Capital Fringe Executive Director Julianne Brienza: Artist, Businesswoman, and Janitor Extraordinaire

It takes an outdoor tent bar and a closet full of hats to run Washington D.C.’s Capital Fringe Festival.

Julianne Brienza
Julianne Brienza
(© Dionne McDonald)

Eight years ago, Julianne Brienza launched the Capital Fringe Festival in Washington D.C., filling what she saw as a void in the city’s artistic community. Today, as executive director (and one of only three year-round full-time employees), Brienza has seen the festival bloom into a hotly anticipated annual event for D.C. theatergoers.
Performances of this year’s 130 participating productions began July 11 and will last a total of 18 days, running through July 28. Though performances are held in venues throughout the city, many are housed at Fort Fringe, the festival’s headquarters, which contains three performance spaces. Fort Fringe also boasts a hip outdoor lounge called the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent Bar, which, oddly enough, Brienza describes as an essential cog in the wheel of Capital Fringe. In the midst of Fringe madness, Brienza managed to find time to speak with TheaterMania about this unorthodox component of the festival as well as what it has taken to manage such an overwhelming project for the past eight years (note to all future festival directors: a Kegerator is a must).

Is the festival off to a good start?
Sales are a lot right now. Last year we sold twelve all-access passes, which was two more than the year before and we thought that was awesome. This year we’ve sold twenty-two, which is a big difference. The volunteer software has a limit of four hundred people that you can put into it and we’ve already reached that limit, so we had to upgrade the software.

That’s great that it’s grown so much over the past eight years.
It’s been really busy. We sold out fifteen shows this weekend alone. People had their first performances sell out. When does that happen?! (laughs)

Most people do everything they can to avoid nonprofit work. What made you want to dive into this field?
I’ve never actually not had a job at a nonprofit, except for the brief stint I had at Safeway when I was in high school. (laughs) So I’ve never really had a job where I’m doing one thing. It’s always been that all-encompassing nonprofit we’re-all-in-this-together-type vibe, so I don’t really know anything different.

I’m sure it’s an incredible amount of work.

The first three to four years of the festival were really intense. I don’t even know how we got through some of the things that we got through.

What kinds of things would go wrong?
Everything. (laughs) I remember the first year, somehow my cell phone number got printed in The Post as the number to buy tickets. And I was so much younger at the time so I would answer every call. Now, I would probably put a message on my phone and just let it ring and not answer numbers that I don’t know. Figuring out how to do everything was a lot of what we went through. The first year of the festival — I don’t even remember how many thousands of people we had — but I was like, “Oh my god, it’s more than are in my hometown!” (laughs)

Is there any one accomplishment over the past eight years of the festival that you’re most proud of?
It changes. I don’t know if there’s just one. One of the things we have going on now is we’re really trying to move into different neighborhoods. I’ve been really wanting to get a second tent so that we have two neighborhoods with two tent bars, but it’s never really felt possible. But there was one night during the opening of this festival that I really was like, “We could do this now.” And it’s not even about what we’re doing; it’s really about our community. Washington, D.C. is really at a place where there’s enough people here to…There’s been such a population growth here — the city has really changed. That was a good moment. To realize that we are really moving into a [new] phase of our development and that we have the ability and the capacity to change.

Where did you get the inspiration for the Tent? It seems like it’s one of the most important components of the Capital Fringe Festival.
When I worked the Philly Fringe, they had their Fringe cabaret bar that they would put up in different places and it was always my favorite place to go after shows. They had live music, and you would see so many people there that maybe you didn’t see throughout the year. It was just a really good communal place. The first two years of the festival, we did not have the Tent. I don’t know what people did after shows. They must’ve just gone to bars and hung out — I don’t know.

And you felt like something was missing?
It was different. [But] then we got a capacity building grant in 2008 and [with] part of that grant, we bought a tent. The first year of the Tent, we used a caterer instead of doing the food ourselves and it was horrible. It really was bad. The actual bar didn’t actually have a tent [over] it so when it would rain it was just ridiculous. The year after that, we took over the whole operation of the bar so it was kind of like starting a second business. We get donations for food and beer and all that kind of stuff so we got a Kegerator and did all of that. That really made a big difference because we had more ownership over it so everybody cared about it a lot more, and then it started to become the place where people go and hang out and listen in on other people’s conversations. People really love it. And the food is actually really good! I really just eat there the whole month of July. It is the only food I am eating. And it’s all different sorts of people sitting out there.

Both patrons and performers?
And random people.

It’s also a really great way to attract different audiences because people will come in and be like, “What is this place? Why is this here?”

It sounds like you wear a lot of hats: executive director, marketer, restaurateur…
I also play janitor. I’ve got to figure out how to replace another faucet today. We all do that, though. It’s very much the way I try to train the staff. No job is too small or too large for anybody. We all have a hand in everything.

Does it get overwhelming? Do you like feeling overwhelmed? (laughs)
I don’t even know anymore. (laughs) I think the thing that is the hardest while the festival is going on is that we have all these things to do. Then at the same time it’s this influx of energy that comes in, so physically, you’re exhausted from the energy. That’s the most overwhelming thing. People are just so excited to be there and are just having the time of their lives. Or they get really angry at you and they want to yell. It’s these total extremes of human behavior, but yet you’re supposed to be doing work.

Do you have any good angry-patron stories?
I’ve got tons. Our audiences are just very passionate because we tell them that the festival is theirs and they own it and they behave in that manner. [But] I don’t mind. I would rather have people being passionate about it than not.

How many of the shows do you find time to see?
I usually see about twenty. I think that’s the most that I’ve seen. I like to hang out and watch how everything’s working. I was talking to someone last night and they were going to see fifty-seven and I was like, “Oh my god, that’s crazy.”

What advice do you give to people who can’t choose which show to see?
I tell them to go hang out in the Tent and talk to people.