Isis and Vesco Investigate the Curious Death of Dr. Freud

15 Anniversary Artist Interviews: Catherine Aselford

Guillotine Theatre’s Catherine Aselford takes the long view – and says Capital Fringe was a catalyst that helped jumpstart a company that she helped found almost two decades before her company’s first Fringe show.

“We had been somewhat dormant,” Aselford recalls. “We were founded in 1986, and we’d had several different homes. We did not have a home when Fringe came along. And we realized if you don’t have regular space you tend to lose your audience. So it really helped us come roaring back in 2006.”

At that time, Guillotine was still known as the Georgetown Theatre Company. And the year before bringing Night of the Living Theatre to the festival, the troupe produced Bushwa: A Modern Ubu – a John Morgiello play which had success not only at Fringe, but also in a subsequent run at Round House Theatre in Silver Spring.

Night of the Living Theatre brought a number of playwrights – including Radium Girls author D.W. Gregory – together to explore the comic proposition of great playwrights forced to confront the sharp edge of commerce by pitching their works to Hollywood.

“We’ve always been about the fun side of classic, says Aselford, who recalls that the plays featured Samuel Beckett not appearing for a pitch meeting with two Hollywood agents, Shakespeare being asked to rewrite Hamlet for Madonna, and John Milton being compelled to rewrite Paradise Lost for the cinema by committee.

Aselford says her personal favorite was The Conjuring Meets the Devil – a short play in which Mel Gibson encounters Christopher Marlowe as he auditions English villains for a film.

There was a lot of swordplay in the latter piece, as well as “a lot of in-jokes in that one that half the audience didn’t get,” she recalls. The tagline for the show was: “You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll leave wanting to write a term paper.”

Night of the Living Theatre ran in the Gallery of the Goethe Institute’s former location in Chinatown. “We had a great comfortable Fringe the first two years,” she says. “because we weren’t out in the heat. But everybody associated with company saw other people’s plays, so we knew how hot it was.”

Guillotine Theatre has become a staple in subsequent Fringe festivals, putting the fun into classical works and themes ranging from Renaissance Italy (2011’s Belle Parricide) to Early Modern England (2015’s Cold as Death) to ancient Egypt (2014’s Isis and Vesco Investigate the Curious Death of Dr. Freud)

Placing women at the center of the action has also been a priority. One of Guillotine’s larger scale Fringe productions was 2017’s The Nasty Women of the Ecstatic Rainbow Mystery Retreat – which merged Euripides’ classical Greek tragedy with the energy of that year’s Women’s march. (And its pink knitted hats!)  “These are Dionysus’ Riot Grrrls,” proclaimed the ads for the show. “Beware them as they have pussy-power.”

Aselford’s long view extends to how Capital Fringe fits into the story of Washington, DC theatre over the past three decades. “I think Fringe really fills a gap left by the Source Summer Festival,” she argues.

That festival – formally known as the Washington Theatre Festival – was pioneered by Keith Parker in 1981 and had a two-decade run as a dynamic incubator of local theatrical talent that launched numerous careers. “The early Source festival was somewhat curated,” she continues, “but it was a lot weirder.”

Aselford quips that “the best things in the old Source Festival were better things in than many things in Fringe. And, yeah, the worst things were a hell of a lot worse. People really took risks.”

The connection between the Source Summer Festival and Capital Fringe was that both festivals created that space for risk taking. Fringe was a spark for Guillotine’s revival, and having been a Source participant in its heyday, Aselford says that the 2007 Fringe experience – and those before and since – “were fun for us. It was very much again the aesthetic of the early 1980s.”

– Richard Byrne