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“The old bathrooms had character. That character has been killed now and replaced by new characters who are cleaner and more efficient.” So says Source Theatre Company’s justifiably pleased artistic director, Joe Banno, of the recently unveiled renovation of Source’s 14th Street space. The effort cost the troupe some seven months of down time and $700,000 of mostly federal grant money, but the result is a space that makes Source a much easier sell in a hotly competitive theater market. “We now have working toilets,” says Banno with a wry, satisfied smile, “and a women’s room you could have a small cocktail party in.” The tech booth, from which a show’s lights and sound are controlled, has gotten such a makeover that “anyone who’d been in the old one will probably clutch their chest and drop to the ground when they see it,” Banno says. (Banno occasionally covers opera for the Washington City Paper.)
Glass-block and chrome trim highlight the building’s art deco origins, the black-box performance space has been modestly enlarged and made more flexible, and the company no longer need point to structural integrity by way of apology for awkward sightlines. Massive girders now hold the ceiling up and the walls apart, and Banno notes with a hint of pride that the redesign team managed to incorporate them without screwing up the space’s lighting grid—though he feigns a little fear about regenerating roof supports. “We have pillar stumps,” he says, “and we’re afraid they’re going to grow back.”
Source’s makeover is just part of the 14th Street corridor’s general renaissance, and if its gentrification-mad guppie neighbors are fond of moaning about contractor horrors and regulatory hurdles, Source can more than keep up. Those working toilets almost didn’t—plans called for drains to the back of the property until basement flooding drew attention to the fact that the sewers are in fact out front—and don’t even ask about the first version of the new ladies’ room.
“I don’t think even two contortionists would have been able to use it at the same time,” Banno sighs. “It was the stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera.” No sooner was it finished than “we realized, you know, we’re going to have to rip this whole thing out and start again.”
Delays led to the cancellation of what was to be this season’s opener, but even the worst renovation nightmare ends in an awakening, and Source came out from under the covers with a production of Nicky Silver’s Pterodactyls that just closed after a critically praised run. Now the company is poised to really party: Its 19th Annual Washington Theatre Festival, which began Wednesday and runs through Aug. 7, is a monthlong mix of eight showcases that, in the best Source Festival tradition, offer up full-length plays and short takes alike.
Three of the showcases are in fact full-length plays—one’s by the gifted local writer Caleen Sinette Jennings, whose Playing Juliet/Casting Othello got a festival launch a few years back and went on to a full production that drew raves. Another comes courtesy of Joe Palka, whose satirical White House musical, Executive Leverage, drew respectable notices several Source seasons back. (And no, before anyone asks: Palka is not the NPR science reporter, though he is in radio and is married to local TV newscaster Sue Palka.)
One of the major Source Festival draws, of course, is the fabled Ten-Minute Play Competition, an annual tradition at which inventiveness and intemperance hold equal sway. Performances are stripped-down and speed-conscious—and the time limit is enforced by an affectionately unruly judges’ panel that comes prepared to bang the gong if things run on too long.
With a new space to show off, Source will keep most festival offerings at home this year; only two outside venues (the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts) will be employed. That’s in contrast to the festival of two years ago, a sprawling effort that settled in at locations across town, though this year’s effort is more ambitious than last year’s, which was curtailed by the imminent renovation. “We’re still looking at our options as we try to keep developing and reshaping the festival,” Banno says. “What was great [about the smaller 1998 effort] was being able to use the best actors from the pool without having to dip into the less—shall we say, ‘less-seasoned’—talent. So in terms of consistency and focus and being able to give attention to each showcase play, last season made great leaps….We’re not saying from now on we’re only doing three plays; we’re not going back to the old model of saying we’re doing as many plays as we possibly can. We’re looking for a balance that lets us give as much attention to plays and playwrights as we can.”
A similar cautious ambition marks Banno’s revised plans for Source’s fall season. Giddy with the prospect of playing in its new house, the company initially plotted out a celebratory smorgasbord of six plays staged back to back, plus a revival of its off-hours Aftershocks series—and occasional live music performances to boot. Then, says Banno, “we realized that there would be a murder somewhere in the building.”
The retooled Source season will offer four plays; the opener, Edmond, is the rarely produced David Mamet script that got scrapped when the renovation ran long. Next comes Inns and Outs, six playlets set during six holidays and featuring six groups of characters, by Jennings. Later comes the area premiere of Craig Lucas’ critically hailed cyberdrama The Dying Gaul, plus a Banno interpretation of the Oscar Wilde classic The Importance of Being Earnest— updated to modern-day Fire Island and staged without benefit of women. “It’s what we’d have gotten if Oscar Wilde had written Love! Valour! Compassion!,” Banno says—which, if nothing else, should make Lady Bracknell even more fun than usual.
The two empty slots give Source some breathing room and may—the deal isn’t quite signed and sealed yet, though all parties are said to be happy with the idea—be filled with productions mounted by the Washington Stage Guild, now homeless in the wake of downtown redevelopment. The collaboration would provide income for Source while giving the Guild a way to stay connected to its subscriber base—and reach out to Source’s as well.
And it would be a homecoming of sorts, Banno points out: The Stage Guild got its start 13 years ago with a production of Shaw’s Heartbreak House—presented in the Source space. CP
For festival details and program information, call (202) 462-1073. Tickets are available at Box Office Tickets, (800) 494-TIXS.