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Remaking The Scene

These young and influential individuals show what it takes to shake up the D.C. arts scene.

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Erin Jackson, 30

Stand-up comic

Washington has been the home of a number of very good comics and a few great ones (Wanda Sykes, Dave Chappelle, Lewis Black, Martin Lawrence). Erin Jackson could be next in line.

Jackson, a Howard University grad, began hitting open-mike nights in Washington and Baltimore four years ago. This summer, she's had the sort of breakthroughs that push a comic from the middle ranks to headliner. In July she reached the semifinals of the NBC reality show "Last Comic Standing," and followed up by finishing second at the Great American Comedy Festival (judges included Robert Klein and Dick Cavett). Also this summer: an appearance on Comedy Central's "Live at Gotham" and a guest shot on Ellen DeGeneres's talk show in mid-September.

Jackson's style -- she describes it as "congenial sarcasm" -- is influenced by Bill Cosby, her idol when she was growing up in central New Jersey. Like Cosby, her material is mostly personal. "It's about me and my family," says Jackson, who says her family is "shocked" that she could be funny. "Eighty to 85 percent of it is stuff that has happened to me, or versions of stuff that happened to me."

A Jacksonian gem: She says that when she becomes famous, she intends to acquire the ultimate symbol of success for black celebrities -- she plans to marry a white woman.

- Paul Farhi

Jon Gann, 42

Filmmaker and founder of DC Shorts Festival, DC Film Salon and DC Film Alliance

Washington, D.C. has probably always had a film scene. It just took Jon Gann to notice.

Gann grew up in Silver Spring, graduated from the University of Delaware and had founded his own graphic design firm when he decided to go to film school in 1998. One of his short films made its way to festivals; inspired by that experience, in 2003 he founded the DC Shorts Film Festival (now underway). The next year he formed the DC Film Salon, a quarterly filmmaker confab at Bar Louie. His latest creation is the DC Film Alliance, an umbrella organization that lets film and TV professionals share information about navigating local production.

Gann still produces a film a year (look out for "I Shaved for This!?," an omnibus about contemporary dating). But his heart lies in helping filmmakers help themselves. "I get the greatest thrill when someone says, 'You gave me the resources I needed to get something done in this town,'" he notes. "If you can't share it, what's the point of having the information?"

- Ann Hornaday

Eric Brewer, Adrian Loving and Ayo Okunseinde

Members of Dissident Display

The fashionable, charismatic men of Dissident Display have injected the D.C. art scene with a dose of coolness. They throw underground parties, such as when they converted an empty retail space on 14th Street NW last May into a concert/art event called "Underwater."

"Three or four years ago, you didn't have the art scene that exists today where people will take abandoned spaces or places in transition to have spontaneous art gatherings to promote artists and the idea of socializing around and about art," says Brewer.

Dissident Display operates an art gallery at 416 H St. NE, where they threw a 25-year-anniversary tribute to the hip-hop documentary "Wild Style" last fall. (The top floor of the building houses the group's commercial arm, which they pitch as a one-stop shop for video production and Web design.) "Because our space is not so sterile," Okunseinde says, "it gives access to people who might be intimidated by the white walls of art museums."

This Last spring, Dissident Display launched Scene, an online art magazine. Scene features three-minute video interviews with creative types as disparate as a tattoo artist and a National Gallery of Art curator. The secret to moving between such different social circles? Portray an image of success, Loving says. "We're sort of like self-styled celebrities."

- Rachel Beckman

Julianne Brienza, 33

Executive director, Capital Fringe Festival

The Capital Fringe Festival is the Red Bull of Washington theater -- or the Yoo-hoo. You never know. Greek tragedy and improv comedy, somber nude drama and informal homilies on birthing techniques. Anything goes, and that's how Julianne Brienza likes it.

"Keeping it free and unjuried is hard," Brienza says. "It takes diligence, and saying 'no' all the time. ... There are people who really hate me, and people who think I'm doing a good job. If everyone liked me, that would be a problem."

This arts bazaar of more than 100 productions in three weeks recently closed its third summer season, playing to its biggest audience yet. This year, Brienza put mandatory admission buttons (a $5 premium that channeled extra cash in the artists' pockets) on 21,000 theatergoers seeking wisdom and weirdness in spaces as august as the Harman Center for the Arts and as funky as Chief Ike's Mambo Room. Fringe also established a beachhead (Fort Fringe, natch) on Sixth Street and New York Avenue NW -- evidence that Brienza's digging in.

Brienza is less of a hand-holder now than in previous years; the Fringe is a self-producing festival, and she expects artists to handle their business. "You can come and succeed, break even or fail," she says, adding that the artists' sales figures are privately available online: "They can see what they're making. And they need to see that."

An initiative called the Training Factory aims to help spread expertise through year-round workshops. "It's not just Fringe anymore," Brienza says. The goal: increased professionalism. "Then," Brienza hopes, "we can have more working artists living in the District."

- Nelson Pressley

Tittsworth, 29

DJ-producer-remixer

Tittsworth became semi-famous the new-fashioned way: by spreading his remixes and edits through the blogosphere. Tittsworth (that's his real name; he was born Jesse Tittsworth) specializes in Baltimore club, a rowdy style of high-energy, bass-heavy music that originated in Charm City. "It takes the tempo of house music and that gritty, sampled feel you'd get from hip-hop," he explains.

After earning international notice for his B'more remixes and live DJ sets, the Alexandria-based artist has shifted into the realm of songwriting and production, with a guest-heavy album of originals, "Twelve Steps," released in August. Its creation was made possible largely by technology, with Tittsworth and his collaborators (Nina Sky, Pitbull, Santogold, Kid Sister, the Federation) swapping music and vocals via e-mail.

"It's like an extension of blog culture," he says. "It's as nerdy as it gets, but you can do it all on a laptop without being in the same city."

His goal now? To break through the glass ceiling of the remix-and-DJ circuit. "I started to see the limitations of what I was doing," he says. "I want to do original music for larger artists, pop artists. And those opportunities are already starting to come."

- J. Freedom du Lac

Chelsea Lee, 17

Singer-songwriter

The voice is at once weary and wise, saturated with longing and loss. She sings of long-distance love and wishy-washy beaus, declaring with take-it-or-leave-it determination: "This is the way I love." In many ways, acoustic pop singer Chelsea Lee knows not of what she sings -- she is, after all, only 17. But she says imagination can take you far.

Open-mike nights at Jammin' Java in Vienna launched her career. She was 14. Soon, Lee was opening for such artists as Grammy-winning Marc Cohn and Alexa Ray Joel. A sold-out solo show at Jammin' Java and a self-titled EP followed.

Her life in a few words: High school. Guitar lessons. Jam sessions with her musical partner, Todd Wright. Prom.

"It's not like I'm missing a chunk of my high school experience," says the singer-songwriter, who opened for Pat Benatar in June. "But I choose to focus on the music. That's a choice for me, to focus more on what I love."

For now, Lee -- a senior at McLean's Langley High School -- is focused on two divergent paths: contemplating college and meeting with major labels.

"It could go major or minor for me," says Lee, who co-headlines with Kyle Patrick of the Click Five on Sept.16 at Jammin' Java. "As long as I'm singing. I'm all about the music.

- Teresa Wiltz

Antony Walker, 40

Conductor

When the Washington Concert Opera hired an unknown music director in 2002, the company was in bad shape. It had a $200,000 deficit by 2003, when -- after 15 years of presenting rising talents like Renée Fleming -- it turned to less-known singers and a 34-year-old conductor with only a few American appearances under his belt.

They picked the right unknown conductor. Antony Walker is a recognized new force in American opera. He's appeared at the Minnesota Opera, won the New York City Opera's award for debut artists, and, last season, took over as music director of the Pittsburgh Opera. As for the Washington Concert Opera: Thanks to Walker's growing renown, it's able to "hire from a much wider pool of talent," says its Executive Director Judy Gruber, and has doubled its subscribers.

Walker, a native of Australia, lives in Georgetown with his fiancee, the soprano Penelope Mills. He has enlivened the capital's opera scene with exciting performances of less-known works: take Rossini's "Bianca e Falliero," with Vivica Genaux. He hopes to expand WCO's season from two operas to three.

"I really enjoy the immediacy of what we do," Walker says. "Some people scratch their heads and say, 'Concert opera: Doesn't that mean it's not dramatic?' But I don't think anybody would come away thinking that once they've seen it."

- Anne Midgette

Meisha Bosma, 34

Dancer, choreographer, founder and artistic director of BosmaDance

In a city whose focus on process and over-thinking spills into so much of its art, Meisha Bosma's uninhibited, emotionally unbridled choreography feels refreshingly honest. She delves into our private mess, the feelings that overpower, the sticky and imperfect attachments.

With her work marked by restless drive, it's as if Bosma is still buzzing from her first bout of dance intoxication. That was about eight years ago, when the longtime dance student met a couple of visiting Israeli dancers at American University, who sparked "a real connection, emotionally, physically and spiritually, to their work." Next stop: Jerusalem. No, she's not Jewish, and no, the move wasn't legal. Did that stop her? A dance troupe paid her under the table for two years. Bosma found her calling, came back here and closed herself up in a studio.

Six years, several key commissions and local awards later, Bosma is pushing her 10 dancers to choreograph. For her next project, on "how your life changes when death is at your door," she's collaborating with a visual artist. "What I want to do with my art," she says, "is to get people to take risks, to show them how strong they really are."

- Sarah Kaufman

Jefferson Pinder, 37

Video artist

Thank you, Jefferson Pinder, for challenging this painting-friendly city's oil-on-canvas habit. The District native plants himself -- and his blackness -- in almost every frame of his racially charged video works. "I play the role of social scientist and specimen," Pinder says, "to get beyond the clicheéd ways of looking at ethnicity."

One of Pinder's recent videos, "Juke," showed black people lip-syncing to "white" songs by the likes of David Bowie, Radiohead and Dolly Parton.

Pinder grew up on Capitol Hill and in Silver Spring. His mom taught in District schools, and his dad worked for the government. Now a resident of Hyattsville and a member of the University of Maryland arts faculty, Pinder rues Washington's reputation. "I get so angry when people only want to see D.C. as a hub of politics," he says. "There is a cultural scene that is rich and distinct."

Call him an ambassador of sorts. He's secured entry into major national exhibitions, including shows at the Studio Museum in Harlem and Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn. Right now he appears in "After 1968: Contemporary Artists and the Civil Rights Legacy" at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the National Portrait Gallery's "Recognize! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture."

Next on the docket: a performance in Mexico City's subway. This winter, Pinder will strap speakers to his body and ride that city's underground hawking mix-tapes for 10 pesos a pop. Though modeled on established commuter-line commerce, Pinder's performance subverts tradition by selling black music exclusively -- from Mos Def to Muddy Waters. As usual, Pinder's goal is major. Says the artist: "I hope to redefine what blackness is."

- Jessica Dawson


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