Inside D.C. entertainment

Friday is payday for Fringe Festival performers

August 11, 2010 - 12:10 PM
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Two weeks after the Capital Fringe Festival has come to an end, it’s time for executive director Julianne Brienza to cut some checks. On Friday, she’ll be disbursing $204,000 among the 137 performance groups that participated in this year’s Fringe.

“I think it’s a big deal,” says Brienza. “They all get a letter, and then I sit down and I write everyone little notes. We have a partnership with [the performers], and I want them to feel acknowledged for the work that they did, whether they had a great time or a bad time.”

And in the Fringe, the difference between a great time or a bad time can mean thousands of dollars. The highest-grossing show of Fringe, Happenstance Theatre’s Handbook for Hosts, pulled in more than $10,000. After the Fringe Festival takes their cut, which covers festival expenses, Happenstance will be getting a check for more than $7,000.

Performers’ revenue is based on ticket sales, so shows that don’t pull in as much of a crowd will naturally earn less. The smallest check this year is is about $200, said Brienza, who declined to name the show. That’s more cash than last year, when the smallest check went out to a Minnesota performing group who earned a paltry $69.

Other factors can account for the disparity between show incomes. This year was the first that the Fringe used the Studio Theatre’s Mead Theatre, which seats 200. Most Fringe venues are smaller, ranging to the Point, a space at 1017 7th St. that seats only 40. Shows are assigned to venues first based on their technical needs, and after that, on how appropriate a show is for a certain space, says Brienza. Having a big venue is no guarantee that a show will make more money, though. That depends entirely on how good a show is, and how much buzz it gets.

But using bigger venues such as Studio can also affect an artist’s take. Fringe typically gives the performers 60 to 70 percent of the profits, keeping the rest to cover the costs of the festival, such as venue permits, insurance, and paying staff. Bigger venues carry bigger costs, and that’s one of the reasons that the Fringe’s total artist payout for this year is less than 2009, when they disbursed $260,867.32 to artists, even though ticket sales numbered 33,897, up from 25,500 in 2009.

“Our pass sales were higher this year than they’ve ever been,” said Brienza. “I think a lot of it is that people were seeing multiple shows... They’re not just going to see their neighbor or brother.”

Brienza is still crunching the final numbers for Fringe 2010 to present them to the festival’s finance committee later this month.

“We can have the most successful festival ever, and we’re committed to giving revenue to artists, but I’m figuring out cash flow and how to end the year on a positive note,” she says. “One thing that’s positive is that we’ve paid all of our bills from the festival already.”

After that, it’s on to the Fall Fringe, in which some favorite acts will reprise their shows from the summer festival. Some of the shows coming back include Kelly Bond’s Elephant, GoHorses’ Ridgefield Middle School Talent Nite, and Wayward Theatre’s Freud Meets Girl. Fall Fringe takes place Nov. 4-21.

But that’s a secondary task, compared to the big stack of checks on Brienza’s desk requiring her signature this week. With this year’s artist payouts, the Fringe will have given out $1,062,000 in the past five years of Fringe. How does it feel? “It’s cathartic,” says Brienza.

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