D.C. area fall theater preview: It’s all about the directors


E. Faye Butler as Wiletta Mayer with Garrett Neergaard as Eddie Fenton in the 2007 production ‘Trouble in Mind’ at Baltimore’s Centerstage. (Richard Anderson/PHOTO © RICHARD ANDERSON)
September 9, 2011

The new theater season is brought to you by Sharon Ott, Nicholas Martin, Irene Lewis and Allison Narver.

The names might not mean much to you. But the success of what you see onstage in the coming months is largely in their hands. They’re part of a breed of theatrical circuit-riders, a cadre of directors that, arriving from every corner of the United States, has been recruited to shepherd many of the Washington region’s highest-profile dramatic projects. And the members of the incoming directorial class is especially noteworthy this season, given their assignments and résumés.

Although a goodly number of directing slots at Washington area theaters are filled by companies’ own artistic directors, there isn’t a deeply staffed bullpen of truly gifted freelance directors who live here. Stars such as adapter-director Aaron Posner, and Jeremy Skidmore, the former head of Theatre Alliance who now runs a talent agency, are exceptions. Other skilled helmsmen, such as Jerry Whiddon (once of Round House Theatre), John Vreeke, and Keith Alan Baker and Serge Seiden (the latter two longtime administrators at Studio Theatre), fill a few additional slots each year.

This leads many organizations to canvas far beyond the Capital Beltway for directorial timber and why directors, even more than actors these days, have to keep a packed suitcase by the door.

The trend itself is not new; cities across the country with big theatrical ambitions have been importing and lending out their directors for years.

(To underline the pendulum swing: Molly Smith, Arena’s artistic director, recently staged “My Fair Lady” at the Shaw Festival in Canada; Eric Schaeffer, longtime leader of Signature Theatre, presided over “Million Dollar Quartet” in Chicago, then New York; and the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Michael Kahn directed the Gounod opera “Romeo et Juliette” in Houston.)

What’s different this fall in the Washington area is the convergence of major directorial players. Among the guest directors are a Tony winner (Robert Falls, directing the local premiere of “Red” at Arena Stage), as well as a bevy of veterans who’ve run some of the nation’s best-known regional theaters. Ott, who was artistic director of Seattle Rep and Berkeley Rep, is staging a new adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” for Round House Theatre; Lewis, until recently artistic director of CenterStage in Baltimore, is guiding the cast of Arena’s revival of Alice Childress’s “Trouble in Mind.” And Broadway-tested Nicholas Martin, who headed the Williamstown Theatre Festival and the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, will be at Arena to direct Amy Freed’s fractured historical comedy “You, Nero.”

At Studio Theatre, the recently installed artistic director, David Muse, seems to be in a hunt for fresh faces in the director’s chair. Alongside Posner (with “Lungs”), Seiden (“The Golden Dragon”) and Muse himself (“The Habit of Art”), Studio is giving opportunities in the first half of the season to a pair of directors who have not previously staged shows in the area. Narver, who has worked largely in Seattle, will direct Lauren Weedman in her solo show “Bust,” about working in a California prison, and New York-based Susan Fenichell is director of Studio’s “Time Stands Still,” a drama by Donald Margulies about the psychological and physical toll of the Iraq war on an American photographer.

The distance to which troupes go to find directing talent suggests that not only is running a rehearsal room a specialized ability, but also that the theater is forced to compete with better-paying forms, such as movies and television, to find capable, reliable directors. This is why companies try to forge longer relationships with some out-of-town directors — as the Folger Theatre has done with Robert Richmond, who’s back next month with “Othello” after a successful “Henry VIII” there. Ethan McSweeny, a former assistant to Kahn, has developed a similar connection at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, where he will direct “Much Ado About Nothing” this fall. Joe Calarco, meanwhile, has become a dependable go-to director at Signature Theatre; his direction of the highly anticipated new musical “The Boy Detective Fails” has its official opening this weekend. Stephen Rayne has become the same for Ford’s Theatre, the venue for his revival of the 1998 musical drama “Parade,” about the lynching of Leo Frank.

Fortunately, actors sometimes move in fairly seamless fashion to the other side of the rehearsal table, and smaller local companies can become incubators for such rebirths. The locally based actor Alexander Strain has been showing promise in such a transition. In fact, once such actor-to-director shift counts this fall as the most intriguing assignment of them all: actress Holly Twyford, making her directorial debut at the tiny No Rules Theatre with a production of Diana Son’s “Stop Kiss.”

CRITIC’S PICKS: I’m always surprised by what turns out to be sensational-- who knew last fall it would be “Oklahoma!”? -- but I’m forever in the hunt for the next sensation. My autumn hopes are high, therefore, for “Fela!” (pictured), the Bill T. Jones musical about Nigerian singer-activist Fela Kuti. Performances begin Tuesday at Sidney Harman Hall. A world premiere musical, Joe Meno and Adam Gwon’s “The Boy Detective Fails,” at Signature Theatre, is also high on my expectations list. Two new plays -- Duncan Macmillan’s “Lungs” at Studio Theatre and Amy Freed’s “You, Nero” at Arena Stage --help launch exciting play-birthing initiatives at their respective companies. And those passionate folks at Forum Theatre will bring us a revival of “Mad Forest,” the spellbinding Caryl Churchill’s look at Eastern Europe on the brink of democratic reform.


CRITIC’S PICKS: Two new plays -- Duncan Macmillan’s “Lungs” at Studio Theatre and Amy Freed’s “You, Nero” at Arena Stage -- help launch exciting play-birthing initiatives at their respective companies (Monique Carboni/Monique Carboni)
Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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