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Tatsuya Nakatani’s cymbal was broken, I was sure. The Japan-born, Pennsylvania-based musician was clanging a pile of metal percussion instruments together on the head of a snare drum with a reckless vigor that would make any music teacher cringe. He held up a cymbal with an irregular hole cut out of the center. Then he placed it on the drum, leaned over, and blew.
A clear, shrill note rang out, bouncing off the white basement walls and the bodies sitting cross-legged on the rug up front, a rapt mix of crust punks and gray-hairs in sweaters. Behind them, semicircular rows of chairs and couches fanned out beneath strings of glowing bulbs that looped around exposed, whitewashed ductwork. The show was weird, absolutely—noisy, atonal, even painful at times. It wasn’t anything that would fly at Constitution Hall or the 9:30 Club or even most punk venues. But for Back Alley Theater, the 16th Street Heights venue that hosted Nakatani in May, it was pretty conventional.
Back Alley Theater was resurrected in 2011 in the subterranean common area of the Madison Terrace Cooperative, a 45-unit apartment building at 14th and Kennedy streets NW, but the venue has a lengthy history of championing experimental art—and the name boasts an even longer one. In the ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s, Back Alley Theater was a radical theater company that took on leftist productions no one else would touch and gave aspiring artists a place to ply their crafts outside the cultural strictures and financial pressures of mainstream venues, first in Mount Pleasant and then in Madison Terrace. But in the early ’80s, after a management change and a venue shift when the building went co-op, it closed. For 30 years, the basement lay dormant, save for a few committee meetings and residents’ Christmas parties.
What’s uncommon about Back Alley Theater’s story isn’t its shuttering. Most DIY spaces battle similar challenges, like rising rent, shaky legal ground, cranky neighbors, and developers with dollar signs in their eyes. And often, what makes a space ideal for independent, alternative art also makes it most liable to damage when a shake-up comes around. A noncommercial venue that doesn’t keep a bank account has no safety net when something breaks, or drips, or falls down the stairs. An all-volunteer organization can lack the institutional memory and long-term strategic planning that makes for smooth leadership transitions. In the past five years, D.C. has seen the closure of some beloved alternative venues and multipurpose art spaces: Gold Leaf Studios, Subterranean A, DC Mini Gallery, Fight Club DC, the Dunes. In the DIY world, that’s nature.
But the revival of the Back Alley Theater comes at a time when new, self-identified DIY spaces are popping up in more basements and living rooms than ever. “As prices continue to rise, people are just utilizing the resources of the fact that they live in group house, that they’re lucky enough to live in one full of people at least interested in same type of alternative counterculture they’re into, and hosting straight-up shows,” says Luke Stewart, an alumnus of 52 O Street, Gold Leaf, DC Mini Gallery, and Kings Court, who currently manages New York Avenue NE’s Union Arts. “It’s super ballsy with all the liability that can go on in terms of doing that.”
Among the new crop of house venues, Back Alley Theater may be uniquely stable in at least one way: The building’s residents own it, so it’s not going anywhere. But it may also be a model for the future of solvency in the DIY scene—reclaiming an underutilized space, producing a cohesive, intentional program of events, and keeping a close eye on logistics and legal issues.
“Back Alley is probably one of my favorite, if not my favorite, place to play in D.C. as a musician, just because it has really deep history in D.C. all the way back to the ’60s,” says Stewart. “The vibe of the whole space…It’s an acoustically great space, nice and intimate.”
Maybe that’s what makes Back Alley truly special: It’s bottled lightning twice. “You walked down those stairs into sort of this basement magic,” Rebecca Read Medrano, executive director of the GALA Hispanic Theatre, says of the space’s last iteration. “It was so magical, so fantastic.”
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The ’60s were a fruitful time for political art in D.C., but for artists of color, the landscape of exhibiting venues was all but barren. Plays were produced with single-race casts, radical shows were passed over for fear of political backlash, and Spanish speakers had few opportunities to enjoy theater that addressed their experiences in their own language.
Then Naomi Eftis, a local activist and playwright, staged a play in the alley behind her Mount Pleasant home.
Read Medrano calls Eftis, who died in 1992, “a force of nature and a visionary” who sought out artists who had few opportunities to perform or produce elsewhere in the city. Founded by Eftis in 1967 as a place for progressives and actors, dancers, and playwrights of color to showcase their work, Back Alley Theater produced plays with racially integrated, multicultural casts—a rare feat at the time that earned the company the support of many area’s black churches. After it moved out of Eftis’ Mount Pleasant garage, the theater resided for a time at St. Stephen’s Church on 16th Street NW before renting a permanent space in the basement of the Madison Terrace apartment building in 1969.
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“[Eftis] was very interesting—a Jew trying to do black theater in the middle of a neighborhood that was very black,” says Read Medrano’s husband, Hugo Medrano, GALA’s producing artistic director. “She was very outspoken, very clear about what she wanted to say in this city.” She knew her work had political implications: When, in 1970, local TV station WMAL (now WJLA) invited Back Alley members to perform an excerpt of a play on one of its programs but refused to air a kiss between a black actor and a white actress, Eftis filed a complaint with the FCC. (The commission considered statements from Eftis and the station but took no action.)
With funds from legislation aimed at improving education for at-risk children in low-performing schools, Eftis hired a Spanish-speaking director, Sonia Castel. Under the auspices of Back Alley, Castel started the District’s only bilingual theater company, Teatro Doble, which performed children’s productions in public schools around the city. Rebecca answered a Teatro Doble ad for bilingual dancers and actors in the early ’70s and ended up working part-time in the theater’s office. It was at a rehearsal for a socialist play called The Greedy Goat that she met Hugo, “this man with long curly hair and a flamboyant shirt, spray-painting costumes,” she says. Born in Argentina, Hugo had emigrated to the U.S. after a stint in children’s theater in Spain. “[Back Alley Theater] was very important for me—it was my first hope of getting a job in theater [in D.C.],” he says. “In this country, it was difficult, because I didn’t speak very good English.” With the connections and grant-writing expertise they’d gained from Eftis, the two founded GALA in 1976.
For 20 years, Back Alley Theater staged original works written by locals (including Eftis) and plays by the likes of Lorraine Hansberry, Amiri Baraka, and Miguel Piñero. In the early ’80s, it closed after a leadership shift when Eftis left and a change in venue management: After D.C. enacted the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act in 1981, the renting residents of Madison Terrace organized to buy the building and turn it into a cooperative. The basement that once housed Back Alley Theater was an arts space no longer—it hosted tenant meetings, there was a TV in the corner, and residents could pay $25 to rent the room for personal events. Most of the time, it stayed empty.
Nearly three decades later, in 2010, Amanda Huron (a percussionist in the groups Weed Tree and Puff Pieces) moved in. The Rev. Valerie Critten-Stewart, then president of the co-op board, showed Huron around the building—and when they got to the basement, made a remark about possibly using the space for more ambitious events. The wheels in Huron’s head were already turning. “There was a big opportunity there,” she says, “and I liked the fact that the space is literally underground.” Her friend and Weed Tree bandmate, Layne Garrett, who’s booked shows at house venues and other DIY spaces for years, agreed to help her produce a couple of concerts.
A professor of D.C. history at the University of the District of Columbia, Huron was eager to learn more about Back Alley Theater once Critten-Stewart, one of the co-op’s founders, told her that it had been housed in the building’s basement. Huron combed the Washingtoniana collection at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, unearthing documents in the 1972 files of then–school board member (and later longtime Councilmember) Hilda Mason that lent support for Back Alley’s public school projects. “I was excited at the prospect of using the basement as a community space again,” says Huron. “I was born in Mount Pleasant and moved to 16th Street Heights, too, just like the theater.” In reverence for the space’s history of making a home for marginal art, Huron and Garrett asked a former Back Alley Theater member if they could resurrect the name. He had no objections, and was excited at the prospect of bringing an underground arts space back to life.
Back Alley Theater is textbook DIY—it’s all volunteer-run, the audience stays to hang out with bands after shows, and there’s a basket for drink donations by the fridge, which is stocked with beer that’s only slightly fancier than what you’d find at a grungy group house. But Huron says one person on the co-op board is “a stickler” for playing it by the book when it comes to the legal stuff. A certificate of occupancy for the space was filed under the old landlord’s name; Huron and her cohort had to get it changed. And, of course, they did it collaboratively: An artist on Madison Terrace’s common-area committee drew up the floor plan, and Huron went with a few others to meetings with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
“If you’re really in it for the long haul, you should legitimize your [space],” says Stewart. Too often, he’s seen DIY venues earn a bad rap in their communities for avoidable infractions and eventually go bust. Union Arts used to host events on the first floor of its building, and Stewart says it would have qualified for a venue certificate of occupancy then. Now that it only occupies the third floor, it would be nearly impossible for the space to meet DCRA’s requirements—handicap-accessible entrances, two bathrooms, and the like. “As a result, Union Arts is always going to stay, as long as we have this space, sort of at this underground level,” he says. “Sure, we’re going to have different events and shows. But we’re not going to be a legitimate venue.”
As a venue that’s copacetic in the eyes of the law, Back Alley Theater can afford to expand its programming beyond small-scale, word-of-mouth shows for scenesters in the know. Critten-Stewart wants to have conversational Spanish-English language classes in the space, and there has been talk of hosting community yoga nights. For Madison Terrace, the legal paperwork made the difference between a basement with creative potential for residents and an open-to-the-public venue that serves the whole city.
And Huron, it turns out, was particularly well-suited to helm the transition: As a city and regional planning master’s student at the University of North Carolina, she did her thesis research on a group of Berlin squatters who organized to purchase and cooperatize the apartment building where they lived.
The new Back Alley Theater’s first show featured Ms. Sandy & Ms. YET, a Houston-based guitar and belly-dance duo, on a bill with Weed Tree and Stewart’s free-jazz group Trio OOO in April 2011. Huron commemorated the venue’s resurrection with zines about its history. She left Madison Terrace the following summer, but when she moved back in 2013, she started planning again in earnest. This April, Back Alley reopened with New York–based avant-garde outfit Pet Bottle Ningen, an experimental chamber music duo from Philly, and a shadow puppeteer from Providence, R.I. “This stuff is never going to be cool or commercially viable. It’s stuff that no one’s going to make a serious buck off of, at least in the States,” Garrett says. He counts his own music in that category too: largely improvised, played with self-made or modified instruments. “My music is creative, with an emphasis on the create,” he says. “We’re providing a forum for that freedom to flourish.”
At venues larger than a living room, that freedom usually comes with a price, whether it’s money, time, or labor. Even St. Stephens, where Garrett had originally booked Nakatani, can be bit of a hassle. “Someone has to be at the door, there has to be more meticulous clean-up,” says Garrett. Huron says Back Alley is far more flexible: “Because we own it, we can do whatever we want.”
Certainly, there are other venues for experimental music in the city. Garrett likens Back Alley Theater to some of the house venues he’s booked, like the Lighthouse and Crittenden. “Music-wise, this is similar to those house shows,” he says. “But with this space, there’s maybe more stability because they own the building. It’s not going to be torn down or redeveloped.” A lot of house venues are rental properties, so when people move out (or are priced out), the show space dies.
“It’s hard in this city to have space for creative work because of economic pressure. [Back Alley Theater] is a space where people can come together and connect over culture that’s not corporate, not about making money,” says Huron. “The thing that’s really powerful is that it wouldn’t be possible if not for the hard work of tenants who bought the building in the early ’80s. Gentrification is so intense here that it’s nice to have a place where those pressures aren’t felt.”
If you look at the ranks of spaces in the city that identify themselves as DIY spaces, Huron’s in good company: There’s been a serious boom in house venues in the past three years. Part of that rise has come from the dwindling of usable warehouse and multipurpose space, but there are also more houses that have come up with a decent name and opened themselves up for a few sporadic events a year without committing to the pressures of marketing themselves as go-to venues for weekly shows.
Many of the new house venues double as living spaces for some promising bands on the D.C. show circuit. Practice space is a scarce commodity, and chipping in on a combo home/rehearsal room saves them the trouble and extra cash. Then, they end up hosting shows because they have the place to play. There’s Paperhaus, home to, well, the band Paperhaus; JamJar, home to Humble Fire; Bathtub Republic, which houses BRNDA and North Country; and the Alamo, where the members of Baby Bry Bry live, among what seems like dozens of other band/residence/venue mashups in the city.
The Madison Terrace basement is spacious and unsegmented, perfect for 12-person gong orchestras and conceptual dance performances. But most house venues can’t accommodate much beyond a four-piece in the back of the room and a packed, sweaty crowd. When a spot isn’t a dedicated art space, there’s a slew of variables that could throw the show off course, from a roommate who wants to go to bed early, to a neighbor who’s got the cops on speed dial, to a simple lack of space. Stewart is adamant about the need for spaces unfettered by the limitations of home life. “What can we really do in a house? We’ll have a house party, but it’s a show. The house party is the show,” he says. “At the end of the day, when you go to a house show, you’re going to a party.”
In Union Arts, as in Gold Leaf before that, Stewart has found a space that’s equally suited to a workshop, an art opening, an interactive performance, or a day spent rehearsing on saxaphone or acoustic bass. It’s big enough to hold a large ensemble, flexible enough for 24/7 practice time, and secluded enough for him to play as loud as he wants. In other words, it’s not a house. And its ilk are getting harder to find.
“When we were in DC Mini [Gallery] at 14th and Crittenden, I remember feeling the vibe like everything was starting to get more expensive, so people were looking toward the east if they weren’t moving to Baltimore or somewhere,” says Stewart. Artists who needed more space than a couple dozen square feet in a rowhouse, whether for practice, performance, large-scale art production, or just room to think, moved to Northeast—Ivy City, Brookland, Fort Totten—and neighborhoods that, lacking proximity to Metro stops, still retained a critical mass of raw, warehouse infrastructure.
But the tide of condos is rising, and even Union Arts, smack in the middle of an industrial area, might soon find its head underwater. Union Market and its soon-to-be-built accompanying apartment complex has helped pivot the neighborhood’s brand from crime and grime to warehouse chic. It’s just a few blocks northeast of construction-happy NoMa, after all, and Douglas Development will soon turn the gorgeous Art Deco Hecht Company building in Ivy City, which has sat vacant since 2006, into a retail, housing, and office hub. Then there’s Eckington’s Hole in the Sky, one of the city’s most reliably active underground venues, which claims both live-in artists and studio space. It’s also right across the train tracks from the shiny new Rhode Island Row development, which is home to 219 luxury apartments and a Sala Thai. How long before the land in that ’hood becomes too valuable to support a noncommercial art space?
“It’s a matter of developers and forces within the government that are doing the same thing we in the DIY community are doing: looking for the next place to set up shop,” says Stewart. “They have a lot more resources and a lot more support from their people. They’re more organized, obviously, since they’re corporations…One of the biggest things we need to work on in this underground arts scene is a lot more organization amongst ourselves and a lot more brotherhood, or fellowship.”
Fellowship among DIY spaces is no pipe dream. D.C. owes part of its upsurge in house spaces to a deepening, broadening support system for fledgling bands in the community. House shows aren’t just for punk any more—there are spots devoted to Americana, folk, and bluegrass; experimental music, art rock, and noise rock; and a whole network of houses that host Indian classical music concerts.
According to Alex Tebeleff of Paperhaus (both the band and the house, which regularly hosts both touring and local bands), it’s a cooperative cycle that’s gaining momentum. “When there’s this many places to play that are DIY, the quality of music grows. They’re reciprocal of each other,” he says. “As bands get better, more people want to put on shows—more events that are legitimate shows, not just about people getting wasted—and more bands want to play.” Tebeleff says he fields and sends multiple chain emails every day, circulating requests from touring bands among members of these houses to try and find them a place to play.
“Everybody’s answering; people are communicating,” he says. “It feels good, damn it.”
Nakatani’s solo performance at Back Alley Theater in May was followed by an orchestra of a dozen gongs of various sizes, each played by a local who’d just learned how to use it, under Nakatani’s tutelage, that afternoon. The amateur gong-players watched Nakatani closely, working their instruments with handmade bows in keeping with his tempo; I zoned in and out, lulled into a peaceful state by the drone. The show was a success by any measure—there were no empty seats, the sound filled the space, and there was a jovial, good-natured chatter in the audience between acts. A typical show might attract 25 to 30 audience members: “There’s not a huge experimental noise scene in D.C.,” says Garrett. After the concert, Garrett told me, grinning, that he thought the crowd might have exceeded Back Alley Theater’s 74-person capacity. The number isn’t capped for fire regulations—it’s a matter of parking, since there’s no public lot available. It seemed a bit of a moot point in this case, since I saw more than a few open parking spots but had to walk my fixie half a block to find a street sign that didn’t already have a few bikes chained up.
The concert was the new Back Alley Theater’s most high-profile one to date. “I thought, let’s just see what happens if we really spread the word,” says Garrett. “The allure of the gongs combined with the number of local people involved…made the word-of-mouth network so much more extensive.” He also fliered, put up posters in record stores, made a Facebook event, and even sent out a press release. “If you’re completely underground, with no advertising, just word of mouth, you get a very narrow slice of the people who might be interested in the art you’re offering,” Huron says. “We want it to be a DIY, nimble space, but some people want to go to shows in a more official space.” The venue, she hopes, can offer the best of both ends of the spectrum—and, because it’s not a house, attract people who might feel uncomfortable walking up to the door of a stranger’s home.
So far, Garrett and Huron have only booked music acts (“That’s what I know how to do,” Garrett says), but one of the co-op’s most recent members is a playwright, and in September, the resurrected Back Alley Theater will stage one of her works as its first theater performance.
But even if, under Garrett and Huron, the art the venue houses is of a different genre than that of Back Alley Theater’s early years, the Medranos are happy to see it up and running again. “I think it’s wonderful that they’re keeping the name,” says Rebecca. Hugo sees the space as a monument to the seeds of their marriage. “Emotionally, for me, the resurrection is very significant,” he says.
“They were trying to push the envelope, be creative,” Huron says. “We are, too.”