By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 22, 2008
Mike Batistick kept a bite-size play parked on his hard drive: the story of one Macy's doorman telling another about an odd happening at the zoo. The New York playwright hadn't thought much about what future the little piece might have until a theater friend from Washington called, looking to stock a new festival in a renovated city space with work from the niche genre of 10-minute plays.
A click of a "send" button and a few rounds of judging later, Batistick's "Urban Legend" was welcomed into the circle of playlets chosen for the Source Festival, a three-week event beginning tomorrow that not only will expose Washington theatergoers to dozens of new writers, but also will rechristen one of the storied performance spaces in town -- the scrappy Source Theatre on 14th Street NW.
"It found a home," Batistick, who studied playwriting at Juilliard and works part time in information technology for a major bank, says of his concise dramatic nugget. "You write something and you never know what doors are going to open."
For the reopening of Source's doors -- closed after the financial arrears of the theater company that shared its name -- the nonprofit Cultural Development Corp. put $3.5 million into upgrading the sound and lighting systems and generally rehabilitating the 150-seat black-box space, which once upon a time was an auto body shop. With work essentially done, the organization is starting Source's new life with the festival, which is a reconstituted version of a summer program that the defunct Source Theatre Company used to sponsor called the Washington Theatre Festival.
"When we purchased the property, we made three pledges," says Anne Corbett, the corporation's executive director: "that we would keep the name Source; that we would operate it as a theater or do our best to do so; and that we would revive the festival."
Summer used to be pretty much the season of the slimmest pickings for theater in these parts, but with the blossoming of the Capital Fringe Festival -- which begins its third annual installment July 10 -- and now, the rejuvenated event at Source, hibernation is a thing of the past. This festival, in fact, is yet another sign of the region's year-round aspirations and its appetite for new voices.
To organize the Source Festival, Corbett hired Jeremy Skidmore, a go-getter who recently left his job as artistic director of Theater Alliance, a small company based at the H Street Playhouse that he turned into a haven for hip, often provocative plays.
The festival, at a cost of about $100,000, seeks to be a smorgasbord of cool. The first week is reserved for the 10-minute plays, 25 of them -- chosen from an astonishing 900 submissions -- broken down into three distinct evenings. Next will come an array of seven original performance pieces, devised through the whimsical pairings of choreographers and spoken-word performers, photographers and writers.
For the final week, six one-act plays, produced in two separate programs, will take to the stage. (For a detailed schedule of festival events, go to http://www.sourcedc.org.)
One of the elements that distinguishes the Source Festival from Fringe -- with which it overlaps for a couple of days -- is that Source is leaning heavily for talent on the region's theater establishment rather than being a sponge for artists on the outer edge. The festival's 10-minute plays are, for instance, being staged by a veritable honor roll of the city's artistic directors, from Michael Kahn of the Shakespeare Theatre Company and Joy Zinoman of the Studio Theatre to leaders of smaller companies, such as Mark Rhea of Keegan Theatre, Michael Dove of Forum Theatre and Linda Murray of Solas Nua.
Only technical staff is paid; none of the playwrights, actors or directors will be. "It's just great being part of the Source renaissance," says Christopher Gallu, producing artistic director of Catalyst Theater. "I got my start in the Washington Theatre Festival eight years ago as an actor. It's a great little training ground for people. When I sat through the auditions for this year's festival, I only knew two of the actors, but I got head shots and résumés of a lot of people who I want to call in the winter for my show."
More than 150 people are involved in putting on the 38 productions. "The only reason it worked is that everyone said okay," explains Skidmore, who sent invitations to local artistic directors and was surprised at how quickly the slots were filled. "I think one of the things that's unique about theater in D.C. is that even as it grows and grows, it's still a corps. You're constantly working together, as kind of an ensemble."
Skidmore was surprised, too, at the extraordinary volume of short plays submitted from across the country. He'd expected his judges to be wading through about 300 of the 10-minute plays; the festival received three times that many. For the comparatively longer one-act plays, Skidmore and his associate producers solicited pieces from certain playwrights; among the writers being showcased in the final week are Sheila Callaghan, J.T. Rogers, Julia Cho and local Charter Theatre's own Chris Stezin.
But first, theatergoers will be served dim sum-style, as the spartan Source space makes room for drama started and finished in the blink of an eye. (If the plays happen to feel like anything longer than that, they're in trouble.) The 10-minute play -- a form popular with theater festivals as value-added, on a shoestring -- offers a mere sip of an artist's talent.
Gary Garrison, executive director of creative affairs for the Dramatists Guild, the professional organization for playwrights and composers, says ideally, a 10-minute play should be more fully developed than, say, a sketch. "It should be a complete experience in storytelling."
"Very few people do them well," adds Garrison, who's created his share of them and become so well versed that he wrote a book called "Perfect 10: Writing and Producing the 10-Minute Play." "It's simple storytelling," he says, "in a complex form."
If the festival is all about hearing original voices and novel ideas, ticket buyers who remember the old Source will no doubt feel comfortable with the new Source. Although new stairwells have been added, new windows were installed, and the lobby is now a hard-not-to-notice shade of bright green, the performance space itself is virtually untouched. The floors and even the chairs are holdovers from what came before.
On a recent weekday, Corbett walked through the renovated building, showing off the amenities, such as the new dressing rooms behind the stage, replacing the ones that used to be reached by a narrow staircase. She's got her fingers crossed that the festival will set a tone for the years to come.
"I feel a great deal of responsibility that my organization was entrusted with this piece of history," she says. "I feel a great deal of responsibility about doing it right."