Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Permanent Tent? Another Take on Capital Fringe

I'm missing a lot of Capital Fringe Festival this year, but made it to a few shows (Happenstance Theater's Manifesto, Pinky Swear Productions' Cabaret XXX) and helped the gang doing Live Broadcast hype their show before travel beckoned me away for the balance of the festival.

But I still have access to Facebook on the road, so it was hard to miss many of my friends sharing Gwydion Suilebhan's blog post complaining about Capital Fringe ticket prices.

This complaint about Fringe prices is an annual thing. And I don't disagree with Gwydion that the pricing policy rewards those who go to a lot of Fringe shows and punishes those who want to dip a toe or foot into the festival.

Indeed, there's another strand of permanent grousing about Fringe as well, mainly from many local artistic directors, who really don't like the resources and attention that Capital Fringe Festival draws away from their own year-round endeavors. And they also have a point -- especially in the fervent wish that local media would cover local theater this way all year round.

Gwydion's post lays out an argument that Capital Fringe is too pricey and sets forth an opinion on what Fringe's true pricing point should be. Effective as the post is in making those points, however, the market seems to be singing a different tune. And it is singing that tune despite the considerable leverage that the consumers and performers have if they are dissatisfied. They can cast a ballot with their feet. If you don't like the pricing scheme, don't go to Fringe. If the performance situation isn't right, don't put on a show at Fringe.

But people do go. And there are many shows for them to see. So to my mind the more useful questions for local theater consumers and performers are (a) what is Capital Fringe doing right? and (b) how can that be replicated year round?

For me, Capital Fringe is like one of those old-timey revival tents. You know, the traveling salvation shows where indie gospel-slingers would roll into town, save a bunch of people and then pull up stakes and preach it in the next town. (Think Elmer Gantry.)

The argument that the revival preachers make to local churches (again, see Elmer Gantry) is straightforward. This is going to drive attendance in your churches after we leave town. That is a very debatable proposition for local theater, but that's the argument.

But what's beyond debate is the energy that the Capital Fringe infuses into the DC theater community for its three-week run. The atmosphere at the tent at Fort Fringe is pretty astonishing in its boozy, networky way. People are actually having fun seeing theater. Friends are being made. It's something that DC theater could use all year round. A permanent tent.

Instead, to pick on one particular instance, you have an awesome space like Artisphere with a cafe that doesn't stay open long enough to have a drink or kibbitz after a show. That's a lost opportunity. And a way we can learn from what Fringe does right. Not just creating art, but creating a fun and exciting and vital space around the art.

If the press reports are correct (Chris Klimek's masterful profile of Capital Fringe last year comes to mind), Capital Fringe is a pretty sustainable festival in the economic sense. I don't see anything wrong with that at all. It's what everybody in this game wants. Everyone knows that you won't get rich doing theater in DC, but much of what we do is not sustainable absent the intervention of rapidly-shrinking arts funding by government and donors. We need to make what we do more sustainable. Fringe proves that it can be done. Not without costs and controversy. But it can be done.

Truth be told, I can think of one company in town (Woolly Mammoth) that consistently tries to infuse that positive Fringey energy into all aspects of what they do -- from shows to marketing to excellent use/sharing of their ample space. Local companies need to do more of that -- and if they lack the resources to do it themselves, then they need to put aside some of their competitive axes and band together to make it happen.

For instance: What would a late fall or early spring festival put together by DC's best mid-sized nonprofit theaters look like? A festival held at one or two central locations and with a central meeting place with food and drink?

Or, to simplify, what would an expansion of the Source Festival look like -- an expansion that keeps the festival's present vision and inventive format but adds another layer of performances by local companies into the mix? (And, maybe, a move to a different time of year?)

Either one of these things could compel local media to pay the same sort of attention to local companies that they pay to Fringe. Both would infuse the local theater community with energy and shared enterprise. But it would take cooperation and coordination. Just the sort of thing that Capital Fringe has done successfully over the past few years.

Grousing about ticket prices feels good. Like everyone wrestling with this grim economy, I grouse about ticket prices all the time. But once the grousing's done, what actually changes? And what do we learn? And how do we make a more energetic local theater scene real (and sustainable) year round? How do we build a permanent tent for DC theatre?

Capital Fringe is giving us a lot of ideas that we can use to make a start. If we want to.


Gwydion Suilebhan said...

Well, I wouldn't call what I wrote either "complaining" or "grousing," though I do perhaps hit that tone in places, I admit.

I am curious to know whether, as you suggest, the market *is* singing the tune you suggest. (For the record, I don't know either way, though I have heard rumors, which aren't worth repeating -- and so I won't.) I am led to understand that Chris is doing a story on ticket sales for this week's issue, so perhaps he'll let us know whether butts are appearing in seats.

For me, though, it's not only a question of whether there are butts in seats; I'm also concerned about whose butts they are.

What I admire about what you've written is your emphasis of the positive, as well your suggestions about how those positive elements might be leveraged in other ways year-round. It reminded me of this post I encountered last week:

You've "talked about what's good" very well. For my part, I tried to do the same in my initial few graphs -- to discuss the ways in which I admire the Festival. But you went much further, and I think that's grand.

To return to the question of pricing, though, for a moment: I think the larger concern we both hint at, but that neither of us addresses directly, is the troubling fact that our economy cannot seem to support the Festival at what I would call more accessible prices AND still reward artists for their time. This is a question, I'm sure you'll agree, that no blog post is going to solve... though perhaps we move forward, with civil discourse, by inches.

Finally, let me say this: I think (as I have said on several other discussions) that Julianne and the Fringe board and staff deserve medals for having brought us such an amazing festival and sustained it in tough economic times. I'm grateful on several levels for their hard work and their successes. My post was not meant to be an attack on anyone... merely to make the simple point that I believe the ticket prices are not appropriate for the festival. I am sure there are significant financial pressures that have influenced their increase, and I certainly don't have any suggestions as to how those pressures might be relieved.

Richard Byrne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard Byrne said...

Thanks for the reply, Gwydion. You *were* grousing, but from a good place: the views of the paying customer and as an advocate for expanding audience.

My post wasn't an attempt to change the subject a la Travis Bedard. Capital Fringe has problems that can't be Pollyanna'd away. I just believe that it's every bit as important to dissect what Fringe is doing right than to say they've got the pricing wrong for what's on offer.

At bottom, as nonprofit, Fringe is a success if art gets made and people (yes, even the organizers) get paid and they break even. That it adds such palpable energy and media attention to DC theater is a bonus -- and should compel our attention.

And more important... I think Fringe is arguing that the market might bear more for DC nonprofit theaters in the land of $12 cocktails that any of us think -- and that there are ways that these theaters could collaborate and coordinate to maximize value.

I have nothing against free or cheap theater. I've put substantial amount of my own time and money behind the concept over the last few years.

But what Capital Fringe is showing is that local theaters may be able to extract more of their real worth from audiences if they do the right things: pick and perform excellent work, market it smartly (and to the right audiences) and something we don't do as well as Capital Fringe: Create an atmosphere of urgency, fun and vitality not just in what we do but around it as well.

Gwydion said...

Okay, so, yeah...I was grousing a bit.

I was also making an argument: that Fringe prices are too high, both relative to the offering and to encourage first-time and single-ticket attendees.

Based on what I can only describe as an overwhelming response in the last two days -- 180+ shares of my post on Facebook, a thousand visitors to my site, dozens of emails, a few dozen comments, and more -- it seems clear that I simply said what, well, lots of people were already thinking.

That is not to say that popular opinion is always wise...merely that it exists. And the fact that it exists, right or wrong, is evidence that the value of Fringe isn't universally apparent among either artists or audiences. From artists, I have been hearing "I am embarrassed to ask friends to pay so much to see my show." from audiences I have been hearing "I won't pay that much at all" and "I feel nickel-and-dimed." Those sentiments are troubling to me.

You are very articulate about the value you perceive, and perhaps that will help sway public opinion.

Dantehicks36 said...

Great article on the subject and I totally hear what you are saying that we are getting wrapped up in the pricing issue when there are other issues at play...the problem being is that I think fringe is getting right everything else that its doing. I think the variety of shows, the way they promote themselves, the tent and all other aspects are great.

There is a problem though. I can't afford to see the shows I would like to see. I can't support my friends work in the way I would like too, I want to take a risk on a show, but at 17 dollars a ticket thats too big a risk for a 60 min show that may be horrible...its too big of a gamble...for me.

So you are right there are lots of things DC can learn from the fringe festival and everyone involved should be proud of what they do...I often tell playwrights to get their stuff done at fringe, as a way to learn how to self produce in a safe environment. We can constantly talk about the good, and if my only issue is pricing then I have a simple solution for me...I won't see any shows...I won't give fringe my money...which is what I have chosen to do this year.

It may not make a difference but for me its the right one.

Richard Byrne said...

Apologies DanteHicks36 for not approvung your comment much much sooner....