Jason Loewith, an award-winning musical writer, stage director and national leader in the development of new American plays, has been appointed artistic director of Olney Theatre Center, the 75-year-old mainstay of drama in northern Montgomery County.
The matchup of Olney and Loewith is not one that could have been predicted. The company’s seasons of well-known plays and musicals have cast it as an outlet of highly traditional fare. Loewith, the Washington-based head of the National New Play Network, champions emerging playwriting voices, and his best-known work — the widely admired musical adaptation with composer Joshua Schmidt of “The Adding Machine” — tests the limits of dramatic forms rather than recycling existing ones.
It will be some time before it’s known how Loewith and Olney adapt to each other, since the company is in the midst of a season assembled by its previous artistic director, Martin Platt. Still, the hiring of Loewith, who started informally last Friday and takes over officially Feb. 26, comes in a turbulent period in Olney’s history.
Platt departed in December, after seven months in the post, in what was described as a “mutual” decision, and at a time when the company is struggling to define what kind of theater it wants to be. The slightly schizoid programming can be seen in the recent lineup: The follow-ups to the family-friendly holiday offering of “Cinderella” are a racier rock musical, “Spring Awakening,” and a provocative 2011 play about race and art, “The Submission.”
Loewith inherits the leadership of a three-theater campus with a $5 million budget, about 50 full- and part-time employees and interns and the job of retiring $6.2 million of debt — some of that expenses from the construction of a new main stage, some from years of budgetary red ink. Jennifer Kneeland, a Bethesda bankruptcy lawyer who chairs Olney’s board, says that the company’s finances are now stabilized and that after a lean period, with painful layoffs, Olney has had a balanced budget for the past three years.
But it might be cementing a coherent niche in a crowded marketplace for theater in the region that proves Loewith’s most difficult mission. Recently, for instance, Olney scrapped plans for a production of “Carnival” this summer and replaced it with the better-known “A Chorus Line,” in part because it’s a title that is easier to sell.
“I have always been drawn to a challenge, and hopefully not just a crazy challenge but one that’s going to end up being rewarding for the theater, the patrons,” Loewith, 44, said. “There’s a team there dedicated to each other, to doing anything to make that place work. What they have been waiting for is a vision for what the organization can become artistically and institutionally.”
Since 2009, Loewith has been executive director of the National New Play Network, a confederation of more than two dozen nonprofit theaters across the country that commissions plays, supports development of others and arranges for some new plays to receive debut productions at a succession of theaters, in what are known as “rolling premieres.” Prior to that, he was artistic director of Next Theatre in Evanston, Ill., just outside Chicago, where he was recognized twice with best- season trophies from the After Dark Awards.
There, in the 2006-07 season, he produced the original production of “The Adding Machine,” which was directed by David Cromer. After moving to New York in 2008, the play won an Obie and ran off-Broadway for six months.
Olney’s selection of Loewith is “a fantastic decision and a really smart move,” said Ryan Rilette, the recently installed producing artistic director of Round House Theatre in Bethesda. Rilette was on the board of the New Play Network when it hired Loewith. “He is both a right-brain and left-brain kind of guy — an incredible artist as well as being a very smart administrator.”
According to Kneeland, Loewith was one of the finalists, along with Platt, a year ago to replace Olney’s longtime artistic director Jim Petosa. “When things did not work out with Martin and we decided to separate, we knew exactly where we wanted to go,” she said. “It was a no-brainer. We were in a bind; however, in no way did we settle for Jason. We knew his energy, his exuberance, his experience and commitment to the community.”
A nagging issue for Olney has been its location. Set in a fairly rural portion of Montgomery County 20 miles from the capital, the company has suffered a bit from a perception that it’s too far to get to easily. “We have a challenge in convincing theatergoers that we are really not that far away,” Kneeland said. “There are folks in Bethesda who would rather go to Washington, but there’s also tremendous theater in Olney.”
Loewith’s initial response to that quandary is for the theater to focus on the quality of its offerings and the audiences that feel a natural artistic and geographical gravitational pull to the company. He talked about developing distinctive seasons-within-seasons for different audiences; say, those who want family fare, and those looking for more adventurous work. (He plans, he says, to direct a new play there in the fall.)
“Community-building: That’s the biggest job,” Loewith said. “Olney needs to rely more on the amazing talent here in the D.C.-Baltimore area in every way: designers, performers, writers.”
The work began immediately. Loewith was set Thursday evening to give his first curtain speech at the first preview of “Spring Awakening,” directed, by the way, by Steve Cosson, the forward-thinking artistic director of the Brooklyn-based Civilians. Loewith is hoping to rekindle the feelings that were engendered after some performances at Next Theatre, where departing playgoers sometimes stopped to thank him.
Come this summer, he said, “I’m going to make sure that ‘A Chorus Line’ is the smartest, most rigorous production, so that people coming out of that musical are going to say ‘Thank you’ to me.”