?
HILLASYes, I think a little bit. And just going off of what Robin Bell was talking about in terms of that all art is political. My piece has to do with, sure, a mother and daughter relationship, but I think, inherently, the show is about, one, a funeral for fear, as a performer, as a maker, but also the fear you have within relationships, undealt with. And it's also to do with -- I mean, who would you be if you didn't kind of face and reflect and truly deal with the things that you were pressing, kind of ignore?
HILLASAnd that allows you to grow and evolve and to give back and be a central, important part in your community. And so I think that my piece is sort of working on that. I'm imagining what I would've been like if I really just truly ignored most of those problems.
BELLYeah. I mean, one thing that I keep on thinking about with, like, what a purpose of how, like, what we're creating for the Fringe in particular is, is I think that politically what's happening to a lot of people at the very moment is we're being burned out. And something that I hope that we can bring with the arcade in particular is a place where people can come together and create and do something together that's a success.
BELLAnd for one hour, you're removed from downtown DC. You know, from the location, you can see the Washington Monument. You know, you're going to be in a place where, you know, the heart and soul of DC -- what keeps a lot of us in DC is the community of arts and artists. And we have legends that we look up to, who, despite whatever oppression that they face, created breathtaking music. I mean, the history of music on U Street was in parallel with some of the worst oppression that our country's ever had.
BELLYou know, so I think, you know, it's essential for us to carry on as creators, to say, this is where we're at right now, and we're going to try to create something. And I think that for this show in particular, my thing is trying to create something new that I've never done. But all the artists, I think, are trying to figure out what their voice is in this climate, and doing something.
REEDRobin, aside from your own work, is there anything you're excited about seeing or doing at this year's festival?
BELLI'm excited to just be there. I mean, I think that the thing is, I think, with what makes festivals beautiful, is you learn. And, like, just today, you know, I'm hanging out with Mike and Adriana. It's the first time we get to hang out, and that's how friendships start, and that's like, hey, can you come to this show. And then you see a show, it's like, if you like this show you can go to this show. And it's -- you know, a festival is a beautiful thing, where, you know, there's over 90 shows. So, you know, you can really come in there and not know what you're gonna do and go off and choose your own adventure.
BELLSo, I think that's something that I'm really excited for, is to be a part of those kind of conversations and be a part of an artist working with a larger team of artists who, you know, it's serious, and it's going to be fun.
REEDHow about you, Adriana?
HILLASI think, absolutely, the same. I feel incredibly honored (laugh) to be sitting in between these two guys, and to be chatting and getting feedback and conversations with all sorts of artists that will be involved. And not just the artists. People who will come and see the shows, that's hugely important.
REEDHow about you, Mike?
DAISEYI'm just really excited to have this opportunity to be here at this moment. My show's about the whole history of America. And coming the day after what Trump did the 4th of July, I'm excited to try to set some things straight, you know, and try to tell a story that the audience can work with me. I'm excited to see that community grow throughout all these 18 performances. I'm just really excited about that part of it, the connection.
REEDDo you -- with 18 performances, is this something that audience members, they need to go see all 18 parts, or are they able to sort of pick and choose where they want to fit into it?
DAISEYOh, they can totally pick and choose. The beautiful thing about history is that it's never going to be complete. It's so much larger than any of us. So, each of the chapters is actually built to totally work as one whole and complete show. And then if you want to return, there are discounts, so it's easier to come back. And then come back often, if you like. I'll be there, I think, for all 18. (laugh)
REEDAnd none of them repeats.
DAISEYNone of them repeat.
REEDEvery single one will be different.
DAISEYEvery single one is different, yes.
REEDVery interesting. So, Julianne, the festival starts very soon, my understanding is.
BRIENZAWe have our first show tonight.
REEDAnd it runs through the 28th.
REEDSo, where can people learn more about this year's Capital Fringe Festival?
BRIENZAA great place to go is to go to CapitalFringe.org, and you can browse the event schedule. You can also check out Randy the Randomizer, which is the dice that is located at the top of our website, also at the very bottom of the page on the homepage. And if you just have no idea what show to pick, you can click on Randy the Randomizer, and he will pick a random show for you.
BRIENZAAlso a great thing to do is we -- you know, the festival is up and running, all the venues, July 9th to the 28th. Shows on the weekdays are from about 5:30 till about 11:00, and on the weekends from about 11:00 to 11:00. If you're walking around the Southwest, head into one of our venues. You'll see a big, hot-pink flag outside that says Fringe Festival. Our box office associates would love to help you and just sort of get you a multi-show pass, which is a great way to get discounts on tickets. We have a whole variety of passes. So, it's pretty easy. Come on down. We'd love to chat with you and see you in the audience.
REEDAwesome. Thank you so much to all of our guests for being here. This conversation about the Capital Fringe Festival was produced by Maura Currie, and our update on yesterday's 4th of July news and this weekend's Demand Free Speech rally was produced by Mark Gunnery. Coming up on Monday, we'll learn about the museum of the Palestinian people. That all starts Monday, at noon. Until then I hope you have a wonderful weekend. I'm Dan Reed.
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