Backstage: Theater of the First Amendment scales back

Theater of the First Amendment is closing its doors as George Mason University’s professional theater company in residence. TFA will be funneling its resources and energy into a new initiative, Theater at Mason. TFA’s staff will be integrated into GMU’s theater department.

There are a few immediate repercussions: The remount of “Stay,” a theater, dance and multimedia production centered on the theme of loss, has been canceled, and the equity participation in “The Life of Galileo” has been cut back by reframing it as a Theater at Mason project with a mostly student cast. While the artistic leadership of TFA remains intact (Artistic Director Rick Davis, Managing Director Kevin Murray and Artistic Associate Heather McDonald), four part-time staffers were let go.

  • ( Scott Suchman / Courtesy of Signature Theatre ) - Bethany Anne Lind and Danny Gavigan in Signature Theatre's production of “Really Really,” the best-selling world-premiere play in the theater’s history.
  • ( Scott Suchman ) - Jamie Gahlon, JB Tadena, and Joe Brack in “Astro Boy and the God of Comics.” The new play has been extended twice at Studio Theatre.
  • ( Rick Davis / Courtesy of George Mason University Center for the Arts ) - Brittany Martz, Bethany Michel, guest artist Matthew Vaky as Galileo and Bryan Thren in rehearsal for Theater at Mason's production of “The Life of Galileo.”

( Scott Suchman / Courtesy of Signature Theatre ) - Bethany Anne Lind and Danny Gavigan in Signature Theatre's production of “Really Really,” the best-selling world-premiere play in the theater’s history.

For years, TFA and the GMU theater department shared space on the GMU campus. What started as a good thing — the growth of the GMU theater, opera and music departments — became a competition for performance venues on campus. TFA conceded the space to GMU performing arts productions and moved to locations downtown. But the rental fee of those spaces combined with low ticket sales resulted in TFA’s missing all of its financial targets for the season.

TFA held productions on two stages at the Atlas Performing Arts Center and at the Lansburgh Theatre of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, “and we fell far short of our goal there,” Murray said. “We were hoping the cachet of [STC] and accessibility to the Metro would draw people in, and it didn’t.”

In December, Davis said, “we came to the conclusion that we should probably reinvent this because it was [fiscally] not sustainable.”

Murray said the past season was one of TFA’s most ambitious. “A theater that’s dedicated to producing mostly new work with unfamiliar titles is an uphill battle to begin with. No one had heard of any of our plays until we produced them.”

As GMU’s theater company in residence, TFA enjoyed university-provided office space and marketing but had to raise all its production money independently. As funds grew scarce, Murray said, “we didn’t want to scale that back and start doing what we were known for doing on a lesser scale.”

Theater at Mason, he said, will be “a brand-new model. It’s a matter of taking the resources that we’ve built up and trying to apply some of those resources to enhance the student program. We’re not trying to emulate the TFA production model on these student organizations. That would just put us right back where we were financially.”

Davis hopes Theater at Mason can “become an organizing principle for the idea of a professional theater ethos guided by professional theater artists in a liberal university context.”

“Galileo,” Davis said, is “a test case. It’s the first production under this new banner.” Davis is directing, the design team is made up entirely of professionals, and one equity guest artist will play Galileo. The rest of the cast consists of 22 students.

The sweet smell of success

Ask Signature Theatre Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer whether he expected “Really Really,” a play about the collision of alcohol, sex, assault and entitlement on a college campus, to be a hit, and his short answer will be no.

No, he didn’t think that they’d be running shows at more than 90 percent capacity, that most of the shows for the past few weeks would be sold out, that this week’s shows would be just about sold out, too. No, he didn’t think ­“Really Really” would be the best-selling world-premiere play in Signature’s 22-year history. He hoped, naturally. But fair to say, the show’s blockbuster status came as something of a shock to Signature’s system.

“With ‘Really Really,’ the interesting thing is, people read the play and feel like ‘Oh, it only speaks to that generation,’ ” he said. “But what it proved, that I always believed, is that it works across the decades because we’ve all had this experience.”

Another misconception: that a gutsy show wouldn’t appeal to straight-laced D.C. theatergoers. “I think people underestimate the Washington audiences in that they feel they’re not as groundbreaking and as pioneering as they really are,” Schaeffer said.

“Really Really” is the first work in a trilogy by playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo. Schaeffer has read the other two plays in the series, which have yet to be produced, but says it’s “too early” to determine whether they’ll be staged at Signature.

Similar new-play success is hitting Studio Theatre, whose 2ndStage production of “Astro Boy and the God of Comics” was extended twice due to popular demand.

“Our rule of 2ndStage is, we don’t have any commercial expectations for what happens there,” said David Muse, Studio’s artistic director. “That’s not to say things don’t catch fire, but we don’t program the series with the expectation that that will ever happen.”

The show, Muse said, is “doing well” for Studio — 26 of 28 performances so far have sold out — though “we try not to equate commercial success with artistic success,” he is quick to add.

The appeal of “Astro Boy,” Muse said, is in “a clear sense of whimsy. . . . It’s very definitely a work of the imagination.” Not to mention, “Astro Boy” enjoyed the ultimate in free advertising: “The word of mouth has been good.”

As for whether the success of a new play means upcoming seasons will feature fewer old stand-bys, Schaeffer said, “I think I speak for a lot of people running theaters right now, that maybe the tide is finally starting to change with the economy and people are willing to take a chance where they weren’t before.”

“Really Really,” through Sunday, Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, www. signature-theatre.org, 703-820-9771.

“Astro Boy and the God of Comics,” through Sunday, Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW, www. studiotheatre.org, 202-332-3300.

 
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