A bonanza of daring, across the boards
By Peter Marks,
Whether it’s an intensifying appetite for novelty, a newfound embrace of boldness — or maybe an increase in spinach consumption — something has gotten into the theater makers who are deciding what the rest of us will see on Washington’s stages next season.
In the river of announcements spewing from the front offices of theaters around town, a theme is emerging for the offerings of 2013-14, and it’s as robust and optimistic a stream as any I’ve encountered. In company after company, the emphasis is on broadening audiences’ horizons, presenting theatergoers with galleries of voices and projects they may not have heard or seen before.
Revivals are in retreat. “New” is the new normal. Of the 53 productions proposed for ’13-’14 by the seven important theater companies that have thus far unveiled their seasons, 36 are new plays and musicals. Eleven of that total — or more than 20 percent — are world premieres. That figure does not even include the world-premiere engagement this fall of “If/Then,” a musical aiming for Broadway and starring Idina Menzel that could help reinvigorate the woefully underused National Theatre.
New musicals, in fact, will develop in Washington at a manifold clip compared with this season, in which their birthrate has been . . . zero.
Bellwether companies such as Arena Stage and Signature Theatre, which had pulled back in 2012-13 from programs with much in the way of daring offerings, are charging back vigorously next season: Arena has among the plays in its lineup six new ones, four of them world premieres, and Signature includes four new musicals and two new plays, four among them world premieres. (A world premiere is a production that is being unveiled to an audience for the first time anywhere; a new play is a broader category, referring to a play written in the past few years that is being performed locally for the first time. ) On top of this comes word of several new initiatives for the production of original work. Signature will start a new “Siglab” development series this summer with a musical called “Spin.”
And Studio Theatre — whose 12-production new season, detailed below, includes nine new plays, one of them a world- premiere American work — is announcing its first series of commissioned pieces, to be produced in future seasons. One of them is by the creative team behind “Passing Strange,” writer-composer Stew and co-composer Heidi Rodewald. They will develop a show about Resurrection City, the encampment erected around the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in 1968 as part of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign for civil rights. The other commissions will go to two playwrights new to the city, Brooklyn-based Rachel Bonds and London’s Vivienne Franzmann.
Because building a season is such a peculiar art —a quirky convergence of an artistic director’s taste, artists’ availabilities, audiences’ desires and an institution’s resources — it’s hard to know exactly why this exceptionally intriguing burst is happening all at once. It suggests a boost in confidence by a maturing community. It could also be a reaction to the region’s highly competitive theater environment, which has only grown more so with the recent hiring in affluent, audience-rich Montgomery County of two savvy veterans of a national new-play movement, Ryan Rilette at the helm of Round House Theatre in Bethesda and Jason Loewith at Olney Theatre Center.
An uneven surge
But this surge is not happening completely evenly, either, and that may be a reflection of both the ebb and flow of creative planning and the realities of increasingly hard financial times.
In 2013-14 the Shakespeare Theatre Company, for instance, is proposing one of its most conservative seasons in some time, with mountings of Noel Coward’s ubiquitous “Private Lives” and Oscar Wilde’s perennially staged “The Importance of Being Earnest.” (The company has detailed a six-play season and soon will announce one more subscription-season show, and two shorter-run imported productions.) And except for a showcase of international drama and a revival by Bill Condon that holds out hopes for a revelatory reinvention of the cult musical “Side Show,” the Kennedy Center’s theater season is dominated by touring musicals from Broadway’s lower drawers.
Directors and playwrights of color — not to mention of the female persuasion — remain vastly underrepresented, too, even at a time when theaters here seem ever more eager to find new voices and reach out to new playgoers. Only a dozen of the announced writers of plays or musicals are women. Far fewer are black; one is Latino. Among announced directors, the diversity is even scarcer. Compare this to, for instance, an industry leader such as Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, where four of the five playwrights next season are women; so are three of the five directors. These statistics are especially significant, considering that surveys have shown women buy most of the tickets and make up the majority of theatergoers in this country.
Even so, Washington’s stages will hum with originality, supplied by the likes of playwright Melissa James Gibson, whose “This” will play at Round House; D.C. native Branden Jacobs- Jenkins (“Appropriate” at Woolly Mammoth Theatre); Eric Coble (Arena’s “The Velocity of Autumn”) and Paul Downs Colaizzo (“Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill” at Signature). Four of the six productions on Woolly’s schedule are by artists new to the company, including one work, “Arguendo,” co-commissioned by Woolly from the white-hot theater collective Elevator Repair Service, creators of the acclaimed six-hour “Great Gatsby” dramatization “Gatz.”
Among the most adventurous of the seasons is the one Studio Theatre unveils Thursday: 12 productions composing its main subscription season, its new-play Studio Lab and Studio 2ndStage program. It’s a deep-dish menu of contemporary American and British drama. The season, whose performance dates are still to be announced, includes Mike Bartlett’s Olivier Award-winning love-triangle play, “Cock,” and Nina Raine’s resonant family drama “Tribes” — both off-Broadway hits and both to be directed by Studio’s artistic director, David Muse.
“That Hopey Changey Thing” and “Sweet and Sad,” a pair of acclaimed plays from Richard Nelson’s planned series of four centered on the fictional Apple family, with national politics as a backdrop, will play in rotation. Completing the main subscription series will be Quiara Allegria Hudes’s 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Water by the Spoonful,” and in making a Studio directorial debut, Shakespeare Theatre’s artistic director Michael Kahn will stage a revival of Harvey Fierstein’s landmark, 1983 Tony Award-winning “Torch Song Trilogy.” (The directors of the Hudes and Nelson plays have yet to be disclosed.)
Deepening Studio’s ties to new plays, which over the past two seasons have led to premieres of Duncan Macmillan’s “Lungs” and Bryony Lavery’s “Dirt,” the Studio Lab will produce the world premiere of Lucas Hnath’s “Red Speedo,” about competitive swimming and performance- enhancing drugs, to be directed by Lila Neugebauer, who superbly guided Annie Baker’s “The Aliens.” Charlayne Woodard’s solo piece “The Night Watcher” and, from Scotland, “Beats,” which will take audiences inside a rave, make up the company’s special events.
Two established Washington actors, Holly Twyford and Tom Story, will shift to directing for Studio’s 2ndStage program, shepherding new plays by writers unheralded in these parts. Story makes his directing debut with “Moth,” Australian Declan Greene’s tale of two teenage outcasts, and Twyford reoccupies the directing chair she first assumed for No Rules Theatre’s “Stop/Kiss” to stage the U.S. premiere of British playwright Sam Holcroft’s structurally inventive “Edgar and Annabel.”
And then there’s the plan for “Carrie: the Musical.” Based on Brian de Palma’s scary movie, it flopped big time on Broadway in 1988. It didn’t do so well in an eagerly anticipated revised version last year off-Broadway. Undaunted, Keith Alan Baker, who runs Studio’s 2ndStage, will direct it in the summer of 2014. Perhaps, even in a Washington season notable for its daring, one needs reminders that no new thing was ever a sure thing.