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.