July 6, 2016 at 6:48 pm EDT | by Jesse Arnholz
Fringe Festival rich with LGBT themes
Fringe Festival, gay news, Washington Blade

Bryce Sulecki in ‘Bryce: Hydrogen Blonde.’ (Photo courtesy Marc Langston)

Growing up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Bryce Sulecki admired the likes of Britney Spears, Lady Gaga and Madonna. While their support of the gay community comforted him, he couldn’t help but feel that there was an absence.

“There was this voice missing,” says Sulecki, who graduated from American University’s prestigious musical theater program in 2015. “From a gay male pop star.”

Sulecki longed to hear a performer directly singing about gay relationships, struggles and even everyday life with the same type of choreography, costumes and theatrics that had inspired him as a child.

Sulecki decided to take matters into his own hands and create the gay pop star he’d been searching for, but he needed an outlet, which he found in the D.C. Capital Fringe Festival.

The Capital Fringe Festival, which just opened and runs through July 31, is a nonprofit organization founded in 2005 by Julianne Brienza and Damien Sinclair. Capital Fringe focuses on bolstering opportunities for audiences to view independent, off-the-beaten-path theater, music, dance and other forms of performance and visual art.

Fringe festivals began in 1947 as an alternative to the Edinburgh International Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. The festival has since expanded its presence all over the world to countries such as Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Capital Fringe has become the second largest Fringe Festival in the United States. As of 2015, it had generated $1.7 million for artists, featured more than 600 new productions and generated 886 paid jobs. Roughly 130 shows are featured in the Capital Fringe festival each year.

A spot in Fringe is determined on a first-come, first-served basis by submitting proposals for shows online. Capital Fringe provides the venue for accepted plays and handles the main marketing to promote the shows. The playwright is in charge of all other fees, including costumes, payment to cast, crew and the director and any other costs.

The festival prides itself on its focus of the performing arts community as a whole, rather than just promoting the work of an individual.

With this mission, it’s no wonder that in its 11th year Capital Fringe 2016 will feature a diverse range of LGBT productions, including Sulecki’s interactive-pop-concert- extravaganza, “Bryce: Hydrogen Blonde,” in which he is the producer, co-writer and star.

“I think that [the] most meaningful part of the experience is seeing my own work in front of an audience,” Sulecki says. “I keep getting chills just thinking about it.”

Themes this year touch on a variety of LGBT issues.

Kevin West, an out playwright and director of “The DOMA Diaries,” wants to reveal the struggles and obstacles that the Defense of Marriage Act created in the lives of LGBT couples. While the play is a work of fiction, it is based on real-life experiences.

The play also includes a fictional adaptation of West’s own struggle being part of a bi-national couple. West constantly feared that his then-partner (now husband) would be forced to return to his country of origin, as West could not sponsor him for a green card under DOMA’s restrictions.

“There’s a funny scene in which a gay couple goes to a Mailboxes Etcetera to have their domestic partnership documents notarized, and they treat the event like a mini-wedding,” West says. “Since gay marriage isn’t yet legal, and may never be, they realize that this mundane event is the closest they will ever come to a wedding ceremony.”

One of the stars of the play, Nell Quinn-Gibney, a 20-year-old senior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who was raised by a lesbian couple and was present outside the Supreme Court when the DOMA decision was announced, says she never fully understood the impact of the act until she began working on the show.

“Reading the script for me the first time I got [it], I honestly started crying half-way through because the whole time I was thinking about what my relationship and what my sister’s relationship growing up with our parents was like and how grateful I was to them,” says Quinn-Gibney, a Bethesda, Md., native. “It wasn’t until I got older that I realized that there was anything different, abnormal or unusual about our family.”

Fringe Festival, gay news, Washington Blade

The cast of ‘DOMA Diaries’ featuring Nell Quinn-Gibney, third from left. (Photo courtesy Kevin West)

Other shows to look out for at Capital Fringe include seasoned performer Jeffrey Johnson’s multimedia-drag-production, “A Romp Around Uranus with Special Agent Galactica.”

Johnson, who was the artistic director of the now-defunct, LGBT theater company Ganymede Arts in Washington, is the creator, writer, director and lead performer in the play. Galactica, a lip sync character, was born out of his work with Ganymede.

She became a success and generated a large local following. Johnson has performed as Galactica at almost every gay bar in town.

“A Romp” also features three original songs written by Johnson. Galactica’s spaceship is played by award-winning musician and B-52’s frontman, Fred Schneider.

“This is taking drag performance to a totally different place,” Johnson says. “It’s taking on drag done live, it has clever humor, but, you know, low-brow comedy as well.”

Johnson emphasizes that his production is not a drag show, but a theater piece that uses the elements of drag to enhance the show.

In 2010, Johnson took Galactica from a lip-sync character to a live music songstress and how he says he’s ready for the next chapter in her short, yet eventful life.

“Now, I’m taking her from being just a live cabaret or music show to actually being a theater piece,” Johnson says. “It’s always fun to challenge myself and rethink the presentation of this character and take her into new areas that she hasn’t gone before.”

Another pioneering piece comes from writer, director and professional home and office organizer, Brett Steven Abelman.

Abelman’s play, which he created and directs, is “Play Cupid,” his fourth production at Capital Fringe. The play features five characters that the audience can send on a date. There are two men, two women and one character that identifies as gender-queer.

“Anyone can be paired up with anyone,” says Abelman, a Washington-area native. He likes the component of audience choice in theater, which he says is not common.

Abelman hopes his show can “open little corners” within his audience’s mind by having them go through the process of meeting the characters, getting to know them and pairing them up.

The audience, director and actors will not know, on any given night, who will get sent on a date and who will not. So, as Abelman says, flexibility for everyone involved in “Play Cupid” is important.

“I am thrilled that I found these five collaborators, plus my assistant director and producer,” Abelman says. “The No. 1 thing is getting along with each other and we share stories about dating and romance and all that kind of stuff to help build the show.”

Niusha Nawab, one of the male actors in “Play Cupid,” who graduated from American University in 2015 with a degree in theater arts and audio production, describes the play as “modern” in terms of its LGBT content.

“On the one hand, it’s somewhat of an idealistic alternative reality where the sexuality of all the characters is mostly irrelevant to their lives within the play and isn’t a defining factor of who they are,” Nawab says. “On the other hand, when it does recognize and deal with their sexuality, it does so in specific and useful ways, like the fact that one character is pansexual, not bi, or that the only black character (in the show) has to deal with the intersectionality of being both black and queer in his love life.”

Nawab also emphasizes how gender-queerness plays a role in “Play Cupid.” He says it unfurls in “differing but challenging ways.”

“Our play is a high-scorer on the not-straight-white-cis-dude scale,” Nawab says.

Fringe Festival, gay news, Washington Blade

The cast of ‘Play Cupid’ in rehearsal. (Photo by Sonia Zamborsky)

Another LGBT-themed Fringe show is “HUNT: a Political Drama,” written and produced by Jean P. Bordewich and directed by Kristin Shoffner. The play is based on the true story of Sen. Lester Hunt, a Wyoming Democrat, who was blackmailed by Sen. Joe McCarthy’s allies in the Senate over homosexual allegations against his son.
Bordewich, who has spent her life in politics on Capitol Hill as a Senate and House staff member and in Red Hook, N.Y., as a town council member, and as a candidate for Congress and Senate district staffer, says she wanted to explore the dangers of political extremism, demagoguery and homophobia through the lens of the 1950s Cold War era.
“I had no idea when I wrote ‘HUNT,’” she says, “that the rise of a demagogue as a presidential candidate and the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando would make this history so tragically relevant today.”

Fringe Festival, gay news, Washington Blade

Terry Loveman as Sen. Hunt in ‘HUNT: a Political Drama.’ (Photo courtesy Jean P. Bordewich)


Full details at capitalfringe.org

‘Bryce: Hydrogen Blonde’
Logan Fringe Arts Space: Trinidad Theatre (1358 Florida Ave., N.E.)
Friday, July 8 at 10:15 p.m.
Thursday, July 14 at 7:45 p.m.
Sunday, July 17 at 4:15 p.m.
Friday, July 22 at 9 p.m.
Sunday July 24 at 12:30 p.m.
Tickets are $17

‘The DOMA Diaries’
Flashpoint: Mead Theatre Lab (916 G St., N.W.)
Thursday, July 7 at 6:30 p.m.
Sunday, July 10 at 6:30 p.m.
Friday, July 15 at 8:30 p.m.
Thursday, July 21 at 8 p.m.
Saturday, July 23 at 12:45 p.m.
Tickets are $17

‘A Romp Around Uranus with Special Agent Galactica’
Logan Fringe Arts Space: Upstairs (1358 Florida Ave., N.E.)

Saturday, July 9 at 10 p.m.
Wednesday, July 13 at 8:30 p.m.
Sunday, July 17 at 10 p.m.
Tuesday, July 19 at 9 p.m.
Sunday, July 24 at 6 p.m.
Tickets are $17

‘Play Cupid’
Atlas Performing Arts Center: Lab II (1333 H St., N.E.)
Friday, July 8 at 8:15 p.m.
Sunday, July 10 at 7 p.m.
Friday, July 15 at 10:30 p.m.
Thursday, July 21 at 6 p.m.
Sunday, July 24 at 6:30 p.m.
Tickets are $17

‘HUNT: A Political Drama’
Flashpoint: Mead Theatre Lab (916 G St., N.W.)
Thursday, July 7 at 8:45 p.m.
Wednesday, July 13 at 6:45 p.m.
Saturday, July 16 at 2:30 p.m.
Tuesday, July 19 at 8:45 p.m.
Friday, July 22 at 6:45 p.m.
Sunday, July 24 at 2:15 p.m.
Tickets are $17

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