The DC Theatre community took a hit recently when Artisphere announced that due to a policy change its resident theatre company WSC Avant Bard would be kicked out in the middle of its season. I feel deeply for the company; it is upsetting have your home taken from you and I wish them all the best in relocating to another space. This new policy change requires that “in residence” companies use the space for a shortened period of time – not the four to eight week run that WSC has been used to. Under the new policy, there will be more space available for other events and rentals. However, the specifics of WSC aside, I think in losing the long-term residence model Artisphere has the option of opening up a much deeper connection to local theatrical work. I fear however that they are unequipped to do so and more than that, that they do not even see the opportunity before them.
Artisphere is a beautiful building filled with all sorts of exciting rooms: galleries, ballrooms, black box theatre, classrooms, and space for artists and audiences to intertwine. On their website they describe the space as “designed for people and art to collide.” A beautiful statement, one that advocates creating the type of arts experiences I am drawn to. And indeed, when I walk into the building I feel compelled to explore the art filling its nooks and crannies. Yet, on the occasions I’ve gone to see theatre there, I’ve been directed through amazing rooms through what looks like a coat closet into the black box theatre.
It feels clear to me that there is a disconnect between the various art forms housed within the curved white walls. Before the loss of WSC, Artisphere had three “in residence” companies. All three were performance related (chamber music, opera, and WSC) and used the space as one would a rental house. The majority of work presented at Artisphere is not done through the “in residence” program. The calendar at Artisphere is filled with work that is visual arts, film, new media and music. These events are programmed by a staffing team that curates with the idea in mind of bringing art and audiences together. Not one person on the programming staff has a background in theatrical performance. This has led to the art form being left out of the collision at the heart of Artisphere’s mission. They are missing out on the opportunity to see how theatrical tools can add to the conversation they are already engaged in.
My hope for Artisphere is that they scrap the In Residence model all together. It doesn’t fit the work they are doing within that building. It would be different if they produced their own theatrical work and were taking on small companies in residence. Instead, they have used the residence program to outsource theatre and not take it upon themselves to incorporate it into their programming. If for budgeting needs they need to house rental performances then they can do so. But they need to develop their own relationship to theatrical art.
Another hope for Artisphere is that they hire a Theatre Curator. This person can work in tangent with the rest of the programming staff to create conversation around the art. They can program local and national artists in multiple spaces throughout the building, not just the Black Box. There are many artists who would welcome the opportunity to play within their spaces rent-free for a weekend. The curator can work with those people to create theatrical experiences that can stand alone or create a conversation with the other art in the space.
This past weekend at the Philadelphia Museum of Art I had the pleasure of experiencing the Dancing around the Bride exhibit. The juxtaposition of artists work in relationship with each other despite their various mediums was inspiring. There is no need for arts spaces to segregate different types of art. As I learned by having the Artisphere’s New Media Curator Ryan Holladay on a panel looking at “Site-Specific” theatre, the issues we face are all the same. The conversations should be combined. And Artisphere is the perfect space to start that mixture.