In Silver Spring, Round House Theatre is giving up a coveted space


Will Gartshore and Michelle Six in Round House Theatre’s production of Becky Shaw. (Danisha Crosby/Round House Theatre)

In another sign of intensifying competition for performance spaces around the D.C. region, Round House Theatre is giving up its successful satellite theater in Silver Spring next June so that Montgomery County can make it available regularly to companies that are hungering for a venue.

Bethesda-based Round House has held the lease on the county-owned black-box space, next to the AFI Silver Theatre on Colesville Road, since it opened in 2003. Company officials say they had no intention of relinquishing the space when their lease expires June 30, 2014, until Silver Spring area arts groups that rent the facility from Round House appealed to the Montgomery County Council, after Round House revealed it wanted to reduce their access to it.

The company’s decision not to seek renewal throws into question the management of the space, which in the past decade has gone from being a theater no one was quite sure how to use to one that is highly sought after, in a part of the county lacking in such facilities. One of Round House’s subtenants is highly regarded Forum Theatre, whose seasons account for almost half the booking dates in the black box.

Forum officials say their future beyond next June is up in the air. The 150-seat space also is rented for small fees to arts groups serving students or specialized communities, such as Lumina Studio Theatre, Artstream and Live Garra Theatre. According to David Minton, Lumina’s executive director, these groups will form a consortium and propose to the county a mechanism for running the space.

Round House seems to have made a calculation that yielding the space was smarter politically; the county also controls Round House’s main stage on East-West Highway in Bethesda, where the lease comes up for renewal in about four years.

Ryan Rilette, Round House’s producing artistic director, said giving up Silver Spring, though regrettable, was preferable to a protracted struggle.

“If we thought there was an outcome where we could retain the space, we probably would have spent more time fighting for it,” he said. “It’s been an ongoing conversation for many, many months. We didn’t see any version of this ending with us getting the space, allowing us to do all the programming we wanted to do.”

Calling Round House’s decision “a good-news story,” George L. Leventhal, the County Council member whose Health and Human Services Committee has jurisdiction over county arts facilities, said the county will entertain proposals from groups seeking to book the space.

“Round House Theatre is a great community institution. They’ve made a sound decision,” Leventhal (D-At Large) said.

The recent announcements of the purchases of their playhouses by Woolly Mammoth Theatre and Keegan Theatre underscore how powerfully Washington area theaters of all sizes see real estate as destiny — which is why Round House’s surrender in Silver Spring may strike some as counterintuitive. As Rilette acknowledged, the flexibility the satellite space provided was one of the aspects of Round House that persuaded him to leave his post at the Marin Theatre Company last year and move his family across country.

Giving up the space disrupts Round House’s ambition to expand its own productions and programs in Silver Spring — the ambition that led some of the other groups using the space to seek the county’s help in changing the satellite theater’s management.

“We’ve grown up in the space, and we were ready to take a leadership position,” said Minton, whose group, a training ground for student actors who want to perform Shakespeare, has been producing five shows a year in the black box space since 2005.

Round House’s plans for a holiday production in Silver Spring had to be scrapped, and a proposed new-play festival will be shifted to Bethesda. “I wanted to make Silver Spring a national destination for new plays,” Rilette said. “We also wanted to use that space to expand upon our programming for young audiences.”

Minton said: “I think we had different visions of the space. It’s the only county theater in the area, a scarce resource, and it’s literally our home.”

That the space is in such demand, of course, reflects the robustness of theater in these parts, and of Silver Spring’s renaissance. But Round House’s leaving has some downsides. Forum, an innovative and increasingly visible part of the District’s constellation of smaller companies, relocated from H Street NE to Silver Spring in 2009. It, perhaps more than any other organization, illuminated the value of a partnership with Round House, using it in the presentation of plays by emerging writers as well as in revivals of works such as “Angels in America.”

Forum split its box office receipts with Round House in lieu of a fee. Now that deal, and Forum’s assurance of a stage after June 2014, are gone. “We really love it there, and now in a lot of respects we consider ourselves a Silver Spring company,” said Michael Dove, Forum’s artistic director. Four of the plays in its 2013-14 season still have a home, but the fifth, the area premiere of Johnna Adams’s “Gidion’s Knot,” slated for July 2014, may not.

Dove says he will meet with Lumina to explore the possibility of joining the proposed consortium. Still, he added, “come next June 30, we don’t know where we’ll be producing.”

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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