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Zig’s Bar and Grill in Alexandria lists its nightly events on a dry-erase board behind the bar. Between scribbles promoting Wednesday’s 25-cent wings and Sunday’s NASCAR viewing, Backstage Pass is advertised in red marker. The public-access variety show has been taped at Zig’s many times before, but tonight’s installment—with featured act the Michael Stephens Project (MSP)—is special: It’s a celebration of the program’s first year on the air.
After the crew readies the cameras, associate producer Cody Jones takes to the stage, asking the audience to “give it up” for Hugh Staples, the show’s producer and creator—and tonight’s host. “He’s suave and debonair,” says Jones. “He can drive you crazy and make you run around like you’ve lost your mind, but he’s a good man dedicated to providing a venue for D.C. talent.”
Staples runs to the stage, gives a brief introduction to the band, and welcomes everyone in the audience to “Washington’s finest performing-arts program—and we mean the finest.”
While MSP plays on this late-April Thursday, Staples and Jones work the room, giving both friends and strangers hugs and handshakes. The audience is a mix of die-hard Backstage Pass fans and the restaurant’s usual after-work crowd: young adults in college sweat shirts drinking pitchers of beer and throwing darts.
During a rendition of the Stylistics’ “People Make the World Go Round,” however, darts stop flying. Saxophonist Stephens steps down into the audience and lets his instrument whine out the song’s last few notes. After each note he pauses, and the crowd reacts by shouting back “uhhh!” and “ohhh!” in an instrumental call and response. The band takes a break, and Staples takes the stage again. “I told you we only present the best!” he tells the audience.
“Our goal is to put out quality programming to be enjoyed by the whole family,” says Staples, 45. A human-resources manager for Fairfax County Public Schools, Staples is also a veteran actor who has appeared in a variety of projects: “I do a lot of commercials, voice-over work, film, television, theater, and I wanted to get into producing.”
“I saw that Fairfax public access was offering classes in TV production,” he says. “I learned camera, lighting, sound. They were looking for new shows, so I wrote a proposal for Backstage Pass; I wanted to let people see what D.C. has to offer.”
The program was given the green light, and Staples began hunting for talent to feature on his 30-minute-long monthly showcase. Rather than limit Backstage Pass to one kind of art, Staples includes music, dance, theater, and comedy, as well as visual and performance art. And the show has provided a forum for a varied group of guests—from Honky Tonk Confidential, a retro alt-country group, to Debra Mims, an actress whose one-woman show My Grandmother Told Me traces the history of African-American women from the times of slavery to the present.
“All we care about,” Staples says, “is whether they’re good or not.”
With 26 shows (about half haven’t yet aired) and 110 different guests under its belt after just one year, the next step for Backstage Pass is expansion. “We’re working towards positioning the show to pitch to cable—maybe branch out to Richmond, Baltimore,” Staples says. The program currently airs on public-access channels in Fairfax and Montgomery Counties, as well as on Comcast in Alexandria.
“I’m a performing artist who wants to promote other performing artists in the D.C. area,” Staples says. “I’m tired of turning on the TV and seeing junk that’s insulting to my intelligence. I’m truly blessed to be able to do this.” —Sarah Godfrey