Photos by Jeff Martin
Words by Eden Raskin Jenkins
Julianne Brienza might actually be my hero. She is one tough lady who is deeply determined and dedicated to elevating the theater and arts scene in D.C. Through her creation of Capital Fringe Festival and Capital Fringe, she has produced a safe space for artists to discover themselves and their talents. Not to seem too dramatic, but she has effectively changed the face of theater in D.C., by rewriting the equation and making it by the people, for the people. Throughout our interview I was so impressed with her complete lack of ego, and instead in its place found a strong work ethic, a gut that should clearly be trusted and her enthusiasm to keep learning and creating, regardless of the form it takes. It is so clear that she is so grounded in reality, while she also doesn’t let it get in her way and still has the ability to dream big and then, most importantly, follow through.
So tell me about your first job ever.
I guess my first job ever, where I got money for doing something was shoveling walks with my brothers. We’d get up at five in the morning and go out and shovel the whole neighborhood and then we’d go home, eat breakfast and go to school.
Where are you from?
I grew up in Montana .
So lots of snow.
There’s snow. There’s definitely snow. That was during my first endeavor into getting paid because I didn’t get an allowance growing up. So, we had jobs.
Did you always think you were going to be involved with theater?
When I was seven I declared that I was going to be an actress and that I would work in theater. Since then I’ve always been involved in theater. Through high school I worked for the Montana Vaudeville Players as an actress and then also sold concessions at intermission. I went to college for theater, which was a journey. When I was still in high school, I got accepted to Cornish College, which is an acting conservatory in Seattle and I put down the deposit and everything and then my parents decided that because it wasn’t a real college that I couldn’t go to school there and I was devastated. I was really upset, because that’s the only thing I ever really thought I would do, so then I was pissed at them for two years and went to a Catholic College in Helena, Montana. Then I realized that the game was that if I was going to go to college, I would have to go to a Catholic college. So I ended up doing an audition tape for a school in Lacrosse, Wisconsin. I actually got in and got a scholarship, so I ended up going to Wisconsin. I really learned a lot about not just acting, but also theater, being a theater artist in general. When I got done with school, I ended up moving to my sister’s basement in Chicago.
And what was the plan in Chicago?
I was thinking I was going to be a fiber artist. After Chicago, I ended up moving to Carroll, Iowa, worked at a newspaper as their graphic designer and then…this is where I sort of just said, “What am I doing with my life?”
So, then I ended up being the Campaign Manager for a guy running for the Iowa legislature. And then I sort of was like, “Woah, what am I doing? I have a degree in theater, maybe I should use that?” So, I applied for internships and apprenticeships all over the country and I ended up getting into an apprenticeship program at the Arden Theater Company in Philadelphia, which is an awesome program. It’s basically nine months where you work 80-hour weeks and you totally learn how to run a nonprofit theater, which is a lot of different things. So I moved to Philadelphia. It was a pretty awesome experience. Once that was through, I ended up becoming the Managing Director of 1812 Productions, which is a comedy theater in Philadelphia. So along the way I learned that when you actually work in theater, you can’t just be an actor. You can’t just be a director, and so, through all those times, I was doing light hangs, I was the master electrician on shows–I don’t even know how I knew how to do all that stuff, you just learn it. I was acting in shows. I was learning puppetry. So, I really did a whole bunch of different things. Up until I moved to D.C. I had never had a job for more than two years. And it wasn’t that I was moving around. That’s actually what the work is like.
You know, you’re working show by show, and I’m not independently wealthy, so I needed to make money to live, so when I was the Managing Director of 1812, I was also the House Manager at the Arden. Basically, I had two full time jobs at the same time, which really is a bad idea. So, I did that for one year and then I was like, “I can’t.”
So, I actually quit both of my jobs, and for about two years I didn’t really work that much, but then when I say what I did it sounds like I worked a lot. I started an Inner City Arts and Residency Program in Philadelphia.
And, how old were you then?
I was, maybe, twenty-seven. It’s actually still running to this day. Which is sort of cool. Then I sort of decided I didn’t want to work in theater anymore. Mainly because the actual business of theater, in my opinion, is a little bit formulaic. And, I think I was just really tired of regional theater, subscription based, “You have to do these sorts of shows to sell tickets.” So around that time I had this sort of tragedy that happened in my life that made me have to go home for a little bit, and at the same time I was also applying for jobs all over and I was offered a job in D.C., and it was a little more like a “stable job” where you had health insurance and stuff, so I actually ended up moving to D.C. in December of 2003 to work at Cultural D.C., which runs Flashpoint and Source and all that stuff.
Was it scary moving to a new city? Chicago? D.C.? Philly?
I always just make a decision and that’s what I do and I don’t do a lot of fussing about it. I mean I think about moving to Philly and I’d never been there. I didn’t know anything or anyone. But, it just felt like the right thing to do. I think it’s the same thing with D.C. I pretty much live by my gut. If it doesn’t feel right then I won’t do it, but if it feels right then I do it.
But, I actually was kind of depressed when I first moved here, because I just didn’t really understand how to meet people. When I lived in Philly you just met all the people that worked in theater. I’m not really a happy hour person. So, I honestly thought that what would be awesome was a Fringe Festival to make everyone chill out and not be too uppity. So that’s how it all sort of started.
So, tell me how Capital Fringe became what it is today?
In the beginning, it really was a theater festival with a core group of seven of us. And then, as we acquired different spaces and doing different things our focus has turned a little bit more to be more inclusive of the independent art scene in Washington, D.C. whether it be music, dance, puppetry, visual art, or theater, which is really fun. I guess the reason I was interested in doing it, is because when I lived in Philadelphia, I totally knew the voice of the theater community, and I didn’t really grasp that in Washington D.C. outside of, there’s a lot of Shakespeare. So, a lot of it was a way to try and figure that out, other people may think of a different way to figure that out than to start a huge festival that requires a whole business to be set up around it, but that was a lot of the purpose. It was also really good timing in the theater community, who really did need the platform of the festival to give it legitimacy, inspiration, to, you know, kick ass and just do whatever you want.
Now we’re ten years old—we’re in our 11th year. I’m looking forward to the future. A lot of it is giving space to folks so they can experiment and so someone can take notice of them and then they can continue to have opportunities within the Washington, D.C. area. And, I think that that’s actually happening and we’re trying to hone all of that so the paths are clearer for different artists.
I think that for a really long time, everything has been very top tier and super fancy. Some people may aspire to that, but then it’s hard to know where to start and how to get there unless you go away somewhere else, but I’d like to have people be able to stay here and figure that out.
What do you look for in the people that you work with?
In the first year since we moved into the space, we had a lot of turnover. And, it was actually really hard on me because I felt like I was doing something wrong, but then after you talk with various other people about it and people that work in similar industries I realized this is sort of a big undertaking and some people want to have ordinary lives. And, I’m looking for people that want to have extraordinary lives.
What we’re doing is not everyday. This is not your nine-to-five. We’re trying to create something that actually has no reason to be here. This is here out of the sheer will of thousands of people that have supported us or have worked for us. So, I really look for people that want to be extraordinary and want to–on one hand be professional, but, then also be creative and actually feel the ownership inside of themselves.
Of the people you have worked with, who has inspired you the most?
I would have to say Amy and Terry. They are the founders of the Arden Theater Company in Philadelphia. When I was there as an apprentice, I learned so much from them. And, their willingness to devote time to teach people, is very admirable. I also really learned the mentality of when you’re inspired to do something, it’s one thing to feel that emotion, but it’s another thing to be able to get it done. It’s one thing to be involved in the arts and it’s another thing to figure out the math that goes behind making something sustainable then also being able to communicate the economic terms that make it meaningful in a tangible way to funders and the city and then also, what it means to have intangible benefits.
I think they inspired me to be where I am today.
What is the hardest part about owning and starting your own business and what’s the most rewarding?
I think the hardest thing is maintaining the ability to trust people, in all facets, because people are pretty crazy. Pretty regularly, I stop and tell myself that the important thing is to continue to trust that, everyone, in their heart, is a good person.
There is also a lot of paperwork.
The best thing is that it’s just pretty fucking awesome. One day I can be mixing cement in the shop and deciding to make cement clouds on the wall outside and then I go and do that, and then they’re there. And, being able to give people opportunities to showcase their work and see them get super jazzed. I can’t really think of another thing that’s better.
You’ve really created this world that’s a reflection of you that allows people to be themselves within it.
Yeah, I think that’s a good way to put it. I just want people to be able to create what they want. And, I want to be able to work with people. Whether they be audience people or people that work here that really are kicking ass.
Did you know you would create your own business one day?
I think that I was always the one that would take charge in certain situations. But, I never equated that to, “Well, I want to have my own company and I want to do this.” I still don’t really like it when people view me as the boss. I actually like to view it more that I’m the responsible person. I just have to make sure things are taken care of and that people can actually flourish in their roles that they have here, and if they’re not, well then, I have to deal with it.
Have you had any major, “What the fuck” moments?
Psh, all the time.
Do you have one that really stood out?
You know, I have them a lot. I don’t really want to say anything specifically because that’s not really helpful, but I think one of my biggest, “what the fuck” moments are when people just don’t know how to communicate. I just don’t understand. Where do people learn how to communicate? Do you learn this in school? Where are people not learning this? Direct, honest, communication with those in your life, whether it be professional or personal is really the best route.
What have been your most influential work experiences?
When I was in college, I worked in the Lacrosse Center, which is basically like the Verizon Center. Where they have touring shows. It was basically all men. I unloaded trucks and hung lights. I think I was just trying to learn what it was like to be a stage hand in a touring environment. Plus, it also paid really well to do those jobs. I loved that job because, one, I got to see awesome things, like David Copperfield, and be backstage while David Copperfield was doing his thing.
We had to sign a thing, but yes, it’s totally magic! I loved that environment because I actually learned a lot about communication and how to work the system and get the sweet jobs. I got to be the key grip when WWF (wrestling) came to town, which is something that the woman would not be able to do. I’m not trying to make it about, but that’s what it was. I really loved that experience.
And then, obviously, my apprenticeship was pretty influential to me, for many reasons.
And, Fringe! I’ve worn many different hats, had many different titles since I’ve been here, I’ve had to deal with serious emergencies. I’ve had to deal with very quick changes on stuff, and you make sure whatever product it is that we’re doing, whether it’s the festival or a show in our theater, that everyone thinks it’s cool and everyone has a great time.
Who is your role model?
JB: I don’t know that I really have one. I tend to like to learn. I really love reading. I read a lot of different business books that are totally not related to what I do and I learn from them. I belong to this for profit group that’s all businesses and I learn a lot from the people in the group, as far as different ways to articulate your business. So, I’ve never really been good at having a role model. Because, I really just, not to sound cheesy, I just really like being me. I just really want to learn things from other people to make myself better. Yeah. That sounds selfish, I don’t know.
What is the most important advice you’ve ever been given?
To chill out. I would say that over most of my life, I am pretty ambitious. I do also like to get things done, so I tend to focus and work really fast and get things done and just various people in my life have said, “Take a breathe. You don’t need to do everything right now.” And, I think, maybe in years passed I’ve said, “Ha, I’ll do whatever I want! I’m not going to listen to that.” But I’ve really enjoyed the process that Fringe is in right now because we’re actually planning very much in the future, which kind of allows for that, like I don’t need to do it all right now.
Is that the advice you would tell your younger self?
Probably. Just chill out. I sort of made this decision around the time I moved to D.C. I was either going to try to really focus on being an artist or I was going to learn more about business. And, it’s obvious what I chose. But, at the same time, I try to do things that are more artistic and try to have that. And, try to provide opportunities for my staff to have that kind of balance. So, I think I would tell my younger self that it’s not a black or white decision. You can actually have a job that allows you to keep both parts of your brain alive.
Where do you see yourself in one year? Five years? And ten years?
In one year, I will hopefully be ready to move forward with our Phase 2 build out, which is going to be a $2.7 million dollar build out on the space to do two theaters and commercial kitchen; have a great restaurant/bar partner that will come in and run our bar and restaurant and really, as I say, fulfill the promise of the Logan Fringe art space. And then, in five years, I would love to be finishing the artists housing. We’re going to build, three floors above us, affordable housing for artists.
That’s a big project. And, I can’t wait to find the developer that’s going to partner with us to make that a reality. And then in ten years, Fringe will be at a different place as far as staffing structure and really our prominence and stake, not just in this neighborhood, but really exceeding just being in Trinidad and I can’t wait to see what that looks like, because there’s so many different people that get to be involved in that process–some of them I know now, and some of them I’ve yet to meet. It has the opportunity to be a really awesome, authentic amalgamation of people. It has the opportunity to become something that is very uniquely D.C.