Backstage

More Shows, Fewer Showgoers

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The number of stage performances and theater companies in and around Washington went up last year, while overall attendance dropped 1.9 percent, according to statistics from the Helen Hayes Awards organization.

Despite that dip, 2007 was the busiest year since the first tally in 1985, the Hayes group said, with 67 professional companies presenting 8,050 performances of 454 shows. That is an increase from 2006 of three companies, 402 performances and 20 shows. (These figures represent all area professional theaters, not just those eligible for Hayes Awards, but do not include attendance for the Capital Fringe Festival, which drew 19,000 people.)

Metropolitan Washington is a busier theater district than the Chicago area, according to Hayes Executive Director Linda Levy Grossman. Though Chicago has more theater companies, "the D.C. area still does more work," she noted via e-mail.

Even so, derrieres in seats numbered about 36,000 fewer in 2007, the Hayes staff reported, with 1,908,557 people attending shows. The dip in comparison with 2006 adds more weight to the conventional wisdom that the audience isn't quite keeping up with the burgeoning theater community. Attendance also dipped by about 1.2 percent from 2005 to 2006, much less than the 8.5 percent drop the previous year.

The statistics were compiled in advance of this year's Hayes Awards gala, Monday at the Warner Theatre. In addition to judged awards in 24 categories, special honors will be handed out to British actor Derek Jacobi, Arena Stage and its partners in Arlington County for improvising that company's temporary Crystal City home, and radio personality Bob Davis and his partner, real estate agent Henry Schalizki, for their decades of attending opening nights all over town.

The new John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company will go to Taffety Punk Theatre Company. Its stated mission is to "ignite a public passion for theatre by making the classical and the contemporary exciting, meaningful and affordable." Its productions at venues such as the Black Cat, Flashpoint and Round House Silver Spring have included "Let X," "Cardenio Found," "The Devil in His Own Words" and last Sunday's "spontaneous" run-through of "Henry VIII."

"Taffety Punk is where we come together to save our souls," says co-founder Marcus Kyd, a classically trained actor and veteran punk rocker. "It's really an outlet for us to exercise everything we were trained to do, but we're not often asked to do."

The Aniello Award is named for the late partner of Hayes Awards board chairman Victor Shargai. They met in New York, where Shargai worked as an actor and theatrical designer. Aniello studied dance and acting but became an airline tariffs expert in Washington, where they watched D.C. theater grow up.

"Since John never loved his profession, I think he always loved the theater. That's what gave him joy in life," says Shargai. "To see work happen, to see work change, to see someone get better . . . this is one of the reasons he was so supportive of the Helen Hayes Awards."

Musical With a Difference

"I hate all musicals, practically," confesses Washington-based freelance director Colin Hovde. "I don't feel like the people are really living the characters. The songs become more about the singing of them than about what the actors are really needing to communicate."

So why, one may wonder, did he lobby for a chance to tilt at "Man of La Mancha" for the Washington Savoyards? The show runs through April 27 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.

"Man of La Mancha" is, he says, "the musical that made me want to be in theater. It was one of the pieces that I saw at a young age that I thought, wow, this is exciting. This is storytelling. This is changing a community. . . . The songs are so compelling and so emotionally driven."

Not surprisingly, Hovde says his approach to "La Mancha" has been to plumb the "complete and utter hopelessness" of the prison setting and the looming Spanish Inquisition, and how the Cervantes/Don Quixote character, "a man . . . who has vision and can see what the future should look like," inspires hope.

Trained in heavy-duty drama at North Carolina School of the Arts, and a self-confessed "indie music snob," the 28-year-old Hovde has directed the intense theater pieces "House of Yes" for Washington Shakespeare Company, "Made in China" for Solas Nua and "In on It" for Theater Alliance (where he was at one time associate artistic director). He'll next stage "Dream Sailors," a serial epic by Rorschach Theatre Co-Artistic Director Randy Baker. Hovde is also artistic director of a new cross-disciplinary performance collective, Artists' Bloc ( http://www.artistsbloc.org).

Follow Spot

ยท The run of "Smokey Joe's Cafe" at Bethesda Theatre has been cut short after a broken pipe caused extensive water damage. The show was to have run through May 11.


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