The Meridian Hill Park fountain would have been the perfect setting for a play about shipwrecked French prostitutes: The sound of the water could have provided a natural soundtrack, and the statue of French poster girl Joan of Arc lording over the would-be fountain stage from its perch at the top of the hill could have lent the setting a certain je ne sais quoi.
Or so thought Linda Murray, the artistic director for locally based Irish theater group Solas Nua. Until, that is, the National Park Service, which manages the park on 16th Street NW, put the kibosh on the notion.
Solas Nua had planned and choreographed a production of Anne Le Marquand Hartigan’s La Corbiere around the hope that the Park Service would grant them a permit to perform in the multitiered fountain. The fountain-based production was to be part of D.C.’s ongoing Capital Fringe Festival, in which “100 performing artists/groups…present more than 400 performances in over 30 venues within 11 days,” according to the organizer’s Web site.
As first reported on the Washington City Paper’s fringe festival blog, Fringe & Purge, Solas Nua got word that despite having submitted an application in April, its permit had been denied just a week-and-a-half before the show was to dive in for its opening-night swim.
“I guess I was and I wasn’t [surprised],” says Murray. “I was surprised we hadn’t heard from them beforehand to see if this would work, but people had warned me what to expect from the city.”
Solas Nua, says Julianne Brienza, the director of the festival, is the only company to have experienced major venue problems.
The Park Service granted Solas Nua a permit to perform on the Meridian Hill Park stage, above the fountain, as a consolation prize. That location, however, was a last resort. Murray and her partner, Dan Brick, the company’s managing director, were keen to have the play in a body of water, and so, upon receiving word that the fountain wasn’t happening, they began investigating possible swimming pools—both public and private—to take over. Their efforts paid off, and seven days before its scheduled July 27 opening night, Solas Nua received word it could use a city-operated pool in Georgetown for its production.
“The Department of Parks and Recreation really came through where the [park service] put us in the bind,” says Brick.
The permit news is disappointing for Solas Nua on a philosophical level because the company believes site-specific work is one of the unique aspects of fringe festivals—that such events encourage “bringing theater into places it doesn’t usually exist,” as Murray says.
The park service’s concerns about the fountain idea, she adds, were about people blocking public accessways and that, in the future, others would want to hold similarly water-logged performances.
The National Park Service had no comment on the matter.
Solas Nua had been working closely with Steve Coleman, executive director of Washington Parks and People, on the fountain performance. He, too, is frustrated that the original vision for the production fell through, because, he says, saying no to a new art form in the park is antithetical to the grounds’ original purpose. The park was designed in 1914 to accommodate the performing arts; it features a poet’s corner and a concert platform.
“Parks are places to gather, celebrate, laugh, cry, protest. All of those things belong in our parks, and all kinds of art belong in our parks,” Coleman says, adding that not all park rules always make sense. For example, he says, it used to be illegal to play baseball in Meridian Hill Park. “Why can’t we have a little fun here? Our Declaration of Independence declares the pursuit of happiness! Our national parks and capital should reflect that!” says Coleman.
Artomatic organizers are always daydreaming about the perfect venue for their show. The old Howard Theatre just off T Street NW would be great, but it’s condemned; the Wonder Bread factory at 7th and S Streets NW is a favorite, too—it has tons of space and easy access to the Shaw Metro stop. Too bad there are holes in the floors and no running water.
Artomatic, the all-volunteer mega arts event, was hoping to organize one of its intermittent art fairs for November of this year. The goal was to have a venue lined up by June 30. Nope. Now, with a final mid-August deadline to find a location looming and no deal signed, Artomatic 2006 doesn’t look so automatic. Unless the show’s unpaid foot soldiers move fast, there’ll be no time to recruit artists, musicians, and performers—or to line up the necessary licenses.
As of July 21, there is only one possible venue on the organizers’ wish list if Artomatic is to materialize this year: the old Environmental Protection Agency building on the Southwest Waterfront, the same building that hosted the 2002 Artomatic. According to Artomatic’s board president, Sondra Arkin, the space is ideal, with its 100,000 square feet of undeveloped space, a variety of rooms, and access to Metro.
“We’re hopeful,” says Arkin. “We haven’t yet hit a final ‘No.’ I don’t think that we’ve talked to all the right people yet.” She then qualifies her statement by adding that there are several buildings available in 2007 as a Plan B. These include a couple of office buildings downtown and the old Hecht’s building on New York Avenue NE. Having a cluster of buildings in the same neighborhood or along the same Metro line has also been considered as an alternative to one large warehouse full of artsy fartsy. Should Artomatic get pushed into 2007, Arkin has no idea what the date will be.
Historically speaking, Artomatic isn’t exactly known for its business savvy or organizational acumen. Past shows have been battered by scathing reviews, money problems (as in, they had none), and the pitfalls of relying on an army of volunteers.
According to Arkin, the trick is to find a venue that is functional but that hasn’t yet been renovated, so that artists can drill holes and slap paint on the walls. It also has to be big—100,000-to-120,000-square-feet big—and divisible into both small and large spaces to accommodate different types of art and performances.
The timeline of planning an event and then looking for a space seems backward to current Artomaticists. When it began in 1999, its venue presented itself, and the event was planned as a result. Scrambling for a location in post-gentrification D.C. is a full-time job, and no one has time to focus on it. “It’s an anytime kind of thing,” says Arkin. “It’s a ‘Someone come up with a buildings’ kind of thing.”
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