A big, fresh wave of new people and plays hits DC next Saturday, with the kickoff of the third annual DC Black Theatre Festival. From June 23 to July 1, the festival will showcase a massive collection of theatre work all around town, much of it created by out-of-town artists.
Glenn Alan, the festival’s founding Executive Director, tells us what’s generating all the excitement about this year’s festival. A playwright himself, Alan has lived in DC since 2007.
It’s hard to believe the festival is only three years old. How did it grow so quickly?
Glenn: When we sent out our first-ever request for submissions, for 2010, we were actually only looking to put up seven plays! Our original plan was to do one play a night for a week. But in that first month we received over a hundred submissions. So right away we cast the net further out. And we ended up with over three hundred submissions. That’s from just the first two months of the first year of the festival!
In 2010, for our first festival, we did 127 performances. For this year’s festival we’ve grown it to 150 performances. And we have people coming from even further away! Mainly we look to the US for shows, but now we have a piece coming from England, something from South Africa, something from Dominica… And even within the US we have artists coming from LA and Chicago, from New York and North Carolina, Philadelphia and Florida.
That’s more than 20 times the size of your original plan for the festival.
We had to change the entire idea of what we were looking to do. We just decided that it was important to take on as many plays as we could handle. So now we use thirteen theatre venues all around the city, including the Mead Center, Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Joe’s Movement Emporium, Montgomery Cultural Arts Center, Flashpoint, and more.
We also try to place the pieces strategically throughout the community. With a piece that we know is a diverse niche work — that lends itself to the diversity of the neighborhood — we’ll give that kind of neighborhood that kind of piece. We try and make sure that the plays we place have some sort of connection to the theatre venue.
Can you give an example?
Well, for example, the pieces we’re putting up at the Mead Center, alongside Arena Stage, are what we’re calling the Living Legacy series. They’re five one-act plays from around the world about famous African Americans: Fannie Lou Hamer, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth. That series feels very connected to the values and the scope of many other shows done at the Mead Center, particularly by Arena.
It really has just blossomed. It speaks to a larger need. We need to be able to house works about African Americans. This festival is a testimony to the work that is out there. And works by African Americans are often overlooked not because of the color of the creator’s skin, but because of how competitive it can be to find places to put up your work.
Does the playwright’s ethnicity impact your decision on whether to include a play in the festival?
We’re not saying the playwright has to be African American. But the African American identity has to be related to the story somehow. A lot of our playwrights are White, European, Hispanic… Our first play, actually, during the first festival was written by a white woman in Georgia. Her name is Sylvia Davenport-Veith, and she wrote a wonderful play about African Americans in love called A Snowy Night in Iowa.
We don’t want to do a festival that is only black work. That doesn’t feel true to America, or to this festival. But at the same time, we’re concentrating on the African American experience.
Tell me more about how you accommodated the rapid growth of the festival.
That first year, I called a lot of directors, writers, producers, and actors that I knew. About fifteen of us met at my house, and we laid this all out on the table. I essentially told them: This festival will change the face of black theatre in America. And as we went forward from there, we didn’t lose a single person. All fifteen joined in. We each took sections of the festival planning onto our plates. Volunteers, play development, recruitment, construction… This is also a lot of work because we do workshops throughout the year, so that by the time the festival comes around we have workshopped shows that are ready to be shown.
How do you select the plays?
There’s a committee of five of us. Four of us read the plays, and the fifth makes a final decision if there’s ever a tie on whether we include it in the festival.
There are three distinct groups of theatre works in the African American community. Number one: There are regional theatre works. That would be plays by people like August Wilson and Langston Hughes. Number two: There’s an urban circuit. That includes shows by people like David Talbert and Tyler Perry. And number three: there are urban gospel shows.
These three groups are very distinct not just in the writing, but in the audience. Certain people won’t go to see certain things, and one group won’t necessarily support the other group. But we wanted to do a festival that included all of them, since these stories are all relevant and important. So our judging committee is made up of two urban playwrights and two regional college professionals. We’re really into balance, so we try to strike a balance in our shows between shows driven by humor and shows driven more by deeper thought and content.
We’ve finally found a really good balance. For us, that means about 60 percent regional plays and 40 percent urban plays. We found that the regional work was such a large disapora, including experimental work inside those regions, that we had to give it the proper focus. Our slogan this year is “A little something for everyone.”
Do you feel that the themes of the festival change from year to year, or does the message feel perennial?
I think the themes in the shows are timeless, so they’re similar to past festivals. The big difference this year is this Living Legacy Series — it’s the first time we’ve produced a really big project. That’s a first for us. We spend all year planning for everyone else to bring in their plays, but this year it was also on us to produce plays. So now we’re going through what everyone else was going through!
I’m really excited about the Living Legacy series. We found a set of plays that really fit every fiber of what it is to be American. For us it’s a huge deal.
Tell me more about the audience that’s been coming out to the festival.
It’s really amazing. We see people who have taken vacations to come here, and they’re coming from all over the country. Some of them are following the playwrights. Some of them make the trip for the festival as a whole. It’s truly becoming a national thing.
At the end of each night of the festival we have parties, and introductions, and we ask folks where they’re from. You should hear their answers. It’s wonderful to see so may great people every night, and to celebrate people who have something in common with you but don’t live anywhere near you.
On the local level, how do you see DC responding to the creation of the festival?
It’s been a learning process for us, for sure. We’ve had this great chance to create something civic and theatrical and invite the city to participate. And I’m really seeing the fruits of our labor in all the DC folks who come join us for the festival.
We’re working to put something together, and then we look up and we see that there are folks following us. We could not have asked for a better city in which to do this festival. It’s really diverse. You look out into the audience and you see everybody, from Southeast to suburban Maryland. That kind of mix can only happen in DC.
Getting prepared to open this festival right now must be crazy.
Yes. We’ve just been finalizing everything for the playwrights. Every day they get a phone call from us, to make sure they’re getting support. Is there any info they don’t have? Any stones left unturned? Are tickets moving well? Do we know groups that can help get an audience to these shows, like church groups looking for fundraisers? We push really hard to assist them. If people don’t come out then there’d be no festival.
Has your own experience as a playwright impacted the way you’ve run the festival?
Definitely! I’ve been touring my plays for many years. I’ve done a lot of festivals, including internationally. So I’ve had a lot of chances to look at what I like and don’t like about how festivals work.
DC Black Theatre Festival isn’t just different because it’s a black theatre festival. It’s also unique because we give 100 percent of the ticket sales back to the producing group. So if you write a play and put it in the festival, every penny it earns goes back to you.
As I went through those festivals, I always thought the playwrights should be more of a financial return. So that was my angle. We want to really support actors and directors.
Do you have returning writers? People you’ve featured in past festivals?
Absolutely. Some playwrights we’ve had with us for all three years.
That goes to show that the festival isn’t just big — it feels like a home.
I certainly hope so. We’re hoping that when we look back, we see that we’ve made an effective change. That we’ve ben able to get people on the stage that otherwise may not have been able to make it happen.