CAGLCC Creates a Pop-Up Microcosm of LGBT D.C

by Will O’Bryan
Wednesday Nov 14, 2012
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"Brigadoon" - the story of the magical Scottish village that appears out of thin air every hundred years - comes to mind.

Or maybe it’s more like young Clark Kent tossing his crystal at the North Pole only to have it instantly erupt into a Fortress of Solitude.

Ernesto Santalla prefers a "Cinderella" metaphor.

’’The doors open at 10 a.m., but g.life will turn into a pumpkin at 5 o’clock,’’ he says. ’’It’s very temporary in nature, transient.’’

But what the heck is it?

Like Superman’s Arctic getaway, g.life will be cozy no matter the weather outside. Like "Brigadoon," g.life is also a sort of village destined to appear and disappear on schedule. The similarities more or less end there.

’’The tagline is, ’One day in D.C., all things LGBT,’ with a focus on commerce,’ explains Santalla, president of the Capital Area Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (CAGLCC), aka the Chamber.

Specifically, g.life is a free, one-day Chamber event taking place inside the Washington Marriott Wardman Park, Saturday, Nov. 17, featuring dozens of businesses, entertainment, presentations and entertainment.

’’We want to make this exciting,’’ Santalla continues, explaining the g.life concept. ’’We’re encouraging people to come out of their booths. We don’t want to box people in. We’re breaking down the walls. That’s why we’ve laid g.life out as a city. We want to bring everything that happens in the city to g.life. It’s all there. It’s a sampling. People get to experience a snapshot of life. We’re not having a central stage - we’re having street performers. And we’re also using the ’pop-up’ retail concept: here today, gone tomorrow.’’

Mark Guenther, the Chamber’s executive director, seems equally excited about the concept.

’’We’re calling it a ’pop-up metropolis,’’’ Guenther says with gusto. ’’We’ll have 3-D signs that look like Metro signs.’’

Rather than ’’Meeting Space 6,’’ ’’Vendor Section Home & Garden’’ or similar, the Chamber has let loose its creativity to design a plan of streets and parks and a Santalla-signture ’’lounge.’’

’’It’s not just an expo,’’ Guenther promises. ’’We don’t want people thinking it’s the ’Chantilly Home Show.’ ... It helps to have a president who’s an interior designer.’’

Santalla, founder of Studio Santalla, is, more specifically, an architect whose firm offers architectural, interior design and graphic design services. And the Chamber is making the most of those services with g.life. Santalla, meanwhile, insists that participating vendors get in the spirit of things.

’’My studio is leading the effort on visual branding of the event,’’ says Santalla, whose talents will be most evident at the ’’lounge’’ he is creating with with CareFirst and Contemporaria furniture retailer. ’’We’ve told vendors, ’We don’t want you to have a lemonade stand.’ ... We’re saying, ’Create an interesting display. Be creative.’ And we’ve helped a lot of vendors to that effect.’’

As for the lounge specifically, he adds, ’’It’s exciting. It’s beautiful. We’re using a floor and two walls to define the space. It’s modern. It features fine Italian furnishings. We’ve made all of our selections.

’’It’s going to be cool. I don’t do anything unless it’s going to be terrific.’’

For the Chamber, however, getting to terrific has taken a learning curve, says Guenther, explaining that g.life is the evolution of event that began a few years ago as the LGBT Economic Development Summit. Back then, the Chamber wasn’t even the Chamber - it was PEN, the Potomac Executive Network.

’’The first couple years were awesome, but it petered out,’’ says Guenther. Next came ’’Connections!2010,’’ which Guenther describes as ’’not well executed.’’ Something might have followed in 2011, but some jobs are too important to rush.

’’We started planning as soon as Connections was over,’’ he says. ’’We put a lot of planning in last year, but we didn’t find a venue we felt comfortable with, so we held it. This is the best time of year - right after the NGLCC dinner - so we just waited. We’ve been planning a long time, but the last few months have been nonstop.’’

The NGLCC, the organization crucial to the Chamber’s timing, is the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, whose annual dinner brings a variety of business leaders and representatives of other LGBT chambers of commerce to the nation’s capital. It’s bound to be a pleasant reunion this year, particularly in that the NGLCC named CAGLCC ’’Chamber of the Year’’ three months ago at its 9th Annual National Business & Leadership Conference in Chicago. And that dinner, Nov. 16, the night before g.life, should put CAGLCC’s new event in front of the perfect audience - one that may lead to similar events popping up elsewhere.

’’When we were in Chicago in August and talked about this event, no one came forward to say that anything like this has been done before,’’ recalls Santalla. ’’You come up with something good, and other people adopt it. That’s perfectly legitimate. ... All the chambers, which are very much in contact throughout the year, we’re always learning from each other. We’d be more than happy to help people with everything that we’re leaning, everything we will learn.’’

Chambers aside, Sean Bugg, co-publisher of Metro Weekly and vice president of the Chamber, emphasizes that - while it’s not the Chantilly Home Show, as Guenther points out - g.life is not being designed specifically as some type of business-to-business conclave, either.

’’The message we’re trying to get across to people is that we want them to come and relax, enjoy themselves and be entertained, while also finding out information about local businesses, services and other things that may have relevance to their lives,’’ Bugg says.

’’Trade shows are about having a number of booths and people trying to sell you a particular product that is right there, right then,’’ he says. ’’That’s pretty much all there is to it. You’re there to get free swag, or something like that. You’re in and out in a couple of hours.

’’This is really about creating a space for the community to all come together for one day to connect with LGBT and LGBT-friendly business, but also provide a lot of other things, in terms of entertainment, in terms of a really cool and different atmosphere for people to enjoy themselves.’’

It’s guaranteed that for those who’ve never experienced a Chamber event, this will be something new. It’s a chance to peruse the breadth of LGBT Washington, perhaps grab a drink and lounge Santalla style, or take in a demonstration from Cocova, the exemplary chocolatier and presenting sponsor. Walk the ’’streets’’ of g.life, take a class at ’’g.life university,’’ or just enjoy the ’’street performers.’’

Even for those who have gone to every Chamber ’’Mega-Networking Event,’’ to the annual dinners and frequent breakfasts, Santalla promises that g.life is going to deliver something they’ve not seen before.

’’By far, it’s the most ambitious project we’ve ever undertaken,’’ he says. ’’It’s very exciting. This represents a lot of what we’ve learned in the past umpteen years, and just a lot of creativity. It’s a very ambitious undertaking for an organization that has one full-time staff and the rest is all volunteers. We’ve put a huge network in motion to make this happen.

’’We’ve had other events in the past, and we move on. But we see g.life become bigger and bigger each year.’’

AVENUES OF ENTERTAINMENT

While g.life is creating a concept that’s - to borrow a line from the Doobie Brothers - ’’takin’ it to the streets,’’ Guenther applied the same philosophy to recruiting at least one of g.life’s scheduled performers.

’’I met a woman playing a trumpet on the street,’’ he explains. ’’She was cute, right at the top of the Archives-Navy Memorial Metro escalators. I said, ’Hey, would you want to perform at g.life?’’’

Although Guenther likely had to spend a good few minutes explaining the g.life concept, Sonrisa Lewis accepted his proposal. And she’s by no means alone - even if not all the entertainment was recruited in the same fashion. Instead, it took a more traditional tack, thanks to Eboné Bell, managing editor of Tagg Magazine, a local entertainer in her own right, and a CAGLCC board member.

’’We wanted to give it a ’street performer’ feel,’’ says Bell, promising essentially nonstop entertainment of some sort from 11 a.m. till the ’’city’’ sleeps at 5 p.m. ’’We needed performers who could come ’as is,’ people who could pull out a guitar, throw the case on the ground, say, ’Tip me,’ and start playing. We were looking for real street-life performers, that’s what we wanted to recreate. I think we’ve done a really good job with the diversity of entertainment we’ll have throughout the day.

’’Some might perform a couple times during the day, but there will be something different going on every single hour. Maybe when you walk in it will be light with a couple guitar players. As the day picks up, you might hear a trumpet. The Gay Men’s Chorus has a really cool surprise for people toward the end of the day - I can only leave you with that.’’

While Bell can’t give up all her stage secrets, she does share that she’d partially filled the bill with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington’s Potomac Fever a cappella ensemble, comedy cabaret from Ann Michaels, and some guitar and vocals from lesbian duo Franky & Betty.

When it comes to one particular streetscape staple, however, Bell’s bad luck might be another’s blessing.

’’There will be no mimes - even though I did try to look for a mime,’’ Bell admits. ’’I was not successful. There will be no mimes and no clowns.’’

Even though Bell has graced many D.C. stages as her drag king alter ego, E-Clef, there won’t be any drag kings, either. That sort of performance is too dependent on audio tech for what Bell is serving up, keeping it street simple. Instead, Bell will make the g.life rounds purely as herself.

’’There’s something for everyone,’’ she says of what’s being prepared for this pop-up experience. ’’This isn’t just about people who have a business and want to network - it’s so much more than that. What I’m looking forward to is meeting new people, meeting new friends. Yeah, I want to get my business name out there, but the priority is meeting new people and learning more about what’s going on in the community.’’

UNIVERSITY, MINUS THE DEBT

Where the old-school method might be finding some speakers and throwing together some panels, it should be clear that g.life is breaking away from old school. So Ted Smith threw out the book and started fresh.

’’Initially, they’d envisioned a seminar series,’’ says Smith, a Long & Foster Realtor, Chamber board member, and the guy tasked with putting together the speaker-presentations portion of g.life. ’’We put out a request for presentations. Once I started looking at the proposals - over 40 came in - I said, ’Let’s keep this whole metaphor of g.life going. If we’re talking about a city, let’s look at a school or a university.’’

Welcome to ’’g.life U.’’ And while Guenther is firm that the ’’g’’ in g.life is ambiguous - ’’The ’g’ is undefined. It’s ’great,’ ’gay,’ ’good.’ We don’t ever want it to have any definition.’’ - Smith is happy to call his baby ’’g.life University.’’

Smith says his university concept is not merely an extension of g.life branding. Instead, he took inspiration from the idea to create something more hands-on than one might expect.

’’It’s really about presenting information and engaging,’’ he says of the days two simultaneous tracks, one with greater business content, the other taking on more personal-enrichment topics. ’’It’s about a conversation with the audience. There won’t be any PowerPoint. We really want to have three or four people at the front of the room interacting with the audience.’’

And the topics those audiences might find themselves interacting on range from work-life balance to managing your LinkedIn account to transgender employment issues.

Smith is, however, sticking with tradition with regard to at least of portion of what he’s designed for his pop-up pupils.

’’It’s like college,’’ he explains. ’’There will be 50-minute classes, with 10 minutes between to change classes.’’

On the other hand....

’’It’s our intention that people will come and go through the day,’’ he says of g.life U. ’’We don’t think you’re going to sign up for a major.’’

While Smith is certain that g.life U ’’will enrich the day,’’ he, too, plans to take a study break and walk the streets of g.life. After all, what’s wrong with a field trip?

’’You get ghettoized in your life - where you go, who you hang out with,’’ says Smith. ’’I think g.life is going to be a real cross-section. Yes, it’s business-focused, but it’s all things LGBT. I definitely think people will have a couple ’I didn’t know we were involved in this’ moments. This is a great way for people to go out and appreciate the diversity of our community. We’re not one community anymore; we’re multiple communities.’’

The Capital Area Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce’s g.life, ’’One Day in D.C., All Things LGBT,’’ is Saturday, Nov. 17, at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park, 2660 Woodley Road NW, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, visit caglcc.org.

Copyright MetroWeekly. For more articles from MetroWeekly visit www.metroweekly.com

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