“Thanks for bearing with us through all the glitches!” For the third time in five minutes, Carmen Wong lets her audience know how grateful she is for their presence. At the end of A Tactile Dinner, the futurist food performance running through July 19 at the Arthur S. Flemming Center, the show’s chirpy artistic director is candid about both the successes and failures of her unique production.
What did you like? What didn’t you like? Does anyone have suggestions? After a wham-bam, avant-garde, seven-course meal for all five senses, it’s likely that many “diners” have questions concerning what just hit them, and the open-forum post-performance session gives the rare opportunity to seek answers and provide feedback on the experience.
This chance to participate in something kind of kooky is precisely what’s so cool about the Capital Fringe Festival, the 18-day, 100-plus-performance event currently happening all over DC. Banished Productions, the company responsible for Tactile, is a proud member of this artistic celebration. By providing the very things that usually water down performance art (financial backing and access to large pools of patrons and media coverage), Capital Fringe leaves room for uniqueness, variety, and experimentation in arts performances that will challenge audiences and introduce nontraditional performance methods to the local cultural scene. Thanks to the power of numbers, Washington hopefuls such as Wong get a shot at sharing their creative concepts with the public and infuse DC theater with progressive inspiration along the way.
If you like what you hear but still aren’t sure what to expect, read on for what we learned from the tactile dinner, and you’ll pick up some useful insight into what that pink-lipsticked, pill-popping Fringe button (required for entrance to all of the festival’s events) will do for you this July.
Wacky Experiences. The tactile dinner is the first time a chef has asked us to take in a meal sans “the crudeness of food,” then provided a flavor-infused smelling balloon in lieu of a main course. And we’re no strangers to requests to don dinner jackets before sitting down to a meal, but plastic sleeves covered in googly-eyes and red feathers? That’s certainly a new one. The logistics of a large audience confine many big-name performances to tried-and-true methods of presentation, but the intimate size of Capital Fringe events (there were seats for no more than 25 diners at this event) allows for audience engagement on a whole new level. Those who have become bored with passively taking in a show will be delighted by the innovative ways Capital Fringe entertains. Other strange-sounding shows we’re curious to see? Strippers assembling a worker’s union in Live! Girls! Organize!, Tour Starts Here’s dance-filled guided tour of the Corcoran, and My Fabulous Sex Life, a saucy, comedic tell-all of one man’s history of Washington trysts.
New Venues. You’ve seen concerts at the 9:30 Club, plays at Woolly Mammoth, and big productions at the Kennedy Center. But have you stepped inside the Flemming Center yet? This Shaw institution—opened in 2003 and used for everything from art classes for senior citizens to office space for punk-rock-activist groups—was constructed in three connected townhouses and is barely noticeable from the street except for a small white-and-black sign. By choosing smaller, lesser-known venues such as these, Capital Fringe will help you step outside your cultural comfort zone and explore new parts of the city.
Genuine Enthusiasm. Actors are going to believe in their projects if they’re willing to work for free, and the “waiters” at the tactile dinner are no exception. Friends and former colleagues of the director, the show’s main cast have come out to perform simply because they enjoy it, so you’re pretty much guaranteed an ego-free evening. Better yet, as many are participating in Capital Fringe as a means of getting their foot in the mainstream door, they’re more than likely to ask for and genuinely listen to your feedback.
Dealing With Mistakes. Those looking for a consistently polished experience may leave disappointed. Experimental performance art implies a lack of precedence (and sometimes practice) to build upon, so you’re more likely to encounter onstage slip ups during the festival than you might be used to at professional performances. In the tactile dinner, for example, we missed an entire video on pasta making because the cue to look at an almost-hidden wall was never given, and a lack of explanation for the first of several rounds of spray-bottle mists left us wondering if we should be attempting to taste what turned out the be hand sanitizer. But in some ways, that’s precisely the beauty of Fringe. At these smaller performances, the process of creation is on display as much as the creation itself, and individuals curious to know more about what goes on behind the curtain will be highly intrigued by the more transparent production processes.
The Effects of Small Budgets. The tactile dinner is an all-sensory homage to the 1930s futurist cuisine movement. Spearheaded by Italian nationalist F.T. Marinetti, this approach to dining suggested that restaurant patrons purchase hours of performance art rather than individual items off a menu. Sounds pretty trippy, right? Unfortunately, limited funds prevents the tactile dinner from being as dazzling as its high-concept inspiration might suggest. The handmade-musicbox component of our appetizer failed to produce a tune, and the salad we were directed to eat using only our mouths, though purposefully minimalist, would have benefited from more creative veggies than corn and carrots. When money’s tight, it’s often difficult to bring out the true vibrancy of the avant garde, and the festival can sometimes fall victim to this fact.
WHAT YOU’LL CONTRIBUTE
Supporting Local Hopefuls. These are your people, people! Wong and her chefs are former employees of Vegetate, the trendy vegetarian restaurant only a few doors down from the dinner’s venue. All of the ingredients used in the courses came from nearby farmers markets. Banished Productions has been putting on shows in Washington since 2005. If you’re looking to do your part to experience and encourage Washington creativity, Fringe is the place to be.
WHAT YOU’LL TAKE AWAY
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Where else but Capital Fringe will the exact steps through which you should ingest your food be directed à la Simon Says? This festival is a once-yearly opportunity to try something truly one-of-a-kind in Washington. As Wong says of her tactile dinner: “There’s no expectation of normal—you leave that at the door.” If there was ever a city that could get used to routine, Washington is it. Shake things up a bit by vowing to attend a festival performance or two, and we guarantee you’ll leave with a new sense of appreciation for the Capital’s creative potential.
The Capital Fringe Festival runs July 9 through 26 in multiple DC venues. Discussions with performers take place Mondays and Tuesdays. All events except discussions require tickets ($15 plus a onetime purchase of a festival button for $5); multiple-show packages are available. Starting July 7, tickets can also be purchased at the box office (607 New York Ave., NW). To learn more, click here.
>> For more information on A Tactile Dinner, click here.