In crowded theater market, Round House Theatre seeks to stand out

ClintonBPhotography - Ryan Rilette, Round House Theatre’s new producing artistic director, is outlining plans for his first full season, a lineup that could add up to one of the Bethesda company’s most intriguing in years.

Theater lovers might want to get out their global positioning systems and plug in the settings for Montgomery County, because a new sense of dramatic direction is taking hold in the capital’s neighbor to the north.

First came the news last week that Olney Theatre Center was seeking to become a more serious player in the region, by hiring as its new artistic director Jason Loewith, a talented musical-theater writer and executive director of the National New Play Network. Now, Loewith’s Montgomery colleague Ryan Rilette, Round House Theatre’s new producing artistic director, is outlining plans for his first full season, a lineup that could add up to one of the Bethesda company’s most intriguing in years.

Rilette, 39, installed last summer as Round House’s leader after four years at Marin Theatre Company just north of San Francisco, has put together a program that he describes as “my chance to get to know my audience.” More than that, however, the combination of new plays and musicals, established contemporary pieces and modern classics suggests Round House intends on presenting itself as a stronger competitor for patrons of such well-regarded local organizations for modern work as Studio Theatre and Arena Stage.

In a theater town as highly saturated as Washington, there is no guarantee this will come to pass. The trend across the nonprofit theater world is declining financial resources, owing among other things to the economic downturn and a consequent downtick in donations. This, of course, affects the ability of companies not only to stage expensive productions but also to develop effective strategies to retain customers and lure new ones. Rilette is banking on both an alteration in artistic philosophy and a new structure for ticket pricing to help him raise Round House’s profile. It has a relatively small number of subscribers, about 2,000 households. About 60 percent of the company’s audience lives in Montgomery County, Rilette says, while 20 percent are from Northwest Washington and 15 percent from Northern Virginia.

What’s changing is the range and potentially the vitality of the works on the 400-seat Bethesda main stage, and an expansion of the companies invited by Rilette to use its satellite black-box theater in Silver Spring. Gone is the programming built around stage adaptations of literary works favored by his predecessor, Blake Robison. Rilette says his tastes are closer to those of the man Robison succeeded in 2005, longtime producing artistic director Jerry Whiddon.

“This year is going to tell us a lot,” Rilette says. “We’re changing drastically from what Blake has done, but not from what Jerry had done. It relates more to an earlier Round House.”

In Bethesda, Round House will open the 2013-14 season with a revival of Martin McDonagh’s searing black comedy, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” (Aug. 21-Sept. 15), directed by Jeremy Skidmore and starring Kimberly Gilbert and Sarah Marshall, as a wildly disturbed daughter and mother in rural Ireland. It will close the season with the regional premiere of an off-Broadway musical, “Ordinary Days” (May 28-June 22, 2014) by Adam Gwon (“The Boy Detective Fails”) to be directed by Matthew Gardiner, Signature Theatre’s associate artistic director.

Between those will be offered “This” (Oct. 9-Nov. 3), a new play by Melissa James Gibson (author of “Current Nobody”); two Broadway comedies, Nicky Silver’s “The Lyons” (Nov. 27-Dec. 22) and Theresa Rebeck’s “Seminar” (Feb. 5-March 2, 2014); and August Wilson’s comedy-drama “Two Trains Running” (April 2-27, 2014). Rilette will direct “This,” Whiddon will stage “Seminar” and John Vreeke will oversee “The Lyons.” No director has been named for the Wilson play.

For Silver Spring, Rilette has struck a new agreement with innovative Dog & Pony DC, to bring its interactive hit “Beertown” there in the fall, in rotation with its follow-up, “A Killing Game.” Two other companies, Forum Theatre and Happenstance Theater, will continue to be based there as well.

Forum, known increasingly for its appetite for lesser-known writers and adventurous works, will celebrate its 10th season by introducing two up-and-coming playwrights to area audiences: Aditi Brennan Kapil, with her “Agnes Under the Big Top” (Sept. 5-28) and Steve Yockey, with “Pluto” (Feb. 20-March 15, 2014). The company will also present the world premiere of local solo performer Anu Yadav’s “Meena’s Dream” (Jan. 8-19, 2014), as well as a new version of one its most popular past productions, Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” (May 22-June 14, 2014). A fifth production remains to be determined.

Michael Dove, Forum’s artistic director, says “Pluto,” which he will direct, will be underwritten in part by a grant from the Washington-based National New Play Network, a group that fosters new work by arranging for companies across the country to stage productions of the same piece in so-called “rolling premieres.” “Pluto” will also be done by the Orlando Shakespeare Theater and Atlanta’s Actor’s Express Theatre.

Meanwhile, Rilette said he also will institute a streamlined box-office policy that will reduce Round House’s top ticket price by $18. The new system will offer the same prices every night — bucking the industry trend for dynamic pricing, a process by which theaters monitor sales every day and frequently adjust prices up and down as demand rises and falls.

Next season, he explained, the full single-ticket prices for center orchestra and center balcony seats for all performances will be $45, and $30 for seats on the sides. Patrons under 30, active-duty members of the military and veterans will pay $35 for center seats and $20 on the sides. (Currently, the top price for a center orchestra seat on a Saturday night at Round House is $63.)

“The more complicated you make it, the more difficult you make it for the consumer,” Rilette said. “I would like to keep pushing the prices lower until we get to free.” As organizations in the nonprofit sector, he added, “We should be closer to libraries than to commercial theaters.”

As for Montgomery County’s image as a theater-destination afterthought, he observed: “People will travel to the end of the earth if you have something that everyone is talking about.”

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