The state of D.C. theater

In just 10 short years, Washington’s theaters have undergone a transformation unlike any in the city’s history. Gleaming new palaces of drama have sprung up or been spruced up all over the region, to the tune of more than $350 million. Companies once operating out of garages or ill-fitting nooks and crannies have settled into sophisticated new digs, and some groups with deeper pockets have erected edifices that have added immensely to the city’s architectural luster.

Start-up troupes continue to start up in spite of the trying financial and marketing odds. Established institutions are broadening their offerings, reaching out more aggressively to younger and more diverse audiences. An expanding appetite for invention is nourishing playwrights via new workshop-oriented companies and writer-residency programs. The city welcomed an edgy annual fringe festival, as well as a revitalized nonprofit group to promote the industry. The 2010 and 2011Pulitzer Prize winners for drama, “Next to Normal” and “Clybourne Park,” had pivotal early productions in the District. Shows honed here are moving with a bit more frequency to Broadway, which, for the first time since the 1970s awarded its coveted regional Tony Award to a company from the Washington area.

All in all, the past decade in Washington — building on the serious playgoing tradition set in motion by Zelda Fichandler and her colleagues at Arena Stage back in the early ’50s — has been characterized by extremely encouraging results.

So now what?

This amorphous question is not posed presumptuously, nor to suggest that simple answers exist about how further to refine the gestalt of a city perpetually engaged by the performing arts. It’s asked at this moment of theatrical vitality as a way of advancing a conversation about what still might be on the collective to-do list, what else might be done to nourish theater artists and, as a result, reap even more enrichment and local pride for play and musical-goers, who buy upwards of 2 million tickets a year to 80-odd companies large and small — from the behemoth Kennedy Center to the tiny dog & pony dc — that have colonized Washington’s theater planet.

Versions of this question seem to be on the minds of institutions all over town, whether at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, which recently signed up a variety of designers, directors and even a playwright as full-fledged company members, or at Signature Theatre, where the current season is heavily laced with world premieres, or at Shakespeare Theatre Company, which has added a musicals-in-concert series to its season. What more might be achieved as a result of this eager human base and wow-inducing physical infrastructure?

The investment reflected by the impressive new facades and stages mandates a continuingly dynamic artistic environment. But while it’s clear that theater is on a roll — with the mix of productions staged in 2011 prompting a rumination from this observer over when it might ever have been better — the city’s ambitions as a theater town of bona fide national distinction remain somewhat under-realized.

This is surely true of other cosmopolitan cities: Even New York can sometimes feel as if it’s overrated. But some of the challenges Washington perennially faces — a reputation as a pass-through city; its proximity to the nation’s theater mecca a few hours up I-95 — present formidable obstacles to the creation of a complete theatrical ecosystem. That would be one that functions as robustly at the arduous task of igniting its own originality as at the other key role of showing off the product of imaginations birthed elsewhere. Factor in the high living costs for artists, the economic downturn and even the extraordinary scarcity of real estate required for small groups of artists to sink roots, and one begins to understand why perhaps the most vital assignment for a theater town is also the hardest to fulfill: inspiring, training and retaining a younger generation of playmakers to stake a claim to renewable theatrical energy.

Local voices

For even as Washington becomes more confident about the range of theater it can offer, it still struggles with how to effectively marshal its creative impulses and make the city a real engine for original dramatic work. In discussions over the past few months with a cross-section of Washington theater people, journeymen playwrights and veteran artistic directors, freelance dramaturges and career administrators, the sense one gets is of a community ever more eager to position itself as a deviser of new work. Yet there remains a great deal of ambivalence about how to make this work happen, or how to familiarize large portions of local audiences with the far less certain outcomes of these endeavors.

Because it is not only the art with which a city entertains itself that distinguishes it as vigorous. It’s also how — and how much of — that city’s art is exported for digestion far from home.

There’s little doubt that the appetite is growing. With the establishment of its playwright residences, Arena Stage has radically altered the environment. What remains to be seen is whether an appetite for newness will trickle down. From my vantage point — one that has been shifted over several months by a much keener engagement with voices on social media — the most formidable intellectual challenge this theater community faces is how to fortify the city as a launching pad for the up-and-coming. Can we aspire to be a net exporter of theatrical art? How do we encourage local playwrights and help deepen the cadres of young actors, designers, directors and choreographers who not only want to work here, but also dream here, and who don’t necessarily look at playmaking in Washington the way their elders do?

How much of what goes onto Washington’s stages should be written by people who live or work here? D.C. is home to a few established playwrights, most notably, the farceur Ken Ludwig. But is the dearth of made-in-Washington material on the city’s stages a function of a scarcity of talent, or an overlooking of who’s here? Or is this calculus wrong? Should Washington model itself after London, and think of itself as having a national aesthetic perspective, rather than a municipal one?

Stop, fief!

It seems inarguable that there’s limited mobility within the city’s hierarchy of theaters, almost no opening for plays to be developed at smaller theaters and then to move up, as tends to happen in some major theater towns. The one recent encouraging exception was the scientific bio-play “Photograph 51,” which had its start at Active Cultures Theatre in Prince George’s County and eventually was produced on a larger scale by Theater J — but not before it had been further polished by an intervening production in New York.

Many younger playwrights will tell you the doors to the larger theaters feel shut to them. And operators of small companies trying to do new work say that little curiosity is expressed in their output by most of the theater establishment. With the exception of the occasional co-production, theater here is highly balkanized, and on top of that many companies seem far more comfortable employing dramatists from way beyond the Beltway. So acute is the sense of artistic disconnection that a group was started three years ago, Artists’ Bloc, whose mission is making the city more welcoming to emerging practitioners of theater, dance and performance art.

“This is not just about a series of workshops and readings,” says Hunter Styles, Artists’ Bloc’s new artistic director, a playwright who settled here after graduating from Georgetown. “It should also be a linchpin to help keep graduating students from colleges and graduate programs in D.C., to give them an opportunity to try things out here.”

Up-and-comers up and go

One of the mysteries of Washington theater is why there hasn’t been a more regular outflow of talent to the city’s stages from some highly regarded university drama programs — often a logical hotbed for new ideas. Part of it may be that graduates naturally gravitate to larger creative centers like New York or Los Angeles. (An exception of late has been Georgetown University, whose theater program, under the stewardship of Derek Goldman, has been especially active and collaborative, even bringing an innovative “Glass Menagerie Project” to Arena Stage.) It’s a link that some theater practitioners in town believe is underdeveloped; David Muse, Studio Theatre’s artistic director, says there’s a hunger for “these programs to get really robust.”

One wonders, too, if the long-standing practice of relying on talent from out of town has become self-fulfilling. Of the five writers in the inaugural class of Arena’s pioneering new playwright residency program, only Karen Zacarias is a Washingtonian. And to kick off its new-play lab this fall, Studio Theatre went all the way to England to select its first playwright, Duncan Macmillan.

These enticing projects, still in their infancy, are by any measure high-risk ventures; new work is simply harder to produce and harder to sell to audiences. It would be naive to suggest that Washington is not enriched by worthy professionals from elsewhere. Still, as adventurous playgoers may know, the last decade has been witness to signs that Washington can support creativity wholly manufactured here, if a company commits to the pursuit. Perhaps the most important advertisement for Washington-branded artistry has been the rise of Synetic Theater, a troupe that hybridizes storytelling and movement, most notably through its danced and mimed interpretations of Shakespeare.

Whether you regard Synetic as theater or dance or a mix, its experience belies the notion that a company in D.C. cannot contour an original repertory to its own strengths and mold a young retinue of actors and designers who stick around. Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili started Synetic as an offshoot of the now defunct Stanislavsky Theater Studio. Over a decade, they have groomed athletically gifted young actors — some recent graduates of area colleges — and turned them into stalwarts, even stars. Alex Mills, Philip Fletcher, Ben Cunis and Natalie Berk are just a few of the actors who have shown their gifts and staying power, along with designers like Anastasia R. Simes and Colin Bills and composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze.

What Synetic hasn’t located is a potent playwright to make smoother Synetic’s other genre of shows, the spoken-word adaptations directed by Paata and choreographed by wife Irina. Maybe they should follow closely what Theater J’s artistic director, Ari Roth, and literary director, Shirley Serotsky, are rolling out this week: a two-month-long “Locally Grown” play festival seeking to fill a long-standing D.C. void. Not only will the festival offer readings of works by Washington dramatists Jacqueline Lawton, Gwydion Suilebhan and Stephen Spotswood and performance artist Laura Zam. It will also stage performances by local solo artist Jon Spelman, as well as a full run of “The Religion Thing,” a new comedy by Washington-based Renee Calarco, with a cast that includes the fine D.C. actors Kimberly Gilbert and Will Gartshore.

While the Kennedy Center runs its annual Page-to-Stage readings, The Inkwell commits itself exclusively to plays-in-progress, Source Theatre holds a yearly short-play festival and some small companies like Rorschach Theatre are devoted to new works (some are by its co-artistic director, Randy Baker), Theater J’s new enterprise intensifies the spotlight on playwrights living here in a new way. According to Roth, many of these writers had developed relationships with the company: Spotswood was an intern in the literary department; Zam sat on a post-show panel for a Theater J production.

“We can grow this stuff with writers we care about,” says Roth, a playwright himself. “But are these plays any good? Will people come? Are they up to national standards? Of course, these are the great questions. You have to make the case that growing locally is going to be just as good.”

Roth is sticking his neck out here. That’s not a new posture for an artistic director of a Jewish company who has taken guff for championing plays that examine Israel from challenging perspectives. It’s possible, in fact, that “Locally Grown” will be awfully bumpy. Yet a tolerance for pain must be built into a city’s creative constitution — and the theaters, especially the smaller ones, might want to watch closely at how this festival is received.

For the next logical advance in Washington’s maturation as a theater town seems to be a deeper investment in its native intelligence. A few small troupes are already headed on this path: Groups like banished? productions, with its flirtations with bizarre intersections of language, theater and food service in “A Tactile Dinner”; dog and pony dc, collating ideas about improv, politics and audience participation in plays like “Beertown” are broadening playgoers’ understanding of the riddles theater can unravel.

Unorthodox pieces by fledgling companies may not be the most significant or widely seen work in the city, but they’re vital examples of how theater minds can flow, at every level, into original niches. Let’s see if the big theaters in town can talk more regularly to the small ones. The dramatic landscape will be all the richer for it. If the past 10 years were a decade for building theaters, maybe the next 10 will be remembered for building bridges.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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