The uncertainty of public and private funding in a still-delicate economy is only a fraction of the story, though, as Washington’s spectacularly expanded theater scene now angles to find its sustainable size.
Artistically, troupes across the region outstripped the capabilities of small, compromised or outdated facilities over the past decade and have set up shops in attractive new complexes large and small.
Several major troupes more than doubled their seating capacity, either by moving into new digs (Woolly Mammoth, Signature Theatre, Round House Theatre) or adding a theater (the Shakespeare Theatre Company, the Olney Theatre Center).
New buildings have sprung up or been spruced up to accommodate emerging troupes (The District’s Flashpoint,
Source Theatre and
Atlas Performing Arts Center
Artisphere in Rosslyn). The centerpiece of Arena Stage’s flashy redesign is the Kogod Cradle, a state-of-the-art 200-seat stage. Studio Theatre, originally playing to 100 seats in an old food warehouse, has calmly created an admired warren of 200-seat halls on the dramatically revitalized corner of 14th and P streets NW.
The citywide upgrade hasn’t always been easy, though. How to avoid crippling overhead and expansion debt, how to draw more audiences, how much theater is too much: These are key questions as troupes of all sizes work the learning curve of a 10-year growth spurt.
“If you grow too quickly, you can explode if you cannot provide for that growth” says Yulia Kriskovets, chief operating officer of the artistically acclaimed but financially still emergent Synetic Theater.
‘That took us by surprise’
The Washington theater landscape is broad, so general conclusions about financial health can be tricky. The challenges of $20 million operations are vastly different from the hazards facing shoestring troupes splitting ticket costs with host organizations. Broadway and Hollywood box-office reports reflect a consistent commercial universe, where shows and movies hit or flop. But there is no easy parallel marker in the not-for-profit theater world, where companies have tax-exempt status and pursue an array of community and educational missions. Creative successes can look sketchy on the bottom line.
Still, managing the expansion has become a key demand. The 2008 financial meltdown resulted in salary freezes and staff cuts. Round House Theatre, now on solid ground, purged a half million dollars from its budget and found its modest endowment underwater. Woolly Mammoth, which has operated in the black for three decades, slipped into the red.
A further blow was delivered last spring. The budget for the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs program, which supplies federal dollars to District arts, was cut by more than two-thirds, from $9.5 million in 2010 to $2.9 million in 2011.