Feeling invisible is the one torment no theater person can endure. So it has long driven inhabitants of Washington’s stage world batty that, when outsiders are told the city has a lively performing arts scene, they often reply: “Washington?”
Leaders of Washington’s theater industry — a going concern that claims to attract between 1.5 and 2 million patrons a year — have become increasingly impatient with the impression gap. To close that chasm and deal with other issues facing stage companies here, they are taking what many see as an overdue step: creating a fully staffed organization to support and promote theater in the capital and its suburbs.
Called, aptly enough, TheatreWashington, the group is being formed by officials of the Helen Hayes Awards, the nonprofit that administers the region’s best-known annual honors for theater. With the imminent rollout of its Web site, www.theatrewashington.org, the venture is going live. By considerably beefing up its full-time staff and treating the awards as a separate arm of the new organization, TheatreWashington expects to be better equipped to serve as the concentrated voice of theater here and to cement a stronger identity for the area as a theater destination.
Other cities with strong theater traditions, such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco, have long had active and influential umbrella organizations. But for reasons no one is able to adequately explain — especially in a city that seems to have more interest groups than parking spaces — Washington’s theaters have soldiered on for decades without a professional organization to handle such collective needs as arts advocacy and market research.
Pretty much by default, this role has been filled by the Helen Hayes Awards and its skeletal staff, headed by President Linda Levy Grossman. (An older entity, the League of Washington Theaters, is a volunteer group whose main function is holding yearly auditions for local actors.) But as Grossman and many others acknowledged, even though Helen Hayes also offers educational programs and opportunity-expanding initiatives, it’s hard for an outfit to be taken seriously when people associate it only with the handing out of plaques and statuettes. More to the point, the group has lacked the resources to tackle essential tasks such as advertising campaigns.
In short, the effort to get the word out about Washington theater, with 70 or so companies mounting dozens of productions on a regular basis, has been a flop.
“This has been the curse of Washington, D.C.,” says Chris Jennings, managing director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company and a leading proponent of the new group. “We have great tourism that comes to the Mall, but we have never created a bridge to the rest of the cultural offerings. I think the Chicago theater community is exciting and vibrant. But I think the Washington community is just as exciting, and it is not receiving as much attention.”
Whether Washington is on a par with much bigger Chicago, which has a deeper pool of directing and writing talent, is debatable. But it’s clear that D.C. has things to crow about, starting with an array of companies that, after a decade-long, citywide building boom, are housed in glittering edifices, such as Shakespeare’s Sidney Harman Hall downtown and Arena Stage’s beautifully bubble-wrapped complex in Southwest Washington.
Some in the business have noted that the city may be home to more prominent theaters than any place outside New York: The pioneering Arena, the Kennedy Center, Ford’s Theatre, Shakespeare and Signature — which won the regional theater Tony Award in 2009 — are recognizable names in their own right. And companies here of all sizes and stripes are stepping up in artistic ambition, delivering productions of ever more variety and daring. Washington, too, can boast its first bona fide hit Broadway transfer in years, the revival of “Follies” that started at the Kennedy Center in the spring.
So how is it that the energy so obviously felt in and just outside the Beltway has not translated into more renown — and more theater visitors? That Washington’s companies have no reliable data on how many people come here from elsewhere for theater is cited as another argument for a group to monitor the industry’s health.
“It has always shocked me that we have this amazing theater community and not a leading theater organization,” says Paul Tetreault, director of Ford’s Theatre. Signature’s managing director, Maggie Boland, adds that, the prestige of the late actress notwithstanding, “it’s much harder for us, the theaters, to get behind any industry-wide initiatives under the name ‘the Helen Hayes Awards.’ ”
Grossman explains that the Helen Hayes Awards decided to explore the possibility of expanding its mission after administrators such as Jennings, Tetreault and Boland urged her to do so.
“What they wanted was a unified voice; they wanted someone to represent their interests,” she says. “We want to create a brand for Washington theater, both for those who live here and those who come here.”
Obtaining a grant from Compass — a Washington group that assigns teams of volunteer MBAs from top business schools to local nonprofits for nine-month studies of how to increase their effectiveness — Helen Hayes embarked on an investigation of how to reinvent itself.
“We saw the potential for their impact to be greater,” explains Suzanne Laporte, Compass’s executive director. Out of the study came a decision to create TheatreWashington as a larger entity, with a board of directors, and with Grossman as its head. The awards would operate as a separate arm of TheatreWashington, with their own board of governors.
Over the past few months, the staffing of TheatreWashington began. The hires include Alli Houseworth, formerly of Woolly Mammoth Theatre, as director of communications, and Brad Watkins, until recently the producing director of Olney Theatre Center, as director of theater operations. Manny Strauss, a Bethesda lawyer who with wife Betsy Karmin ran the Washington Theater Review, a journal that is no longer publishing, has been hired as managing editor of the new group’s Web site, and Grossman will soon name a director of development.
A crucial question is how this new body will raise money for its programs, salaries and initiatives. According to Grossman, the Helen Hayes Awards has a budget of just under $1 million; she expects that in its first year, TheatreWashington will require an additional $500,000, and half a million dollars more than that in its second year. Those added funds haven’t been raised. A plan is in the works to charge membership dues to theater companies based on their size.
“We did not feel that there was going to be enough contributed support to grow this organization in the way it needs to grow overnight,” Jennings says.
Privately, some theater professionals in town, while expressing support for the concept, say they’re dubious about a new entity entering the competition for theater donors. Grossman says the organization will step away from any offered contribution if there is any indication that it would drain support from a theater company.
The thrust of TheatreWashington’s pitch has appeal for some longtime local benefactors, such as Jaylee Mead, who, among other gifts made with her late husband Gilbert, gave $35 million for Arena Stage’s redevelopment. “I think we’re moving in the right direction, and we need to move further, faster,” she says. “We have a lot of theater here. All we need is publicity.”
TheatreWashington’s first order of business is its Web site, which includes a search function that lets users put in their theater preferences and price points, and find shows around the region that satisfy their requirements.
Time will tell if TheatreWashington becomes the catalytic force its creators have in mind. Victor Shargai, who chairs the Helen Hayes Awards and will move to the board of TheatreWashington, says his hope is that the group can look into other initiatives, such as a health insurance plan for actors who lack coverage.
“I’m really bored with people who, when you ask them, ‘Do you go to the theater?,’ they say, ‘Oh yeah, we go up to New York two or three times a year.’ Washington is a theater town, and I feel no hesitation whatsoever saying that the quality of theater in Washington can stand up to any city in the world.”