By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 1, 2010; C01
With a plan to add more original plays and works from abroad to Studio Theatre's menu, David Muse has been named the company's new artistic director to succeed founder Joy Zinoman, who is leaving after 35 years at the organization's helm.
At 36, Muse, currently associate artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, will become the youngest chief by far of a first-rank theater company in the capital. The appointment of the Yale Drama School graduate represents the first change in command at a front-line institution producing theater here since Michael M. Kaiser took over at the Kennedy Center in 2001.
"It feels right in so many ways," said Muse, who came to Washington in 1996 as a Teach for America enlistee, teaching math at Eastern High School, then left to attend drama school to study directing, and returned in 2003 to direct at Studio, Arena Stage and the Shakespeare Theatre. He was chosen from an initial pool of 75 applicants from all over the country, a roster winnowed down to a half-dozen finalists.
What made the difference, Studio officials say, was Muse's youthful enthusiasm, his understanding of Studio's mission and the quality of his own directorial efforts. "We picked David because of his commitment to Studio," said Susan Butler, who chairs Studio's board and sat on the theater's search committee. "He's young and he brings that youth to the theater. I think he understands our artist-managerial philosophy. I really feel he can embody that artist-manager. And I hope he likes to raise money."
Zinoman, in the midst of directing her final show, "American Buffalo," as Studio's leader, added: "He just wowed everyone. He's incredibly smart with text, and he's very seductive and charming."
Muse's hiring, which takes effect Sept. 1, came at the end of a search that started a year before, when Zinoman publicly declared her intention to leave. According to both Butler and Zinoman, one of Muse's selling points was the schooling in theater management he received for the past five years or so as right-hand artistic man to Michael Kahn, the Shakespeare's longtime artistic director. There, he had a significant role in casting, and Zinoman observed that Muse's reputation for having a strong resolve when it came to personnel matters was a plus in his candidacy.
For his part, Muse, a native of Fulton, Mo., who projects a calm, cerebral demeanor, says that his ultimate goal has been to take charge of a theater company. "I've known for some time that I've wanted to run an institution," he said. "It was something about continuity and community and building more than a single production." The time spent working with Kahn, he added, was indispensable. "I was learning how big theaters run themselves," he said.
In Washington, he's distinguished himself as a skillful director of contemporary plays. His directorial efforts at the Shakespeare, which included stagings of "Julius Caesar," "Henry V" and an all-male "Romeo and Juliet," have yielded mixed results. But some of the finest local mountings of modern scripts have come courtesy of Muse's visits to Studio. His productions of pieces of divergent tone such as "Frozen," "The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow" and "Blackbird" have all been critical and popular successes for the company. And his current production there, Neil LaBute's "Reasons to be Pretty," has proved again that he can elicit top-drawer work from actors in plays of recent vintage.
The leadership formula Muse devised for the theater was one of the things that impressed Studio's search committee. During the application process (which, incidentally, included interviews of the finalists by the search committee in a room at The Washington Post), he proposed a tweaking of Studio's direction, rather than a renovation. "I think they were reassured that I understood and believed in the mission of the theater as it exists," said the incoming chief, who had taken classes at Studio's acting conservatory while teaching at Eastern.
Among Muse's early goals as Studio leader are to develop more international programming for the company and to explore the possibilities for bringing in new artists and, potentially, original plays. Studio has tended to pick plays that have had their premieres elsewhere.
"I'm not interested in turning Studio into a 'new play' house," he said. "It's not an audience base that is used to that kind of glorious hit-and-miss thing that can happen at a new-play house. But I am a director who likes to work with living writers, and it would be good to have new plays that cater to Studio's style."
The job, of course, does not come without challenges. It's never easy, filling the contours of a seat warmed by the person who designed it decades ago. Although Zinoman has created a theater -- four intimate spaces in a former auto showroom on 14th and P streets NW -- very much aligned with her own tastes, the company has never quite achieved her ambition of being recognized nationally. And her top lieutenants, all of whom have been with her for many years -- Serge Seiden, Keith Alan Baker and Morey Epstein -- are all staying put. This can foster a seamless transition but also provoke the question of whether the new artistic director will want a team of his own.
Muse, a cyclist and fitness buff (he's started a new vegan regimen, he says, and teaches spinning classes locally), professes to be happy inheriting Zinoman's squad. He adds that he will be on a "listening tour" in the early months, seeking to learn more from his staff. He'll have to do that at the start with only one ear: the other will be devoted to directing Studio's first production of the season, a well-received play recently staged in New York City, "Circle Mirror Transformation."