Kennedy Center in August: Dog days and empty halls


A woman makes a phone call on the terrace outside the Millennium Stage after a free show at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, on Monday, August 20, 2012. The terrace is usually crowded with people after shows. August is the slowest month for the center which provides free nightly concerts 365 days a year. (Daniel C. Britt/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The pre-show video begins promptly at 6, and the DC indie band the Young Rapids takes its place on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. Changing light bathes the foursome, one hit song from being dreamy, in jewel-tone greens and purples.

The crowd, which occupies nearly every folding chair, is swaying but hushed. Heads nod, sandals tap, a guy toward the back sidesteps the toddler rocking out in the aisle to hand his wife a beer. The whole thing feels laid-back cool because it’s free, and the music is good. A dress-down vibe pervades the grandness of the space.

“Strange that it’s so quiet,” says the drummer, “but cool! We appreciate it!”

Beyond the crowd and yonder velvet rope, in the Grand Foyer, past security guards and the folks selling M&M’s and wine splits, past the darkened Opera House and the JFK bust, heading toward the second Millennium Stage, which is also dark, is a great expanse of nobody, really. The emptiness of the majestic hall is illuminated by the still bright sun of an early summer evening and chandelier half-light. And outside by the fountain on the River Terrace, one couple looks out over the Potomac.

August in official Washington is all about getting out of town — Congress is in recess, the tourist season peaked with the cherry blossoms, and most everything big happened earlier in the year, or is about to happen this fall.

It is the deep breath before the plunge.

The Kennedy Center has its own version of that.

“In busy times, we have four or five trips a night for six buses, but not now,” says Mesfin Gebreyesus, who drives the free shuttle from the Foggy Bottom Metro station to the Kennedy Center. “We don’t have anything but three buses right now, but two buses could handle it, because there are no big shows going on.” When there’s a show in one of the big theaters, people are standing in the aisle, he says, but it’s a quarter to 6 and there are only two people on the shuttle. One is a Millennium Stage usher.

The other is Lenny Bankester, who works in the budget office of the EPA. He is riding the shuttle because he parks daily at the Kennedy Center garage. In a few months, he says, he hopes to take in a performance by the National Symphony Orchestra. They take four weeks off in August and begin their new season in September.

You want to talk to the person who can tell you whether this is a typical August, but he’s out (vacation). So you talk to another guy who gets busy telling you how busy they are. And that’s certainly true, but it’s not busy in a high-energy, well-dressed throngs, take-the-tickets kind of way. It’s much more in the there’s soo much to do to get ready for next month vein.

The educational program Exploring Ballet With Suzanne Farrell had more than two dozen dancers coming through the first half of August, explains David Kitto, vice president for marketing and sales. “Then we’re prepping for the operas this fall.” The Washington National Opera season opens with “Anna Bolena” in September, followed by “Don Giovanni.” The play “War Horse” opens in October. “I’m getting ready for December, January, February programming,” Kitto says. “The Nordic festival is in February.”

But August 2011 featured the sold-out “Uncle Vanya,” and “Wicked” and the summer before had “Mary Poppins,” and that great sea of people in the Grand Foyer is missing, Kitto acknowledges. When the theaters are open, “it becomes one entity. I remember being struck by that when I first got here. The convergence of all these people moving from one venue to another.” Some going to the Opera House, some going to the Eisenhower, “some going to ‘Shear Madness,’ perhaps.” “Shear Madness,” a Kennedy Center stalwart, is one of the longest-running plays in American theater.

Millennium Stage and “Shear Madness” attendance is strong, Kitto says. There were 3,190 tickets sold through Aug. 20 for “Shear Madness,” playing in the Family Theater until the Theater Lab is renovated, which he calls “not inconsistent” with the 5,138 tickets sold for all of December 2011. And while approximately 3,000 people attended Millennium Stage performances in December, 4,000 people have already attended so far this month. Kitto points out there are also more than a thousand tours scheduled for August compared with about 600 in December. The bump in tour numbers in August “correlates with the bump at Millennium Stage,” Kitto says. “Tourists know they can come and hear a great performance.”

The Kennedy Center’s busiest day within the last year was Dec. 17, 2011, when more than 12,000 people attended shows in five theaters, including the big three; the Opera House, which featured “Billy Elliot,” the Concert Hall, which had performances of “The Messiah” by the Choral Arts Society and the Washington Chorus, and the Eisenhower Theater which showed “Ann.” And that doesn’t include the two Millennium Stage performances.

Rose Dunnegan, a business manager at George Washington University, is one of seven people in the last Kennedy Center Shuttle trip before the Young Rapids performance. She’s on her way to the garage, not the show, but says she does see a change in August. “I get off the shuttle bus and make my way through the Great Hall. There are a lot bigger tour groups.”

Andrew Richardson and his brother Frederick from Clarksburg are showing their cousins around the cavernous Grand Foyer after the Young Rapids performance. It’s nearly echo-empty and they walk one end to the other, posing for pictures. Frederick has been coming to Millennium Stage performances all summer. It’s a Wednesday “and there are more people on Fridays,” he says. “Usually, when ‘Memphis’ was playing, you had people standing in the middle,” of the hall. But this is cool, he can give his cousins from Fort Lauderdale a better sense of the sweep of the place.

Counting a reporter and guest, there are two people in the Kennedy Center Cafe listening to ambient jazz and watching the staff clean up. Shortly before the “Shear Madness” performance, the gift shop is empty. A clerk leans against a counter enjoying the quiet. They closed at 10 or 11 earlier in the summer, he says, but today they close at 8 p.m.

“It’s been pretty slow.”

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