Backstage: No Rules troupe gets new managing director

May 6

For months, Joshua Morgan has been searching for his new best friend from college. Morgan is the artistic director of No Rules Theatre Company, a small but ambitious troupe founded in 2009 by Morgan and two friends he met at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. But the other members of the triumvirate got new gigs last year. Anne S. Kohn became associate managing director of Shakespeare Theatre, and Brian Sutow got married and followed his wife back to Indiana.

Kohn and Sutow remain on the No Rules board, but to replace his collegiate pals, Morgan has hired a semi-retired Washington lawyer. Manny Strauss has been on the job for less than a week, and already he and Morgan are finishing each other’s sentences, just as though they’ve been up all night writing a theater history paper.

“My first theater experience was Ethel Merman in ‘Annie Get Your Gun,’ ” Strauss said, speaking via conference call this week.

“And my first Broadway show was ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ with Bernadette Peters,” Morgan fired back, ebulliently.

It’s a match! Albeit an odd one. After 25 years as a public securities attorney and even more years as a theater fan, Strauss is the new managing director of No Rules. He’s responsible for a $540,000 budget and exchanging e-mails and theater trivia with Morgan on a daily basis.


Manny Strauss. (Courtesy of No Rules Theatre Company)

Strauss and his wife, Betsy Karmin, also a lawyer, have sat on several theater boards and were early supporters of No Rules. Late last fall, Karmin and Morgan met for coffee to talk about the company’s transition. At the time, Karmin and Strauss were also coping with life ­changes: becoming empty nesters, sorting out their late parents’ estates and looking for new professional opportunities.

“What about Manny?” Karmin asked Morgan that day in the coffee shop.

“I was sort of dumbfounded,” Morgan said. “And that’s where the months of talks began. We fell in love with the idea, and the idea of the partnership and the collaboration. He has a strong business sense but also an artist’s mind, and that’s what I was looking for.”

On the books, the job is part-time, “but this is the arts,” Strauss said. His job will be complicated by the company’s dual-city base. No Rules tries to present all of its shows in both Winston-Salem, N.C., and Arlington, where No Rules is in residence at Signature Theatre. The company’s programming is varied. It will open a production of “Boeing-Boeing” at Signature on June 4 and has announced dual-city runs of August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” in September. As corollary programming, Morgan has booked a show by Brown Girls Burlesque. Going forward, he’s hoping to do more interdisciplinary work, as long as Strauss says they have the money.

“With Manny, I can shoot out the silliest ideas,” Morgan said. “And I know he will come back at me with good questions.”

Czech connections

Connecting artists has long been a mission of Barbara Karpetová, the Czech Embassy’s cultural counselor. Like many foreign cultural attaches working in Washington, she wants to see her country’s artists presented in D.C. galleries, film festivals and concert halls. But she also wants to create programming in the United States and export it back to the Czech Republic. That’s a mission that’s considerably more ambitious, and rare.

“We are really facilitating projects which have a lot to do with mutual inspirations for people on both sides of the Atlantic,” Karpetová said. Since 2010, she has organized an annual festival highlighting a Czech artist. While busy planning this fall’s celebration of Franz Kafka, she has also brokered a deal that will send artists from the Washington-based Alliance for New Music- Theatre to the Prague Fringe Festival this month. “The Vaclav Havel Project” opens Wednesday at the Artisphere for a two-week run, then packs up and flies to Prague.

“The Vaclav Havel Project” premiered last fall as part of the embassy’s two-month Vaclav Havel “Mutual Inspirations” festival. The festival included film screenings at the National Gallery, a symposium celebrating the late Czech president and playwright at Georgetown University and a concert featuring the U.S. Army Band. Theatrical offerings included stagings of Havel’s plays at Flashpoint and the Atlas Performing Arts Center. One play, “The Unveiling,” featured actors from the Alliance but was directed by the Czech dancer and physical theater star Mirenka Cechová.

“She’s a superstar,” Karpetová said.

Having Cechová’s name attached to the project impressed the Prague Fringe Festival’s organizers, and Karpetová encouraged the U.S. Embassy there to fund the Alliance’s trip. A Czech television crew visited Washington to film rehearsals, and Karpetová said buzz is building in Prague. “It really seems that the trans-Atlantic flow is working,” she said.

Keegan gets zoning variance

After a rocky hearing Tuesday, the Keegan Theatre Company received the approvals it needed to proceed with a $1.5 million expansion project. The D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment voted to grant the theater a variance to continue operating at 1742 Church St. NW in a property that has long been zoned residential.

The discrepancy between the building’s use and the zoning came to light late last year, when an anonymous donor gave the theater $1.9 million to purchase the property. The theater then launched a fundraising campaign to renovate the century-old building, which was originally a gym for the Holton-Arms School. Since 1975, a succession of companies — some defunct, some still operating — have used the space. Further complicating matters, the theater’s occupancy permit was for a “School of Theater Arts (Production Classes Workshop).” Other companies had taught classes in the building, but not Keegan.

Lloyd J. Jordan, chairman of the zoning board, was not pleased. He initially told Keegan’s representatives that they needed to get estimates of what it would cost to convert the building to residential use, sell it and purchase a new building to use as a theater.

“We get that all the time. The use is not the same. The other was as a school,” Jordan said.

The theater was saved by testimony from city planner Steve Cochran, who said it did deserve the variance because the building had never been used as a residence and there was a 1978 decision on the books that acknowledged the building could be used for theater classes. Jordan relented, and the board voted 4 to 0 to give Keegan the variance, although the chairman voiced concern about the precedent of giving nonprofit groups special treatment.

“There are probably some people watching us who are saying, ‘Can you believe they did that?’ ” Jordan said.

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

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