At 2 p.m. today, the temperature at Reagan National was just 1 degree below the all-time record of 103 degrees. The heat index, a measure of how scorched your skin feels, was around 120 degrees.
“I'm very slick,” says Harkey. “But I don't think I have it any worse than anyone else. We could be naked in there and still be uncomfortable.”
“There” is the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent, the Fest’s central venue and a nexus of misery for festivalgoers and performers alike. The physical specs of the tent make it the perfect heat trap for D.C.’s summer air: It’s set up on blacktop, which radiates warmth like a greasy pizza stone, and during shows flaps come down to block any crosswinds that could clear out the stagnant air.
“There are a couple of fans, but with the lights on it adds few more degrees,” says Harkey, co-artistic director of the musical Cabaret XXX: Les Femmes Fatales. “It's really, really, really hot.” On a scale of 1 to 10, it’s “like, 11.”
As sure as painfully low-budget production values and extreme subjects like dead babies and cannibalism, unbearable heat is one Fringe Fest feature that pops up year after year. The critics carp about it: Maura Judkis, formerly of TBD who now writes for the Post, has created a “Heat Fringedex” that goes up to 2 million degrees, while the City Paper’s Chris Klimek noted that he “had a nice sweat going while standing perfectly still in the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent” last night at 1:30 a.m. (Klimek describes D.C.’s summers as feeling like “a hell-mongrel with halitosis is licking my entire body.”)
“Anything near Fringe central is hot, the tent being the worst,” says Judkis. “And then indoor spaces like the Bedroom and the Redrum (both at 610 L St. NW) near Fringe central are in older buildings and have window air-conditioning units, so they also tend to get really hot.”
The fest organizers have made note of the fest’s signature incandescent weather, too, lowering ticket prices for this final weekend in a “Beat the Heat” special. They’re also handing out free water and Vitamin Water at the Gypsy Tent. There are no misting tents or big blocks of ice that audience members can hug, though; perhaps next year?
The actors arrive each day armed physically and mentally for an epic battle with the elements. Harkey employs a wooden fan, water, ice, waterlogged towels that have been frozen and handheld misters. Even still, she says her costume is drenched with sweat hours after each show.
“I'm in a particularly easy position because my character is angry and bitter and pissed off, so I can definitely channel it,” she says. “But there is a physical obstacle to overcome when your body is working so hard to cool down…. To get on stage and perform an hour and 15 minutes of rock songs takes a lot of energy.”
For John Shryock, who performs in the karate-filled “Illuminate: A Martial Arts Experience,” the heat is also his ally when it comes to giving an authentic, violent performance.
“It makes you feel a little more authentic to where fighting action would take place. It wouldn't necessarily be in an air-conditioned theater; it would be in jungle or in the tropics,” he says. “[The heat] gets us into it because it makes us sweat almost immediately, and maybe that kicks off into some sort of primal thing.”
Shryock does his karate in the dark at the Warehouse Theater, whose A/C is no match for the heat dome over the Fringe Fest. Audience members might at first rejoice when they enter the building’s outer hallway, because the forced air is stronger there, but then they enter the theater space where warm dankness is trapped. “It's kind of like a trick,” says Shryock, whose troupe of seven people drink a 24 pack of bottled water during every show.
But would effective air conditioning and non-sweat-covered patrons be a true Fringe Fest? Shryock argues no.
“It's all part of the experience,” he says. “It's not big budget, slick, polished, professional fancy-pants spaces, you know,” he says. “I'm ready to tough it out for the hardcore aspect of it all. Suffer through it for art – that old cliché.”