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.