Metro Weekly

The Gay Men’s Chorus Evokes a Museum with ‘Exhibitions’

The latest production from the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, DC is unprecedented and unlike anything they have ever performed.

GMCW: Exhibitions --  Photo courtesy of Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, DC/ Michael Key
GMCW: Exhibitions — Photo: Michael Key/Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC

When Thea Kano of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington first pitched the concept for an altogether new kind of show, members reacted with skepticism.

“They were all looking at me like I was a crazy woman,” says Kano, the chorus’s path-breaking artistic director, adding a note of self-mockery, “Which I’m used to. That’s also known as Thursday around here.”

Simply titled Exhibitions, the new production, scheduled to debut on Saturday, Feb. 17, is bold and innovative, unconventional and unprecedented — and unlike anything the chorus has ever produced.

“We describe it as a moveable feast of sound, harmony, and dance,” Kano says. “The audience will move from room to room in the Atlas Performing Arts Center on a guided tour, [where they] will be dazzled visually and aurally by GMCW and all of our small ensembles.” There’s not one opening curtain — nor one audience or one performance — but many, all taking place in the historic complex.

The production is structured around timed-entry tickets. “We’ll have groups of patrons by time led from room to room by a ‘docent’ — we’re using museum terms,” says Kano. Each audience group will take in five distinct programs by the organization’s small ensembles as well as its full chorus — for a total of 10 distinct audiences and 10 performances by each ensemble over the course of four hours.

It was the 10 total performances that initially raised the eyebrows of the organization’s singers. Yet none of the programs last longer than 10 minutes or include more than a handful of songs. The full chorus is only performing a program of two songs, rather than the usual 10 to 14. That’s what ultimately won over members, along with the production’s promise of greater interaction and engagement with audiences.

GMCW: Exhibitions --  Photo courtesy of Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, DC/ Michael Key
GMCW: Exhibitions — Photo: Michael Key/Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC

“They’re excited because every performance will have a different group of people,” Kano says, “and the maximum size of an audience group is 50 patrons.”

For this production, the logistics are as crucial as the performances. “We’re lighting five rooms and really we are producing [five] live shows,” Kano says.

Helping oversee those logistics is Solomon HaileSelassie, who is working in what he calls “a really collaborative effort with Chipper Dean, production director, and Jarrod Bennett, technical director,” as well as the “crack technicians at the Atlas.”

HaileSelassie’s job is to evoke the feel of going to a museum. The official Stage Director for GMCW for nearly a decade now, HaileSelassie will also tap into his experience as a production designer at the Library of Congress.

“The groups are all different and have their unique experiences that they’re drawing upon and stories that they’re telling,” he says. Every tour will start with the GenOUT Youth Chorus, comprised of LGBTQ and allied teenagers, performing a short program, led by Paul Heins, that HaileSelassie describes as “full of exuberance and joy, like a bag of Skittles that fell open.”

Next up, in the Atlas’s other black box space known as Lab II, is the organization’s 17th Street Dance, performing a pair of choreographed numbers serving as a preview of the June season finale Portraits.

Meanwhile, the ensembles Seasons of Love and Rock Creek Singers will team up to perform musical numbers by Stephen Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown. In the Lang Theatre, Kano will lead the full chorus in a Lakota Sioux spiritual accompanied by a video created by the composer.

The tour ends in the Atlas lobby, where the a cappella ensemble Potomac Fever will sing an eclectic mix of pop songs by everyone from Billie Eilish and Radiohead to Styx.

The standard GMCW concert, as HaileSelassie puts it, offers “a wall of sound [of] 300 people singing…and telling you one unified story.” Here, five different stories will be told in “a much more intimate and much more specialized [way]. This is a real conversation between a small group of patrons and performers.”

Kano wasn’t inspired by any one thing in conjuring up the production, nor did she model it after any previous offering. She was merely prompted by the season’s theme focused on the “fusion of music with visual art,” and tapped into her experiences and observations gleaned from regular outings to museums as much as her expertise in musical performance.

“I do try to visit a museum at least once a week, to stick my head in to enjoy the art,” she says. “And it probably was during one of those kind of little lunch breaks where I stepped into a Smithsonian, and I thought, ‘They need music in here. It’s really quiet.'”

The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC performs Exhibitions on Saturday, Feb. 17, from 4:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Timed-entry tickets are $20 to $45. Visit or call 202-293-1548.

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