INTERSECTIONS: A New America Arts Festival, now in its second year
Artists know full well that when a new project debuts, it’s not always clear who’s going to show up to see it. Given the constant challenges of reaching and cultivating an audience, the idea of getting a whole festival up on its feet can seem daunting indeed.
Going into last spring, it wasn’t at all clear how INTERSECTIONS: A New America Arts Festival,an enormously ambitious and collaborative new blend of music, dance, theatre, and performance would fare on the H Street corridor. But twelve months and over 6,000 patrons later, few have reason to doubt the high energy and quality of the work powering the festival into its second season. A new year of the INTERSECTIONS festival begins this weekend, with programming through mid-March.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much dynamic energy in the local arts scene,” said Sam Sweet in an interview Wednesday. Sweet is the new Executive Director of the Atlas Performing Arts Center, which once again houses the festival for its three-weekend run. “The staff worked hard to try and take those core ideas of range, diversity, and quality to the local arts community — many of whom aren’t known to arts fans. We were very much rewarded by the risk the Atlas took then, with successes all through our nine days of festival last year.”
Mary Hall Surface, the Festival Artistic Director, envisions INTERSECTIONS as a means of curating a wide variety of performance events and of sparking new communication between art forms and audiences. “It’s not only what is on the stages, but how they intersect with one another, in terms of an audience member’s experience,” she said Wednesday. “We’re creating a space where people will want to linger and converse and connect.”
“There are mixes of artistic disciplines,” said Sweet. “Collaborative cultures. We hope a lot of people will come because they want to see a particular artist, but once they’re here they’ll want to explore more. This brings an incredible dynamism to the local arts culture, and to how people share.”
In terms of scale and scope, Atlas has never hosted anything quite like this. The decision to launch an undertaking as in-depth as INTERSECTIONS — particularly at a time last year when the economic recession continued to touch DC citizens in dramatic ways — was nothing short of bold. Perhaps, in ways, the timing doesn’t seem ideal. But Surface believes fervently that the level of skill and spirit in our body of local artists — and the diversity of techniques, schools, and styles in which they share themselves — demanded the building of a festival to hold and showcase their work.
This year, the festival features 600 artists in 100 performance over the course of 9 days. Hip hop, contemporary dance, and tap will play alongside experimental theatre. Orchestral pieces appear among opera, jazz, choir, blues, Motown, gospel, and a capella. Film screenings, flamenco, even some aerial stunts fill out the programming, and there’s more even beyond that. Artists of all races, ages, and a variety of cultures — not to mention a wide variety of art forms — will share the building.
Surface is thrilled to grab hold of last year’s momentum. “The people that came last year can expect to build on the experience that they had. But this year I feel we have really realized our vision of the event in a wonderfully vivid way,” she said. “Last year we had the idea and we did it. And now we have had a year to really dig deeply into the themes of the festival and find the most exciting ways to reveal and celebrate these artists.”
In addition to paid performances, the festival features a number of free music acts. With some experimentation, Surface is finding that it’s possible to create a sort of cafe culture with these musical acts, even in the midst of a busy and high-energy venue brimming with larger pieces. “Last year I was thinking about live music, so we put a stage in the lobby. And in many ways it became the heart of the festival, this music from all different genres,” she said. So, people coming out of an opera performance and people coming out of a hip hop performance would come out into the lobby, and there they’d see music by an Irish group with African drumming. It was terrifically exciting.”
“We found people would naturally meet at the cafe,” said Sweet. “There’d be exchanges of stories and recommendations. Everyone was creating conversations in the common area. And these are not necessarily people that know each other. It was like a town center, or a village square.”
There are interesting ways, then, for the festival to find ways of realizing their mission not just on the stages, but in how they craft an environment that articulates and celebrates these joys: how artistic and cultural connection can meet and meld within communities.
“It’s very much consistent with Jane Lang’s vision for the founding of the Atlas: to put people at the center of the mission,” said Sweet. “Both artists and audience members. It’s important to have something that people appreciate and feel that they have a stake in. As opposed to just a dance center, or a music center, or a theatre center, we want this to be a center for community conversations.”
“There are companies that are coming back. We’ve been able to build on that, to expand the number of groups,” said Sweet. “There was some reaching out to make people aware that these things are happening. But a lot of them contacted us as well.”
Artists interested in participating in the festival are evaluated on a number of factors before their involvement is confirmed, explained Sweet, and a major part of this process lies in looking at how their work relates to this theme of intersections — of mixing artistic disciplines. “It gave us a theme,” he said. “And I think it gives people more of an ability to appreciate the changes that are happening in populations around the country.”
Washington DC is an apt host city for cross-cultural projects like INTERSECTIONS. Sweet feels that being on H Street, though, has its own special opportunities and responsibilities. “We pull from everywhere, as far as the artists and the audience go,” he said. “But we also want to make sure people appreciate the fact that the Atlas has deep roots in this neighborhood. So, we’re trying to look at the more traditional art forms for this area, like jazz and spoken word, that still resonate with the H Street scene, as well as looking at how the community is changing and how arts forms are changing.”
Interaction with H Street — healthy, constant, and conscientious — is the goal, Sweet added. “We’re hoping that’s something we’re able to make happen. We want to be able to honor the traditions and heritage of the local community, and at the same time foster an energy and creativity that is making the neighborhood newly revitalized and reenergized.”
Like last year, every artist and audience member that involves themselves with INTERSECTIONS will prove to have many surprising sides to them. When all get together, Surface is hoping that the festival can help capture and grow these new worlds of opinions and ideas. Or, as she put it: “Our intention is to create a kaleidoscope of perspectives on who we are right now.”
For more information on INTERSECTIONS: A New America Arts Festival, visit the festival website:
For a full listing of events in .pdf form, visit: