D.C. theaters scramble to find new homes

C. Stanley Photography/C. Stanley Photography - The Source would be the perfect place for a displaced company to land, but it already has a full calendar with three resident theaters.

Even producing such slender rock-and-roll camp as “Diamond Dead” and “Cannibal, the Musical,” Andrew Baughman and his heavy-metal brethren with the Landless Theatre Companyoutgrew their base in the tiny, 45-seat D.C. Arts Center in Adams Morgan.

“After 10 years,” Baughman says, “we’d grown to a point we felt a little limited in what we could do.”

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But where to go next? There’s the rub, as a number of local troupes are discovering. Washington is experiencing a space crunch as emerging and growing organizations hunt alongside established companies that are suddenly out on the street.

The 23-year-old WSC Avant Bard is among those on the lam. Its longtime home at the scruffy but sizable Clark Street Playhouse closed in 2011, and last year the WSC’s new base at Rosslyn’s Artisphere decided that a resident theater company didn’t fit the new multipurpose functions of the old Newseum.

Theatre Alliance and No Rules Theatre were set adrift when the busy storefront-sized H Street Playhouse closed last year. (It’s evolving into an organic grocery store.) The incurably funky Warehouse, across from the Convention Center on Seventh Street NW — home to any number of delights, misfires and blasphemies over the years – is finally emitting its last gasp.

Brian Sutow, co-artistic director of No Rules, notes the disconnect between D.C.’s lively theater scene and the lack of what he calls “rentable spaces for smaller companies.”

You can find lists that run for pages and pages, describing what appears to be a glut of venues in the region. Kate Taylor Davis, director of the new Anacostia Arts Center, compiled one when she was working for Arlington County. DC Space Finder, an online resource developed by Cultural DC, does the same thing online. Both are helpful, but their rosters are swelled by small gallery spaces and large auditoriums.

Companies such as Theatre Alliance and WSC Avant Bard, which often have more ambition and polish than resources, typically need stages big enough for large casts and/or real set designs, plus offstage space — not just an empty room with chairs. They also need more than the 45 or 60 seats of DCAC or the incubator space at Cultural DC’s Flashpoint, but less than the 300-plus in the Crystal City venue occupied by Synetic Theater.

Not least of all, they need flexible terms. Rental rates are typically posted on venue Web sites; just click the “Facility Rental” tab. For non-profit groups, Synetic offers the Crystal City theater for $1,200 a day. The Lab Theatre I at the Atlas Performing Arts Center with up to 80 seats is advertised at $500 a day. The Silver Spring Black Box with 130 seats goes for $200 an hour.

“It doesn’t seem to me that there is a going market rate,” says Tom Prewitt, artistic director of WSC Avant Bard.

In most cases, fixed fees are daunting for troupes on extremely tight budgets anyway. Box office splits are generally agreed upon.

The journey of an emerging troupe like Pinky Swear is not uncommon: break through in one of the rough ’n’ ready venues at the Capital Fringe Festival. Then keep working, using no-frills stages like the unimaginatively arranged Writer’s Center in Bethesda or the 16th Street NW church basement of Spooky Action Theater (enter via the alley, and mind the quiet neighborhood).

These are the few truly appealing spaces that came up repeatedly in recent conversations with producers on the prowl and in the know.

Sweet, but spoken for

Source, 1835 14th St. NW, 120 seats.

Perfect size, great location, and the site has a long history as a hot spot for new and frisky work. Historically, Source is among the first places that would occur to a lean and hungry group of artists.

But: no room at this inn. It’s currently hosting the annual Source Festival, and for most of the rest of the year, Source is occupied by three resident troupes: Constellation Theatre, WIT Improv Theatre, and The In Series.

Church Street Theater, 1742 Church Street NW. 115 seats.

The tradition at Church Street is even longer than Source’s — both stretch back more than 30 years — but recently it has been almost exclusively the playground of the Keegan Theatre. Worse news for itinerant troupes: Keegan just arranged to purchase the building.

“I’m happy for them,” Prewitt says of Keegan. “But that takes an option off the table for a lot of us.”

The residency option

●Round House Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Rd., 130 seats. A spacious, modern gem of a black-box theater built and owned by Montgomery County and operated by the Round House Theatre, which produces in its larger venue in Bethesda.

Ryan Rilette, Round House’s new artistic director, loves the black box and aims to produce a new works festival there soon. But it’s also “a super-booked place,” Rilette says. Forum Theatre has been in residence for several seasons. Other groups working there include Happenstance Theater and Dog & Pony DC.

The juiciest residency right now belongs to No Rules, which fled the closing H Street Playhouse and wound up in the arms of Arlington’s Signature Theatre.

●No Rules just finished the first year of a three-year deal to produce in Signature’s 110- seat Ark space.

At Signature, No Rules has produced its biggest shows and had its biggest hit. But they have also experienced sharp growing pains. Signature’s rent deal is generous, according to Sutow, but costs have gone up for insurance, crew costs and design budgets for “what the work needs to look like at Signature,” Sutow says. “Their audience is used to seeing good-looking, high-caliber sets.”

In a nearly related development, Landless has alighted at GALA Hispanic Theatre’s Tivoli space for its current rock show, “Richard Campbell’s Frankenstein.” But that’s a one-off rental, not a residency.

The present

●Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE — a couple doors down from the H Street Playhouse. Four venues, ranging from 50-ish to 280 seats, and a bustling center for music, dance, and more. Resident theater companies include Rorschach Theatre and African Continuum Theatre Company (though ACT Co. is practically dormant in yet another period of sorting itself out).

Atlas comes with nicely equipped spaces, crew and box office services. Rorschach, which has been at Atlas for two years, operates on a box office split in what co-artistic director Jenny McConnell Fredrick calls “an amazing deal.”

Prewitt says, “I hear Sam is going out of his way to make it affordable.”

“Sam” is Sam Sweet, executive director of the Atlas, where the Arlington-based WSC Avant Bard is entertaining the possibility of producing two shows next season. In Arlington, the options are scant — the small Theatre on the Run, where WSC just offered a creatively cramped staging of Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land,” and another no-frills converted school in the Gunston Arts Center. WSC is using Catholic University’s Callan Theatre as a stopgap for Allyson Currin’s new “Caesar and Dada,” which opens Wednesday.

Sweet notes that the economics of working with strapped troupes are tough on a presenter.

“I think the user should pay something,” he says. But Theatre Alliance will produce a show at Atlas next June, moving Sweet toward a kind of critical mass that will keep jazzing up H Street and his slightly upscale complex.

“The more you have,” Sweet says of troupes and their distinct audiences, “the more people you draw to all of them.”

The future

Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Pl. NE. 150 seats.

This is the project of former H Street Playhouse owner Adele Robey. It’s still under construction, though Robey hopes to be able to host elements of the D.C. Black Theatre Festival this week. It’s also on a side street off Martin Luther King Boulevard, facing the overgrowth below the traffic whizzing up I-295.

Still, at 150 seats and with appealing height and scale inside the performance space, Prewitt calls the prospect “exciting.” Theatre Alliance expects to open a show called “Broke-ology” in August, and to have an office upstairs. (Artistic Director Colin Hovde currently works in one of the walled cubicles downstairs at the spanking new Anacostia Arts Center just around the corner.)

It’s an extremely optimistic venture, but one borne of palpable pressure from troupes capable of creating competent and even inspired theater for next to no money – work, as Sweet says, that is “artistically adventurous enough that performing in a church basement or a coffee shop won’t do.”

Prewitt says, “We’re all sort of scrambling, trying to figure out this new market.”

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