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Source Festival

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Editorial Review

On tap at the Source: Three busy festival weeks overflowing with theatricality

By Nelson Pressley
Saturday, June 12, 2010

What's it like the day before a 100-seat theater begins a blitz of two dozen new theatrical pieces in three densely packed weeks?

"Crazy, totally crazy," says Jenny McConnell Frederick, in her first year producing the Source theater's annual summer festival. "Right now we don't even have the actors here, and already the backstage is clogged."

The festival launches Saturday with a traditional audience favorite, a slate of 10-minute plays ("Great for your short attention spans," McConnell says). Three different groupings of six plays each will rotate in repertory during Week 1 -- the titles "Saddam's Lions" and "There Are Shapes on the Ceiling That Look Like Bats" indicate the eclecticism in store -- and give way the following week to radically mixed-discipline Artistic Blind Dates. The final week will see the debut of three new full-length plays.

With roughly 200 people involved and so many projects parading onto the same stage, "there's no time to argue or dispute," McConnell says. "People have to work together and think on their feet, which is beautiful to see."

The Source Festival committed to all-new works when it reemerged three years ago after a calamitous period of inactivity, followed by nearly losing the 14th Street NW building to commercial developers, and eventually renovating. (The nonprofit Cultural Development Corp. bought Source and runs it.) This year, the project took 100 readers to sort through 535 10-minute plays and 55 full-length scripts submitted from around the nation.

Variety and chance (along with shoestring budgets) have long been part of the festival, which stretches back to the 1980s. In a high-concept way, creative diversity was even amplified by what previous festival director Jeremy Skidmore billed as "Mash-ups," and what McConnell has retained under the Blind Dates heading. This is three-way matchmaking between, say, a playwright, a dancer and a filmmaker, as in "Bunny, Bunny," which explores urban legend via "Bunnyman Killer," a bit of Virginia lore. That venture is on a bill with "Memoria Brassica," the product of a choreographer, a visual artist and a dancer that will feature 50 heads of cabbage and onstage printmaking.

The Blind Dates will be pairs of 15-to-20-minute performances. McConnell's innovation this year is to make immediate talk-backs with the artists part of the package, so patrons can quiz the makers about their methods and meanings.

"We wanted to open the process to the audience," says McConnell. "To me, that was 50 percent of what was great about the Blind Dates -- the blind-date part."

The one-act program of the third week has been dumped in favor of full-length plays. That's McConnell's stab at impact: Full-length scripts, she notes, are more likely to be picked up for future productions than hard-to-program one-acts.

The festival had new grant money for the Blind Date artists this year, though cash has seldom been a big factor for the young or emerging artists looking for a place to get involved.

"I launched my career here out of college," McConnell recalls, not nostalgically, but like an administrator articulating a mission. "I called around and said, I'd like to work for free; who will take me?"

Still, the producer says, "we are trying to get more people paid."

Pre-sales are currently running ahead of the past two years, but McConnell thinks that as the festival settles into public consciousness, this third year "will be telling." She doesn't worry about competition from next month's Capital Fringe Festival, and feels strongly about the tradition that the Source Festival represents, even as the Source has cleaned itself up a bit. For a long time, the building was frightfully dilapidated, but McConnell notes that an old freight elevator shaft once infested with pigeons is now a "gorgeous" conference room with natural light.

There's also a door in the building signed by a number of the theater folk who have passed through over the years -- "a constant reminder," McConnell says, "of how much Washington theater history happened in this space."