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U.S. Their Stage, D.C. Their Playground

When the Curtain Falls, Traveling Theater Troupes Improvise to Fill Empty Hours

Every year, dozens of touring performers bring their out-of-a-suitcase lifestyle to Washington.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 5, 2009; Page A01

On Craigslist, the place sounded perfect: hardwood floors, new appliances, good location. Just right for four actors who needed a Washington sublet for the two-week run of their touring show, "Chicago."

"The guy on the phone told us it was within walking distance of all the monuments and the National Theatre," said Daniel Gutierrez, 26.

But when you spend months or years hopscotching the country with a Broadway play, another opening means another set of on-the-road challenges: booking a vet for your traveling cat, finding a yoga teacher, making do with an apartment that is not quite as advertised.

What the actors found when they arrived last week was not a dream sublet minutes from the theater; it was an apartment in a dicey area of boarded-up houses and abandoned cars a few blocks off Bladensburg Road, more than four miles from the stage door. The place itself was nice and the neighbors welcoming. But they warned the young actors to stay off the streets at night.

"The taxi driver was, like, 'For god's sake, be careful around here,' " said Evelyn Tonn, 23, who plays Hunyak, a Hungarian murderess. She and her roommates were unpacking, putting up their portable chin-up bar and making the best of a little tour-life misfire. "We've been in the same situation in other cities. Downtown Cleveland is no walk in the park, either."

Dozens of touring performers bring their out-of-a-suitcase lifestyle to Washington each year -- six or seven equity touring shows stop here annually. Their stays range from weeks to months. The city has a reputation among touring actors as tough for accommodations (mostly because of the expense) and terrific for sightseeing, nightlife and receptive audiences.

And, believe it or not, good pizza.

"I always go to Matchbox Pizza in Chinatown as soon I get to D.C.," said "Chicago" tour manager Dhyana Colony, who has been here five times in almost a decade of nonstop travel. Her job is to find hotels, gyms, banks, physical therapists and good cupcakes for the frequent birthday celebrations they hold during the intermissions. Once an actor asked her to find him a good colonic.

"I'm the nurse," Colony said, "I'm the camp counselor; I'm the single mom."

According to Colony and others who cycle through regularly, Washington neatly fits the actor's schedule of free days and late nights. There are movie theaters with good weekday matinees and restaurants that stay open past the final curtain call -- M&S Grill on 13th Street, which is close to the National, Warner and Ford's theaters, is filled with still-buzzing performers many a midnight.

The city's academic bent is also a plus. One cast member of "Spamalot" used the local libraries as he pursued an online degree. Another found a timely workshop in American Sign Language at Gallaudet.

"It combined my love of languages with my love of movement and dance," said Darryl Semira, 29, who took Metro to the campus each day for two weeks. "There was just enough time for me to leave, grab a bite to eat and do the show every night."

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