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Shakespeare Theatre Company Faces Economic Drama

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Shakespeare Theatre Company will furlough its 100-plus employees, including Artistic Director Michael Kahn, this summer to help the bottom line. The furloughs will be staggered.

Although the furlough "doesn't account for a huge amount of money in our budget, it does account for something," says Stacy Shaw, the theater company's director of marketing. "The staff has just been amazing. Michael was so touched, I think, that everyone said, 'Okay.' "

"Compared to what other people are going through, [the furlough] feels fairly minor," Shaw adds.

Shaw says the current production of "King Lear" (with Stacy Keach), which runs through July 26, is expected to "exceed its goal by a tremendous amount." (The theater broke its record by selling 1,035 single tickets for the show in one day.) "Ph├Ędre," starring Helen Mirren in a production from the National Theatre of Great Britain, is coming to the Harman in September and has already sold out a dozen performances. Even so, the Shakespeare must still make trims, Shaw says.

The Shakespeare took several financial "hits," she says, since the 2007 opening of Harman Hall and the Harman Center for the Arts. Those hits included disappointing sales for the Christopher Marlowe rep that inaugurated the Harman and a fundraising gala in October that didn't meet its goal. Subscriptions for the 2008-09 season were off from the previous year by about $700,000, or 15 percent, from 2007-08.

That subscription dip was "very much on par with how subscription campaigns across the country in theaters have been going," Shaw notes.

For the coming season, Shaw says the Shakespeare has made up that loss, adding about 1,600 subscribers.

The Shakespeare will keep on "trimming back, just a little bit, here and there," Shaw says. She cites "holding our designers to their budgets," limiting seasons to six or at most seven plays, and having the summer Free for All at the Harman instead of the Carter Barron Amphitheatre, making it more accessible to the public and easier on the staff, she says. ("The Taming of the Shrew" Free for All will run Aug. 27-Sept. 12 .)

And a season note: The Shakespeare has replaced its previously announced fall show, Euripides's "The Bacchae," with Ben Jonson's "The Alchemist," to be staged by Kahn. It will run Oct. 6-Nov. 22. "The Bacchae" was to be a co-production with the Public Theater in New York, directed by JoAnne Akalaitis. The change, says Shaw, was a result of timing and actor availability, not budget.

Eisa Davis's 'Light'

Music, when woven into a nonmusical play, "goes directly to the heart and you instantly feel something," says Eisa Davis, a playwright, actress and singer-songwriter. "It draws the part of your feeling brain, as opposed to the rational one that's listening to all of the words."

In her new drama "The History of Light," Davis has laced the script with musical interludes. It will have its world premiere tonight through Aug. 2 in Shepherdstown, W.Va., at the Contemporary American Theater Festival and will be directed by Liesl Tommy.

Among several strands of plot, "The History of Light" traces the intermittently romantic ties between Sophia and Matthew, two smart, sensitive people in their 30s who have known each other since childhood. Music has always figured centrally in their lives. They are soul mates, but that doesn't mean their romantic paths remain linked.

Sophia is African American and Matthew is white, but Davis doesn't think that figures so importantly into their on-again/off-again romance. In a subplot about another interracial couple from a generation ago, race feels more important. But Davis sees her play as "more of a meditation on true love and how that's manifested."

One's true love may not be one's mate, says Davis. "Is your true love your child? Or is it someone you just have a relationship with through letters?"

Davis, 38, appeared in the much-praised Broadway musical "Passing Strange." Her play "Bulrusher" was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and her young people's musical "Hip Hop Anansi," for hearing and deaf actors, premiered at Bethesda's Imagination Stage in 2006.

Davis also wrote and acted in "Angela's Mixtape," a "musical memoir" about growing up in an activist family as the niece of radical intellectual Angela Davis.

"I kind of split my plays into plays that tend to have more of a hip-hop aesthetic and plays that [are] more lyrical," Davis says. In whatever style she writes, though, "the music and that political awareness just kind of ends up being there."

Source Festival

Attendance at this year's Source Festival has been off appreciably compared with last summer.

The festival runs through Sunday, and its final week will offer in rep (starting tonight) two evenings of new one-acts, commissioned from playwrights who wrote the most popular 10-minute plays performed at Source last summer.

Lead producer Jeremy Skidmore cites "a combination" of reasons. First, he says, last year's festival marked the reopening of the newly refurbished performance space on 14th Street NW near T Street. "It got a lot more buzz," says Skidmore.

Last year, too, they had a certain "celebrity" element, he notes, as high-profile artistic directors from larger area theaters staged 25 10-minute plays.

This year, the 10-minute plays were staged by freelance directors from the Washington area and the one-acts running this week by associate artistic directors from larger theater companies and artistic directors from smaller companies. Skidmore says it's "more like the old Source festival, where it's all people who are early- to midcareer."

"It's disappointing," says Anne Corbett, executive director of the nonprofit Cultural Development Corp., which owns and operates Source.

Last year, Corbett says, "All the 10-minutes were full, all the one-acts were full, and we almost always had a rush line of people hoping to get standing room only. This year, we are averaging more like 60, 70 people a house." (The theater has about 120 seats.) Only the Saturday night shows have been filled, she says.

Corbett also cites the economy, and both Corbett and Skidmore agree that running through the July 4 holiday weekend and into the next week was a mistake. Next summer, Corbett has tentatively scheduled the festival to end July 3.

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