Sweet's Parting, Sans the Sorrow

Adventure Theatre, led by Michael Bobbitt, left, has revamped digs at Glen Echo. Sam Sweet, right, will leave behind a
Adventure Theatre, led by Michael Bobbitt, left, has revamped digs at Glen Echo. Sam Sweet, right, will leave behind a "much stronger" Signature Theatre when he steps down at year's end. (By Carol Guzy)
By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The notion that it was time to move on came to him gradually, says Signature Theatre Managing Director Sam Sweet, who announced last week he will leave the company at the end of the year.

Having led the theater through a capital campaign that raised $10.5 million and put the onetime shoestring company -- known for its knack with Sondheim shows and enthusiasm for new work -- into a sleek new space in Arlington, the 53-year-old Sweet says he was feeling restless.

Last spring, when the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation told him it intended to give him an Exponent Award (for leaders of nonprofit groups), he was asked how long he intended to be at Signature. That gave him pause. Then, in the summer, Sweet sat down with Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer and the theater board to fashion a what-next strategic plan.

Sweet says he realized meeting a new set of goals would mean another three to five years for him. "For the good of the organization, I think somebody has to make a commitment to see the strategic plan through. And I had to be honest about whether I would be able to do that," he says. "I finally decided I wanted to pursue something different."

Asked to assess his accomplishments at Signature, Sweet says he's proudest not of the new building but of the organization that he'll leave behind, because it "is so much stronger, from the board all the way to the staff. I've always said throughout this campaign that the building is about the work that can be done there. . . . What it really represents is Signature having moved to a new level, raising the bar for itself."

"He's one of these quiet movers and shakers," Schaeffer observes of the famously soft-spoken Sweet. "He really put the foundation blocks down here for us to go on. . . . He was really good at seeing that big picture."

Sweet, a Prince George's County native, came to Signature in 2001 from the Shakespeare Theatre Company, where he held the same title. Before that, he was at the Washington Performing Arts Society. He and wife Anne L. Corbett, executive director of the nonprofit Cultural Development Corp., have a 3-year-old son who, Sweet says, recently announced, "I've got to eat more snacks so I can grow up big and strong and build a theater."

A New Adventure

To open what he calls his "new and fresh and sparkly" old theater in historic Glen Echo Park, Adventure Theatre Artistic Director Michael Bobbitt has chosen the first of several children's classics to come: "The Secret Garden" (Saturday-Dec. 16). On this day, he's putting actors through their paces in a spanking-new rehearsal room; child heroine Mary Lennox's parents are dying gracefully of cholera in a balletic death scene choreographed to Indian music by Dana Tai Soon Burgess.

Founded in 1951 and ensconced at Glen Echo since 1971, the theater has just undergone a $1.5 million facelift, both cosmetic and structural. The results will be unveiled Saturday at a 10:30 a.m. ribbon-cutting emceed by Broadway performer Brad Oscar ("The Producers"), who grew up in Montgomery County and acted in "Robin Hood" at Adventure Theatre as a kid. Free activities and a paid performance of "The Secret Garden" will follow.

A peek at the new theater space reveals cushioned risers (with cushioned backs!) to seat 190 kids and parents. Backstage, the new dressing areas and offices overflow with props from past shows ("House of Bilbo Baggins" reads a sign) and boxes -- the theater had to decamp to another building in the park during the renovation.

Also a choreographer, actor and playwright, he plans to bring in artists he has worked with at other venues. But he doesn't see his company as competing with Bethesda's larger Imagination Stage, which does lots of premieres, so much as complementing it.

"I actually think we're strongest doing the classic children's plays," says Bobbitt. His 2007-08 season is all adaptations of beloved children's books: "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" (Dec. 21-Jan. 6, 2008), "Go, Dog. Go!" (Jan. 19-Feb. 24), "The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fair(l)y (Stoopid) Tales" (March 8-April 20), "Goodnight Moon" (co-produced with Tribute Productions, May 16-June 1 at Adventure Theatre, June 6-24 at Atlas Performing Arts Center) and "Babe, the Sheep Pig" (June 9-Aug. 3).

Books brought to life in an art deco amusement park will win theater lovers for life, Bobbitt hopes. "My overarching goal is to get them for their first theater experience. . . . Where else can you go and see a play and then ride a carousel?"

Playing Politics

Six short political plays will be offered as antidotes to partisan bloggery, op-ed puffery and cable-TV nuttery on Monday at 7:30 p.m. in Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's Melton Rehearsal Hall. The purveyor is Extreme Exchange, the zero-budget, all-volunteer group of Washington stage folks who get together now and then to make political theater. This, their fifth effort, is titled "Adopt-A-Candidate." It is a no-reservations, pay-what-you-can event.

"We're 60 days from the primaries starting, so we thought this was a good time . . . to take a nice cold and fun look at the candidates," says Ben Fishman, who was an artistic director of the now-defunct Washington Jewish Theatre and has worked off-off-Broadway. He now works in business in Philadelphia, but keeps an iron in the fire with Extreme Exchange.

Those who signed on for "Adopt-A-Candidate" were divided into six teams. Each team received three candidates' names from which to choose their protagonist and had roughly 10 days to create their plays, inspired by their candidate's platform. Expect works about Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel. Other teams are still deciding.

Acknowledging that theater folk tend to be liberal, Fishman says taking a closer look at a Republican will be good for those who drew GOP names. For example, "even if they're not necessarily having John McCain bumper stickers on their car," says Fishman of the team of Kathleen Akerley and Steven Carpenter, "they're going to find something that's surprising . . . enough to understand better what he represents."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company