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Theater of Documentary Intrigue

National Archives Ready to Screen Films, Host Panel Discussions

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 6, 2004; Page B01

The National Archives has solved a longtime quandary: How can it showcase some of the more than 300,000 reels of motion picture film and 200,000 video- and audiotapes in its possession?

The solution is to be unveiled this week in the form of a new 290-seat theater at the Archives building at 700 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Officials hope the William G. McGowan Theater will become a national center for documentary film, showcasing rare archival footage as well as frequent documentary features and hosting panel discussions, all free.

The National Archives' new theater features a 10-by-24-foot screen that moves, which will allow the stage to be used for lectures and panel discussions. (Photos Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

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During the day, the theater will show a film that aims to give context to the Archives' main attractions -- the Charters of Freedom, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Evenings, documentaries and feature presentations will be screened.

The theater opens to the public Friday with a panel discussion on women in politics. On Saturday, the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, a series of documentaries relating to historic periods of national hardships and challenges is scheduled for screening. Period documentaries relating to the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War and the civil rights movement will be followed in the evening by a screening of Errol Morris's contemporary film about the Vietnam War, "The Fog of War."

Marvin Pinkert, director of museum programs for the Archives, said Morris's film exemplifies the kind of feature that the theater hopes to highlight regularly.

"That's an Academy Award-winning film whose core records come from the National Archives," Pinkert said. "That happens a lot. When Ken Burns goes to make a film, he comes here first."

The theater includes a 10-by-24-foot screen that moves, allowing the stage to be used for lectures and panel discussions. With the use of a few buttons, controllers can move the screen and switch the theater's multi-channel Surroundsound audio setup from, for example, a question-and-answer session to a panel discussion. The projection booth doubles as a production studio, allowing technicians to record and transmit broadcasts of events inside the theater.

"It's a very sophisticated system, in terms of capacity," said Maik Nitzschke, associate principal with Cerami & Associates, the firm that designed the theater's acoustics.

The theater was designed by Hartman-Cox Architects, and the room's paneling, columns and stage details echo the styles of the rest of the Archives building, which was designed by John Russell Pope in the 1930s. Pinkert said the architects studied other Pope-designed stages, including that of Constitution Hall in Washington.

"It has state-of-the-art equipment, but the look is that of federal government theaters of the New Deal era," he said.

The seats are arranged in rows that ascend at an angle slightly steeper than that of a stadium-seating theater, which allows unobstructed views of the screen. The walls are painted tan -- dark enough to allow for lights-out film screenings but light enough for panel discussions and other presentations.

The theater is directly beneath the large staircase that leads from the sidewalk to the rotunda. Because the Archives building was constructed on top of what used to be a creek, numerous pillars and pilings are spaced throughout it for support; the area beneath the steps was the only pillar-free spot large enough for a theater, Pinkert said.

Before Friday's public opening, the theater on Thursday will host the first Foundation for the National Archives' Records of Achievement Award, which is expected to become an annual tribute. Historian and author David McCullough will be honored with the first award.

Archives officials are working on a partnership with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Pinkert said. It would make the theater the exclusive Washington venue for a variety of documentary film festivals and possibly the site of Academy Awards screenings for those who vote in the documentary category.

More information about the theater and a schedule of coming events is available on the Archives' Web site, www.archives.gov/national_archives_experience.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company