Olney Theatre Leader to Step Down

Playwright Jennifer Maisel found inspiration for
Playwright Jennifer Maisel found inspiration for "Birds" (with Brian Hemmingsen and Marissa Molnar) in a Brothers Grimm story. (By Marigan O'malley Posada -- Rorschach Theatre)
By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Longtime Artistic Director Jim Petosa plans to leave Olney Theatre Center at the end of next year to concentrate on running Boston University's theater school. He added that job to his résumé in 2002 and has been commuting between Boston and Washington ever since, living a "carbon-copy existence" with a house and a car in each locale.

"I needed to move on or come back to this place full time," says Petosa. "I realized the best thing now for the institution to do is to really look at where we are and determine what the desires for the future are."

Since Olney's new main stage opened in 2005, "it's been about how do you function now as a fully completed facility," he says. "Nothing does that better than a search for new artistic leadership. . . . The most potent and creative act I could do on the part of the institution was to allow it to start to ask these questions."

With the company already in the middle of a nationwide search for a managing director, Petosa saw this as the time for him to make a break, and the search firm to hunt simultaneously for an artistic director. (Brad Watkins will continue as Olney's producing director.)

The theater's board was "kind of stunned" by his decision to leave, Petosa says. But board President Mita M. Schaffer says his reasoning makes sense, "because we really do need to have someone here all the time, both for internal and external reasons."

She says Petosa "always put the best interest of Olney Theatre at the forefront," noting that "he gave us this gift of 18 months, so that we could plan and have an orderly succession."

A New Jersey native and graduate of Catholic University's theater program, Petosa joined Olney in 1979 to work with the National Players, the company's young professional touring troupe, which had originated at Catholic. In 1985, he became a full-time employee, while also guest-directing at other area theaters; he was named artistic director in 1994. Through the years, he helped Olney make the transition from historic summer theater to year-round company and watched it grow -- the Route 108 campus now has four performance spaces.

"Cultural changes" on Petosa's watch included use of more local actors and "building a core group of artists" such as Paul Morella, Valerie Leonard, Richard Pilcher, James Slaughter, frequent guest director John Going and associate artistic director Halo Wines.

During his years at Olney, Petosa directed "An Enemy of the People," "Copenhagen" and "The Laramie Project" -- samples from a long list. His work is on view this summer in productions of Donald Margulies's "Brooklyn Boy" and Michael Frayn's "Democracy."

Petosa says he'll continue as an Olney adviser and board member, and with his parents and sister in Northern Virginia, "I still feel very tied to the Washington region." Besides teaching and directing at Boston U., Petosa hopes to co-found a theatrical think tank at the school (pros pondering whither theater in the 21st century?) and will also continue to stage shows with the Potomac Theatre Project (now doing its summer political theater thing in New York instead of Olney). With all that, Petosa, 52, figures he'll be busy but "focused."

"I feel good," he says about the prospect of leaving Olney. "I'm excited about the future, I'm proud of the past and I'm good."

'Birds' at Rorschach

Playwright Jennifer Maisel believes that even in America, where some consider the freedom to reinvent yourself part of the Bill of Rights, you forget your past at your peril. Our past, she says, haunts "who we are now and how we deal with the world now. As much as we'd like to leave it behind, it's still with us in whatever we do."

That is the key to Maisel's "Birds," having its world premiere through July 29 at Rorschach Theatre (in the Casa Del Pueblo Methodist Church, 1459 Columbia Rd. NW). The play has been workshopped as part of Rorschach's Magic in Rough Spaces development program and at First Look Theatre Company in New York.

The idea for "Birds" came to Maisel at a writing workshop using fairy and folk tales as starting points. She chose the Brothers Grimm story of Jorinda and Jorindel, who are walking in the woods when a witch turns the girl into a bird.

Alternating between scenes of straightforward drama and magic realism, "Birds" introduces Jorie and James, an upscale couple lumbering along with childhood baggage they refuse to acknowledge. Jorie's impulsive donation of her boyfriend's overcoat to a homeless man entwines the high-rise couple with street people and releases long-stifled memories.

The Los Angeles-based Maisel, whose "The Last Seder" was produced at Theater J in 2003, says one of the themes is making connections across class chasms -- "you see the homeless person and say, 'That was someone's baby.' "

Director and frequent Maisel collaborator Wendy McClellan says, "The beautiful thing about Jenn's writing . . . is that she's visually poetic." McClellan and her designers are using lighting, sound and projections in the magic realism scenes to achieve the feel of film noir, with a splash of graphic novel. Referring to Rorschach's low-tech space, she adds that "limitation breeds ingenuity. We're really finding that using an overhead projector like you had in your science class becomes a wonderful tool."

Follow Spot

· Karen Zacarias and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa will take part in the prestigious National Playwrights Conference at the O'Neill Theater Center in Connecticut. Zacarias's "The Book Club" will be performed July 19 and 21; Aguirre-Sacasa's "Good Boys and True" July 18 and 20. Visit

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