Amanda MacKaye tells all regarding the Fort Reno Concert Series threats



Sarah Robinson

The following is an interview with Amanda MacKaye, the coordinator for the legendary Fort Reno Concert Series. In the past few years, the series has faced threats from local enforcement of cancellation, and have this year assigned a Park Police officer to oversee the festival. To read the article from which this interview helped shape, read the June 2016 issue of The Beacon.

Q: Why is continuing the festival such an issue? What are the problem’s roots?

A: The Fort Reno Summer Concert Series has for decades run as a free event run by volunteers. The extent of the budget was for our sound equipment rental and the engineer to run it; and that was at great discount. The bands all played for free. In years past money was raised by making t-shirts and bands donating to the concert series. This was sufficient for the low budget needed to make the shows happen. We stopped making t-shirts because not only can we not sell them in the park, they weren’t making us enough money to be beneficial. Two years ago without warning, the National Park Service changed something and now the concert series is required to pay for a Park Police officer to work overtime to oversee the shows. It’s quite expensive – practically 100% increase in costs to offer a free event. There are other complications and implications involved with this new requirement such as the invoice for the officer must be paid in full, up front for a permit to be issued and the officer does not work with the show organizers, if he or she sees something they don’t like the look of, they will act without communication. For example, two years ago there were a couple of people who had their bags searched randomly. This can cause people to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in a public park.

Q: The Fort Reno summer concerts have been going on for decades, have they ever faced threat like they have in recent years, and why now?

A: The concert series began in the late 1960’s, but I have only been involved with organizing the series for 10 years. In that time, there have been issues in the park but not with folks who were there for the concerts. I think the greatest threat the series has faced is when funding and staffing were removed when the Neighborhood Planning Councils were eliminated citywide in the early 1990’s. But the people who loved the series persevered and the shows kept happening with volunteers and bands playing for free. I have tried to get the answer to ‘why now’ and haven’t gotten much more than what feels like ‘because we said so’. There were suggestions of rampant crime but they were unfounded in their nature and the issues occurring that resulted in police action, couldn’t be truthfully attributed to the concert series. There were claims of crowds being out of control and that we are always over our permitted number. Fort Reno is a public park, and a big one at that, there is no way to limit the number of people in the park (it’s in the permit) and without asking everyone, there is no way to know who is there for the concert or just walking their dog. Similarly, not everyone comes at the start and stays till the end – the attendance fluctuates. As for crowds, being out of control, I am not aware of any evening where that happened.

Q: What about the concerts means the most to you?

A: The concert series provides a safe space where people can check out music on both sides of the stage. It means a great deal to me to be able to continue this great tradition of free music that is not something you can find everywhere because it is featuring our local musicians. I also really admire that kids are getting introduced to live music the way I did – by going to shows and getting to get close to the music – and it gives me hope that they will be inspired to create. Of those kids, a really cherished aspect of the concert series is that parents can share with their kids a piece of themselves or their history by way of playing a show, being in the park with their kids talking about when they played Fort Reno or just sharing their love of music.

Q: How do you think the concerts have shaped the DC music scene?

A: As the city changes there are not as many places for new bands, or young people interested in playing music to experience playing live. Which also means bands have fewer opportunities to build up an audience to be able to secure a spot in a traditional venue. Having this concert series has helped shape our music scene by both now and in the past offering a place for bands to play even if they haven’t before or chose a path of music that is not widely appreciated. The concert series continues to create and document the changing moods of parts of the DC music life.

Q: What can festival-goers do to keep the series running?

A: The most important thing show-goers can do at ANY venue to help it keep offering music, is to respect the space and the people around them. In the past, alternative show spaces have been lost due to people damaging the property or creating a hostile environment. The Fort Reno Summer Concert Series is no different in that important need. What happens in the park on Monday and Thursday evenings in the summers is community building. The shows would be very different if we didn’t all feel like we were together – not just in the same place at the same time. Additionally, unless and until the series is no longer required to pay for a Park Police officer, we will need donations to make sure we can keep offering the concerts. Other than that…we just need folks to keep making the music they feel and wanting to share it.