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Stage

On The Fringe

Festival hopes to unite Charm City’s theater scene

Photo: Michael Northrup, License: N/A

Michael Northrup

Zachary Michel (left) and Michael Brush look a little nervous about the condition of their designated Driver.


When Michael Brush graduated from Towson in 2009, he found many of his friends in the Baltimore area were moving away. They were theater people, looking for steady jobs in the theater industry—and if those jobs exist anywhere, they’re not likely to be in Baltimore.

He and Zachary Michel, a childhood friend, were left behind. Michel graduated from UMBC with a Geography degree* and, like Brush, has a passion for theater. Brush called up Michel and suggested they find a way to keep their friends—and other theater people—from leaving Baltimore: by starting a fringe festival.

“It’s sort of selfish,” Brush says. “I didn’t want all my friends to leave.”

The inaugural Charm City Fringe Festival is more event than festival: Dubbed “Nights on the Fringe” by the duo, it may not bring all of Brush’s friends back to town overnight, but it’s a promising start. On Friday, Nov. 9 and Saturday, Nov. 10, the festival brings such companies as the Single Carrot Theatre, Sticky Buns Burlesque, the Baltimore Improv Group, and Washington D.C.’s Flying V Theatre to the Autograph Playhouse, on 25th Street. Magician (and What Weekly managing director) David London will emcee with Ottobar regular Chucklestorm, and College Park hip-hop group the New Retro will provide entertainment between acts.

“It’s not like a true fringe festival,” says Michel. “It’s kind of like a late-night talk show.” The pair explains that this medium will serve as a launchpad for what they hope will become a larger, multi-venue, four-day festival, similar to established fringe festivals in other cities. But for now, getting everyone in one room may help create buzz: “In the Autograph Playhouse, you can keep it in a contained area,” says Michel, “and it still has that critical mass—you leave the theater and go to the bar, and there’s lots of word of mouth. We want to build an atmosphere of ‘Something is happening.’”

There are fringe festivals in dozens of cities around the world, from New York City to Adelaide, Australia, and while they now serve as signs of cities’ established theater scenes, the festival began as its name suggests—on the fringe. The first fringe festival was held in Edinburgh, Scotland, when a group of renegade theater troupes staged unofficial performances during the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival now claims to be the largest arts festival in the world (sorry, Artscape).

Typically, fringe festivals serve to spotlight a variety of performing arts, especially up-and-coming artists, and the goal is to keep costs low so no one—performers, producers, and audiences—has to break the bank to participate. Tickets are $15 per night, with discounted two-night passes and student tickets also available.

Baltimore seems made for fringe—the city’s various underground arts scenes have coalesced into such multi-day festivals as High Zero, the Maryland Film Festival, and anything that ends in “scape.”

“But there’s nothing explicitly for theater,” Brush says. And, staying true to the festival’s reputation, the pair aims to make this festival as artist-friendly as possible. “The nature of the Fringe Festival is 100 percent of proceeds go back to the artist.”

Michel thinks a fringe festival could unite Baltimore’s theater audience, which he says is now siloed among various companies. “Everyone has their own niche group of followers,” he says. “Baltimore Rock Opera Society, Single Carrot, Everyman, Center Stage. We feel like there isn’t something to . . . not just unite the companies—but unite the audiences.”

Doing so has proven no easy task. “We had very high expectations,” Michel continues. “We started in January and said, ‘Let’s put a festival together in November.’

“For the first three or four months, everybody laughed at us,” says Brush. “They didn’t, like, point and laugh, but there were smirks.” But Brush and Michel worked their connections to meet with different members of the theater community in Baltimore and speak to organizers of fringe festivals in similar cities, like New Orleans, Minnesota, and Philadelphia.

Help often came from places they weren’t expecting—Thibault Manekin, partner of Seawall Development Corporation, proved an early supporter. Brush lives in Miller’s Court, one of Seawall’s repurposed apartment buildings for teachers and, through Manekin’s connections, was able to secure meetings with “the movers and the shakers” in the theater community. “The guys at Seawall try to form a personal relationship with everyone in the building,” he says.

The pair raised funds through a successful $2,000 Kickstarter campaign and an event at Union Mill in October.

With planning for the mini-festival nearly worked out, the pair will now focus their efforts on the second component of Charm City Fringe. Brush, a former ninth-grade English teacher at Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School in Baltimore, and Michel, who has worked on teacher-development courses for National Geographic, see education as the next step in solidifying Baltimore’s theater community.

It will start, they say, with individual theater companies doing performances in local public middle and high schools. Eventually, the festival will host workshops where kids will be able to produce their own work.

“Even if it doesn’t make them artists, it will expose them to art, and they’ll see Baltimore as a viable feeding ground for art,” Brush says. “A big part of it is creating a cycle.”

The charm city fringe festival takes place nov. 9 and 10 at the autograph playhouse. for more information, visit charmcityfringe.com

* We initially reported that Michel graduated from Towson. We regret the error.

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