On local stages, last year’s successes are return attractions


Jennifer Mendenhall and Mitchell Hébert in the Wooly Mammoth production of ‘Clybourne Park.’ (Stan Barouh)

Remount fever is the sudden rage on local stages: Last year’s successes are now return attractions.

And if the reasons for revivals vary from troupe to troupe, a common factor is this: It’s nearly impossible for not-for-profit theaters to handle a hit.

“You’re landlocked with productions,” says Arena Stage managing director Edgar Dobie of the standard subscription season of a half-dozen or more projects. “You don’t build into your thinking or into the schedule the opportunity to hold things over.”

What you can do, of course, is bring back cash cows over the summer. It’s worked for Arena in the past (“Crowns”), but the tactic is being amped up now with “Oklahoma!” Last fall’s smash is back in the 683-seat Fichandler for an ambitious three-month run, which Arena officials say is the biggest slot for any Fichandler show in recent memory.

Likewise, this week Woolly Mammoth is remounting last year’s acclaimed production of “Clybourne Park,” Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer Prize-winning update of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” In early August, Constellation Theatre returns its popular staging of “The Ramayana” to Source Theatre for three weeks. This winter, Theater J will slip David Ives’s “New Jerusalem” into its season again.

And starting in September, Synetic Theatre — no stranger to remounts — is bringing back three of its wordless Shakespeares: “Macbeth,” “Othello” and “Romeo and Juliet.”

Is the time-tested framework of the subscription season showing wear and tear? Are productions fighting to live longer than the four to six weeks that are typical in not-for-profit theaters?

“I feel like the ground is shifting under the field now,” says Woolly managing director Jeffrey Herrmann. “I think it’s going to look very different in five or 10 years.”

“Something is going on, definitely,” says Synetic artistic director Paata Tsikurishvili. His troupe’s audience has nearly doubled in the past three years, so the autumn Silent Shakespeare festival — for three weeks each at Synetic’s roughly 400-seat Crystal City space — is a chance to showcase the troupe’s top work to an expanding local base (and possibly to lure agents for the tours Tsikurishvili desires).

Naturally, these not-for-profit remounts aren’t always about money. Theater J artistic director says he wouldn’t have brought last season’s Neil Simon comedy, “The Odd Couple,” even if it had become a popular phenomenon. (“The Odd Couple” did well, but not out-of-the-box great.) On the other hand, “New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza.” about 17th-century philosopher Baruch de Spinoza’s excommunication from Judaism, makes a statement.

“We want to bring this back as a banner of who we are,” Theater J artistic director Ari Roth says of the acclaimed production. “And we want to share that with as many people as possible.”

Woolly artistic director Howard Shalwitz agrees. “The ‘Clybourne Park’ remount was not a business decision,” declares Shalwitz, who directed the play at his 265-seat theater before its Pulitzer win in spring 2010. It’s the kind of project that Woolly, with its new-play mandate, dreams of: a wickedly funny, deeply topical drama that people not only clamor to see, but also want to talk about.

“I would run it for a year if I could,” says Herrmann of how perfectly “Clybourne Park” — the highest-grossing show the troupe has ever produced — hits Woolly’s sweet spot.

Shalwitz says, “If we had a commercial sector — houses where you could transfer something — maybe that’s what we’d be doing.” Arena artistic director Molly Smith says she has discussed exactly that with the Lincoln Theatre, where Arena’s “Sophisticated Ladies” was a blockbuster last year and could conceivably sit for a spell. “I think the city’s ripe for it,” Smith says of open-ended, commercial-style runs. “It needs that in order to really be looked at as a major theater town.”

Some companies try to anticipate demand and build longer runs into the old iron subscription pattern, perhaps none more so than Arlington’s Signature Theatre. The upcoming season there is scheduled for a 25 percent increase in the number of performances over 2010-11. Managing director Maggie Boland says: “We’ve all realized that the model of closing a hit show is insanity. We’re the only industry that does that!”

The musical “Xanadu” (in the 280-seat Max) and the Yasmina Reza play “The God of Carnage” (in the 100-seat Ark) are both slated for the end of next season, poised to extend into summer if demand warrants. Arena, crossing its fingers, is doing the same thing with “The Music Man” and the new musical “Like Water for Chocolate.”

Still, most theaters tend to follow established patterns and are typically surprised by breakouts. (The Studio Theatre, with multiple 200-seat spaces maximizing programming options, is the area’s much-envied exception; Ives’s “Venus in Fur” is the current extended show.) Constellation artistic director Allison Stockman was shocked at having to turn away as many people as she could fit into the 140-seat Source Theatre for her staging of “The Ramayana.” Mainstream as it is, “Oklahoma!” was viewed as a dicey choice for Arena to reopen its expanded complex last fall. And at Theater J last year, Roth says, “No show was budgeted to bring in less money than ‘New Jerusalem.’ It tripled our budget for it. So you don’t know anything.”

“You can’t know,” says Herr­mann, who sounds almost evangelical about positioning Woolly away from the old subscription-audience model, even though that means an increased gamble on the appealing but impulsive and unreliable younger single-ticket buyer. “It would be foolish to make those kinds of bets in advance.”

Thus the remount, although even that requires faith and another outlay of cash. Stockman says she figured “The Ramayana” could be brought back for about half of last year’s cost. The figure was closer to 70 percent. Shalwitz notes that Woolly’s summertime pattern has been to present something comparatively cheap and profitable, often coordinating with the rough-and-ready Capital Fringe. But even with demand for “Clybourne Park” expected to be strong, “It’s still an opportunity to lose money,” Shalwitz says. He adds that even “Oklahoma!” across town — a big musical, expensive to run — is risky, too.

For Smith, “Oklahoma!” is the jumbo vehicle designed to haul the company into the realm of consistent year-round activity. The project also keeps the Fichandler occupied for a hefty chunk of the coming season. Straight plays will get a taste of the space: Amy Freed’s “You, Nero” is slated for five weeks in late fall, and Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness” will get a month next spring. Then it’s back to musicals as the Fich gets “The Music Man.”

For actors, remounts and long runs would figure to be nothing but sunshine. Performers have to work a certain number of weeks each year to qualify for Equity’s health insurance plan, and a three-month project such as “Oklahoma!” helps, notes Eleasha Gamble (the show’s Laurey). Even so, Gamble and “Clybourne Park’s” Mitchell Hebert are candid about challenges that can range from practically never being home (depending on where the job is) to boredom (it happens).

Institutionally, the flip side of remounts and extensions is the steady parade of here-and-gone, which Shalwitz fears can lead to a perception that the theater is generally overstocked. He suggests that’s what National Endowment for the Arts chairman Rocco Landesman really had in mind last winter when he characterized American theater as “overbuilt.”

“To me, it’s how many shows are you putting out there,” Shalwitz says. He sees danger in thinking of the audience as strictly limited, “And we pump out more and more product to the same group of people.”

“The remount works against that,” Shalwitz contends, touting the potential to bring in new audiences. “That’s something we really, really need. And that’s what a commercial sector does.”

“Oklahoma!” Music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Through Oct. 9 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit ­arenastage.org.

“Clybourne Park,” by Bruce Norris. Thursday through Aug. 14 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 614 D St. NW. Call 202-393-3939 or visit woollymammoth.net.

“The Ramayana,” by Peter Oswald. Aug. 4-21 at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. Call 800-494-8497 or visit boxofficetickets.com.

Nelson Pressley has been writing about theater and other arts – but mostly theater – for the Post since 1999.
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