Studio Theatre's new muse

David Muse, artistic director of the Studio Theatre.
David Muse, artistic director of the Studio Theatre. (Matt Mcclain)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 23, 2011

Angular and soft-spoken, wearing a dark suit and the inscrutable grin of someone who seems to know something you don't, David Muse rises at a dinner in a sprawling, art-filled house on the edge of Rock Creek Park to deliver a concise state-of-the-stage address.

"You inherit a theater in all kinds of conditions," he says as staffers, donors and board members of Studio Theatre, seated at several tables, push the remnants of dessert around their plates. "I feel like I inherited the healthiest theater in the country."

He ticks off some particulars: a budget that's perennially in the black; a complex of four theaters on 14th Street NW and a portfolio of 16 artists' apartments, all of which the company owns outright; an eclectic array of often well-received plays; a $5 million supplemental fund dedicated to the support of company operations. "A theater," Muse informs the gathering, "that doesn't need reinvention."

So you have to wonder as this 36-year-old stage director and Yale Drama School graduate adjusts to his new life as Studio's impresario-in-chief, what is there vital to do for a young guy with inventive dreams of his own?

Studio had been steered for its nearly four decades by only one other person until Muse took over as artistic director Sept. 1. That was the formidable Joy Zinoman, who built the place from small acting school to outsize dramatic force in this town. (After spending the fall in Italy, she is to direct a playlet for a Tennessee Williams festival in March at Georgetown University.) She had the last word on practically everything, including the shape of each season and the size of each theater, limited in Studio's case to about 200 seats, the dimension Zinoman considered ideal from artistic and administrative standpoints.

Muse was also coming into an organization whose next tier down was completely filled with Zinoman's trusted picks, a trio of men who no matter how much they liked and respected Muse - he'd directed a number of plays there - had absorbed a management philosophy from his predecessor. The arrangement suggested that the leader would have to learn an awful lot from the led. And more than that, he'd surely feel pressure to maintain Studio's health as he sought to capitalize on its past successes.

"How can you not feel some anxiety about that?" Muse asks one afternoon over lunch in a Studio conference room. "Because it's true: In a sense, she wore all the hats at the theater. She was artistic director, director of development, head of production."

Muse says his inclination is to be a bit more egalitarian: Maybe he's a little less alpha than she was, too. He has tried not to be too take-charge, and that has had repercussions even in small ways. "They will call a meeting," he says, "and no one's quite sure how to start it and that's because it would have been Joy-led."

This sense of a founder's shadow looming large is a condition that is likely to find currency in the coming years at other first-rank theaters in the city. Zinoman is the first departure in a class of founding artistic directors - including Michael Kahn at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Howard Shalwitz at Woolly Mammoth and Eric Schaeffer at Signature - that has fundamentally altered the DNA of Washington drama. The theater world across the region is watching Muse's early progress for signs of how smoothly transitions of this seismic sort might be achieved.

Differences in style, training

There has been little in the way of shocks to the Studio system. Muse's biggest move has been the creation of a literary director position, a cerebral-sounding job that he has filled with Adrien-Alice Hansel, formerly of the Actors Theatre of Louisville, a group known primarily for its influential annual new-play festival. Her arrival signals one of Muse's tweaks to Studio's offerings: a plan to produce on a regular basis works that have never been done elsewhere.

"It's not like he has to come in and get the place back on track," observes Keith Alan Baker, Studio's managing director and a key aide of Zinoman's for 25 years. "David and Joy have different personalities, and so for me and the staff and the board and everybody, the biggest difference is one of personality. It's very interesting how he proceeds with his day, his attitude, his style."

Muse could not diverge much more from Zinoman in style and training. She was intuitive and emotional (you could hear her sniffling in the audience on opening nights); he's coolly cerebral and kind of Zen. At a series of get-acquainted dinners in board members' homes, such as the one last month in board President Susan Butler's house overlooking Rock Creek Park, Muse dutifully thanks the friendly crowd for its support, but the index cards he holds for security indicate that he is not yet well versed in how to command a room.

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