Two D.C. theaters test new models for putting new plays onstage

Theaters keep rolling out new ways to premiere plays, and two fresh Washington initiatives are in full flower — or in full beast mode — right now. Theater J’s initiative, called Locally Grown, puts the company’s muscle behind Washington-based writers, while Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s Free the Beast program is raising $4 million to produce 25 new plays in the next 10 years.

The industry standard is to slap an untested play together with three weeks of rehearsals. Actress Kimberly Gilbert, who has been in two Locally Grown premieres at Theater J and is in her second Free the Beast show at Woolly, suggests that’s too much like an “experiment.”

(Courtesy of Wolly Mammoth Theatre Company)

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“I-only-have-three-weeks-I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing!” Gilbert says of the usual adrenalized, nerve-wracking process. “You’re forced to make huge choices that can be hit-or-miss.”

Typically, though, theaters can’t budget for more time.

“Look, we’re an underfunded field,” Woolly Mammoth artistic director Howard Shalwitz says of the labor-intensive theater business. “That’s just a given, and it’s not going to change any time soon.”

That’s why Woolly is raising major money and Theater J is putting in sweat equity in these very different new play efforts. The theaters’ leaders sat down separately to explain the whys and hows of their programs as Theater J readied “The Hampton Years,” Jacqueline Lawton’s real-life drama about a refugee Austrian art professor and African American artists John Biggers and Samella Lewis, and Woolly buffed its premiere of “Stupid F---ing Bird,” Aaron Posner’s freewheeling adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Seagull.”

Theater J, Locally Grown

WHY: Artistic director Ari Roth is a playwright himself, and Theater J has consistently pursued new and new-ish national and international works since his arrival 16 years ago.

But for years a lot of out-of-town guest writers stayed at a local hotel that offered Theater J a sweetheart deal of $25 a night, which amounted to tens of thousands of dollars in underwriting. That deal fell through in 2008.

At the same time, the company has stretched itself financially and logistically with its ambitious Voices From a Changing Middle East series showcasing international works.

“Who said we have to be hosts all the time?” Roth asks.

Associate artistic director Shirley Serotsky adds that the “locavore” food movement came up during a new play conference at Arena Stage in 2011, and the notion of applying it to art clicked. The Locally Grown program launched last season with Renee Calarco’s “The Religion Thing”; this spring, Roth’s “Andy and the Shadows” and now “The Hampton Years” (beginning Wednesday) have reached the stage.

HOW: Serotsky and Roth count 14 writers in the fold at the moment, with works in various stages of development. The festival of public readings is currently in bloom; plays by Allyson Currin, Liz Maestri and Randy Baker have been heard, with scripts by D.W. Gregory and Malcolm Pellas to come. Longtime D.C. writers Norman Allen and Ernie Joselovitz are also testing projects in Theater J’s newly fertile soil.

Roth likens this to spreading seeds widely: “That’s what we’re here to do right now, is add to the terrain. The great art will come when the great art takes root. You don’t know where the genius child is coming from.”

Serotsky, who is directing “The Hampton Years,” observes that theaters across the country are phasing out the inefficient and frustrating old submissions model, with scripts from everywhere uselessly piling up over the transom.

Locally Grown aims to be better at fostering ongoing artistic relationships. As Gilbert says, “I’ve been having an awesome time creating these characters with my neighbors.”

Woolly Mammoth,

Free the Beast

WHY: “It’s really simple,” Shalwitz says. “Free the Beast is just a way of buying artists time.”

In part, this counters what Shalwitz has called the widespread “assembly line” habit of producing. But there is an in-house issue, too.

Woolly was defined in the 1980s by its daring actors; beginning in the 1990s, the focus began to shift toward playwrights. Shalwitz says that created a tension he hopes can be partly reconciled by commissioning writers and getting them to work more closely with the Woolly company.

The $4 million figure is based on an extra 10 percent of the season’s annual $4 million budget, spread over 10 years. Woolly has pulled in $2.4 million so far, and the target is to finish the fundraising by the end of summer.

That money is designed as a lockbox guarding against the perils of season-by-season budgeting, which routinely finds troupes axing “luxuries” like longer rehearsal time. Funding more workshops means more creative time with designers and even actors who, ideally, are brought inside the process early.

“You are not just supporting a playwright,” Shalwitz explains. “You are supporting a team of artists who are working with a playwright on a new project. That to me is what will make Free the Beast successful, if it bridges those gaps.”

HOW: Posner has adapted such works as “The Chosen” and “My Name is Asher Lev,” but he is perhaps better known as a busy director (e.g., the just-closed “The Last Five Years” at Signature Theatre, lots of award-winning Shakespeare productions for the Folger Theatre). He was offered a commission to complete his riff on “The Seagull” after nervously showing Shalwitz a half-done draft.

“It’s about a young theater artist who wants to do great things and change the world,” Posner says of Chekhov’s drama, which Posner acted in as a student at Northwestern. (“I was terrible,” he moans.) “And I remember very clearly, in the way you remember stupid things you say, talking about how ‘this is my favorite play,’ and ‘I think I really get this play.’ The me at 23 who said that totally annoys me now.”

Posner was directing Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room, Or The Vibrator Play” at Woolly when he began “Stupid F---ing Bird.” Three “Vibrator Play” actors, Gilbert among them — plus some designers and the Woolly ethos — have carried over as Posner has worked through his script, which is based on an old literal translation he fished off the Internet for free.

The point of the fund is to add a degree of cash to projects that most need it. In the fall, the initial Free the Beast project, Mia Chung’s “You for Me for You,” included a four-week workshop of that play at New York’s Ma-Yi Theater Company. Next season’s efforts include commissioning Manhattan’s acclaimed Elevator Repair Service for its Supreme Court-themed “Arguendo,” premiering at Woolly next spring. Free the Beast put Posner’s play through four workshops.

“That’s more than we’ve ever been able to support before,” Shalwitz says. “And in most of those workshops, most of our actual cast was present. So we came into the first rehearsal in a whole different place than we normally do. It’s small expenditures that really change the equation for how the work feels.”

“It’s no guarantee that you’ve gotten it right,” Posner says. “This is art, so who . . . knows? But it gives you a better shot at doing something that is more interesting and more complete.”

The Hampton Years

by Jacqueline Lawton. Wednesday through June 30 at Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW. Call 800-494-8497 or visit boxofficetickets.com.

Stupid F---ing Bird

by Aaron Posner. Monday through June 23 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Call 202-393-3939 or visit woollymammoth.net.

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