FIVE YEARS ago, there was no place for the space; now the space is the place. During October and the first third of November, d.c. space, Washington's lower case but avant-art night spot, celebrates a half decade in which it has created a viable downtown home for new jazz, performance art, video, film and cabaret theater. Now, with the addition of the 9:30 club and the Wax Museum, a good portion of Washington's night life is gravitating downtown.
In New York, such a club would be old news, but nothing like it had really worked before in Washington. Bill Warrell, who started d.c. space at Seventh and E streets NW with three other partners, remembers thinking that "there was going to be an instant market. But while the need was there, the desire for it to happen wasn't. We had to develop that. It took a while."
Part of the problem was that after the riots of 1968, downtown had been all but abandoned, especially after dark. There had been vague talk of revitalization, but it never seemed to advance to the action stage. Says Warrell, "In retrospect, that revitalization seems to be right on schedule, but at the time it seemed way behind. We opened just as they closed D Street, putting Metro cables in; but then Metro opened the following year just when we needed the boost of being open at night. Everything seemed to happen when we could handle it."
In the midst of construction, d.c. space opened with a five-year plan. "The idea was to get things started, make all these things happen and then let go of the place," Warrell recalls. In fact, for quite a while, it was the lunchtime business that was space's bread and butter. "But five years later, we're still in the restaurant business." Recently, the roles have reversed: The dinner-theater (mostly the Source and Off the Circle theater companies) cabaret brings as much business as lunch ever did, or more so, and the bar stays open every night.
When it first opened, d.c. space was on two floors: the restaurant was downstairs and the upstairs was a performance loft, patterned after New York lofts. Originally "people thought it was noble that we weren't serving drinks and that the separation had been made, but now, a few years later, everybody's a lot happier to have the drinks and the setting; it just makes it a little more relaxed." The loft provided an alternative home for such stellar jazz talents as Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Don Cherry, Oliver Lake and Arthur Blythe, as well as number of performance artists, all of whom have remained very loyal to what has become a viable market for them.
There's a good case to be made that d.c. space paved the way for clubs such as the 9:30 and even the Wax Museum by getting people used to the idea of going back downtown at night. "I don't think a lot of things out there would have happened without d.c. space," Warrell says. "We broke ground for an awful lot of what they do. There'd been no decision on Seventh Street back then, most people thought it was a desert, a lost region." This was, of course, before the galleries started moving down to Lansburgh's and other buildings in the vicinity.
The first few years were a jumble of jazz, film and video, all imbued with a spirit of newness. "It was trying to be something that it hadn't been yet and now five years later it's been most of the things that we tried to make it," Warrell says proudly. The menu for this month includes rock and reggae, jazz and poetry, theater and film, video and performance art; it's the happy jumble d.c. space has become known for.
The club's impact is felt elsewhere as well. The upstairs loft closed when it looked as though some of the cultural events would shift to the larger Gayety Theatre (that move fell through), and the Olshonsky gallery moved in.
But having built an audience for the avant-garde, more room was needed. District Curators evolved and organized a triumphant series at the Corcoran, as well as last year's successful Ninth Street Crossings at the Pension Building (to be repeated this year).
Warrell admits he's still looking for a larger space, "the right way. I've learned to accept that things move slower than you want them to." District Curators' advisory panel includes New York producer Joseph Papp and local impresario Patrick Hayes, whose Performing Arts Society is a partner in Ninth Street Crossings. "I'd like to see them go into a partnership; I think both of them want to put a small theater in downtown somewhere," says Warrell. In the meantime, space is the place.