Step into the H Street Playhouse and there are almost no traces of its past -- as a car dealership, a roller rink, a "blacks only" movie theater. With shiny black floors, huge windows, an inspiring photo mural and slick overhead lighting, the polished and modern lobby showcases work by local artists and provides a smart waiting area for one of Washington's most up-and-coming theaters. Using the theater's free Wi-Fi, patrons can even check their e-mail before a show.
Yet, as recently as 2001, the space -- a restaurant -- had a kitchen in back and McDonald's-style seating. Through the difficult renovations, owners Bruce and Adele Robey recall, "There were a lot of days we came in here and said, 'What were we thinking?'" Adele Robey explains their dedication to the playhouse like this: "I guess it's some weird affinity for living life on the edge."
When the Robeys purchased 1365 H St. NE, refurbishing the space wasn't the only issue. It had been a long time since the District had opened a theater, and the Robeys, who have long been involved in the arts in Capitol Hill, needed a lawyer to get through the red tape and make their vision a reality.
Now, with the revitalization of the Atlas Theater down the street and properties being snapped up for commercial and retail space, it's easier to see the neighborhood's potential for renaissance. "Nobody really is a naysayer anymore," says Adele Robey. Her husband agrees: "The rest of the neighborhood is now coming to see what we saw."
Grants from the DC Commission on the Arts and the H Street CDC improved the theater's street appeal, giving it a new sign and new doors and cleaning up the building's facade. Inside, the black-box theater can seat approximately 100. Artists enjoy the space's flexibility -- seats can be configured countless ways to suit each production. Audience members enjoy its intimacy: "[They're] involved in every single show," says Theater Alliance Associate Artistic Director Colin Hovde. "It's very immediate."
The resident company, Theater Alliance is responsible for the bulk of the work that's produced at the H Street Playhouse, using the theater about 75 percent of the time. Other companies like African Continuum Theater Company, Capital Renaissance Theatre, Project Y and Silicon Dance Project rent the playhouse. Theater Alliance's goal is to occupy the theater's whole schedule and fully characterize the work that's produced at H Street.
The company's programming nods to the building's diverse history -- in 1968, for instance, it was devastated along with much of H Street by the race riots following Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. So in addition to being committed to new works and D.C. premieres, Theater Alliance's mission, says Artistic Director Jeremy Skidmore, involves "the community revitalization aspect. We're trying to do really diverse work."
And Theater Alliance has been successful, drawing audiences and acclaim from all over Washington. But it hasn't forgotten its commitment to the neighborhood: the Free Theater on H Street program provides one free ticket to each show for residents who live within five blocks of the theater.
Despite all the challenges, the Robeys have their happy ending. "We kept our eye on what we wanted to do," says Bruce, "which was open a theater that produced good work. That's what we've done."
--Meg McEvoy (August 2005)