Theatre Lobby Bows Out of Washington Scene

David Marks and Deborah Hazlett in
David Marks and Deborah Hazlett in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The upcoming production is rebounding from a most undreamlike fire at the Folger. (By James Kegley -- Folger Theatre)
By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Theatre Lobby is closing down. The tiny organization of devoted Washington area theatergoers has since 1987 bestowed its Mary Goldwater Awards upon those in the world of small, nonprofit theater.

The organization existed as a performance troupe from 1950 to 1972, then reconvened in 1985 as a theater support organization. Now most of the 15 Lobby members are in their 70s and 80s, some living in retirement communities. Seeing the plays, voting on the awards, raising funds for the small cash prizes and the event to hand them out (the last one was May 22 at Clark Street Playhouse in Arlington) has become too much.

The written descriptions of the "why" for each award were what theater artists so greatly appreciated. Washington Shakespeare's Chris Henley writes via e-mail: "They wrote a citation on which they spoke with care and insight about what it was in the work that inspired them to honor it . . . without regard to categorizing the work. And it was just such a charming and unpretentious evening. It will be missed."

Elizabeth Segal, co-president of the group with Mary-Averett Seelye, says they've been unable to find anyone to carry on the awards, which were named for one of group's founders. About 100 theater artists and 20 companies have received them. "We really wish we knew some organization that could pick up this focus," Segal says, "because, obviously, this is not the focus" of the Helen Hayes Awards, Washington's major theater awards program.

Seelye, a co-founder of Theatre Lobby (and a former performance poet), says, "I hope that what we did was to spread the word so more people heard about these theaters and realized that just because they were small and struggling, they weren't necessarily not worth going to."

Art Deco 'Dream'

The Folger Theatre has postponed until Tuesday the previews for "A Midsummer Night's Dream," originally scheduled to start tomorrow, because of a fire last Saturday in a costume storage area above the stage. Costumes and sets for the show weren't harmed, Folger publicists say, but the top layer of flooring on the stage must be replaced due to water damage, and the theater and lobby has to be dried out. Performances have been added to accommodate ticket holders for the canceled shows, but the closing date remains Nov. 26.

They'd better remember to put in fresh, dry oats for Bottom. Last week, the "Midsummer" character (David Marks) was just waking from his donkey-eared dream during a rehearsal in a church basement near the Folger. Heavy-lidded and scratching his belly, he muses, "Man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream." Soon after, Theseus, Duke of Athens (John Lescault), and his betrothed, Hippolyta (Deborah Hazlett), discourse on fantasy vs. real life.

Most of the characters in the Folger production will exist in both the real and fairy worlds in director Joe Banno's conception. He has double-cast most characters, so they'll be in the real world of Theseus and Hippolyta and in the dream world of fairy king and queen Oberon and Titania (also Lescault and Hazlett). Bottom is the Duke's gardener, and the Duke's master of the revels, Philostrate (Kate Eastwood Norris), becomes Oberon's magical gofer, Puck.

They enter that dream world by watching a glamorous 1930s movie. "These rich, unhappy people, stuck with all these rules telling them who to love," Banno says, will sit down to watch a film that "takes them into their wish fulfillment in the fairy kingdom.

"You have the strait-laced, rule-conscious world of Athens and then when we go into the dream, you have the liberated selves, the ids."

Banno has set this "Dream" in the early 1930s in a swank art deco milieu (by scenic designer Erhard Rom) inspired by Hollywood films of the age. It was "the last era that had the vestiges of Old World elegance and class differences," Banno says. To give "a modern, hip edge to a very traditional view of romance and marriage, the '30s felt right for that -- one foot in tradition and the other foot in a more liberated notion of what is possible in romance."

It occurred to him after he chose the setting that the Folger Shakespeare Library was built in 1932 -- its 75th anniversary is next year. "That's a sign from above," Banno says. And one that trumps a lick of fire.

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