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.