Washington has stopped apologizing that it isn’t New York.

  • The Delta Shuttle Sheet
  • |
  • October 01, 2003

by Karen Feld

Theater Crowd(ed) Washington, D.C., has stopped apologizing that it isn’t New York.


If you think the most dramatic moments in Washington are staged on Pennsylvania Avenue or on the floor of the U.S. Congress, read on. The nation’s capital has its own answer to the Great White Way — an electrifying, diverse and international theater community playing to savvy, intelligent and sophisticated audiences.

With politics headlining in Washington, it’s understandable that excellent theater on stages in Washington is something of a well-kept secret. But that’s changing. Encompassing more than 83 professional theater companies last year staging 360 shows before 2 million theatergoers, Washington’s theater community is on its way to taking center stage as one of the more influential forums for the dramatic arts in America.

“D.C. has an international profile, intelligent audiences and sophisticated venues,” says Tony-winning actor Anthony Crivello, who opened in Les Miserables at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts before the show hit Broadway in 1987. “You have to have a testing ground before New York, and you can’t test a show in a city that’s not a theater town.”

Ah, there it is — the inevitable comparison with the Big Apple. But what’s happened to theater in Washington — and New York, for that matter — is part of something that’s happened to theater on the national level.


“The big cultural story of the last 20 years is the decentralization of the American theater scene,” says Ari Roth, artistic director of Theater J, a company that produces works by contemporary Jewish playwrights. “The creative power exists as much outside of New York as it does in New York. The material seeders for Broadway are outside of New York. Washington is a provider for off-Broadway material.”


Perhaps that’s why so many well-known writers, actors, and directors work in Washington. “I want to have a home base where I can have my work done consistently with great theater companies,” says D.C. playwright Ken Ludwig, who is the author of Broadway hits Moon Over Buffalo, Lend Me a Tenor, and Crazy for You. “Although I have an artistic home here at Arena and Signature, people are skeptical because I work so consistently on Broadway. Washington is my home; my kids are here; and it has a vital theater community.”

Ludwig’s new comedy, Shakespeare in Hollywood, which focuses on the famous 1935 Max Reinhardt film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, premièred at Arena Stage this fall and plays through mid-October. His adaptation of the screwball comedy Twentieth Century is playing through early October at Signature Theatre, a theater company with more than 4,000 subscribers and a budget of $2.5 million. In March, Twentieth Century is headed for Broadway with Alec Baldwin.

One of the advantages for actors in Washington is being able to work with all sorts of troupes. New York actor Philip Goodwin works in D.C. on a regular basis. After all, he asks, “Who could pass to raise your voice with Shakespeare, Albee and Sondheim in a single year?” He played in The Winter’s Tale at The Shakespeare Theatre, The Play About the Baby at the Studio Theatre and Passion at The Kennedy Center. “There are fewer distractions than in New York. In Washington, the focus is on what we create, not what’s going to be popular with New York critics,” says Goodwin.

“This is a well-rounded and grounded theater community. Some people act in onne production and stage-manage another. There’s lots of crossover,” says Jennifer Mendenhall, who opens in Cooking With Elvis in December — a production by the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, temporarily performing at the Kennedy Center. “Most actors supplement their income with related things — teaching or dialect work.”

Many shows that have their home base in Washington take on a life far beyond the Beltway — and that send Washington talent and artistry all over the nation. For instance, Guys and Dolls enjoyed a highly successful national tour after its D.C. première in the 1999-2000 season by Arena Stage — one of the nations oldest and largest nonprofit theater companies: With three stages, the company played to 250,000 theatergoers last year.

The award-winning Studio Theatre, which specializes in contemporary plays, made history when it opened Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love in Washington in March 2001 simultaneoulsy with its Broadway première. “I don’t see New York as the central mecca by any means,” says artistic director Joy Zinoman. “Theater doesn’t exist in just one city.”

The Round House Theatre produced An Almost Holy Picture by local playwright Heather McDonald before it went on Broadway starring Kevin Bacon in 2002.

Obviously, a city that can stage plays with this level of artistic quality and with this sort of reach has not only a well-developed stable of actors, directors and administrators, but also a very strong audience base. And soon D.C. audiences will have more plays and more theaters to like. Theatrically, there’s a veritable building boom going on in the city:

• The Shakespeare Theatre is building a second stage, planned for 2006, that will allow the company to present several classical offerings simultaneously.

• The Studio is building two additional theaters, scheduled to open September 2004.

• A $14 million performing arts center — which will be the home of The African Continuum Theatre Company (ACT Co.) , the only professional African-American theater in Washington — is planned for the H Street N.E. corridor.

• The GALA (Grupo de Artistas Latinamericanas) Hispanic Theatre is moving into the renovated Tivoli Thetaer on 14th Street.

• Woolly Mammoth, which has been using space in The Kennedy Center, is building a new theater on Seventh Street.

That a company like Woolly Mammoth — whose stated mission is to launch plays that “explore the edges of theatrical style and human experience” — thrives is a testament to the breadth and vitality of the D.C. theater scene.

“We have some of the most motivated audiences in the country, and they not only like to go to theater, they like to talk about theater,” says Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of Woolly Mammoth.

“In many places directors feel hemmed in by what their audiences will accept, but I don’t think there’s much you can do to offend a Washington audience,” says Shalwitz. “At Woolly, we acknowledge no limits. We want to find the writing that is most aggressive, edgy, and challenging.”

Woolly premiered Six Feet Under writer Craig Wright’s Recent Tragic Events — a dramatic meditation on the randomness and unpredictability of everyday life — to coincide with the first anniversary of September 11. A sock puppet plays one of the major roles in the ironic and bittersweet comedy. “Our risk-taking mentality comes from audiences willing to go with you,” says Shalwitz.

The multinational and multiethnic culture of D.C. is reflected on its stages — from the Spanish language Teatro de la Luna in Arlington, Virginia, to GALA Hispanic Theatre; from ACT Co. to The Actors’ Theatre of Washington, a gay company. Although Theater J specializes in works by Jewish playwrights, Roth emphasizes that it’s neither traditional Jewish theater nor exclusively for the Jewish community. “Audiences here are unconventional, eclectic, urban and sophisticated,” he says.


Visit www.shuttlesheet.com for a list of the Washington area theaters in this story and their October performances.

“D.C. audiences are dying to have a good time because the rest of their day is filled with real life,” says Boston-based actor, playwright and composer Hersey Felder, whose one-man show, George Gershwin Alone, was a Broadway hit. “I had been told Washington audiences were most repressed, but when you see people like [Senate Majority Leader] Bill Frist sing “Embraceable You” [during a Washington performane of George Gershwin Alone], it not only makes your night, but gives us hope for the world.”

The range of theater in D.C. extends from the edgy, wacky, over-the-top work of companies with names like Rorschach Theatre, Purchased Experiences Theatre Company and Cherry Red Productions (called by its literary manager, Anton Dudley, “the only true underground theater company”) to classic revivals and mainstream events such as The Kennedy Center’s world-class Sondheim Festival. The Wall Street Journal called The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington “the nations foremost Shakespeare Company.”

“The public has a hunger for variety,” says Linda Levy Grossman, executive director of the Helen Hayes Awards, which were created with the support of D.C.’s hometown actress 20 years ago to encourage and recognize D.C.’s theatrical accomplishments. (The annual Helen Hayes Benefit Auction commemorating the birthday of the First Lady of American Theater will be held October 24 at the Four Seasons Hotel.)


WHO GOES TO THE THEATER?(According to the Washington League of Theaters)• Mean age of theatergoers:
44.8 years• 25 percent live in D.C.;
32 percent in Virginia;
43 percent in Maryland• 56 percent dine out pre-theater• 39 percent of theatergoers
subscribe to at least one
area theater• 71 percent of theatergoers
with children take them
to the theater

Says Victor Shargai, Helen Hayes Awards chairman of the board, “Many of our theaters are in their infancy; some have 200 seats, some 2000, and some have none. I’ve been to theaters where you sit on boxes and others on plush seats, and experienced extraordinary work in both.

Some productions trumpet big-name actors, but local actors are applauded as well. When Christine Baranski’s understudy, local actor Jane Pesci-Townsend, filled in for her in Sweeney Todd opposite Brian Stokes Mitchell at The Kennedy Center, the audience gave her a standing ovation.

Another “local” turned in a memorable performance at the Shakespeare Theatre recently. At a fund-raising event for lawyers, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made a guest appearance as Dick the butcher, opposite Philip Goodwin as Henry VI. After Goodwin raised his fist and said, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” without missing a beat Ginsburg ad-libbed, “And then we go after the press.”

“People mature into types of theater,” says Ina Milton, who serves on the board of the Studio Theatre. “Many of the newer theaters charge less, attract younger audiences and put on zanier productions. The Kennedy Center gets an older audience and prices tickets higher. Each theater offers a different experience.”

Washington theater is so healthy because the area has such an enviable demographic — an educated audience base in a city that’s virtually recession-proof, thanks to the federal government. “There’s a real Washington filled with artists and intellectuals and young people,” says Zinoman.

“The region is an attractive destination for the next generation of artists, the people who are the future of our theater,” says Jerry Whiddon, artistic director of Round House.

Roth agrees: “Washington is poised to continue its rise.”

“Every year we lose part of that New York envy that used to be a part of Washington theater,” says Joe Banno, artistic director of the Source Theatre Company, at 27 years the oldest of the small professional theater companies in the city. “We’re at a point where we’re feeling self-sufficient. We have solid gold here with the acting pool and directors who have moved here.”


Back to Articles