Electrical wires snaked across the floor, 200 seats still sat upstairs in their packing crates, and the fine dust of renovation hung everywhere, as if a someone had just upturned an industrial drum of talcum powder.
Joy Zinoman, artistic director of the Studio Theatre, running on less than six hours of sleep and nursing a virus, was reassuring everyone within earshot that the finishing touches were just a matter of days.
Then, closing a door on the tumult and collapsing into a chair, she conceded, "All this is pretty overwhelming for me. I'm at a very vulnerable state right now."
Zinoman, 44, was feeling the effects of a bold gamble -- the boldest undertaken by a local theater group in the past 15 years. Come Wednesday, she throws open the doors on the Studio's new quarters at 14th and P streets NW. Five months of labor and some $800,000 ($300,000 more than initially budgeted) have gone into transforming a former automotive repair shop into what promises to be the city's most welcoming small theater facility.
It has taken nine years to get to this point, although the Studio is still within a stone's throw of the dance studio on Rhode Island Avenue where it came into being, and the warehouse and one-time hot dog factory at Church and 14th streets where it has spent the last seven seasons. By artistic yardsticks, however, the distance is considerable.
"For the first five years of the Studio's existence, I was embarrassed," Zinoman said. "Let's face it. I wasn't some 20-year-old kid running a fledgling theater. I was a grown lady, running a fledgling theater. So you had to be embarrassed, go about improving things slowly and hope you didn't make too many mistakes."
If mistakes were made, the Studio has nonetheless become remarkably adept of late at producing a certain kind of contemporary play, largely naturalistic in thrust and often concerned with travails of the working class. Its rendering of "The Slab Boys Trilogy," three plays about a pair of likable Scottish louts and how they grew, was one of last season's highlights, and the Studio has scored equally forcefully with dramas by Lanford Wilson ("The Fourth of July"), Carson McCullers ("Member of the Wedding") and Donald Driver ("A Walk Out of Water"). It has also been quick to pick up on such New York successes as August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and William Hoffman's "As Is."
For all that, Zinoman is careful not to let excitement over a new home carry her away. "What this building does," she said, "is raise people's expectations in a frightening way. Suddenly, you're a grown-up. You have an office. You have a state-of-the-art computer lighting board. You have showers for the actors. There's so much more potential here. I try like hell not to let all this change what we do. I just want us to do it better."
For those who have climbed the narrow stairs, suffered the folding chairs or squeezed into the minuscule lobbies that prevail off-off-Kennedy Center, the Studio's new home is bound to be an eye-opener. It is spacious, congenial and downright jazzy. Russell Metheny, the Studio's associate artistic director in charge of the renovation, hasn't tried to hide the utilitarian past of the building. But by juxtaposing sleek new materials with the existing elements, erecting new glass walls to play off the old cinder blocks, painting the duct work in places and leaving columns raw in others, he has produced a swinging blend of past and future.
For much of the 1960s and '70s, a kind of reverse snobbery existed in the theater world; a concern for the spectator's ease or a passing nod to elegance was deemed suspicious. Meaningful work was supposed to be performed in gritty surroundings. If companies pretended not to bother with the basic theater-going amenities, it was because presumably they were bothering with more significant dramaturgical issues. No matter that it was often a case of economics. Groups set up business in out-of-the-way storefronts and lofts, primarily because they were affordable. Somehow, the scruffiness itself became a virtue, a stamp of authenticity.
It is a defensive attitude you'll still hear expressed today by those who consider the Kennedy Center suspect because of all the marble. Granted, you don't need thick-pile carpets and chandeliers to make good theater. By the same token, carpets are not necessarily impediments. Zinoman's venture is based on the assumption that a small theater doesn't have to lose its soul when it moves upscale. It may even pick up a few more friends along the way. At a time when a restaurant's decor counts as much as the food on the plate, who's to say theater-going conditions aren't important?
Spectators attending the new Studio will pass under a soon-to-be-erected glass marquee on P Street and then through the glass doors of a recessed entryway. From an outer lobby -- rectangular, except for one gently curving wall -- they proceed into a triangular inner lobby featuring a bar and concession stand. Carpeted in dusty rose (Zinoman's description: "sex-organ pink") and warmly lit, the convivial area is designed to flow naturally into the theater itself.
All you have to do, in fact, is take a gentle flight of steps to find yourself in the auditorium, nine rows of tiered seats on three sides of a modified thrust stage. None is more than 28 feet from the actors. The upholstery is gray-blue, the walls "raven's brown." At either edge of the stage, two removable circular boxes, seating 15 each, add a playfully anachronistic Old World touch to the prevailing modernity.
Metheny's general operating philosophy: "It was a question of opening up, opening up. There really isn't that much more space here than at the old theater. It's just better organized."
What the audience sees, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. The new Studio has dressing room facilities for 20; a gleaming lighting booth and a box office that is not a broom closet. Take the clanking, industrial-strength elevator in the outer lobby to the third floor (the second floor is leased by an antiques firm) and you discover a 1,200-square-foot scene shop, three large rehearsal halls, which also will house the Studio's acting classes, and a sunlit office, where Zinoman and her staff beaver away amid rakishly paint-splattered filing cabinets.
Zinoman's detractors like to say that she has "a Zelda complex" -- a reference to Zelda Fichandler, whose vision and tenacity produced Arena Stage and have kept it at the forefront of the American regional theater movement for more than 35 years. Zinoman is similarly ambitious, fueled by a round-the-clock drive. With her flamboyant, self-dramatizing manner, she fosters a cult of personality among her students and actors. Love her, hate her -- she leaves few indifferent.
Zinoman, however, scoffs at the notion that she is nipping eagerly at Arena's heels. "The destiny of this theater is its own. It is not on a path to becoming an institutional theater with a lot of real estate and an endowment," she insisted. "Nor is it an objective of mine to have a 600-seat theater. I feel a much closer connection with some of the smaller theaters in other cities -- the Empty Space in Seattle, for example, Steppenwolf in Chicago, or the Cricket in Minneapolis.
"For one thing, we don't own this building. We have it on a 10-year lease. It will exist for that period of time with a community of artists, who have a body of work to do. But permanence is not the goal. A theater is not a museum. In fact, I think you have to struggle all the time to keep it from becoming one. At the end of 10 years, well, either I'll want another place or I'll want to go to the Bahamas."
Zinoman is old enough to remember the former Washington Theater Club, which in the mid-1960s forged an iconoclastic reputation for itself in an old carriage house in Dupont Circle. Hoping to graduate up, it invested heavily in the renovation of a former church (now the West End Cinema), only to find its artistic spirit slowly crushed by mortgage playments. Mindful of the renovation costs, Zinoman has increased her theater's operating budget this season by only $80,000 (to about $540,000) -- a difference that could be largely absorbed by the expanded seating.
Although Zinoman steadfastly avoids comparisons with the established regional theaters (she believes they have become top-heavy in middle age and have lost both intimacy and creative flexibility), the Studio can no longer claim to be one of the underprivileged. It is a showplace that will bring a much needed touch of class to 14th Street. And it's being inaugurated in a splashy way, beginning Oct. 22, with four gala performances of Israel Horovitz's "North Shore Fish." The tab for some performances runs as high as $250 a seat.
This may not yet be the big time. But in terms of the generation of theaters that came into being roughly a decade ago (Horizons, Woolly Mammoth, New Playwrights', Source and the Round House), it's as big as things have gotten to date. The Studio's fortunes over the next few seasons will be a critical test of the proposition that there is, indeed, a viable theatrical middle ground in Washington -- artistically and economically.
Two years ago, the Studio took the lead in breaking out of the nonprofessional ranks when it negotiated a "small professional theater contract" with Actors Equity, the actors' union. (This season, the New Playwrights' Theatre is following suit, and the Woolly Mammoth sees it in the cards in the near future.)
The Equity issue is one that is hotly debated in the local theater community. Many area performers argue that membership in the union is no gauge of talent; and, once an Equity member, they point out, an actor can no longer work at the far more numerous non-Equity theaters in town, and jobs are rare enough as it is.
On the other hand, when a theater goes Equity, it does make a significant statement -- acknowledging that the craft has certain standards and that those who practice it deserve at least the semblance of a living wage. Putting on plays ceases to be merely a profession of love; it becomes a certifiable profession -- with concomitant benefits, duties, responsibilities.
In the Studio's case, to talk of a living wage is to beg the question. The minimum salary is $125 for 30 hours of performance and/or rehearsal time, at which point overtime kicks in. (That is not to say the Studio doesn't pay some performers considerably more.) Last season, the union required Zinoman to employ an average of three Equity actors and one Equity stage manager for each of its five shows. The theater actually overshot the mark, using 22 union actors and five stage managers.
This year, the numbers will probably stay about the same, but for the first time the Studio will have a full-fledged Equity candidacy program. Those non-Equity performers who put in 40 weeks -- rehearsing or acting -- will automatically qualify afterward for their union card -- an arrangement heretofore operative only at Arena Stage and the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger.
While none of that solves the endemic problems of unemployment, it puts the Studio in a stronger bargaining position when it comes to attracting talent, securing rights to new plays and wooing corporate sponsors. Along with a higher, snappier profile, what it is most likely to get out of the new building is greatly enhanced credibility beyond Washington.
It is considered bad form to talk of competition among local theaters, which like to say they are all "doing their own thing" and appealing to their own constituencies. True as that may be, it is equally true that the Studio has raised the stakes dramatically and tossed out an unspoken challenge. The kind of bohemianism that once reveled in theater for theater's sake -- and hang the rest rooms -- is becoming increasingly less defensible.
The Church Street quarters it has left behind will not go vacant for long, however. On Oct. 15, the Woolly Mammoth moves in, bringing with it a reputation for the offbeat and the adventurous. Woolly Mammoth's immediate plans call for pumping $40,000 into the facility -- largely to redo the lobby, expand the seating capacity by 20, to 130, and restructure the office space to fit its needs. Its season opens on Nov. 15 with Mary Chase's "Harvey."
Just up 14th Street, the two-theater Source Theatre Co. has begun to evince an interest in quality control, not always greatly in evidence in years past. If you add nearby Java Rama, a 1980s-style coffeehouse and performance space, Arena's Living Stage and the emerging Moving Target Theatre, the 14th Street corridor can lay claim to the largest concentration of theater companies in the city.
Restaurants and shops are still sorely lacking and the street hasn't yet shed a seediness born of the 1960s riots. On a good night, however, some 500 spectators will be coming into the area to see theater. What that means, no one knows for sure.
"Obviously property values are going to go up," said Howard Shalwitz, Woolly Mammoth's artistic director, recently. "The real issue is whether 14th Street can develop a neighborhood identity -- like Adams-Morgan or Dupont Circle. What's exciting for us right now is to be across the street from the Studio. We both have very different esthetics, we're both prospering and now we can see each other's signs. In a way, it becomes possible for each of us to define ourselves in terms of the other, to sharpen one another's image. Maybe the ultimate meaning has something to do with marketing. Why do you often find McDonald's and Burger King on the same block?"
Zinoman doesn't go so far as to break the collective faith of the League of Washington Theaters, whose aim is the common good of its members. But as an impressive new facility rises around her, you can feel a fierce sense of accomplishment overriding even the accumulated exhaustion of the past months.
"Of course, I want all of us to be strong and do good work. But let's be successful first, then talk about grand schemes," she said, before adding, "I've always been pretty independent."