Mia Gardiner has a mission: finding folk performers from around the world who've made Washington home. She hunts them every-where -- in restaurants, at parties, even through cab drivers.
"I'm always looking for new groups. It's a part of everyday life," she says. "When you meet someone who has an accent, you politely ask, 'Where are you from?' and people usually are delighted to tell you about their culture."
Her discoveries -- folk artists representing the traditions of about 30 countries -- will be among the performers tomorrow and Sunday at the Washington Folk Festival in Glen Echo Park. Gardiner, one of the festival's founders, is chairman of its International Groups committee.
The festival, sponsored by the Folklore Society of Greater Washington and the National Park Service, was started 10 years ago with the intention of showcasing area performers, and it's still restricted to local talent.
Other than the residential restriction, the Folk Festival trend is toward diversity and change. The international programs have been part of the festival since the beginning, but Gardiner says she is always looking for different types of performers. This year, for example, Portuguese Fadu, a kind of blues, will be performed at the festival for the first time.
When Gardiner hears of an interesting group, she or someone on her committee checks to see that they are authentic and qualified artists, though not necessarily professional. Anything of quality goes at the Folk Festival.
And if it goes well, it gets built upon. For example: In the first years of the festval, there were occasional storytelling events; now there is a separate storytelling arena.
This year about 30 performers will participate in the 16 hours of storytelling activities, which include ghost stories on stage Saturday night.
"It's no holds barred," says Alan Booth, head of the Storytelling Committee. "They start off rather mild, but toward the end of the evening they can become rather scary."
In addition to storytelling, music and dance performances, the festival has craft exhibits, workshops and demonstrations, activities for children and rides on the famous Glen Echo carousel. The rides are 25 cents, but the rest of the festival is free.
The future of Glen Echo, an old amusement park where local artists and craftsmen work throughout the year, is uncertain. National Park Service officials say new utilities systems and structural building repairs are needed, and they're seeking private funding sources for $1.5 to $2.5 million in immediate repairs and $10 million for full restoration. A foundation to raise money for the park was established last weekend. The park hosts 18 annual festivals as well as classes and concerts, but Claudia Galagan, the park's program director, says the Folk Festival is the largest. "It takes a year to set up," she says. "It's gotten bigger and better every year."
Galagan, who estimates that 8,000 to 9,000 people will attend each day, says it's getting difficult for the park to accommodate the crowds. "A lot of the areas the public is not allowed in because they don't meet public safety standards," she says.
The fate of the Folk Festival is more certain. "The festival will go on whether at Glen Echo or somewhere else," says Galagan.
But somewhere else just wouldn't be the same, says Bob Hitchcock, a performer as well as a member of the festival's Coordinating Committee.
"I think if we had to move it would be a shame," says Hitchcock, who sings sea chanteys with the Boarding Party. "The park adds so much to it. I've been to the park at other times of the year, and usually it's a very sad, dreary place. To see 25,000 people there, the whole place comes alive . . . It's the perfect place."