Backstage: D.C.'s Catalyst Theater is disbanding

By Jane Horwitz
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Catalyst Theater Company, the small, ambitious, experimental troupe that has garnered enthusiastic notices for shows such as "1984" and "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui," is disbanding because of financial troubles.

The company's move last season from the tiny 50-seat Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (a.k.a. CHAW) to the much larger Sprenger Theater in the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE proved more than its budget could handle. Catalyst's revival of "1984" was well reviewed and attended, says Artistic Director Scott Fortier, but its second show, Bertolt Brecht's "Roundheads and Peakheads," in March did not do well, and the third show, "Bruise Easy," was canceled.

The company's demise leaves it $20,000 in debt, including $5,500 in rent owed to the Atlas. Fortier says Catalyst plans to do one last "e-mail blast" to subscribers and donors to ask for help in making good on what it owes.

Being at the Atlas "definitely put a burden on our budget," concedes Fortier, 38, who has recently moved to the Boston area with wife September Marie Fortier and their 4-year-old daughter. "Obviously, we were optimistic. We felt that we had outgrown CHAW and we wanted to take that next step, and it was a pricey one. . . . We thought that corporate sponsorship would be there, and [then] the economy tanked."

Meanwhile, Atlas itself has been struggling in the economy, according to Scott Kenison, the arts center's chief operating officer. "We've done what most companies have done," he says. "We cut back everybody's hours 20 percent . . . because we didn't have anything happening. Nobody was renting the space. . . . This fall, our season is very bare. All these companies sort of convulsed from the economic situation of the last year and sort of withdrew to regroup."

African Continuum Theatre Company will produce "The Old Settler" at the Atlas in April, and the Washington Savoyards will mount Scott Joplin's opera, "Treemonisha," for a new festival that Atlas will sponsor. "Intersections: A New America Arts Festival," curated by Washington-based playwright/director Mary Hall Surface, will run on weekends between Feb. 19 and March 7, offering performances by more than 30 artists from multiple disciplines, including folk singer Tom Chapin and singer/actress Marva Hicks (

In recent years, Kenison observes, the Atlas was drifting. "We were trying to get into producing, presenting, which is not the model that I think works." The Atlas should be, he says, "a rental place, specifically for local arts groups, which is why we want to try and make things affordable."

The turnaround at the Atlas needs to start this year, says Kenison. The festival is only part of that. "We're in pretty good shape, planning-wise. If all the arts partners step up . . . that's the key. Because we can't do that for them. We can't produce the work."

Meanwhile, in Boston, Fortier prefers to remember Catalyst's artistic highs during its eight years -- among them "Swimming in the Shallows" at CHAW, "No Exit" at D.C. Arts Center and "Woyzeck" at Clark Street Playhouse. He describes the company of eager, mostly younger performers as having been "like a family." It was, says Fortier, "just a great experience over all."

Cherry Red's ''

Crammed into a downtown Washington hotel room last weekend, members of Cherry Red Productions prepared to shoot sex and murder.

Okay, they did a read-through of a screenplay adapted by Cherry Red's Ian Allen from his 2002 play, "Thumbsucker." Retitled "" for the high-def video they're stealthily shooting this week, it will be an hour-long rendering of Allen's sick saga about a guy (played by Carlos Bustamante) who likes kinky liaisons in which he gets one woman to help him kill another. Scalping is involved.

Cherry Red doesn't produce in Washington anymore (Allen moved to New York and is director of marketing at MCC Theater), but when it did, from the mid-1990s into this decade, the company prided itself on horror and porn-inspired outrageousness ("Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack"), but also substantive works such as "Kenneth, What Is the Frequency?" by Allen and Monique LaForce. "" is about women who allow themselves be victimized, Allen says.

Company member Kate Debelack read the stage directions aloud: "Jack is sitting on the bed, sucking his thumb. Gwen enters from the bathroom, wrapped in a towel." Bustamante as Jack, Judith Baicich as Gwen and Melissa-Leigh Bustamante as their first victim read dialogue. Allen sat on the floor, holding one of the fake bloody scalps.

"It's going to look a little cheap," admits Allen, who nevertheless is hoping for an art house run, a week of screenings in Washington in the spring and a video release.

Follow spots

-- On Dec. 4, Studio Theatre's Joy Zinoman will be a guest speaker at a National Press Club lunch. Zinoman has announced she will retire next September after 35 years as Studio's founding artistic director. Call 202-662-7501 or 7539 or e-mail pnelson@press.orgfor reservations.

-- Actor Terrence Currier has left the cast of Arena's "The Fantasticks," which starts previews Friday, because of a family emergency. Laurence O'Dwyer, who is affiliated with Center Stage in Baltimore, has taken over the role of Henry. Currier is a Washington theater veteran and was a member of Arena's former resident company for 20 years.

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

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