In Washington, the best free shows are the stand-ups, the television reporters who appear outside government office buildings to tell the story of the day's news. They first appear in the middle of the afternoon and linger until 6 or sometimes 7 p.m. Their job is to reduce the day's events to a short piece of theater that all may view and understand. For a stage they have a corner or sidewalk or a stretch of muddy lawn, so positioned that the Capitol or the White House (or in moments of desperation) their own office hovers over their left shoulder. In the rain, in the blinding sun, and in the ever-shifting winds, they must dramatize the day's news with 15 little sentences.
As a theatrical genre, the stand-up is fairly limited. Since we don't allow them to reenact the news or mimic the decisionmakers, these poor performers have only one model that they can follow, the role of the energetic and insightful reporter, the dogged writer who can discover hidden facts and ask the questions that need to be asked. This character borrows heavily from the classic comedy "The Front Page," and on busy days, one can face a row of would-be Cary Grants or Rosalind Russells, delivering their lines on the east Capitol lawn.
Just the other afternoon, I caught a fairly skilled performance when I passed by the Federal Court House - lately, the grand center of Washington's stand-ups. Because a special prosecutor has been calling witnesses to report to a grand jury, the plaza in front of the building has become something akin to a the site of a summer rock 'n' roll festival. There are tents protecting microphone stands, cables duct-taped to the sidewalk, and port-a-potties strewn carefully out of sight of the cameras.