Round House Theatre, one of the region’s popular mid-size theater companies and an arts anchor in Montgomery County, on Wednesday announced the appointment of Ryan Rilette as its producing artistic director, succeeding Blake Robison.
The conservatory-trained Rilette, who turns 39 next week, has served for the past four years as producing director of the San Francisco Bay area’s similarly sized Marin Theatre Company. Before that, he co-founded a theater company off-off Broadway and then ran one in New Orleans, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina and subsequently successfully reinstated. He takes over in Round House’s Bethesda headquarters Aug. 1.
His selection followed a six-month national search for the third leader in the history of the 34-year-old company, which has been overseen by Robison since 2005. Robison is leaving to become head of the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.
Rilette is president of the National New Play Network, a group that links companies and playwrights, and most recently directed Marin’s well-received production of “God of Carnage.” He said the diversity of D.C. theater and the opportunities presented by Round House’s dual spaces made the job highly attractive.
Round House operates a 400-seat county-owned main stage on East-West Highway in Bethesda and a second county-owned space, a flexible black box next door to the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring.
“I think the facilities at Round House are some of the best I’ve seen in the country,” said the New Orleans-born Rilette, who added that the multiple leadership responsibilities of the Round House job greatly appealed to him. Under Round House’s management system, he will supervise the business and artistic sides.
“There are not a lot of places that use that model,” he said, “and it’s what I do best. I’m not someone who just likes to do the artistic side. I’ve become really good at finances. I see the two as so integrated, it’s hard not to do one without the other.
“I like to do spreadsheets late at night,” he said.
Openings in leadership jobs at higher-visibility theaters in Washington are exceedingly rare. The most recent occurred at Studio Theatre, where David Muse in September 2010 took over from founder Joy Zinoman. It was Zinoman’s style of producing modern classics, in fact, that Rilette mentioned as one template for the types of work he wants to bring to Round House when he plans the company’s 2013-14 season.
“That space,” he said of the main stage, “is about doing the best of 20th-century plays, celebrated new plays and small-cast musicals.”
Next season’s offerings have been set by Robison, who instituted a practice of staging literary adaptations. That mission — which gave Round House successes such as a lively version in 2010 of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and dry misfires, such as last year’s “Fahrenheit 451” — appears to be ending. One of the challenges Rilette will face is raising Round House’s profile in the ever more competitive regional theater scene, with well-established flagships such as Arena Stage and Woolly Mammoth Theatre and burgeoning small troupes gaining favor among younger theatergoers.
Although Robison kept Round House debt-free and in generally sound fiscal shape, according to trustees President Sally J. Patterson, the company struggles to fill its Bethesda theater. Even on nights on which critics are invited for media performances, usually the evenings that theaters want to pack in playgoers with complimentary tickets, many of the 400 seats remain empty.
“I think the first challenge,” Patterson said, “was someone who would bring us a new sense of energy and vitality around the work itself, to put productions on our Bethesda stage that would energize and excite the greater D.C. theater community and help build our presence in Bethesda.”
Patterson suggested that, although the literary approach of the past has yielded some productions better than others, it has not consistently ignited the box office. “The literary works have a potential for exciting the community, but we’re not making our mark in the way we’d like to make it in the greater D.C. community,” she said.
The trustees were impressed, she said, with Rilette’s ideas for increasing the company’s interactions with theatergoers, in events before and after shows. They liked his notion of expanding the uses of the Silver Spring space, currently housing Forum Theatre and short-run outside programs, to incubate new plays and new companies. “He has an incredible energy that’s grounded in both possibility and reality,” Patterson said.
Rilette, who is married and has twin 5-year-old daughters, trained as an actor at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. Soon after graduating, he discovered a managerial talent as a founder of the New York-based Rude Mechanicals Theater Company, which produced a rock version of “The Winter’s Tale.”
That was followed by his stint as head of Southern Rep in New Orleans, whose offices after Katrina were taken over by a small-business relief center. “We were shut down for nine months,” he said. Although his house suffered only marginal damage, he said, “everyone on both sides of my family lost everything.”
In Marin Theatre’s home base in Mill Valley, Calif., Rilette runs the business side but says he created a partnership with artistic director Jasson Minadakis that allowed him to continue to direct plays. Marin’s schedule includes a new-play program; Round House playgoers should not be surprised to find an expanding menu of original work in the company’s future brochures and e-mail blasts.
Rilette says that the cross-country move is coming at the right time for him and his family. “I get bored,” he said, “when things are going well.”