Washington, D.C., theaters: Have they ‘overbuilt’?


Natalie Berk, Irakli Kavsadze and Alex Mills in Synetic’s production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” (Graeme B. Shaw)

When the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs budget was slashed in the spring, a number of D.C. arts organizations scrambled to replace lost funds. That’s when Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company Managing Director Jeffrey Herrmann threw out his back.

“It was totally from stress,” Herrmann says.

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Artistically, troupes across the region outstripped the capabilities of small, compromised or outdated facilities over the past decade and have set up shops in attractive new complexes large and small.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.

“That took us by surprise,” says Chris Jennings, managing director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, whose NCACA funding dropped from more than a half-million dollars in 2009 to potentially nothing this year. “We all felt that.”

The change wasn’t over, either: The 2012 federal budget cut NCACA’s share to less than $2 million, and private donations are down, too. All this as troupes cope with maintaining new spaces and working off construction debt.

Arena is paying down $15 million; Executive Director Edgar Dobie says a capital campaign will retire it in 2012. Signature Theatre has a 15-year loan for $8 million in construction for the two-theater Shirlington space it inhabited as of 2007. Arlington County owns the building, and Signature Managing Director Maggie Boland reports that the company pays six figures in rent, a high percentage of costs compared with its peers nationally.

The Olney Theatre emerged from its 2005 expansion with $6 million in debt, and it teetered on the brink of disaster after the 2008-09 crunch. Contributions driven by state and county sources and an anonymous out-of-state donor have helped the company stabilize.

But so has programming that has tilted toward popular musicals, though the theater wasn’t particularly designed for them. The troupe’s current “The Sound of Music” has extended several times, and this spring offerings will gravitate toward smaller-cast, general-appeal shows (“You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” “The 39 Steps,” “Sleuth”).

“We had to make big changes,” says Managing Director Amy Marshall.

The box-office differences can be sharp: a $200,000 gross for the drama “Opus” vs. $875,000 for the musical “Annie.” Marshall acknowledges that the new programming might be “less artistically satisfying” but “things get a lot easier when we’re producing one of those big musicals, from a cash-flow perspective and a payroll perspective.”

She notes that the company has had to adjust to new realities with the expansion, such as an $18,000 monthly Pepco bill. The theater will almost certainly put four acres on the market this year to help make ends meet, she says.

‘Overbuilt’?

The spotlight of expansion often drives opening ambitions that can’t be sustained.

Only last month, Arena announced that elements (and two staffers) of its American Voices New Play Institute are leaving for Emerson College in Boston.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company staggered as it opened its new Harman Center for the Arts (the umbrella name for Harman Hall and the troupe’s longtime home at the Lansburgh Theatre two blocks away) with a daunting double bill of Christopher Marlowe’s “Tamburlaine” and “Edward II” just as the economy was nosediving. Jennings says the troupe cut the budget 10 to 15 percent during the next two recession years, but it has bounced back to the $20 million mark it hit during the Harman Hall’s ballyhooed debut.

More dramatically, in 2008-09 Signature took on the megamusical “Les Miserables,” and saw its budget soar to $9 million, a high orbit above the $2 million or so Signature formerly managed in its converted auto garage. Boland has ratcheted it down to about $7 million now.

The proliferation of new spaces and aims raise the question of whether there is enough audience to sustain everyone’s glossier goals. There is no definitive data, and anecdotal evidence varies widely.

Theatre Washington, the advocacy group that recently evolved out of the organization that annually presents the Helen Hayes Awards, reports that overall attendance has remained flat at 2 million or so since 1988. Yet, practically everyone who has expanded reports audience increases.

The scene is rife with new box-office champs: “Candide” at Shakespeare, “Clybourne Park” at Woolly, “Oklahoma!” at Arena, “Othello” at Folger, where Artistic Producer Janet Griffin is considering adding a fourth show to her popular three-play season.

On the other hand, in November Arena sent out a shock wave by cancelling a new play that had been on the slate for the end of this season, “Mary T. and Lizzie K.” The company attributed the cut to the loss of NCACA funding, and even though it might not seem that a $500,000 dent in a $19 million budget could create such programming fallout, Dobie sticks by the cause and effect. The troupe endured a similar cut in the federal fund the previous season, getting $130,000 of an expected $600,000. “We were whacked with news in two fiscal years,” Dobie says. “It’s hard to make those adjustments.” Cutting the show leaves a hole in the programming of the troupe’s vaunted new Kogod Cradle, and Dobie is frank about the theater’s reconsideration of how many productions Arena will put into the coming season.

In the 460-seat Crystal City space Arena occupied when its building in Southwest Washington was being renovated, the respected Synetic Theater has found a spacious new home, thanks to enticing arrangements from commercial landlord Vornado and the Crystal City BID. But the movement-based Synetic is not home free. Last fall, it revived three of its action-packed wordless Shakespeare stagings — “Macbeth,” “Othello,” and “Romeo and Juliet” — hoping to galvanize new audiences and possibly generate momentum for a tour. But audience response was sluggish until “Romeo and Juliet,” according to Synetic’s Kriskovets. The touring idea might not get off the ground.

Boland expects Signature’s attendance may drop this season, the current infusion from the popular “Hairspray” notwithstanding. A lot of new works — traditionally hard sells with local audiences — were ready this year, and Signature is putting them on the stage.

Companies risking new work often need higher ratios of contributed income as a buffer against box-office vagaries, though Herrmann points out the dangers of losing touch with audiences if the contributed side grows too large.

Although times may be tough, theaters are finding clever ways of economizing. Many are exploiting their new buildings, hosting everything from film screenings to weddings. Woolly is creating a position to help monetize the facility, says Herrmann.

The compromises onstage tend to be stealthy, according to several area staffers who recently convened at Harman Center. Studio Theatre Artistic Director David Muse sees trims that audiences (and critics) don’t notice, from how transitions are staged to actors doubling up in roles.

At its toughest point, Woolly cut two staffers, reduced the building cleaning schedule, and eliminated a lot of travel, but made no immediate artistic adjustments. “You make commitments 18 months in advance,” Herrmann explains. “It’s hard to react in the near-term.”

Still, the question of whether Washington theater is now “overbuilt,” to use National Endowment of the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman’s inflammatory phrase from last year, does not get an immediate slapdown from people on the managerial front lines. “I want to know,” Jennings says: “Have we successfully grown the audience for all of us, or have we saturated the market with more work?”

Research is being pooled by Theatre Washington, and local troupes are anticipating harder data soon.

As for negotiating a learning curve during this economic downturn: “I think we managed responsibly through that,” Jennings says, “and I think we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”

“We are okay,” Herrmann says, “but these things can change at the drop of a hat. Last spring, this would have been a different conversation.” He adds that it’s still a “scary time” in the arts: “We all feel insecure, even when things are going well.”

Pressley is a freelance writer.

Nelson has been writing about theater and other arts – but mostly theater – for the Post since 1999.
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