Moves, Out and About, In New Theater Season

By Michael J. Toscano
Special to the Washington Post
Thursday, October 19, 2006

The theater season in Montgomery County is underway, with more than 70 plays and musicals planned through next summer by the county's 17 professional and community-based troupes.

With ticket sales down a bit -- they rebounded considerably after the deep dip in seasons after Sept. 11, 2001 -- several groups are performing adaptations of literary works to draw audiences. The season is also marked by the movement of several Washington area theater companies into the county, as well as the loss of the Potomac Theatre Project.

Two long-established theater companies, Classika Theatre and the British Players, are taking temporary refuge in Montgomery because of space problems at their venues. Classika is a respected producer of children's theater that operates in a cramped storefront in Arlington County. It hopes to move into a larger space but, because of delays, is spending part of the season at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn.

The British Players had been in the District since 1964, staging shows of British origin or theme at the British Embassy. But after losing their embassy space, they have found a temporary home at Kensington Town Hall, also home to the Kensington Arts Theatre, which specializes in musicals. The British Players sponsor the Ruby Griffith Awards for Excellence in amateur theater production.

Theresa Cameron, executive director of the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County, would like the moves to be permanent.

"That's one of our goals, to try to help our local organizations in the county who don't have designated space but need space," she said. "Those that want to be here longer, hopefully, we'll be able to help them, too."

Cameron said the arts council is in the early stages of working with the County Council to plan an incubator program that would provide a small performance space, with perhaps 75 seats, to help theater companies get a foothold in the county.

The Potomac Theatre Project is leaving the region after 20 years, the last dozen spent at the Olney Theatre Center for the Arts. Every summer, the Project stages a number of contemporary plays, usually with a political theme, drawing top actors and directors. It will call Manhattan home beginning next year, in an effort to rejuvenate itself. The center's artistic director Jim Petosa, one of the founders of the Project, will remain involved with the Olney Theatre Center. The Project has helped the center generate healthy ticket sales as it pays the costs of a substantial expansion of its facilities, bucking the general sales trend in the county.

"Most of our organizations are doing fairly well, but I have to say that on the whole, ticket sales have dropped," Cameron said. "There are several exceptions, such as Olney Theatre Center, which did better than they could have imagined last season."

A roster of generally familiar shows may have been partly responsible for attracting theatergoers to Olney. This season, there's another benefit: Free parking at the theater campus is about to be more pleasant, thanks to grants from the state and county that will allow the center to pave its dirt parking lots.

The Olney company is attempting to fill the void left by the Potomac Theatre Project with an eclectic schedule of shows. It also is bringing in top outside talent, such as Tony Award-winning Broadway producer, director and writer Stewart F. Lane ("Thoroughly Modern Millie," "The Will Rogers Follies," "La Cage Aux Folles," "Whose Life Is It, Anyway?") to direct the current production, the comedy "The Foreigner."

"This is a very savvy audience, with an amazing subscription base here," Lane said. "We're using local actors because you have a wonderful group of actors right here, so there's no need to tap into New York. I hope they ask me back."

Several small theater companies have been on the move but are staying in the county. Heritage Theatre Company has left its church basement venue and partnered with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission as the resident theater company at the Amphitheatre in the Woods at Cabin John Regional Park.

Performances will be outdoors during warm months, although Heritage is also hoping to schedule a fall and winter season indoors next year. The Sandy Spring Theatre Group, now divorced from its namesake geographical location, has moved from one church space to another and will perform this season at St. John's Episcopal Church in Olney.

If there's any trend to be detected in the types of plays on stage this season, it would be the growing popularity of literary adaptations.

Round House Theatre leads the way, with several productions taken from books, including "Crime and Punishment."

Heritage Theatre Company has ambitious plans for "The Killer Angels" next year. It's the story of the Battle of Gettysburg, adapted from Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Olney Theatre Center for the Arts has work by John Steinbeck, while Quotidian Theatre Company's Horton Foote has turned William Faulkner's "Tomorrow" into a stage play.

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