Backstage: Woolly was only D.C. troupe that didn’t cancel over last week’s snowstorm


Joe Isenberg and Andreu Honeycutt perform a scene in Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “We Are Proud to Present . . . ” at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. (Stan Barouh)
February 18

On Thursday, Peter never found his Starcatcher, J. Pierpont Finch failed to succeed in business without really trying and John Worthing never discovered the importance of being Earnest.

In response to a storm that dumped a foot or more of snow on the Washington region, nearly every theater in town canceled performances. The stages were dark, but behind the scenes, theater marketers, box-office staffers and even information technology workers were very much in motion, communicating the decision to shutter to ticket holders. Only one theater in town made the decision — at noon Thursday — that it was on with the show!

Actually, there was no exuberant Mickey Mouse-style pronouncement.

“It was a slightly complicated process,” said Deeksha Gaur, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s director of marketing and public relations. “We were expecting about 200 people. We actually called everybody who had tickets.

About half of the ticket holders said they were willing to brave the storm, which by evening had transformed Washington into a solid grid of slush. Those not up for the adventure were asked to switch their tickets for a performance later in the run of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play “We Are Proud to Present . . .

The remaining tickets were offered to the general public at a cost of $15 a seat. Woolly is known for being one of the more social media savvy theaters in town, and took to Twitter and Facebook to promote the deal. At 8 p.m., 35 additional parka-clad patrons arrived to take the theater up on is offer. The house is configured to hold 274 seats during the run of “We Are Proud to Present . . .,” and the staff was pleased that they were able to fill half the auditorium.

Gaur emphasized that Woolly’s snow day butts-in-seats campaign was motivated by artistic reasons, not financial concerns. Thursday was the last scheduled preview performance of “We Are Proud to Present . . . ,” and the design and direction team wanted one more run — before an audience — before Friday’s opening night.

“We were just concerned about having a decent enough house for our actors,” Gaur said. “We did this knowing there would be a lot of cancellations. We wanted people to be safe and not get stranded.”

She pointed out that going on with the show also had made a bit more sense for Woolly than for other theaters. District residents are the largest demographic group among Woolly’s ticket holders, so, presumably, many patrons travel to Penn Quarter below ground via Metro. And given its mission to present challenging new plays, Woolly typically doesn’t host tour buses or school groups. (“We Are Proud to Present . . .” is a play about German colonists nearly wiping out a tribal village in South-West Africa, a region now known as Namibia.)

Around the office as the snow came down, Woolly staff members joked that maybe they wouldn’t all be working if Jeffery Herrmann, the theater’s managing director, hadn’t previously worked at Perseverance Theatre in Anchorage. But by night’s end, no one was complaining.

“There is a sense of community and camaraderie that comes out [for] events like this,” Gaur said.

Closings, refunds for other troupes

That Alaska argument doesn’t hold up entirely, however, because the other theater in town run by a veteran of Perseverance Theatre did decide to close up for the night.

At 2 p.m., Arena Stage, helmed by former Anchorage resident Molly Smith, notified ticket holders via e-mail and social media that it was canceling performances of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” and “The Tallest Tree in the Forest.” “Mother Courage,” starring Kathleen Turner, runs through March 9, and patrons were asked to pick another performance that they could attend. But “Tallest Tree,” a one-man show about singer Paul Robeson, closed Sunday, and nearly all the weekend tickets had already been sold. Arena Stage decided to give those 450 people with tickets to see “Tallest Tree” on Thursday three options: a ticket to another show, a gift certificate to use for future Arena Stage seasons or a refund.

The Kennedy Center faced a similar dilemma, but on a larger scale. For the first time since Snowmageddon 2010, the center closed, canceling seven performances. The touring play “Peter and the Starcatcher” was also scheduled to go on before a nearly full house Thursday and close Sunday. That left the center with about 1,000 displaced ticket holders. Via e-mail, those ticket holders were sent a survey with several options, including receiving a gift certificate, donating the value of their ticket to the Kennedy Center or being paid a refund.

Patrons who did not respond or who do not use e-mail automatically received a refund, Kennedy Center spokesman John Dow said.

Of the thousands of Washington area schoolchildren who had a snow day Thursday, the Kennedy Center hopes that about 500 of them were a bit disappointed. Seven schools were scheduled to send students to see “Orphie and the Book of Heroes,” a new play that received a rave review from The Washington Post’s grown-up critic. The center is trying to accommodate those school groups, although Tuesday’s two-hour delay threw another snowy wrench into those plans.

Sorting out the remaining canceled performances has been easier. Bowen McCauley Dance, a local troupe that had rented the Terrace Theater, was able to reschedule its performance for Wednesday. Patrons who had tickets to the National Symphony Orchestra and “Shear Madness” were all offered tickets for upcoming concerts.

Fortunately for the Kennedy Center, no tour groups were scheduled to see “Shear Madness” Thursday, since rescheduling would not be an option for 200 seventh-graders from Iowa. The center was also lucky that the Opera House had no performances scheduled Thursday night. Two weeks early, a storm could have canceled a sold-out performance by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Dow said that snow days “do have a financial impact on us,” but he declined to release numbers. “Starcatcher” tickets were valued at between $60 and $124. If the center issued refunds to 200 $60 ticket holders and 200 $124 ticket holders, that’s a loss of about $36,800.

The Kennedy Center and other theaters with union performers and stagehands are also still obligated to pay those members when shows are canceled. An official of Actor’s Equity said in an e-mail that, “Equity members are paid the full complement of performances as specified in the contract under which they are working. An added performance is dependent on when it is scheduled and each request is done on a case-by-case basis.”

In other words, if a theater decides to add a performance, as Signature Theatre did when snow canceled one of the final sold-out performances of “Gypsy” in January, it must first negotiate with the union. The Kennedy Center may need extra shows to ultimately accommodate all the schoolchildren who have missed seeing “Orphie,” but Dow said the staff has no regrets: Closing up for the day was the right decision.

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

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