Expansion of Washington area theaters leads to more plays by visiting companies

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 1, 2010

In a playhouse in which iambic pentameter has long set the vocal style, get ready for some snarkier rhythms. The profane puppets of "Avenue Q" are coming this summer to, of all places, Shakespeare Theatre Company's Lansburgh Theatre.

The July 15-Aug. 15 booking of the touring version of the Tony-winning musical is not, however, a reflection of a change in tastes for the region's leading classical troupe. It is, rather, the latest evidence of how the extraordinary expansion of theatrical real estate in and around the city is compelling companies to think ever more broadly about how to fill their schedules and fill stages when they're dark.

In less than a decade, the architecture of Washington theater has undergone the most radical revision in history. Every sizable theater company has either moved into a new complex, extensively renovated or added to its capacity. The result has been some nifty new houses and a hefty uptick in the number of stages and seats. In 2000, just six of the companies that have built new theaters -- Studio, Shakespeare, Arena, Round House, Olney and Signature -- accounted for nine performance spaces. By the end of this year, they will be operating 16, in some cases having doubled or even tripled the seats they can sell on a particular evening.

While the physical expansion has given the theaters of Washington more flexibility, it has also upped the pressure, compelling boards and artistic directors to consider new methods of putting the spaces to work. In many cases, that has meant including in their seasons more plays by visiting companies. Since its move five years ago to its stylish, 265-seat theater in Penn Quarter, Woolly Mammoth Theatre has regularly been home to runs by outside troupes, from Chicago's Second City to Philadelphia's Pig Iron Theatre Company. In Silver Spring, Round House Theatre's second stage on Colesville Road has become the headquarters for a sharp young Washington troupe, Forum Theatre. For its first season back this fall, Arena Stage in Southwest Washington will be an even more prominent example of the trend. Its rechristened Mead Center for American Theater is now in the final phase of a $125 million renovation. Of seven plays and musicals in its main subscription season, three emanate from elsewhere: a touring version of Anna Deavere Smith's "Let Me Down Easy," a revival of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" from Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, and an adaptation of "The Arabian Nights" by director Mary Zimmerman that has played in Berkeley, Calif., and Kansas City, Mo.

Though these kinds of engagements can be concessions to the rising costs for nonprofit companies -- they don't have to finance the productions entirely out of their own coffers -- they are not an unwelcome development. Washington theater has long been insular; the tendency to look inward for inspiration has not always been a friend to artistic growth. While no one wants to see any company fall out of the habit of showing off its own wares, the opportunity to expose audiences more often to theater from other cities could have a fringe benefit: a further stimulation of the imaginations of theater artists who live and work here.

Arena's managing director, Edgar Dobie, says the company is trying to be mindful of balancing needs, and only imports when it makes sense. Next season, Arena was offered a touring production of "Ruined," Lynn Nottage's engrossing Pulitzer Prize-winning play about the rape of young women in a war-ravaged African nation, but the company decided to create a more elaborate production of the play on its own.

"I think it's true that if a brilliant piece of work like 'Let Me Down Easy' or 'Arabian Nights' deserves to reach a larger audience, and the original creators are happy with the original production, why not facilitate that happening?" Dobie says.

But no company seems to be embracing this facet of programming more aggressively than the Shakespeare, which also has one of the steepest challenges. Its 775-seat Sidney Harman Hall on F Street NW opened in 2007 as its new main stage, even as its longtime home, the 451-seat Lansburgh, continued to be a well-used second stage. In the two-theater phase of its life, the Shakespeare has had to scale back its self-producing ambitions: In the 2007-08 season, it offered subscribers seven classical shows of its own devising and an eighth from Chicago; for 2010-11, its roster is down to six, and one of those is a co-production with Chicago's Goodman Theatre.

What's on the rise, however, are bookings. Harman Hall will be home next season to two previously announced special presentations from Britain: Tricycle Theatre's "The Great Game: Afghanistan" and "Black Watch," from the National Theatre of Scotland. (With three Shakespeare Theatre shows and a host of other outside organizations using the space, the Harman is now booked 52 weeks a year, Shakespeare officials say.)

Now comes the disclosure that "Avenue Q" will inhabit the smaller Lansburgh this summer, at a time when that theater is normally dark. "This is an interesting pilot that, if successful, we hope to replicate," says Shakespeare's managing director, Chris Jennings. "Summer is high tourist season, and it seems as if certain productions that would appeal to audiences for longer, 'sit-down' runs might be a fit."

In previous visits to Washington, a touring "Avenue Q" played at the city's traditional Broadway-style theaters, the National and the Warner. Jennings says because the show began life in a little off-Broadway theater -- and recently made a transfer back to off-Broadway after a long Broadway run -- he thought the Lansburgh would be right for the touring version of the intimate musical.

"It's hard to talk about a Broadway show coming into the Lansburgh, but if you're talking about 'Avenue Q,' it feels like a feasible discussion," he says. And if it sells, feasibility turns into bankability, because if the box office on Seventh Street percolates, the company makes some money.

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