SAN FRANCISCO, MARCH 1 -- In what officials said might lead to a series of Washington showcases for the arts of different American regions, Kennedy Center President Ralph P. Davidson today announced plans for an unprecedented summer arts festival that will use the center to celebrate the theater, dance, music and food of San Francisco.
"To be able to say that San Francisco is coming to the Kennedy Center in what is going to be an unusual event -- it's very satisfying," Davidson said at a news conference at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel. "Today a lot of the action is in our regional theaters, and we want to do a lot more of that at the Kennedy Center."
Throughout June, Davidson said, Kennedy Center theaters will be offering productions by San Francisco-based performers such as performance artist George Coates, the gay-oriented Theatre Rhinoceros and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a veteran commedia dell'arte-style political theater group whose performances are more often staged before hooting audiences in Bay Area parks. Also scheduled are the Kronos Quartet, a National Symphony Orchestra performance of works by West Coast composers and American Film Institute screenings of films by San Francisco-area filmmakers.
There will be excerpts from the Ethnic Dance Festival and the World Drum Festival, both annual San Francisco summer events. Bill Fontana, who recently finished the audio design for the jungle exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, has planned what he describes as a "sound sculpture" of the Golden Gate Bridge. The Exploratorium, San Francisco's celebrated hands-on science museum, is weighing in with one of its exhibits melding science and art; the Golden Gate Bridge Video, for example, promises according to the Exploratorium press release to combine "the hands-on control of an interactive video game with an eight-foot screen and the sensation of flying over the Golden Gate Bridge and around the city."
The notion of a festival to bring San Francisco back east, like some intriguing foreign culture, came to the Kennedy Center more than a year ago, said public affairs director Laura Longley. "It's one of these things that bubbled up," she said. "We've always talked of doing things in a major regional way -- really the focus of what's going on in the arts throughout the country -- and San Francisco just spoke up loud and clear. It was obvious there was so much here."
There was no inter-city lobbying for the regional festival, Longley said; San Francisco, with its lively local theater and ethnic arts community, simply struck the Kennedy Center planners as a sensible choice. The budget of $500,000 to $1 million is being raised largely from corporate and foundation grants and the National Endowment for the Arts, and Davidson said Kennedy Center officials are holding off before planning any additional regional festivals beyond this one.
"We thought we'd take it one step at a time to make sure we could make it happen," he said.
Davidson said Kennedy Center officials looked for performers who were experienced in touring, could handle the variously sized stages at the center, and reflected a strong regional flavor in their work. "Definite identification with the Bay Area," he said. "And number two, obviously, artistic merit."
Art Agnos, the newly elected mayor of San Francisco, escaped from his grueling budget deficit problems long enough to give the Kennedy Center festival a vigorous boost. "For my first seven weeks in office, there haven't been a lot of uppers, and this is one of them," he said to sympathetic chuckles. "San Francisco has an international reputation for an outstanding opera, symphony, ballet and other fine arts programs ... but we also have an outstanding reputation among those knowledgeable about community artist groups. Our city is home to small neighborhood theater companies, dance groups, musicians, composers, writers, choreographers and technicians that are unique."
Even the food of the Kennedy Center restaurants and snack carts is planned to reflect San Francisco, Longley said. The center's restaurant firm is planning to bring a San Francisco chef to Washington to guide the planning of the sit-down meals, and snacks will probably include such local staples as regional produce and the Chinese savories called dim sum.
Longley said some thought has already been given to other American areas that might be celebrated if the San Francisco festival goes well. Two years ago the center offered a smaller-scale showcase of Chicago, bringing two highly regarded Chicago repertory theater companies to Washington; planners might want to go back to Chicago to see about some larger festival, Longley said.
"There are certain states, regions or cities where what's going on there could suggest the next likely possibilities," Longley said. "We might like to look at Texas. We'd want to look real hard at Los Angeles at some point."
The idea seems in keeping, she said, with the Kennedy Center's role as a national cultural center. "We've been talking about needing to do more regional work, as a statement about us," she said. "By inviting people to come in, it encourages artists. It encourages new works. And that's what we felt this new festival could do."