Founders of Charm City Fringe Mike Brush (pictured right), 30, and Zach Michel (pictured left), 31, talk about how theater in Baltimore has changed since Fringe started seven years ago, what makes a successful Fringe show, and the importance of theater as artistic expression.
Mike places his Buzz Lightyear book bag on the bottom step as he taps lightly on a window to signal Zach to let him inside his Charles Village apartment that doubles as the Charm City Fringe headquarters. It’s a cold January day, but Zach and Mike are already having weekly meetings to prepare for the seventh annual Charm City Fringe Festival in 11 months. The former high school classmates decided to start the festival after reconnecting as under-employed recent grads (Zach of UMBC, Mike of Towson University) with a passion for theater and some free time to create a place for new performances. Now, more than seven years later, both have full-time jobs – Mike is in arts education and Zach does marketing for a brewery – and the festival they started when they had time on their hands has grown so much that it requires year-round weekly meetings and a full board of directors.
What do you want the Charm City Fringe Festival to do for the Baltimore theater community?
Mike: Essentially, what we want to be able to do is take the theater community that already exists in Baltimore, and add to it. There are a ton of colleges in the area, most of which have theater departments. There's no reason for those students coming out of those theater departments to leave Baltimore.
How has Fringe contributed to the Baltimore theater community?
Zach: We've helped a number of artists produce their work for the first time and move on to produce again, to elevate their work, and to push themselves in new ways. I think, as a community, there's still a lot of work to be done. It's a challenge that we're looking to face this year and moving forward. It's how to unify the existing artists and companies and build out a larger, grander sense of community.
What makes Charm City Fringe special?
Zach: One thing we've done is cultivate a really welcoming festival atmosphere and experience. While we are a smaller, more modest-sized fringe festival, we do work really closely with the artists. And they've really embraced how much they can learn on the production side of things. This past year, every artist was written about. A number of them were featured on the news and things like that.
Side note: Charm City Fringe hosted its first international group, from Canada, this past year. Of the 23 groups in the 2017 festival, 13 were from outside of Maryland.
Talk about the Bromo Arts District, the new home of the Charm City Fringe.
Zach: The Bromo Arts District was the historic theater district, so I think that's the natural place for Fringe.
Side note: The Bromo Arts District is anchored by the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower in downtown west Baltimore. You might have seen the clock tower – which is modeled after the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy – driving into town from I-95 as you pass M&T Bank Stadium and Oriole Park. The arts district is home to more than 30 artist galleries, theater collectives, and music and poetry venues. One of the 2017 Fringe spaces in the Bromo was actually used for training employees to work at CVS; before Charm City Fringe entered that particular space, it was set up to look like the store with red-orange walls and a fake pharmacy. Flipping the spaces around to be repurposed once again is one of Mike and Zach’s interest in working with the community.
What makes a successful Fringe show?
Mike: My perfect Fringe show would be one that leaves me feeling an emotion. That's super vague. It's a Fringe show, so I have no idea what to expect going in. I leave with a very real identifiable thought and emotion about what I just saw. It doesn't necessarily have to be good. It doesn't necessarily have to be the most incredible performance I've seen. But what's most important is it's making me think and it's making me feel.
Do you have any closing thoughts you'd like to add?
Mike: It's really interesting that the work in these festivals makes you kind of reexamine what you think about the medium on the whole. I think the biggest takeaway for me is when you go to a fringe festival — at least when you go to our fringe festival — you really have to let your guard down and take advantage of the things that are there to see. Because there's a really good chance that your mind will be blown, or your perception will change about what you're seeing.
About: Behind the Mask is a monthly Q&A with different members of the Charm City Fringe community.