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How many performers can pile into the Source’s 14th Street digs?

The Source is dead: Long live the Source. That’s the upshot of a white-knight deal announced Aug. 1 at the office of Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham: The insolvent Source Theatre Company will sell its only asset—its 14th Street NW home—to settle its debts. But the buyer won’t be Bedrock Management Company, the developers who planned to put in an upscale pool hall (“Source of Contention,” 6/30). Instead the Cultural Development Corporation (CuDC) will run the Source as a kind of multitenant arts hive, a bigger brother to CuDC’s Flashpoint arts incubator at 9th and G Streets NW—news that has arts advocates cheering the outcome even as they wonder about how it’ll work.

The main upsides, they say, are obvious: A venerable performing-arts venue won’t give way to microbrews and billiards as the 14th Street corridor trades storefront churches for million-dollar condos. The organizations that have been using the Source space may have found themselves a permanent home—at least once the $1.5 million deal is done, renovations are finished, and the rehabbed space reopens next summer. And the vision of CuDC Executive Director Anne Corbett, which involves a constant kaleidoscope of performances at 1835 14th St. NW, would seem like a good fit for a block that’s already an entertainment destination.

“The idea is that there’s gonna be something live on that stage every night…that’s interesting, that’s exciting for that neighborhood,” says Washington Improv Theater Artistic Director Mark Chalfant, who helped assemble the coalition that pushed for an arts endgame at the Source space. A revived Source, home to multiple companies, could be “kind of an artsier equivalent of the Black Cat, where you just go and see what’s onstage that night.”

Of course the Source will have to be lit up most nights—the space will need to pull in $200,000 to $250,000 annually, Corbett estimates, to cover costs. Like any good projection, that figure may have an upward tug, especially if Graham can’t convince the city to forgive a $462,000 mortgage owed by Source.

The hive notion comes with potential downsides as well as possibilities. Even Corbett acknowledges the occasional difficulty of balancing the needs of various tenants and users of Flashpoint’s shoebox spaces since its inception in December 2003. “The challenge of a multiuser, multivenue space,” she says, “is how do we keep it active and keep it working and not have the belly-dancing class, for instance, disrupt the dramatic staged reading.”

There’s no dance studio planned for Source, so stray ululations during a solemn moment presumably won’t be an issue, but the space-sharing hurdles could still be high. The rehearsal room, classroom, and offices projected to fuel much of that quarter-million-dollar cash flow will be located upstairs, on the floor above the performance space that Corbett’s counting on to provide roughly one-fourth of the total.

Even if everyone tiptoes around performances in progress, though, scheduling issues in the 149-seat black-box theater will likely be as complicated as they are at Flashpoint. The In Series, the League of Washington Theatres, and the Actors’ Theatre of Washington are angling for resident status at a resurrected Source—not least because they’ve been helping keep the lights on since the old company stopped producing in 2002—but CuDC will entertain applications from all comers. Corbett expects resident companies will essentially come together at a conference table and work out their seasonal schedules to everyone’s benefit, which might work smoothly if the chief performing tenants turn out to be Actors’ Theatre and the In Series, whose mix of extended theatrical runs and one-night cabaret-style offerings might not be a calendrical nightmare.

Add the Washington Improv Theater, a Flashpoint tenant hoping to make the move uptown to Source, and the equation gets more complicated. But WIT’s improv shows might make good late-night programming, so let’s not worry too much. Wait, though: The nascent Constellation Theatre company, which donated $10,000 to CuDC’s save-the-Source effort, may want to call the space home, and it’s anybody’s guess what its scheduling needs might be. And we haven’t asked yet how CuDC will schedule the $12,000 worth of annual nonresident space rentals it’s budgeting for and still keep everybody happy.

Then there’s the question of whether CuDC’s vision of an affordable multiuser facility is truly affordable to the organizations that need it most. WIT might be able to cough up the monthly $500 for each workstation CuDC’s plan envisions—plus the weekly $900 Corbett & Co. will charge for peak-time slots in the black-box theater. But it’ll also need to budget $15 an hour for rehearsal time if it doesn’t want to look elsewhere; everything is expected to be a la carte on the Source menu, just as it is at Flashpoint.

There are cheaper options, but even a bargain-minded nonresident company looking for, say, four weeks of off-peak performance space (at $600 a week) and a conservative 45 hours of rehearsal time would need $3,075 just for facility costs, before a single performer, designer, director, or rights agency gets paid.

That’s scary math for a small troupe, says Christopher Henley, artistic director of the Washington Shakespeare Company, which was once just such a tiny but ambitious outfit. (For comparison, the 125-seat Church Street Theater rents at $1,250 to $1,750 weekly, utilities not included, and is widely considered an expensive space.) With numbers like those projected above, the rehabbed Source is “probably not gonna be for me,” says Richard Henrich of Spooky Action Theater, a fledgling experimental ensemble that’s produced at Flashpoint. “Or for Meat & Potato, or for Landless Theatre, or for other emerging groups.”

And those cost estimates assume the Source space’s annual operating budget of $200,000 to $250,000 doesn’t need much adjusting. CuDC’s Flashpoint, by comparison, costs $600,000 a year to run, according to Corbett. CuDC won’t need to clone its operations to run the Source space, of course—it won’t need a second executive director or development director, for instance—and Corbett says she’s budgeting conservatively. But if renovation surprises add to the cost, or Graham can’t get forgiveness from the city’s financial honchos, expenses could conceivably go up.

Even so, resident companies able to ante up on 14th Street will be buying a little something more than space, says Corbett. The rent will also cover such intangibles as the cross-pollination that’s already proved valuable among Flashpoint tenants. “We want to build a real, collaborative, interactive community among the various arts organizations who choose to make [the new Source] their home,” she says. “That’s the whole spirit behind multitenant nonprofit centers—there’s synergy among the tenants that helps make each one of them a little bit better and a little more creative and a little more effective than they might be if they were running their company out of their basements.”

For artists who’ve lived that experience, the prospect of life at a CuDC-run Source is an appealing one regardless of the potential hurdles. “They’re always available when you ask ‘Hey, you got a minute?’” says Chalfant. “They’re ready to show you whatever tools they’re using—if it’s fundraising, marketing, whatever, they’ll put their cards on the table. They’re not succeeding unless we’re succeeding.”—Trey Graham

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