With Liberty and Festivals for All: Folklife and Fringe
While most know and love the nation’s capital for its politics and monuments, Washington, D.C., offers both locals and tourists a smorgasbord of festivals throughout the year. This month, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is now celebrating through July 7, and the Capital Fringe Festival runs July 11 through July 28.
Smithsonian Folklife Festival 2013
Every June, seemingly out-of-place structures emerge on the National Mall. These temporary canvas tents, juxtaposed against the surrounding majestic marble museums, are tempting to disregard. However, these structures, home to the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, deserve attention from Washingtonians and tourists alike.
Started in 1967, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival calls itself “the largest annual cultural event in the U.S. capital,” bringing over the years “more than 23,000 musicians, artists, performers, craftspeople, workers, cooks, storytellers, and others to the National Mall to demonstrate the skills, knowledge, and aesthetics that embody the creative vitality of community-based tradition.” The festival presents authentic performances, interactive booths and ethnic food stands to teach visitors about different cultures from around the world.
This year, the free festival includes three programs: “Hungarian Heritage,” “One World, Many Voices” and “The Will to Adorn.” About 100 participants from Hungary, Romania and the U.S. are involved in the “Hungarian Heritage: Roots to Revival” section, engaging visitors in dances, games, crafts and styles that hail from Hungary. In its family-friendly booths, young visitors can test their balance walking on wooden stilts and get their hair braided in a traditional style. At the Hungarian Kitchen station, families can watch home-style cooking.
The Danubia Stage showcases Hungary’s vital dance tradition with hour-long performances. Among those excited about the festival, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said, “I think the Hungarian dancers are going to be fabulous. They are a great example of why the festival is so important. A visit to the festival is a way to learn about the rich cultures that exist around the world.” The “One World, Many Voices: Endangered Languages and Cultural Heritage” section highlights the problem of worldwide language loss, raising awareness to the fact that up to half of the approximately 7,000 languages spoken today may disappear by the end of this century. Born from a long-term research project between the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian Institution and UNESCO, the program offers workshops in Family Activities, teaching everything from Welsh words to Yiddish dancing along with engaging performances in Song and Story Circle by musicians and storytellers.
Perhaps the most prominent feature of this program, the Voices of the World tent showcases ensembles performing in their traditional languages. “The performance was definitely an accurate representation of not how they live today but, instead, their tradition,” said visitor Becky Perkins. Perkins came to the festival from New York specifically to watch a group from the Kalmykia region of Russia because she once studied there and wanted to support the group in the festival.
The festival’s third program is “The Will to Adorn: African American Diversity, Style and Identity,” based on research conducted by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. It highlights the many ways by which African American identities are expressed. In the Design Studio tent, visitors can look at distinctive types of African-American artwork, try on apparel and get their hair styled in traditional ways. At the Rock the Runway tent, visitors can watch fashion shows with specific, culturally significant articles of clothing and trends.
“The fashion shows tell how to evolve personal styles and incorporate what you already have into new trends,” said Amy Jalloh, a model from Fairfax, Va. Plus, from 5 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., everyday, visitors can show off their own styles and participate in the fashion show.
At the Collaborative Research station, visitors can also create their own “sartorial autobiographies” and compare their styles to evolving African-American ones.
“Those values…that we select from history and choose to emphasize in the present” are significant in learning about and contrasting divergent heritages, said James Early, director of Cultural Heritage Policy at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
Early urged visitors to “make sure to see ‘The Will to Adorn’ to learn about the wide, deep, historical influence of imagination and creativity of African Americans … on how America sings, dances, speaks and thinks.”
In addition to enjoying the interactive activities and performances, no trip to the Folklife Festival could be complete without a sampling of the gourmet food stands. With five food stands, serving everything from Hungarian stew to Southern-style fried chicken, visitors should plan their visit around at least one meal and snack their way through all three programs.
“Good, family-friendly and reasonable” was how Kansas City tourist and mother-of-three Rachel Foote reviewed the food choices. “Delicious!” agreed Holly Torsilieri of New Jersey. And what could be a better than cooling off with a sweet, refreshing mango lassi while swaying along to native Hawaiian music in the Voices of the World tent?
Festival visitors should be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen and water because it can get extremely hot on the National Mall this time of year. Bottles can be refilled for free at three water stations. Visitors are also advised to bring some cash because some food stands do not accept credit cards. Credit cards can, however, be used to purchase the crafts displayed in the festival tents in the Marketplace.
Bearing all these tips in mind, visits to the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival are sure to be educational, provocative experiences – and prove these seemingly out-of-place tents to be worth your time.
Capital Fringe Festival 2013
Although many may once have been ostracized to the “fringe,” the performances in the Capital Fringe Festival have recently taken center stage in the Washington theatre scene. This unique festival seems to have a show for everyone, whether a theater aficionado or an aspiring one.
The festival is a “great way to learn about the city and theater scene” and is, primarily, “about going to listen to stories and hanging out ... and getting to meet new people,” said Capital Fringe Festival executive director Julianne Brienza.
Because the performances are between 70 and 90 minutes in length and relatively inexpensive, she added, the “fair-esque” atmosphere allows audience members to “go to multiple shows” and hear “a variety of stories.”
This year’s Capital Fringe Festival marks the eighth annual event. Created and organized by the D.C.-based nonprofit Capital Fringe, the idea comes from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society. In the 1940s, Edinburgh locals decided to create the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as a way to perform their unofficial shows that were, as one journalist described them, on the “fringe” compared to the approved ones being presented in the Edinburgh International Festival. The phenomenon has since spread, and fringe festivals like the one in D.C. now occur worldwide. For example, London, Singapore, Sydney and Prague also host similar festivals.
While they span the globe, the festivals share a common philosophy and mission. They give groups of different talents, genres, experience, and size opportunities to perform. Unlike most theater events, committees do not select the shows that will be in the festival. Rather, all groups are allowed, on a first-come first-serve basis, to participate. Accordingly, this welcoming environment encourages artists to take risks and experiment. It also serves as a “great gateway for young new artists,” said Ian Leahy, director of “Waiting for Orson.”
This year, 18 different venues across the city will host performances during the festival which describes itself as having “the purpose of infusing energy into performing arts in the Washington, D.C., region.” Capital Fringe considers its festival “the second largest, unjuried Fringe Festival in the United States” and has “premiered over 400 new works of contemporary performance.”
Recognizing that the wide choices of performance may feel overwhelming to potential theater-goers, Brienza recommended people go to Fort Fringe, the festival’s hub on New York Avenue, and choose shows based on “word-of-mouth advice.”
“People are always talking about the shows,” said Brienza, describing that audience members and artists alike congregate in Fort Fringe's Baldacchino Gypsy Tent Bar. Take their advice and “be adventurous,” she said. There is also information about the shows online.
This year, the performances divide into four sections: comedy, drama, dance and physical theater and musical theater and opera. Brienza said the 2013 festival includes “a lot of shows dealing with veterans’ PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], classical pieces that have been updated and adapted, burlesque and dance.” With this rich variety of shows, the Capital Fringe Festival seems to have performances for everyone.
In addition, Capital Fringe posts on its Twitter account “CapitalFringe” when certain shows are half-sold and sold out. Fringe-enthusiast and self-proclaimed “big theatre person,” Glenn Ihrig, agreed with Brienza’s recommendations. He has learned, after coming to all seven previous festivals and seeing around 14 shows each time, “to come and meet people in Baldacchino, learn what’s ‘best,’ and buy tickets on the spot.” To get the most out of the festival, he encouraged others to “go to two shows in the afternoon and two shows in the evening, taking a break for dinner and a beer in Baldacchino.”
Indeed, the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent Bar seems to be the social centerpiece of the festival. Brynn Tucker, the writer and performer of “A Guide to Dancing Naked,” explained that Baldacchino creates “a great community feeling because, after every show, you can have a drink and connect with others in the theater community.” Plus, Baldacchino has free live music every night.
Perhaps we should all follow Irhig’s example and “let Fringe be [our] life for three weeks. It’s a good thing.”
This year’s festival includes the following 18 venues:
Caos on F (923 F St., NW) Fort Fringe – Baldacchino Gypsy Tent Bar (607 New York Ave., NW) Fort Fringe – Bedroom (612 L St., NW) Fort Fringe – Redrum (612 L St., NW) Fort Fringe – The Shop (607 New York Ave., NW) GALA Theatre at Tivoli Square (3333 14th St., NW) Gearbox (1021 7th St., NW, 3rd Floor) Goethe Institut – Gallery (812 7th St., NW) Goethe Institut – Main Stage (812 7th St., NW) Jin Lounge (2017 14th St., NW) Mount Vernon United Methodist Church – The Mountain (900 Massachusetts Ave., NW) Source (1835 14th St., NW) Studio Theatre – Stage 4 (1501 14th St., NW) The Emergence Community Arts Collective – Studio 2 (733 Euclid St., NW) The Gilbert C. Eastman Studio Theatre (800 Florida Ave., NE) The Streets of Fringe (7th and New York Ave., NW) Warehouse (645 New York Ave., NW) Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – Melton Rehearsal Hall (641 D St., NW)