Some theater-goers can hardly wait for the final ovation to cease before they excuse themselves, tripping over the next person to get to their coats, and high-tail it to the parking garage to beat the traffic home.
But as they make their way out, they often miss one of the most important acts in theater: audience members engaged in conversation or asking, “What did you think?”
At the Atlas Performing Art Center’s four-year-old Intersections Festival, named to reflect that Northeast neighborhood’s role as a cultural crossroads, organizers want audiences to hang around after the show, sip a glass of wine in the lobby and sink into conversation.
When designing the festival, “we put a stage at the intersection of two wings of the lobby,” said Mary Hall Surface, artistic director. “It became a literal meeting place. People were coming out of an opera performance and going into a hip-hop, spoken-word collaboration. And everybody stopped and talked and listened and had a drink. People didn’t want to leave.”
At Intersections, Surface said, “everybody is invited to the table. Everyone’s voice is important and is heard. We work hard on making sure there is something rich to share. That is a key to the festival — that people stay, participate in a post-show [discussion], meet artists in the lobby. It is designed to be more than the ‘come-and-consume’ art. It’s ‘come and really partake and engage and exchange and connect and linger.’ ”
This year, the festival will spotlight more than 800 established and emerging artists in 100 performances of music, dance, theater and spoken word over three weekends, from Feb. 23 to March 10. The shows are scheduled so that audience members can see more than one a day.
Attendance has doubled since 6,000 people attended the festival in its first year.
“Clearly, it is answering a need of both artists and audiences looking for a place to come and truly connect with one another,” Surface said. “And it’s fun. It’s not just fun as in you go out and see a show and have a drink. It’s fun in the sense that they leave with new understandings.”
Artistic events that look at social issues can feel “good for you, but not necessarily be fun,” Surface said. But, she said, Intersections is spirited.
“People truly enjoy themselves in unexpected ways by talking to people they might not have talked to or hearing music they might not have heard by stepping across boundaries. It can be remarkably fun to step across a boundary and discover something new about yourself, somebody else and art.”
This year’s offerings include “Sing Down the Moon: Appalachian Wonder Tales,” written by Surface and David Maddox. The play opened in 2000 at Theater of the First Amendment, the professional theater based at George Mason University.
The family-friendly play looks into the importance of story in people’s lives. “All the stories in ‘Sing Down the Moon,’ are adventures where a young person has to discover who they want to be in the world,” Surface said. “While the stories are told through a particular lens, an Appalachian perspective, they are stories that exist in all cultures and cross boundaries of culture.”
The festival also includes a series of pieces in which the performers engage with audience members.
“InFatuation & Other Bold Acts,” a one-woman show by Allie Villarreal that grew out of her studies at Georgetown University, integrates a discussion with audiences about fat. Yes, fat. She has strong feelings about the word.
“I think fat has become a really bad word today,” Villarreal said. “Nobody wants to use it. The word society likes to use a lot right now is obesity. Or overweight. . . . But being an obese person means you are fat. People want to distance themselves from that word. I hate euphemisms.”
During the show, Villarreal plays several fat characters. “At first, I wanted it to be about putting cool, fat people on stage, talking about how awesome their lives can be,” she said. “But you can’t get all the good without showing the complexities.”
Her goal is to foster empathy. “There is something so powerful about seeing a real person going through emotions or sharing thoughts on a stage in front of real-life human beings. All these characters talk about being overweight in America. It is both a celebration and an exploration of the lives of people living with fat.”
Dissonance, a ballet company featuring mostly black dancers, presents the premiere of “Drum,” an Afro-modern and classical ballet dance inspired by D.C.’s history of black dance companies, many of which have faded away.
“I have the largest number of classically trained black females and largest majority of black dancers dancing classical ballet work in the city,” said Shawn Short, founder of Dissonance. “I thought I was the only one doing this.” But as Short did more research, he said, “I realized I was part of a continuum.”
“Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project,” a multimedia piece by jazz composer Vijay Iyer and poet Mike Ladd, is based on dreams and nightmares of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I call it a song cycle, a performative documentary,” Ladd said. “The best way to describe it is an opera. But they would stone me in some countries for saying that. In a way, this project is an experimentation with the boundaries of opera.”
Ladd and Iyer worked with Iraq war veteran Maurice Decaul to interview veterans, collecting their dreams. Dreams are a common denominator among people, Iyer said. “When dealing with veterans and non-veterans, there is this gulf of understanding. You have to take people across. Dreams can be that bridge.”
But for the veterans, dreams are not always welcome. “There is one song in the project that rattles off the names of the medications soldiers take to keep them from dreaming,” Iyer said. “It’s called ‘REM Killer.’ ”
“Holding It Down,” which will have its Washington premiere at the festival, includes a performance by a veteran who piloted drones remotely from Las Vegas. “She was literally at a console collecting intel from different satellite video feeds and targeting people,” Iyer said. “The wild thing about it for her was it was a remote war. She was in the zone but also still here. Then she would go on a break and go to Starbucks.”
“That is the reality of the 21st-century war,” Iyer added. The goal of the show is to have “everyone in the room and onstage facing these realities together.”
Feb. 23-March 10. Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. 202-399-7993.