The 2014-2015 season will be the last for the American Century Theater. The Arlington-based theater company announced last week that two decades is enough time to spend producing lesser-known American plays written (mostly) in the 1900s.
An announcement of the four or five plays of the final season is still to come, but the troupe’s current offering, a one-man show about entertainer Danny Kaye, runs through Aug. 16 at the Gunston Arts Center.
Jack Marshall, American Century’s artistic director, said the theater was in solid financial shape, but “we were in a status-quo rut that I didn’t think we were getting out of.” Basically, there is a limited audience that was willing to drive to a middle school in Arlington to see plays that other theaters in the Washington region passed on.
Ten years ago, the theater failed to pay its actors and was “two steps away from bankruptcy,” Marshall said, but he brought in a new board, made some changes, and the theater recovered. Tax records back up that assertion.
According to the theater’s Form 990 filings for 2012, the most recent that are publicly available, the company reported a loss of $11,000 in 2011 but finished 2012 in the black — thanks in part to a bequest from the late Suzy Platt and other donations, for a total uptick of $100,000 in contributions.
Although Marshall reported that running the company was a 30-hour-a-week job, he also reported to the IRS that he did not take a salary and said he never has. “It’s a philosophical thing,” he said. A lawyer by profession, Marshall works as an ethics consultant. Former managing director Paige Gold was the only regular paid employee, but she left the post a year ago, and the position was not filled.
American Century has prided itself on presenting rarely staged scripts and remounting plays that, while they may have historical significance, can be tricky to produce. Examples include “Marathon ’33,” a sprawling drama by June Havoc, the younger sister of Gypsy Rose Lee, about a danceathon, and “Voodoo Macbeth,” Orson Welles’s controversial 1936 Shakespeare staging for African American actors.
“We were always walking a high-wire act, and we’ve stayed up there and never fallen off,” Marshall said.
Since July 1, Frederick County playwright John Strand has been getting paid to haunt Arena Stage. Strand is the theater’s resident script scribe for the 2014-2015 season. He is chiefly tasked with being ready and available as the theater prepares to stage the world premiere of his play “The Originalist,” a drama that will star Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. But Strand says the script is “almost ready to go,” and he will spend much of his one-year residency pursuing other projects, including a possible play for Theater J.
“The residency that Arena gives is really to support the work of the playwright,” Strand said. “I’ll be working on anything that strikes my fancy and my creative impulse.”
“The Originalist” will be the fourth of his plays to be produced at Arena Stage. The first, and the most memorable, was his 1996 reworking of Molière’s “The Miser,” which he set in the Reagan era. Since then, Strand’s works have enjoyed successful runs at theaters across the country, including California’s Old Globe and South Coast Repertory.
As recently as 2010, Arena Stage offered multiple residencies to an impressive list of playwrights that includes Lisa Kron, Katori Hall and Charles Randolph-Wright. The project has since been scaled back to one playwright at a time. Recipients receive a steady salary and health benefits, which Strand says he hopes he doesn’t have to use. Most recently, the slot was held by Lydia R. Diamond, who finished her run in June. Strand moved into his office in July but says you won’t always find him at his desk.
“Sometimes, I just take my computer into the empty theater and sit and think, like I am just watching the play happen in my mind,” Strand said. “It is lovely to be able to do that.”
On the final day of the Capital Fringe Festival, one of the most popular shows of the fortnight announced that it will return for another round of boozy fun with the Bard. The cast of “R+J: Star Cross’d Death Match” will reunite to play Capulet vs. Montague flip cup seven more times at D.C. Reynolds bar in Petworth. The run opens Sept. 20, with varying dates through Oct. 5. Tickets are available through Brown Paper Tickets on LiveArtDC’s Web site.
Also on Sunday, the ad hoc company led by Heather Whitpan won the audience choice award for best drama in the festival. All 10 “R+J” performances sold out, with a total attendance of around 600. Total ticket sales for the festival, as organizers announced on Sunday, were 31,395.
An earlier version of this story had the wrong season for playwright John Strand to be resident script scribe for Arena.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.