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A Tour To The REACH, The Kennedy Center's New Performance Space


Finally today, if you've ever visited Washington, D.C., you might have taken in a show at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. It's a grand space - enormous ceilings, elegant venues. And it's just gotten a little more grand - or perhaps less grand and more down-to-earth with a new space called The REACH. It's a mix of indoor and outdoor performance spaces designed to give the public a behind-the-scenes look at how art is made. To introduce it, the Kennedy Center organized a free 16-day festival which is going on right now. Yesterday we went for a visit with Marc Bamuthi Joseph, a writer and artist who's also vice president and artistic director of social impact at the Kennedy Center, and he took us around.

MARC BAMUTHI JOSEPH: Right now, at this moment, Esperanza Spalding is working with a group of artists preparing a Kennedy Center commission of a new opera that she's doing with Wayne Shorter. But then as I turn around, I'm looking at two classroom spaces. And one of those spaces is being occupied by a number of deejays. Today's kind of programmatic focus is electronic music, so there are going to be deejays up in this spot all the time.

Wow. Can we hop in?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: OK. And what I'd like is a volunteer to come up and make a pattern out of these sounds that - these eight sounds.


BAMUTHI JOSEPH: And this moment really is kind of, like, quintessentially REACH. All around me are people of different ages, different sizes, different desires all having a great time. And I think that that's really what we want this space to be is a little bit of something for everybody.

MARTIN: I also sat down with Marc Bamuthi Joseph to ask what he thinks The REACH offers that other, more traditional art spaces do not.

BAMUTHI JOSEPH: I think, in part, what the space does to us as an institution and hopefully to the district and to the nation is to rewire how it is that we propagate culture. Culture doesn't happen to us. And I think that the traditional model for many institutions is that the curator says or the programmer says and the audiences watch. What this space kind of forces us to think about is the structure of cultural creation, to develop a kind of culture of invitation where we're not thinking about audiences, we're thinking about people.

MARTIN: One of the things this place does that is - it's very different from the original Kennedy Center building, which is very monumental by design.


MARTIN: It is a memorial. It is formal, by and large.


MARTIN: The space is very different. There are much smaller spaces. They feel more informal. They're very - they're flexible. You can make them do different things.


MARTIN: But it also kind of invites the public to watch artists as they create. And as an artist yourself, doesn't that freak you out a little bit?

BAMUTHI JOSEPH: Not at all because, you know, artists - particularly performing artists - this is what we do. We allow folks into our space and to our processes to bear witness. If you are just performing in a space and no one is watching, well, that's rehearsal. So why not invite people into the rehearsal process and be performative in terms of the process?

MARTIN: Because of the freedom to make mistakes. Does that still exist?

BAMUTHI JOSEPH: Well, I think, you know, you noted the historic building. You noted the stone building, which is about opulence and grandeur and majesty. And this is closer, I think, and more intimate and is at a human scale. And what it invites the broader public to do is to engage the art at eye level with the creative process.

MARTIN: And so I think just to break it down, I think what I hear you saying is that you want to bring people here who normally don't see this place as theirs. You want to invite them to experience all that a place like this has to offer.

BAMUTHI JOSEPH: I think that's a beautiful way to say it. And I would also say that's a beautiful metaphor, actually, for the country at large. I think that there are many of us - my parents are from Haiti. I'm a first-generation American. I think that there's so many of us that haven't had access necessarily to American promise or to the franchise. We do think of the country as something that we love, and it's also outside of us. And we think of our cultural citadels the same way, that art is something that I love, but this building forbids me from accessing it.

The REACH is not that. The REACH is open. I also say that the building itself is like a bird whose wingspan is as expansive as the distance between Esperanza's soprano and the vibrato of her bass, right? It's open like that. And we, as an institution, are following the lead of the building in creating a different paradigm for openness.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, there are people who will not feel included like this. There are people who are used to experiencing certain kinds of art in a certain kinds of way. They see classical works as being a certain way. Do you have a message for these folks who say, wait a minute, I'm a traditional patron of the arts, I, you know, this is the way it's supposed to be?


MARTIN: Do you want them to come? Do you want them to stay away? Do you want them to say that's your building over there and this is somebody else's building? How do you want to engage with those folks?

BAMUTHI JOSEPH: I think that's a great question. I don't want to segregate or segment. So do I want the traditional arts patron to experience The REACH along with the non-traditional arts patron? Absolutely because that really is how culture gets made. When we literally move outside of our preconceived boxes, reach across the aisle or reach across our seats or reach across disciplines and create something together, that's what this set of buildings invites us to do, to make something together.

MARTIN: That is Marc Bamuthi Joseph, vice president and artistic director of social impact at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts here in Washington, D.C. We're talking about The REACH. It's a new rehearsal and performance space - spaces - at the Kennedy Center.

MARTIN: Marc Bamuthi Joseph, thank you so much for talking with us.

BAMUTHI JOSEPH: It's been an honor. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.