'The Reach' Plans to Make the Kennedy Center 'Your Favorite Hangout Spot'

by Sam Cronin

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday July 22, 2019

Washington DC's Kennedy Center is the busiest performing arts center in the United States, hosting approximately 2,000 events each year. Since 1971, it has been home to theater, symphonic music, ballet, jazz and more. In September, however, ten new spaces will be added on to the campus in an effort to transform the center into "your favorite hangout spot where you, your friends, and your family can relax and be a part of something entertaining, enlightening, and perhaps even unexpected every day of the year."

EDGE spoke with Robert Van Leer, the Senior Vice President of Artist Planning at the Kennedy Center about the new additions, as well as what people can expect from the extravagant sixteen day opening festival in September.

EDGE: Could you explain what exactly The Reach will be? Is it a new theater or series of theaters?

Robert Van Leer: We call it "The Reach" because it's actually a series of ten spaces plus public space in between. It's the southern part of our campus here on the banks of the Potomac in Washington DC. It's 72,000 square feet of new space.

As I said it's ten different rooms. Only one of them has formal, fixed seating, which is the Justice Forum. All of the other spaces are what we call "flexible spaces" in that they have workshops or rehearsals or demonstrations or even performances. Some of them are designated as primarily classrooms, or other things of that kind, but the idea is that there's a flexibility in all this.

As one of the nation's memorials, and the memorial to our 35th president John F. Kennedy, we are open every day from 8 until midnight, so those public spaces will always be available to the public.

EDGE: What was the inspiration for this new project, which almost sounds like a rebrand?

Robert Van Leer: Well I like to think of it as an expansion along the lines of our current mission statement. You know, when Deborah Rutter came in as our President in 2014 she was building on an inspiration that came from our Chairman, David Rubenstein, to really think about what the performing arts center of the future was here to achieve, and what it should mean locally and nationally. We are by charter and by legislation the nation's performing arts center, opened in 1971. The very idea of what a performing arts center is or could be has changed so much since the '70s.

As we look toward celebrating our 50th anniversary in 2021, I think it was very much on people's minds about 'How do we continue to build on and remain even more relevant?' And what came out of that under Deborah's leadership was that this new space could really expand the opportunity for people to engage with the creative process. I think the current Kennedy Center, the current building, the main center with our seven theaters and nine stages, is very much geared toward presentation, which I always think of as kind of the last third of the creative process.

What The Reach does is really expand the canvas and the opportunity for artists, audiences, communities, to all share in that creative process, whether you're doing it actively or passively.

What I mean by that is that sometimes it might be that you are actually in the room as part of a workshop or a class or a talk or engagement or something of that kind. But also The Reach, as you come to understand it, has also a great deal of visual porosity as designed by the architect Steven Holl. It's a very clean aesthetic with white titanium concrete, black terrazzo, even a full white wall of board-formed concrete. And all three levels are also filled with light, because the site slopes away towards the Potomac River, and that gave us an opportunity to put windows in all kinds of places and fill the space with light.

But that porosity also gives people a chance that if you want to just wander through with a cup of coffee and look into a dance rehearsal or observe young people coming in and out of classes, that you can be in that context as well.

It gives everyone a great opportunity, but allows you to find your comfort level in terms of how far you want to engage. At the heart of it, I see it as both the content - but also the context - in how that changes throughout that life cycle of the creative process.

EDGE: This all sounds ripe for student involvement. Are there any plans to have outreach programs with local schools or to get kids engaged?

Robert Van Leer: Of course, we have a substantial education program here. I oversee the Artistic Planning area, but the other side of that is the education team. They have a major schools partnership program which has been running for many years both locally and nationally. We are an instrument of the government in the sense that with the Department of Education we run major arts education programs, both locally and nationally. So this will be a ripe opportunity to not only share the programs we already have, but really deepen and extend those experiences here on the Kennedy Center and Reach campus.

EDGE: Could you speak a little bit about the Opening Festival coming up in September? What should people expect?

Robert Van Leer: We have sixteen days starting Saturday the 7th of September and running through Sunday the 22nd of September. Really, what we've worked diligently to achieve is to celebrate both the bodies of work - the art form genres we have - and to share the creative processes within them. But also to mix it up, because one of the great things at the Kennedy Center is that we have dance, ballet, theater, music theater, jazz, hip-hop, contemporary music, comedy, symphony orchestra, opera company, major ballet season, but we also get to play between those art forms. So it's all about 'What are those things that are mixing it up?'

So we've created a map of those sixteen days, so that no one day is like the other. We have great points of focus. A major opening festival on the 7th and then, for instance, on Sunday the 8th, a major focus on jazz. A hip-hop block party on Saturday the 14th, a big family day on Sunday the 15th, and then jumping to the last weekend, we have National Dance Day here on the 21st. A major focus for our community and kind of giving the whole thing back to the city as an asset for the city on the 22nd. We're working with Peace Corps alumni, the Peace Corps of course being a major Kennedy initiative.

So, I've just mentioned six days out of the sixteen, but in between, we have celebrations of symphonic music, and electronica, and all kind of different parts of our broad family.

But at the same time, we've worked hard to use what we call "horizontal opportunities" of talks and film programs and education programs and food and outdoor screenings of films to kind of mix up that mix so that if you come on any given day, you might be a lover of jazz, but you also might discover some comedy and some other filmic work and a talk about citizenship and democracy, so that you have a broad spectrum of opportunities.

That's really what the Kennedy Center is all about. We have all of these elements, but then we are one of the few major arts organizations that is one unified organization and can therefore give the public that mix of opportunity all in one day, or across the sixteen days of the opening festival.

EDGE: This must have been a huge organizational undertaking to plan. Was there much interplay between the teams at Kennedy to get this set up?

Robert Van Leer: Every single team at the Kennedy Center has been activated to create this festival, which is in some ways a new format for us, but has been absolutely wonderful in being able to kind of realize that vision of how we can all build something together. And in many ways, I think this is also a relatively innovative format for a festival, where all of those forms can be celebrated and seen and shared across a multi-day festival in that way.

Check out the full opening festival schedule here, and click here for a virtual walkthrough of the Reach expansion to the Kennedy Center, opening in September of 2019.

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