Ladies in strappy heels and minidresses crowd around the bathroom mirror on a recent Friday night, touching up lipstick. Done with their primping, they join a growing crush of people shimmying on the dance floor, lemony cocktails in hand, to the peppy sounds of Swedish pop star Robyn. Not far from the action, someone waiting — and waiting and waiting — for a drink at the bar abandons her place in line with a squeal when the DJ switches over to Lady Gaga.
It’s a familiar scene that could have been playing out at local clubs Current or Josephine, but it was happening in the institutional doughnut known as the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum. Just as many partygoers were streaming up escalators bound for an exhibition of paintings by Blinky Palermo as were outside indulging in cocktails and conversation.
“It’s a different atmosphere from normal D.C. life, and I love the Hirshhorn,” Kaylyn Kvochak, who has made the museum’s After Hours parties a habit, said after taking in Palermo’s colorful geometry. Her friend, first-timer Victoria Salegna, had more than art appreciation on her mind: “I’m really excited to go dance. I’m going to be honest.”
And just like that, high art blurs with popular culture.
It’s a commingling Washington is seeing more often, as cultural institutions are putting opera, theater and classical music, among other disciplines, into a social context to make them more palatable for mass consumption. Part of it is an attempt to tap into the growing group of people in their 20s and early 30s who now make up almost a third of Washington’s population. But more often than not, the idea is to get locals, whose dinner-and-drink night-life routine has become rote, to branch out and see art as an approachable entity and an enjoyable way to spend an evening.
“We're the Trojan horse,” says Michael Clements, who started Genki Media, an arts incubator responsible for Picnic Theatre Company and Art Jamz, just two of the culture-party hybrids taking Washington by storm.
The next big thing
The amateur actors behind Picnic Theatre Company didn’t expect to make a lasting mark on the D.C. theater scene. The emphasis of their singular brand of “site-specific party theater” is as much on socializing, beer in hand, as it is on experiencing Moliere and Chekhov. And yet, as soon as Picnic announced its first performance last June — a production of “The Hypochondriac” in the idyllic gardens at Dumbarton House — the demand was evident.
The show sold out so quickly that the group decided to add another performance. Those tickets were snapped up as well.
The message: Dinner theater may be passe, but drink theater is the next big thing. At Dumbarton, visitors hung around imbibing and socializing before and after the quick-hit one-act play, which they took in from blankets spread out with picnics and bottles of wine.
Since then, the founding board members — Clements, along with Bruce MacPhail, Oli Robinson, Christina Sevilla and Omar Popal — have staged an Edgar Allen Poe-themed production last October, also at Dumbarton, and “An Evening With Anton Chekhov” in March for a packed house at Dupont Circle’s Washington Club. The group’s next show will go on this summer, though details are still being finalized.
“It wasn’t supposed to be an ongoing, continuous thing,” Clements says. “It just has really taken off, which has been a great surprise for all of us.”
The crew behind Picnic — whose day jobs include neuroscience at NIH, owning the Adams Morgan lounge Napoleon and running Washington Life Magazine — encourage fun above all, and pride themselves on the accessibility of their productions. That includes $10 ticket prices, the proceeds of which go to charity.
“I always joke right before we go on, ‘All right, let’s give them $12 worth tonight,’ ” Clements says.
And although the group sounds anything but serious, the last performance marked the beginning of an alliance with the big leagues — the Helen Hayes Awards. The money from ticket sales benefited the awards’ Washington Theatre Legacy Project, which encourages exposing young people to theater.
But the increasing exposure isn’t going to affect the group’s ethos.
“Really it’s all about having fun,” Robinson says. “You’ll come to this party, and you’ll get your drinks and your crepes and so forth and we’ll put on a play.” If the productions lead to an increased appreciation for theater in general, all the better, says Clements.
“Anytime you can get people engaged in the theater is a good thing,” he says. “We’re the gateway drug, and if people want the hard stuff, then they can go to some of the amazing theaters that we have in D.C.”
Socializing with Schumann
No one would accuse classical music of being the cool kid in the school of artistic disciplines. Sure, it has had its moments — Debussy playing over the Bellagio’s choreographed fountains after a slick heist in “Oceans 11” — but more often than not, it’s the soundtrack to stereotypically stuffy locales (country club dining rooms) or regimented traditions (wedding processions).
Leave it to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to obliterate those notions. The group has collaborated in concert with the jamming lead singer of Phish, Trey Anastasio, and scruffy, smooth-voiced Grammy winner Ray LaMontagne. The musicians have played “Beat It” and “Rock With You” during a Michael Jackson appreciation concert and regaled audiences with the sounds of a shrinking Mario during a performance of video-game music.
It’s all part of music director Marin Alsop’s push to rethink programming without sacrificing quality.
“I think we’ve never done a very good job of catering and adjusting what we do,” she says. “Not necessarily changing the essence of what we do, but certainly adjusting the trappings, whether it’s the time of the concerts, the way the concerts are presented or the feel in the hall.”
To combat what some consider prohibitive ticket prices, the orchestra started a program called Forte for patrons younger than 40. Not only do members get $40 tickets to concerts, they are also invited to post-performance parties and receive drink vouchers. The post-concert soirees have been particularly popular.
“They can stay at home and find everything for free online, so why go out?” Alsop says. “There has to be another motivation. I think it’s all about socializing and connecting with people.”
In addition to the nontraditional music choices, Alsop hosts a series at the Music Center at Strathmore called Off the Cuff, in which she takes a piece and breaks it down in an effort to make the art form more accessible. The concerts are shorter, and Alsop intersperses music with explanation. The shows also start earlier, so that “by 8:30 the night is young and everyone can go out and have dinner or go out to a club,” Alsop says.
While the director acknowledges that hectic social lives and burgeoning careers can keep younger patrons from making the symphony a habit, the trick is laying the groundwork now for a continued appreciation later in life.
“It’s a little bit like developing a taste for wine,” she says. “When you’re young, you drink wine because of what effect it has on you . . . later in life you come back to it because of a mature kind of sophistication. I think symphonic music is like that in a way.”
Exhibitions with an edge
It seems like every museum has kicked off its own version of the late-night art party, but Hirshhorn After Hours, which debuted in 2007, was among the trailblazers. The soirees happen three or four times a year and consistently hit the 2,100-person capacity. Programming has included Lite-Brite craft time, Baltimore-based musician Dan Deacon, who spurred a dance-off, and Los Angelenos Lucky Dragons, who got Washingtonians to do the unthinkable — touch one another — in order to alter the music.
But while the Hirshhorn’s manager of special programs, Kevin Hull, searches as far as Portland, Ore., for edgy new performers, the exhibitions remain, without fail, a popular draw. (The next After Hours is set for October.) The fact that the exhibitions close at 10 while After Hours continues until midnight has spurred an unexpected complaint.
“People always ask, ‘Why did you close the galleries? I want to go in,’” Hull says, to which he responds, incredulously, “It’s free tomorrow; we open at 10. We’re not closed forever.”
If After Hours is sort of like a rowdy, rambunctious kid, another museum party institution — Phillips After 5 — must be the more refined older sister. The events, which occur monthly on Thursday evenings, have a more upscale cocktail party vibe, but a similar pursuit of fresh programming through community collaboration. A recent evening themed around the exhibit “Philip Guston: Roma” included short performances by Washington National Opera performers, which took place in the courtyard to a packed generation-spanning crowd sipping white wine and Coronas. There were also Italian language lessons, gelato tastings, jazz performances and, per usual, an impressive congregation examining “Luncheon of the Boating Party.”
“Of course it’s a social event; it’s being in a museum in a more convivial atmosphere,” says Phillips Collection director Dorothy Kosinski. “And I’ve got nothing against food and drink, but if that were all that it was, I think it would be pretty hollow.”
The idea of opera is intrinsically alien. Even the rare shows in English can be hard to navigate. Washington National Opera has a fix: Every production, whether it’s “Porgy and Bess” or “Don Pasquale,” has a Friday night performance featuring a pre-show lecture that helps give novices a sense of what to expect.
“I was very intimidated at first by the idea of going to an opera,” says Nic Sukitsch, who sits on the advisory council for the Washington National Opera’s young benefactors program, Generation O. “I thought that it was something for older people or for people who knew a lot about what they were seeing. I didn’t even realize, being somewhat naive, that there were usually supertitles and you could read along and see what was going on.”
Sukitsch, who calls his first experience with the art form “love at first sight,” has seen nearly every Washington National Opera production in the past five years, but got involved in Generation O only in the past year. The group launched in 2003 as a discount ticket initiative desperately targeting a younger demographic. But it has morphed into an active free-to-join group, whose members get together for happy hours at the Passenger and Tonic when they’re not taking advantage of the massive markdowns on theater tickets.
Seats at the Kennedy Center for “Iphigenie en Tauride,” for example, will set patrons back by as much as $300. The 18- to 35-year-old Generation O members, on the other hand, can take in the production, which runs through May 28, for $25 to $50.
Even for people such as Sukitsch who know opera, the lectures offer insights, including clues for moments to watch for that viewers might otherwise miss.
“I work in business,” Sukitsch says. “I have no education in the arts; I just appreciate it. For me, it’s a great way to learn things.”