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What does gentrification mean for the arts?
In the first preview of our Kojo Roadshow on gentrification in the District’s arts scene, we take a look at how local theaters can survive and thrive in the midst of a rapidly changing Washington.
During the show, we hear from the founder of Studio Theater, the artistic director of 1st Stage, and an actress on the rise in D.C.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Joy Zinoman Founder, Studio Theater
- Alex Levy Artistic Director, 1st Stage
- Billie Krishawn Lead Actress, "Blood at the Root"
The arts have a complicated relationship with gentrification in D.C. Artists and arts organizations can make neighborhoods more attractive to development - but are often displaced as rents rise and neighborhoods take on new identities. Is it possible to create sustainable space for the arts as neighborhoods change?
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. What does gentrification mean for the arts? In the first preview of our upcoming live townhall event on gentrification in DC's art scene, we're taking a look at how local theaters are surviving and aiming to thrive in the midst of a rapidly changing Washington. Joining me in studio is Billie Krishawn. She is the lead actress in "Blood at the Root” at Anacostia Playhouse. Billie, thank you for joining us.
BILLIE KRISHAWNThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Alex Levy. He is the artistic director at 1st Stage in Tysons Corner. Alex, thank you for joining us.
ALEX LEVYIt's great to be here.
NNAMDIAnd front and center is Joy Zinoman. She is the founder of Studio Theater. Joy, good to see you again.
JOY ZINOMANOh, so great to see you, Kojo.
NNAMDIWell, you founded Studio Theater, a DC venue for contemporary theater, back in the 1970s. And the question I have for you -- which you and I can both help answer -- is what was that area of 14th Street like then?
ZINOMANOh, you know.
NNAMDILet me tell you. Joy found the venue for Studio Theater for the same reason that I used to go to that venue. It was an auto repair shop that was owned by three brothers, the Petrovich brothers.
ZINOMANThe Petrovich brothers. They fixed my cars, too.
NNAMDIExactly. They used to fix my car. They used to fix Joy's car, and that's when her eyes lit on that spot. But what was the general area of 14th Street like back then?
ZINOMANWell, you know the story. It was condoms and hypodermic needles. It was, you know, not coming back after the riots. And it was a place that people said, “What do you mean you're going to have theater there? No one's going to come. No one's going to go there.” It was rough. But, again, artists can revitalize neighborhoods, particularly performing arts, because people come together in some kind of community. It's something we crave, particularly now.
NNAMDIWell, especially when they live in that neighborhood, like you did at the time. Many people feel the 14th Street area has changed really quickly, but you point out that it's actually taken place over a long period of time. Can you talk about that change and what made it attractive for a theater company?
ZINOMANWell, of course, you know, 40-some years, it's changed radically. You know, don't ask me my opinion of it now. You know, gentrification is a very complex issue. It changed gradually. People think that it happens very fast, but it doesn't happen very fast. People come, neighborhoods change, and the people who live in neighborhoods change. And even right now, I'm involved in another change, the Studio Acting Conservatory, which preceded the theater, has now been evicted from that home. And we are looking at Columbia Heights, for example, as a new sort of a way to continue to revitalize neighborhoods. Because I believe deeply that, you know, arts can do it. They have a tremendous function in the community.
NNAMDIWe'll talk about the conservatory a little more, later on. But neighborhoods across the city have taken off, but many would cite the special role of arts organizations and artists as catalysts in that transformation. What would you say the role of Studio Theater and other arts organizations has been?
ZINOMANWell, I know what it's been. First comes small, little restaurants and places for artists to go drink. Then come restaurants for audience members. Then come places for people to live. We were talking before the show. Alex and I are both from Chicago, and we come from a world where industrial space gets switched to art space. And I think that you saw that on 14th Street. And then the great auto showrooms, the great industrial space began slowly, slowly, slowly to become fancy restaurants, and eventually retail. And then the people left, and then other people came. And is that not the history of first, revitalization, and then gentrification? I mean, in New York, the artists were moved to ever-further neighborhoods. You know, the important thing is that they make a stake, and that they attract an audience wherever that is.
NNAMDIAlex Levy, what can you tell us about the space you occupy, 1st Stage Theater? You've served as artistic director for the past five years. It's a much smaller theater, on the fringe of the recent art scene. You've said that this idea that the arts can only exist in urban centers. What's it like operating a theater in a place better known for car dealerships and large retail stores?
LEVYSure. Sure. Well, you know, when I moved here from Los Angeles, even before I did, I did an interview with a local paper who called and referred to Tysons as a cultural wasteland. You know, she said it's like those old maritime maps, where eventually, you just get to mermaids and openness and that's where I was going to, you know, inherit a theater. And as I got there, that was the conversation forever, that this thing doesn't belong out here. But I think Joy puts it perfectly, that, in fact, what you find is as soon as the company started, there was a great love of it, because people want the arts in their community. They need it in their community. And we--our space looks probably much like Joy's did 30 years ago. We're above the car dealership, on the second floor of an industrial strip mall, next to a pet spa. And you'd have no idea we're there until you walk into the door. And when you walk into the door, as theater does, it transports you completely, both in physicality and your soul.
LEVYAnd we have found that having a place in the community where community can come together is what makes the community. You know, anybody who's driven around Tysons knows that we're in a community in massive change right now.
NNAMDII was about to ask, how has development -- which has grown rapidly in Tysons -- affected the theater?
LEVYSure. I mean, the thing you see most in Tysons is a crane on every corner. And what those cranes are building are largely large residential buildings. It's one of the reasons that I moved my family to this area, was to be a part of that conversation. It's rare that you see a community that much in the conversation of what it's going to be. And they've done a great job of talking about affordable housing and about transportation and about schools, but really, you can't build a community. The thing that the Tysons area wants to be can't happen without a cultural life. And I think that conversation is now moving towards the center of the conversation, and should be, needs to be. And it's exciting, at 1st Stage, to be in the middle of that conversation.
NNAMDII'd like to bring Billie Krishawn into the conversation. She is the lead actress in “Blood at the Root” at Anacostia Playhouse. Billie, you're currently one of the lead actresses in "Blood at the Root,” a Theater Alliance production, which opened this weekend at Anacostia Playhouse. Briefly, can you describe what that play is about?
KRISHAWNYeah. And there's so many words, so I tried to condense it a little. I'd say that “Blood at the Root” is a moving, lyrical piece that uses Jena Six as an anchor, of sorts, to address the intricacies of identity, because it's not simple. The show doesn't aim to inform the audience, but rather spark a conversation that runs deeper than our own struggles, forces us to see past our own reality and into other people's reality, as well.
NNAMDIYou were born and raised here in Washington, in Southeast.
NNAMDIYou attended Duke Ellington School of the Arts. You were recently nominated for a Helen Hayes Award. Congratulations, by the way. So, what has your experience been, navigating the Washington theater scene?
KRISHAWNIt has been a beautiful, vast journey. Originally, growing up--anywhere you grow up, a lot of the times you're ready to escape or go somewhere different, but I quickly found myself back here in Washington, DC. And I think being in “Blood at the Root” at this current moment is truly full circle. Growing up around the corner in Southeast on 30th Street, being able to be in a community that I never would've imagined a theater company being in, being able to walk through the streets and see businesses and people that look like me in a community and being able to spark conversations about theater and the show with people who aren't traditionally the expected audience. That, to me, has been a beautiful thing.
NNAMDIAnacostia Playhouse evolved from the 8th Street Playhouse, which closed back in 2012, in many ways a casualty of the revitalization it helped to springboard. Is there any worry that the same thing could happen to the Anacostia Playhouse?
KRISHAWNI guess that's always a worry, as we see the city changing. I think one of the beautiful things that Joy said is that it starts with revitalization, and then it turns into gentrification. But I think the main point is not bringing beauty to an area, but rather including the beauty that was already there and the new beauty that's brought, if that make sense. And one thing that Theater Alliance has a really beautiful job of doing is including the community, having those conversations, having certain nights and lower-priced tickets, going out into the community and local businesses -- like Turning Natural or Cheers -- and trying to include those people in the shows. And I think that that's one of the clearest ways to avoid something like that happening again.
NNAMDIAnd I know when somebody broke into the Anacostia Theater over the holiday season, the public response was massive.
NNAMDIYeah. It was clear that people love the Anacostia Theater. Here is--go ahead, Joy.
ZINOMANNo, I was just going to say, but then you have a lot of, you know, theaters, particularly small and midsize theaters complaining bitterly about audience, about how much audience they have. And there's tremendous competition. And if you look at things like comedy clubs or concert venues, which are also proliferating around the area, you know, the theater also has to compete. And it has to compete by being vital and by, you know, talking about the things that really matter to people.
NNAMDIQuestion about that from Carlos, in Virginia. Carlos in Arlington, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CARLOSThank you for having me on the show. The arts are an important and vital part of our community. By all accounts, I should've dropped out of high school, and I was introduced by my high school teacher to theater, being in production, of course, my first time. And I truly believe that it's important to elevate the conversation so that, you know, the general public understands the important role that the arts play in their daily lives, whether that be students who understand and are motivated in school to be exposed to the arts, or veterans or older adults who use the arts as part of their therapeutic or recreational purposes. Or even people in the criminal justice system who can discover more about themselves and reflect on their own lives and seek rehabilitation. The arts play a critical role in a variety of ways that I hope that we can understand how important it is to elevate that discussion.
NNAMDII think that that hope is shared by all of our panelists here today, Carlos. So, thank you for joining us. Joy Zinoman, you not only founded Studio Theater, but you also headed up the Studio Acting Conservatory, home to 500 students. For listeners who might not be familiar with it, can you describe what the Studio Acting Conservatory offered?
ZINOMANYes. It actually preceded the Studio Theater, so it started 43 years ago on Rhode Island Avenue, between 14th and P. I've been in that neighborhood for a very, very long time. And it eventually, you know, educated a community of artists, you know, in this city, in its quiet way. And that’s something I'm tremendously proud of. It has a three-year curriculum. It's, you know, it's a fierce place to come and, you know, become an artist, to study acting or to study directing.
NNAMDII think we've got a testimonial here from Clayton Pelham...
LEVYI know that name.
NNAMDI...in Suitland, Maryland. Clayton Pelham, you're on the air. What was your experience like at the Acting Conservatory?
CLAYTON PELHAMWell, hello to everyone. Hello, Alex. Hello, Billie. Hello, Joy. I love the Studio Theater. The Studio Theater turned me into the artist that I am today, and was the -- it was home, for me. I started Studio Theater when I was actually in high school. I was actually in high school, and my teacher recommended Studio Theater to go and take the--
ZINOMANYoung People's Program.
PELHAMThe Young People Program, yes. And I fell in love with the Young People Program, and I said, okay, well, I'm 18 now. I can take one of the adult intermediate classes, and came in and took Principles of Realism, and was, like, man, okay. This is the kind of teaching I want, that rigorous, no-BS kind of training where they kind of -- they set you up for what you need to expect in the business, you know what I mean, in a lot of ways, as far as what you're training--the training helps you to kind of prepare for that.
NNAMDIAnd I can see how it worked for you, because you just finished up a production at 1st Stage, and you're now starring in “Native Son” at Mosaic.
PELHAMYes. I don't like to say starring, but yes.
ZINOMANGood boy. (laugh)
PELHAMOne of the lead characters in an ensemble piece of “Native Son,” at Mosaic Theater.
ZINOMANI'm very--I'm embarrassed to say, Clayton, that I forgot that you started in the Young People's Program.
PELHAMNo, it's all right. I've been there for a long time.
LEVYI have to say, too, though, that Clayton -- who we now claim as ours, now, Joy -- Clayton just finished his third show.
PELHAMI love 1st Stage, too.
LEVYBut Clayton just finished up a production of "Brothers Size” up at 1st Stage, which we were talking before we went on the air about it had its original DC production at the Studio Theater. And I think that show is a great example of the necessity of the diversity of theaters in this area, because that same show at Studio Theater being seen by their audience in the middle of DC has a very different impact than having Clayton and Gary and Tony present that show about young African American men and the criminal justice system out in Fairfax County and Tysons. The impact and the way that show changes, because the audience is a part of the show. And so, who was seeing the show implicitly changes what the show is. And to be able to have that conversation in our community is a necessity. So, when people talk about what does it mean to be out in Tysons versus in an urban center, that exact same script is received entirely differently when it's performed out there.
NNAMDIJoy, your studio made the decision recently to close the Acting Conservatory in order to focus on renovations to the theater itself. In a statement, Studio Theater's Artistic Director David Muse had this to say: “We made this decision after much consideration and with respect for our founder Joy Zinoman, for the Conservatory's esteemed faculty, and for the program that they created. Conservatory has enriched the Washington theater landscape by providing a training ground for aspiring professionals for 44 years. We thank and acknowledge Joy and the faculty for providing Washington artists with this rigorous program.” How do you get kicked out of the program and the theater that you started?
ZINOMANI don't know the answer to that question, Kojo.
NNAMDIThat must've been a very tense meeting.
ZINOMANYou're asking the wrong person. It's painful, because we loved that space that we created, which you actually performed in.
NNAMDIWhich you directed.
ZINOMANSo, it is difficult. But what matters is that the school goes on. The training for young people, 50 percent of whom come absolutely free, and you can't tell the difference between scholarship and who is paid. You cannot tell. To continue training, there are more than 10,000 alumni. So, what matters is that we go on. And the impediment to that is space. That is the largest problem.
NNAMDISo, you're looking in Columbia.
ZINOMANWell, first of all, the city has just saved us, because they've given us temporary space at Garnet Patterson Middle School on U Street, right across from the metro. So, at least I can announce here on your show -- because a lot of people have been worrying -- that we are safe. We have temporary space. But we are also negotiating for two permanent spaces in Columbia Heights, which has a kind of energy and life that's, first of all, like urban Chicago or urban anywhere. And, you know, the march of Columbia Heights, you want to talk about revitalization. It kind of went on for 10 years, and then kind of stopped. But now, the National Dance Institute is there. Gala Hispanic Theater is there. I think if the Studio Acting Conservatory goes there, maybe we can start a new arts corridor in Columbia Heights. At least that's my hope. And so, I don't want to look backwards, except grieve a bit for that space, honestly. But I and the 20 teachers and 500 students and 10,000 alumni want to look forward. Thank you, Kojo, for asking.
NNAMDIMike emails: DC government's edifice complex has meant an emphasis on supportive arts presentation venues and neglected the need to subsidize rehearsal spaces for the performing arts. As a result, DC residents have seen an increase in performances by touring companies and an exodus of DC resident actors and dancers. How does that affect you, Billie Krishawn?
KRISHAWNI think one thing that's happening right now in the city is this wave of creation, the wave of knowing that if we want to make art, that the first step is just to do something, to do anything.
KRISHAWNAnd I know you mentioned Garnet Patterson. For a while, that was a temporary home for Duke Ellington.
ZINOMANYes, it was. Three years.
KRISHAWNYes. Which goes back to the caller previously. I mean, I can't state enough just how important the arts is, how important the arts is in education, because it saved my life. It really did. And for -- as an educator, as well, teaching students who a lot of the times are being told that they don't learn the right way or they're not as smart as they need to be, or they're not in this category, the arts truly is a way to remind them that we're beautiful in our differences.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Billie Krishawn is the lead actress in “Blood at the Root” at Anacostia Playhouse. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAlex Levy is the artistic director at 1st Stage in Tysons Corner. Alex, thank you.
LEVYThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Joy Zinoman is the founder of Studio Theater here in Washington. Joy, always a pleasure.
ZINOMANThank you so much, Kojo.
NNAMDIToday's show on local theaters was produced by Julie Depenbrock. Our conversation with Mark Herring was produced by Mark Gunnery. In the coming weeks, you'll be hearing more about the relationship between the local arts scene and gentrification in DC. It's all part of the conversation leading up to our next Kojo Roadshow on how city change affects the arts. Head to KojoShow.org/20 for details about the next roadshow. It's on Tuesday, March 19th at Arena Stage. Coming up tomorrow, we'll check in with WAMU's transportation reporter Jordan Pascal on the growing number of pedestrian deaths around the nation and in our region. Plus, we'll meet young climate justice activists who are fighting for green jobs and more. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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