In 1935, the Three Stooges had a short film called “Hoi Polloi” ( ordinary people) where two men made a bet they could improve a common person and make him a member of high society. I’m a lot like that.
Here’s what I have found. The Arts is a beautiful world of music, Shakespeare, and contemporary acting. Washington, DC has an active and vibrant community of live theater that is not enjoyed or known by the “Average Joe.” For some this is exactly why they go. For those that don’t know what they are missing it is a tragedy.
This world is tucked away in plain view of restaurants, bars, hotels and apartment dwellings but frequented only the educated, well to do and classically trained section of the area. And every now and then someone like me gets to go and his mind is blown.
You know the phrase, “I know a guy?”
I met a guy many years ago that is now a retired Foreign Service Officer named Louis Delair, Jr. This guy has opened my eyes to opera, Shakespeare theatre, and places next to familiar locales throughout the area that I didn’t even know were there.
Being with Louis can be intense sometimes. He is like a mentor trying to make sure I “get it.” It’s a blessing. I have shared the time with his grandchildren or been the recipient of an extra ticket. He has taken me to events and exclusive casting parts where I was rubbing elbows with actors, singers, and supporters of the arts. Sometimes it is overwhelming. Louis has some of the best seats in the house. He is not shy and seems to know everyone from the parking attendants to the directors of the facilities. He has introduced me to people I have only seen on television. I have sat so close to the stage that I saw the bunions on the feet of the star, felt the heat from the pyrotechnics or spray from the speech. I rarely know the act, or Shakespearean scene that is being portrayed has been mimicked in a dozen modern dramas. I can’t sing along with the show tunes. I am amazed by the detail of technical rehearsals and embarrassed of the things I didn’t know about.
I am extremely happy though to be seeing all of this with the eyes of child. There are not many things in this world I have not experienced, seen or heard about that can still make me go “wow.”
I watched the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform syncopated movements to blues and classic R&B that I never thought possible at the Kennedy Center. They moved as graceful as leaves moving together from one breath of wind. If you have ever admired the beauty of moss swaying under the current of a tidal pool between waves, you wouldn’t think a group of people could duplicate the synchronicity but they can.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts commonly referred to as the Kennedy Center is a performing arts center located on the Potomac River, adjacent to the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. The Center, which opened September 8, 1971, produces and presents theater, dance, ballet, orchestral, chamber, jazz, popular, and folk music, in addition to multi-media performances for all ages.
It is the busiest performing arts facility in the United States and annually hosts approximately 2,000 performances for audiences totaling nearly two million; Center-related touring productions, television, and radio broadcasts welcome 20 million more. Now in its 44th season, the Center presents the greatest examples of music, dance and theater; supports artists in the creation of new work; and serves the nation as a leader in arts education. With its artistic affiliate, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Center’s achievements as a commissioner, producer, and nurturer of developing artists have resulted in over 200 theatrical productions, dozens of new ballets, operas, and musical works.
Tracing its beginning to the National Cultural Center Act of Congress in 1958, which requires that its programming be sustained through private funds, the center represents a public-private partnership. It is both the nation’s public memorial to President John F. Kennedy and the “national center for the performing arts.” Its activities include educational and outreach initiatives, almost entirely funded through ticket sales and gifts from individuals, corporations, and private foundations. That said it still receives federal funding each year to pay for the maintenance and operation of the building.
One of the things that happen at the Kennedy Center that I didn’t know about was the free concerts that happen in where they call the Millennium Stages. There are free performances 365 days a year there starting at 6 p.m. Some are broadcasted live on kennedy-center.org/millennium When I was there once I heard gospel. The last time I was there I heard some pretty cool jazz from a group called Claffy.
It’s not all fancy dancers and orchestra though. Down the street is the Arena Stage. Arena Stage is a nonprofit regional theater based in Southwest Washington, D.C. It was a pioneer in 1950 of the Regional Theater Movement. It is located at a theatre complex called the Mead Center for American Theater since its opening in 2010 after extensive renovation; this included construction of a third small theater in a complex with two stages: one a theatre in the round and the other a proscenium style. The Artistic Director is Molly Smith and the Executive Producer is Edgar Dobie. It is the largest company in the country dedicated to American plays and playwrights.
In 1960, the company moved into its current building complex, which was built for them. The theater company’s home is near the Washington, D.C. waterfront on the Potomac River, at 1101 Sixth Street SW.
The entire $135 million complex has been renamed “Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater” in honor of supporters Gilbert and Jaylee Mead.
The three theaters are connected by a large central lobby, and the Center includes a restaurant, rehearsal rooms, classrooms, production shops, and offices. For the first time in the company’s history, all staff and operations are under one unifying roof. The three-stage theater complex is now the second-largest performing arts center in Washington, DC, after the Kennedy Center.
This place is surrounded by an enormous change to the area. The DC Wharf is getting a facelift and construction is massive in this area. The entire area around this place is being redeveloped from the crazy neighborhood I remember of the 90’s.
The last performance I got a chance to see with Louis was “Sweat” by Lynn Nottage, directed by Kate Whoriskey. I sat with a critic’s eye up close and personal. The play was an emotionally charged depiction of working class families dealing with labor unions, addictions, and race. I got caught up in the scenery, the set, the timing and the dialogue. This is a modern struggle with a timeless story of what happens to the communities when large industrial companies die. My guide to this world pointed out the nuances of seeing more than one performance of the same play and the differences that can happen during a live show.
Thanks to Louis, I can now I honestly say I appreciate the performing arts. It’s a medium where you use your body, to express yourself. You can “paint” a picture, evoke emotions with words and actions. Like the Nations’ Capital, there is more to it than most have noticed. I am glad I had had a chance to experience some of it. In a city known for its politics, traffic and government jobs there is a world of set designers, musicians, actors, caretakers, playwrights, media, and lovers of theater that go unnoticed. That little old lady that just crossed the street might be the director of an off Broadway play. That skinny woman with the caramel colored skin might have just danced and sung nine performances. That guy in the grocery store in front of you might have just built the stage for the scene I just saw. You never know.
I’ve done a lot of things in my life. I think I want to try performing on a stage play at least once.Rev. Kenn Blanchard is a professional speaker, writer, podcaster, and digital influencer. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook He is the founder of Blanchard.Media and the GunPodcastNetwork.com