WASHINGTON — The Kennedy Center is unveiling a massive new expansion designed to transform the relationship between audience and artist while revitalizing the performing arts complex for a new generation.
The new $250 million addition, dubbed The Reach, opened Saturday with a 16-day festival featuring hundreds of free performances. The 4.6-acre complex, built on what was previously a parking lot for buses, features a trio of white buildings designed by architect Steven Holl and filled with multi-purpose performance and rehearsal spaces.
Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter says The Reach’s facilities were designed to work as “the opposite of a concert hall.”
Instead of the inherently passive experience of sitting in seats and watching artists perform from an elevated stage, Rutter said The Reach is meant to partially eliminate the division between artists and audience.
Rehearsal and performance rooms feature giant windows and glass walls, allowing visitors to watch musicians and dancers in mid-rehearsal, while interactive facilities offer the chance to create their own art.
While concert halls are purpose-built for exactly one type of use, the multiple rooms of The Reach are all considered “flex spaces” — designed to accommodate rehearsals, performances, classes or social functions.
“There’s nothing that’s just a room,” Rutter said. “It’s going to immersive, participatory and responsive.”
The legacy of President John F. Kennedy is literally branded on the walls of the new facilities. Quotes from Kennedy are inscribed in multiple places while the performance and rehearsal spaces are named for elements of Kennedy’s life: there’s a hall named P.T. 109 for the WWII torpedo boat that Kennedy commanded and another named Macaroni for Caroline Kennedy’s favorite pony.
Rutter said The Reach is designed to be used and experienced in a completely different way from the traditional Kennedy Center building. Instead of “showing up dressed nicely in time for the 8 p.m. show,” Rutter said visitors can show up any time of the day and spontaneously enjoy the facilities — which include large patches of green space strewn with sculptures, a gourmet cafe and free Wi-Fi.
“This going to be a really casual place,” Rutter said. “It’s meant to be used spontaneously.”
Kennedy Center spokeswoman Michelle Pendoley said the construction of The Reach is part of an ongoing Kennedy Center effort to draw a younger and more diverse audience that will ensure the longtime future of the institution. Inside the building, staffers refer to the traditional programming staples by the acronym SOB: symphony, opera and ballet. But recent moves like the creation of a dedicated department of hip-hop culture are meant to expand beyond that core.
“The original Kennedy Center is monumental,” she said. “This is meant to be on more of a human scale.”
The 16-day opening festival will feature a host of performances, including hip-hop icons De La Soul. There will also be multiple events geared toward children and organized by Mo Willems, the famed author of the “Elephant and Piggie” series and the Kennedy Center’s new Education Artist in Residence. Included among the sculptures scattered around the grounds of The Reach is a giant inflatable pigeon based on a recurring character from Willems’ books.
Visitors to the opening festival are required to obtain free timed-entry passes.
For more information on the schedule and the passes, visit https://cms.kennedy-center.org/festivals/reach.