It’s impossible to think about this month’s Source Festival without recalling Keith Parker, the literary manager who presided over the theatrical event for roughly two decades and died last month at age 64. The Washington Theatre Festival, begun in 1981, was colloquially known as the Source Festival (for the swashbuckling and penniless company that ran it) in the days before WTF was an eyebrow-raising acronym. Particularly in the 1980s, it was an anything-goes platform for writers, actors and directors eager for exposure in a city whose creative infrastructure was just beginning to take shape.
The lasting image of Parker involves mountains of scripts.
“Lands’ End messenger bags and plastic bags full of scripts,” recalls Garland Scott, a Source associate producer in the late 1980s and now head of external relations at the Folger Shakespeare Library. “A system of milk crates. His apartment was filled with milk crates.”
Parker’s Dupont Circle apartment was dubbed the “Lit Pit” as he and his team vetted hundreds of new works, dozens of which would get produced over the course of a few sweaty weeks back when Washington theater was otherwise largely dormant in the summer. Manuscripts swamped the theater, too, as the festival got planned.
“Stacks and stacks all over the floor,” says Jenny McConnell Frederick, artistic director of the current Source Festival, who got her professional break at the 1997 fest.
By 1989, the festival was at full throttle, slapping up 27 full productions along with readings and workshops. Venues included Woolly Mammoth and GALA Hispanic theaters (each at a different location then), plus American Playwrights Theatre and the Takoma Theatre. The Post’s Joe Brown noted that Parker vetted 325 scripts, 115 from local writers. Tickets ran $5 to $8.
One of the festival’s hallmarks was the five nights of the 10-Minute Play Competition. “It had a speed-dating, down-and-dirty quality, hoping that sheer adrenaline and charm would take you through,” Scott says.
Who worked in the festival? Everyone from noted camp stylist Charles Busch (back in 1981) to Allison Arkell Stockman, whose Constellation Theatre Company is now a resident troupe at Source. Playwrights include Jennifer Nelson (who later headed the African Continuum Theatre Company and now works for Ford’s Theatre and the Mosaic Theater Company), Allyson Currin (a founding member of the D.C. playwriting collective the Welders) and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (“American Psycho,” the rebooted “Spider-Man” musical). Leaping in to perform these plays were more currently established Washington actors than you could begin to name.
Source produced full seasons, too, with shows that often got noticed, like the 1982 “Equus” featuring Marcia Gay Harden. Festival discoveries catapulted into the main season all the time, recalls Elizabeth Robelen, a performer and director who worked as Source’s director of script development in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Down the street, Studio Theatre and Woolly Mammoth were growing their small operations with a higher degree of polish. Source was the place where you could put on a show but you might not get paid.
“For better or worse, anyone could work for Bart Whiteman,” Robelen says of Source’s founder, about whom much lore is spun. “The whole theory behind Source was that anyone could try anything.”
Still, Source was a genuine creative center in the city’s emerging theater scene. And if the festival sounds a bit like a circus, Robelen pushes back.
“To say there was method to Keith’s madness understates it,” Robelen says. “It was totally thought out. He came across as being very relaxed, maybe disheveled, and didn’t know where anything was. That’s not true at all. He could put his hand on any script. And an undersung thing is how he cultivated readers. He certainly taught me a lot about reading a script, about what to do with your first impression.”
Parker, who corralled the festival into shape while holding down a day job for decades with AT&T, was the “continuity,” to use Robelen’s word, between Whiteman and his more businesslike successor, Pat Murphy Sheehy. “I always considered the festival the heart of the company,” Sheehy says.
Parker was amiable and wry, candid about how few scripts were good, yet he was fueled by the energy unleashed by saying, “Let’s put on a show” over and over. Playwright Ernie Joselovitz, who had Parker on the board of his Playwright’s Forum for 30 years, recalls Parker telling someone during an evening of 10-minute plays, “You want to do it? Do it,” and getting the act onstage about an hour later. Sheehy and Scott both single out Parker’s humor in the way he bundled certain projects and wrote puckish blurbs for brochures.
“Everyone always talks about that great Cheshire cat smile,” says Scott, though Joselovitz suspects that was partly an act from the shy Parker, projecting serenity atop the notoriously turgid operation that was Whiteman’s Source.
You can feel a touch of Parker’s legacy in the fact that Source Theatre — the brick structure at 1835 14th St. NW — still exists. That was actually Source’s second stage, known as the Warehouse, and with an entry to the lobby through the alley. (The main stage — smaller, oddly — was down the street at 1809 14th St. NW.) A decade ago, the Warehouse, which by then was all that was left of the essentially defunct Source, was nearly converted into a billiard hall. The public protests that turned the tide were largely anchored in the memory of all the work Source generated in the years when 14th Street was a much more desolate and sketchy experience than it is now that retail boutiques, Trader Joe’s and restaurants are mere feet from Source’s front door.
“It was a difficult area,” Sheehy says of the strip that still hadn’t begun to recover from the late 1960s riots and urban flight, with prostitution and drugs commonplace.
“A big part of the festival was convincing people that it was safe to come to 14th Street to see something and that they might have a good time,” Scott says. “And possibly they’d find something to eat.”
The latest Source Festival is running on the thriving new 14th Street from June 8 to July 3. Reviving that annual event was part of the hard-won deal that had the Cultural Development Corporation take over the building and renovate the 120-seat theater a decade ago. The formula now is to showcase three new full-length scripts; each play’s theme becomes the basis for an evening of 10-minute plays and for a multidisciplinary “artistic blind date” (between, say, a writer and a choreographer).
This year’s themes:
“Dreams and Discord,” prompted by Georgette Kelly’s “Ballast,” about gender and dreams.
“Heroes and Home,” inspired by Jennifer Fawcett’s “Buried Cities,” featuring characters hiding from a variety of crises.
“Secrets and Sound,” jumping off Tom Horan’s “Static,” about discoveries in an abandoned house.
Even though the current festival is smaller and more disciplined, Frederick says she aims to preserve Source tenets that were key under Parker, starting with openness and accessibility. Emerging artists need professional connections; the Source Festival has always been about giving someone a chance, whether it’s a young person starting out or an established actor itching to direct.
“Somehow in 1997, I got to do that, and that was amazing,” Frederick says. She draws a distinction with Capital Fringe’s summertime festival — a multiplatform event that in some ways evokes the vintage 1980s WTF — where people must have an act fully intact as they apply. “You can just be you,” Frederick says of the Source fest.
Since the heyday of the sprawling, sprinting festival that Parker ran, Washington theater, like theater throughout the country, has professionalized with zeal, occupying polished spaces and populating itself with graduates from university training programs that barely existed a generation ago.
“We had a lot of fun,” Scott says of the old Source. “Keith was gracious, kind and a super steady person. I admired that — and how trusting he must have been in the rest of us!”
A memorial service for Parker will be held at 7 p.m. on June 20 at Source.
Source Festival Through July 3 at Source, 1835 14th St. NW. Call 866-811-4111 or visit sourcefestival.org.