Labor Day is no picnic for Theater J artistic director


Playwright Renee Calarco in a rehearsal for the 2011 play, “The Religion Thing,” at Theatre J. She is set to debut “G_d’s Honest Truth” this year. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)
August 26

It’s been 12 years since Ari Roth, artistic director of Theater J, was able to spend the first Monday in September kicking back at a Labor Day picnic.

Since 2012, he has spent the holiday at the Kennedy Center, where the annual Page-to-Stage Festival allows local theaters and playwrights to workshop new works on a rare weekend when the cavernous halls of the arts center would otherwise be empty.

“We plan our season around Labor Day,” Roth says, pausing to reflect on the scheduling. He feels a bit guilty asking people to stay in town for the weekend to do a workshop, and by early September, most theaters are hastily preparing for their fall season openers. It’s not ideal, but for Roth, the chance to workshop a show at the Kennedy Center in front of an audience that might not normally come to a Jewish community center to see a play is worth the expense and effort.

Saturday through Monday, more than 40 theaters, universities and playwriting collectives will stage readings and workshops at the Kennedy Center. Groups are not charged to participate, but they are responsible for paying their own personnel, including stage managers, actors and directors. This year’s Theater J workshop of Renee Calarco’s new play “G_d’s Honest Truth” will cost the theater about $1,000, which Roth figures is the cost of quality feedback.

“We have seen it as so valuable to our play development process,” Roth said. “There are basic little questions that we will get an answer to.”


The cast of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2013 production of “The Winter’s Tale,” directed by Rebecca Taichman. (Teresa Wood)

For example, at a table reading in June, Roth asked Calarco what her protagonist’s occupation and educational training was. She didn’t know. Over the summer, Calarco has been working on further character development, and the Kennedy Center workshop will show those results and allow her to make further tweaks before “Honest Truth” opens at Theater J in March.

Calarco is a local playwright going through the Page-to-Stage process for the second time. Her terrific relationship comedy “Religion Thing” debuted at the festival in 2011. But Theater J also has used the promise of a Kennedy Center workshop to lure nationally known dramatists, including Thomas Keneally, who wrote “Schindler’s List,” and the late Wendy Wasserstein, who debuted a version of what was to become her final play, “Third.”

“We never would have gotten Wendy to write a new play in our little playground without being able to say, ‘There’s a Kennedy Center performance in it for you,’ ” Roth said.

Although larger theaters such as Shakespeare and Signature have participated, Roth is surprised that more don’t take advantage of the opportunity. Some, such as Woolly Mammoth, prefer to do their dry runs at home. Woolly recently announced that it will have workshops of its upcoming new plays this fall and offer free tickets to subscribers who are set to see those shows early next year.

Rising fees for union artists could also be a deterrent. For example, last year, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society implemented a contract provision for development projects, such as Page-to-Stage, which are free and performed for audiences.

It may make sense, then, that two of the other larger theaters in town looking to fine-tune plays from the 2014-2015 seasons are primarily non-union. At 4 p.m. Saturday in the Terrace Theater, Adventure Theatre MTC will offer a preview of “Garfield, the Musical With Cattitude,” which is set to open in June 2015. Monday at 6 p.m., on the Millennium Stage, Synetic Theater will make its fifth Page-to-Stage trip with “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” an adapted horror story that bows near Halloween. “G_d’s Honest Truth” drew the 11 a.m. slot, which sounds god-awful early but was requested by Theater J because one of the actors needs to perform in “Yentl” later that night. And Roth, alas, has limited time to picnic in between shows.

Get in line, not online for tickets

Here’s a hot tip for theater patrons hoping to win the free-ticket lottery at Shakespeare Theatre this week: Your odds of scoring a seat to see “The Winter’s Tale” are considerably higher if you go stand in line rather than play the numbers game online.


HKatelyn Prominski. (Courtesy Kennedy Center)

Sidney Harman Hall holds 774 people, but for each performance, a varying number of tickets are set aside for donors, student groups and other community partners. At least 200 seats are reserved each day for patrons who stand in line waiting for the tickets that are given out two hours before curtain, and the rest are distributed online.

As of Monday, the average number of people entering the online lottery was 700, with a peak of 1,400 people registering Saturday night. The average number of people standing in line is 150. That’s a math problem that even English majors can figure out. Stand in line, then go get dinner, was a theater spokeswoman’s recommendation. “The Winter’s Tale” continues through Sunday. It’s the 24th annual free production at Shakespeare.

Full cast of ‘Little Dancer’ set

For nearly two years, New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck has had her name associated with “The Little Dancer,” the new musical inspired by Degas’s famous sculpture that will premiere in October. Four-time Tony winner Boyd Gaines and three-time nominee Rebecca Luker had been announced as her co-stars. Composer Stephen Flaherty, writer Lynn Ahrens and director-choreographer Susan Stroman are the creative team.

On Tuesday, the Kennedy Center announced full casting for the production, including several more names of local note. Katelyn Prominski, a District native who trained at the Washington Ballet, then transitioned to musical theater and made a remarkable comeback after being diagnosed with diabetes, will portray a fellow Paris Opera dancer. She’ll be joined in the corps by Goucher College graduate Amy Ruggiero, who was most recently seen at the Kennedy Center in “Come Fly Away.” The announcement also added the name of another prominent past Stroman collaborator: Karen Ziemba, who won a Tony for her role as the wife in the 2000 landmark musical theater production “Contact.”

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

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