“I, too, wore a hard hat,” said Douglas Yeuell, executive director of the Atlas Performing Arts Center, the speaker at Georgetown Media Group’s Oct. 17 Cultural Leadership Breakfast. Yeuell headed Joy of Motion Dance Center during the $20-plus-million transformation of the Atlas Theatre — a shuttered Art Moderne movie house on down-and-out H Street NE — into a new arts center in the early 2000s.
Joy of Motion became the Atlas’s first resident arts partner and the first component of the center to open, in 2005.
The creation of the Atlas, with four venues plus dance studios, involved a cat’s cradle of public and private financing. Initial funding came from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. And the center’s ongoing relationship with the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development means that mortgage payments are made in the form of community programming — $2.2 million’ worth last year, according to Yeuell.
The former jazz dancer and dance teacher took charge of the Atlas, at the invitation of founding visionary Jane Lang, in 2014, also the year that Ari Roth’s new Mosaic Theater Company moved in. Joy of Motion, Mosaic and the other resident arts partners — Step Afrika! and the Capital City Symphony — have offices on the lower level. “We got a lot of interesting people downstairs,” he said.
Many other arts groups also perform on Atlas stages. “In our mission, we have the word ‘space,’” said Yeuell. The two Lab Theatres, originally rehearsal spaces, were converted to meet the demand. Performances of the In Series production “Stormy Weather” — Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” told through the music of Billie Holiday, explained In Series Artistic Director Tim Nelson, who attended the breakfast — were about to begin in the Atlas’s Paul Sprenger Theatre (the show closes Oct. 27).
The Atlas Performing Arts Center also presents jazz, world and new music, offers an Arts for Young Audiences series and launched the annual Atlas Intersections Festival in 2010, when it was still a challenge for H Street to attract arts audiences beyond clubgoers. There are between 60 and 80 performances during the inclusive, genre-crossing festival; the 2020 edition will run from Feb. 20 through March 1.
The unifying theme of Atlas Intersections is impact, according to Yeuell. Every performance has a talk-back and artists are expected to have answers to the question, “How does your art impact the real world?” In addition, the festival includes a family fun day and a youth summit.
Yeuell highlighted Atlas’s education initiatives, particularly City of Peace, in which young people address systems of oppression through acting, singing and dancing, and the center’s stagecraft training and apprenticeship program. City of Peace, then a resident partner, was in financial distress when Yeuell became executive director, so Atlas took it over. The center has also run an art therapy program for incarcerated youths.
Breakfast attendee Victor Shargai, former chair of Theatre Washington’s board, among others, paid tribute to what Atlas has accomplished as a catalyst for development on H Street, praising “the natural diversity … not false” he sees at Atlas performances. Though gentrification is a concern in the now-booming neighborhood, Yeuell stressed Atlas’s “grassroots” involvement in the local community and said the center seeks to use the arts as “a conduit for connections.”
As for competition from larger venues looking to attract new audiences through edgier shows, Yeuell said, “There’s a lot of need,” meaning many small arts organizations still have a hard time finding affordable places to perform.
And how about that candy apple red streetcar? “It’s a great novelty,” he said.