Backstage: Arena, Woolly Mammoth and Constellation reap the rewards of revivals

August 9, 2011

Arena Stage has high hopes for its big remount of “Oklahoma!,” which opened July 8 and runs through Oct. 2. Theater staffers say they’ve sold 35,000 tickets for the reprise run, with most performances selling at “near capacity.” Though they don’t release financial figures for individual shows, a spokesperson for the company says the revival will probably outpace the original fall production and become the best-selling show in Arena’s history.

And Woolly Mammoth’s remount of its 2010 hit “Clybourne Park” is selling out and helping the company finish in the black, even after losing a major grant.

For the much smaller Constellation Theatre Company, though, the idea of reprising a popular show has been a grand experiment, but it may be more for the glory than for the bucks.

A bit of net profit wasn’t the only reason that Constellation’s Allison Arkell Stockman decided to remount the popular 2010 show “The Ramayana,” but the artistic director was hoping for it.

The remount, however, has proved to be more of a learning experience than a purse-filler for the four-year-old troupe. Stockman’s colorful staging of the ancient Indian epic, which continues at Source through Aug. 21, involved 21 / 2 weeks of rehearsal to incorporate six new actors, or about half the cast; alterations to the elaborate costumes for the newbies; and rental fees for the intimate Source space, which seats a maximum of 120.

Stockman says the three-week run won’t be long enough to make back the $65,000 cost of the remount. Her small company operates on an annual budget of $350,000, about 70 percent of it from donations and 30 percent from ticket sales. Stockman estimates that Constellation will take a loss of $10,000 to $15,000 on its “Ramayana” revival, even though tickets were selling at more than 60 percent of capacity before previews began Aug. 4.

But she says there’s a positive side to bringing back a show that won strong reviews and a Helen Hayes Award for percussionist-composer Tom Teasley’s sound design. “On just ticket sales, we will lose money, but I think on audience growth and the support of people that are newly invested or reinvested [in Constellation] because of the show . . . it will be a positive financial thing for us,” Stockman said.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s high-profile remount of “Clybourne Park” is sold out through its Aug. 14 closing. Jeffrey Herrmann, Woolly’s managing director, said in an e-mail that the revival “has officially become the highest grossing show in the theatre’s history.” The first run of the show, in spring 2010, was previously Woolly’s highest-selling show, he said.

The company “budgeted very conservatively” for the remount and increased performances to eight per week in response to demand, Herrmann said. Despite the recent loss of a government grant worth about $225,000 — about 5 percent of Woolly’s $4.2 million budget — he expects Woolly to finish its 2011 fiscal year in the black because of “Clybourne Park” and increased fundraising efforts.

A new Aunt Eller

Terry Burrell has just stepped into a big pair of high-button shoes at Arena Stage. The Atlanta-based singer-actress has replaced E. Faye Butler as Aunt Eller, the frontier wise-woman in Arena’s remount of “Oklahoma!” Butler had to start work on her lead role in the play “Trouble in Mind,” set to run at Arena from Sept. 9 through Oct. 23.

Jumping into some fast-track rehearsals last week felt “like being shot out of a cannon,” Burrell said. She watched a performance with Butler in the role, and said: “The thing that really struck me was the pacing of the show. It moves very fast . . . and yet Aunt Eller, of all the characters in the show, pretty much is the only one that has the freedom to set her own pace.” Burrell said Butler told her that Aunt Eller is really “the only adult on the stage.”

Butler says she’s proud to have played Aunt Eller in Artistic Director Molly Smith’s ethnically diverse take on the musical. “I know that an African American woman had never really played Aunt Eller on a professional stage. And so what an honor it was to be able to do a groundbreaking role like Aunt Eller, and then to be African American and do it,” she said.

“I’m kind of sad to be leaving it, on one hand, because it’s in my body, and I’ve developed a whole new group of family,” Butler says of her bond with the cast. “We went through a new journey that no one had ever done before on the American stage with this new conception of ‘Oklahoma!’ But now, like any baby, I just have to put it to sleep for a second and [do] something else.”

Aunt Eller also has some of the script’s funniest lines, and Butler, with her pinpoint comic timing, took full advantage of them. Burrell said she told Butler: “All the good stuff, I’m stealing. . . . Some color that she has in there that seems really perfect for the character, there’s really no need to change it . . . little vocal inflections that she has some places, that I’d like to use. I have her official permission to steal whatever I can use.”

After a pause, she added, “At least I asked.”

Mark your calendars

●After its “Ramayana” remount, Constellation Theatre Company’s 2011-12 season will feature “Arms and the Man” (Oct. 20-Nov. 20) by George Bernard Shaw, staged by Stockman; “Blood Wedding” (Feb. 2-March 4) by Federico Garcia Lorca, directed by Shirley Serotsky; and “The Love of the Nightingale” (May 3-June 2) by Timberlake Wertenbaker, directed by Stockman.www.constellationtheatre.
org
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●American Century Theater in Arlington, which specializes in rarely performed works from the American theatrical canon, will open its 2011-12 season with “The Country Girl” (Sept. 9-Oct. 8) by Clifford Odets, directed by Steven Scott Mazzola. In 2012, it will perform “Little Murders” (Jan. 12-Feb. 11) by Jules Feiffer, directed by Ellen Dempsey; “On the Waterfront” (March 30-April 28) by Budd Schulberg with Stan Silverman, directed by Kathleen Akerley; “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You” (June 8-July 7) by Christopher Durang, directed by Joe Banno; and “Marathon ’33” (July 27-Aug. 25) by June Havoc, directed by American Century Artistic Director Jack Marshall, with musical direction by Thomas Fuller.

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

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