A Bold New Stage For D.C.

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 9, 2007

Like many a discerning house-hunter, Michael Kahn had a detailed wish list for the real estate he desired as the next downtown showplace for the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

"I wanted the stage to be transformable," he says, "so that we would have a whole new and very exciting way of thinking about our repertory. I wanted the theater to be welcoming -- even without a lot of scenery. And I wanted the acoustics to be perfect."

Kahn, the Shakespeare's longtime artistic director, believes he's gotten what he bargained for. The $89 million theater that the company is completing on F Street NW -- across from Verizon Center and a virtual stone's throw from its existing space on Seventh Street -- is poised to become not only an elegant focal point of the company's vigorous expansion but also the glittery anchor for the astonishing architectural renaissance that Washington theater has experienced the past few years.

Without question, the opening next month of Sidney Harman Hall -- named for the industrialist who is putting up nearly one-fourth of the project's cost -- is a cornerstone cultural happening of the fall.

Designed by Toronto architect Jack Diamond, the 775-seat theater, with its soaring glass facade and dark interior walls of African cherry, heralds a new era for Kahn's company, one that occasions great possibilities -- but one that is also not without big risks.

The significance of the moment is not lost on the theater's patrons. The Oct. 1 gala to unveil the space, and starring, among others, Patti LuPone, Wynton Marsalis and Anne-Sophie Mutter, sold out even before the invitations went out. Harman says that he himself has had to field anxious e-mails from miffed supporters scavenging for tickets, which start at $5,000 a head. (Tables go for as much as $100,000.)

What that indicates, of course, is the exceedingly good vibe the company has managed to generate in Washington, a city eager to firm up its own place at the table of culture. As if to underline the notion that "Macbeth" or "The Winter's Tale" has at least as relevant a claim to civic life as the Wizards or the Capitals, the city itself has ponied up $20 million for the new theater.

"It's what a great theater should be, a building that is worthy of the quality of the plays we produce," says Nicholas Goldsborough, the company's managing director.

In a busy sequence that began with Round House Theatre's new playhouse and Studio Theatre's expansion to four performance spaces, that progressed with the opening of handsome new theaters for Woolly Mammoth, Olney Theatre Center and Signature Theatre -- and is to continue with the planned renovation of Arena Stage's campus -- the Shakespeare Theatre project still stands apart. That's because the opening of Sidney Harman Hall, the centerpiece of a new, 11-story union headquarters, has set the stage for a major rethink of the company's mission. Born more than two decades ago strictly as a producer of classical plays, the Shakespeare is metamorphosing into a multipurpose performing arts organization.

In this latest phase, Shakespeare Theatre is part of the newly created Harman Center for the Arts, an umbrella enterprise that is booking dance troupes, musical ensembles, touring plays -- even wedding receptions -- into both Sidney Harman Hall and Shakespeare's existing space on Seventh, the 451-seat Lansburgh, whenever Kahn's theater company isn't using them.

This season, a total of 200 non-Shakespeare Theatre performances have been booked into the spaces, says K Williams, the troupe's first booking manager. The Washington Ballet, CityDance Ensemble, Ford's Theatre and the touring Reduced Shakespeare Company are among those in the initial wave.

That is in addition to the eight major classical plays that the Shakespeare will stage in the two theaters during the 2007-08 season -- a net increase of three productions per year.

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