Jeremy Skidmore recalls all too well the day he blew a bundle. The money was all but in the bag -- a government grant specifically for arts organizations along the H Street corridor.
"There was no way we were not going to get this grant," says Skidmore, who runs a small theater company, Theater Alliance, based in a performance space on H Street NE.
Well, actually, there was. On the day the grant application was due, the set for the company's next show had to be carried into the space, the H Street Playhouse. When one is the head of a theater company that has a staff of two, delegating such a task often amounts to peering into a mirror and saying, "You!" Which is why, on a chilly day last winter, Skidmore was lugging scenery instead of completing paperwork.
"It cost me twenty [expletive] thousand dollars because I have to load this in!" he remembers shouting to the heedless heavens.
Such are the hiccups and headaches in theater life for the young, ambitious and overextended. The moment was an uncharacteristic one for Skidmore. A rising star in the ranks of artistic directors in Washington, the 28-year-old graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts has not missed many opportunities to enhance his troupe's stature since taking the reins of Theater Alliance in late 2001. From a stylish regional premiere of Rebecca Gilman's creepy date play, "Boy Gets Girl," to the recently completed run of the most successful production of Skidmore's tenure, a polished revival of "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde," Theater Alliance has established itself as one of the best little companies in town.
The outfit's expanding reputation runs parallel to the emergence of other tiny, scrappy troupes in other parts of the city, such as Catalyst Theater, which operates out of a black-box space on Capitol Hill, and Rorschach Theatre, which mounts productions in a Methodist church in Columbia Heights. The leaders of these companies form a kind of vanguard of Washington's theater future. With divergent sensibilities and common problems, the three have loosely banded together for the purposes of coordinating schedules and splitting advertising costs. And they have given their coalition a title: the Edge.
In many ways, the real indication of the robustness of a theater community is not in the durability of who's on top but the viability of those striving to get there.
And if anything seems clear in the experiences of Catalyst, Rorschach and Theater Alliance, it's that the challenge of doing good work on a shoestring remains a formidable one. The people who run these troupes look at the bigger, "establishment" theaters -- a majority of which are constructing new spaces -- with a kind of wistfulness. If only we could have higher-price-tag problems!
Or as Scott Fortier, artistic director of four-year-old Catalyst Theater, says: "They're trying to build a $70 million theater. I'm trying to fund my next show."
What distinguishes Catalyst, Rorschach and Theater Alliance from the dozens of other upstart troupes is not only a certain consistency but also the sense that these three companies have broken through. In the choice of projects -- whether an experimental twist on a classic, a resurrection of an obscure, centuries-old play or the first American presentation of a modern work by a foreign writer -- there's a level of daring in their offerings. The nerviness of some selections reflects an effort to challenge as well as to entertain.
The solar system of Washington theater is pretty entrenched. There are the major planets: Shakespeare, Arena Stage, Signature, Studio, Woolly Mammoth, the Kennedy Center. In their orbits are the significant satellites, such as Round House, Theater J, Synetic. And then come the comets, lighting up a season in less predictable ways.
These smaller companies have a vital, gravitational pull all their own. Fortier's Catalyst has made its presence felt over the past few seasons with, among other shows, a solid staging of Caryl Churchill's "Cloud Nine"; a widely admired version of Moliere's "Learned Ladies"; and an inventive adaptation of Orwell's "1984." Rorschach, which has gained respect locally for mounting a range of big plays in tiny quarters, has a hit on its hands at the moment with "The Beard of Avon," Amy Freed's brainy farce for the Bard-obsessed. It has proved so popular that it has just been extended through Dec. 10.
Assembled in a coffee bar a few blocks from Dupont Circle, the leadership of Rorschach, Catalyst and Theater Alliance settles easily into a discussion of the highs and lows of trying to secure a place at Washington's dramatic table. Money is, of course, a constant worry: The combined yearly budgets of the troupes is about $500,000 -- less than one-twentieth of what Shakespeare Theatre, for instance, spends annually. Basic maintenance also is a continual challenge. When, for instance, one of Rorschach's co-artistic directors, Jenny McConnell Frederick, was getting married last year, so many Rorschach comrades were in the rehearsal dinner that there was no one to work the box office.
To whom did she turn? A likely suspect, naturally: Sitting in the coffee bar, Skidmore sheepishly raises his hand.
The companies' sense of a shared stake in Washington extends beyond the issues of dollars and staffing to intertwining histories and missions. The troupes' young leaders came to their assignments roughly five years ago; all draw from an overlapping pool of actors and directors; all are developing new plays; and all want to do more than the day-to-day running of the company. (Skidmore and Frederick, 29, and her Rorschach partner, Randy Baker, 31, direct; Fortier, 34, is an actor-manager who appears in Catalyst productions.)
In addition, all express relief at the timing of their decision to take on their current jobs. The feeling is that with something on the order of 80 theater companies in the area, there might not be much room anymore for the newest new guys. In fact, some small stalwart troupes, notably Source Theatre and Cherry Red Productions, have fallen by the wayside in recent years.
"I feel as if we caught the last wave," Skidmore says. "I feel like theater here is at a saturation point now, the point being that most of the companies coming up behind us aren't going to make it."
Still, the three companies are keenly aware of how hard it can be to develop loyal customers in a city overflowing with theaters hawking multi-play subscriptions.
Skidmore says that Theater Alliance doubled its subscriptions for the 2005-06 season -- to a whopping 160. "We finally have enough to fill one performance," he says.
The uphill struggle was apparent to Fortier during the run of his last show, an adaptation of Kafka's "Metamorphosis." He'd had no trouble filling the 50-seat space in the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop in previous productions. This time, perhaps swayed by some poor reviews, the ticket buyers stayed away.
"It gives you pause," he says. "It can make you think, 'Okay, where did you go?' "
With the trials of getting a theater on its feet, one cannot afford to have too soft a shell. But there are rewards in being master of one's own fate. At Rorschach -- which Baker and Frederick began in 1999 with two others by presenting "The Hairy Ape" in the D.C. Jewish Community Center -- Baker got to produce the play he wrote, "After the Flood," set in Southeast Asia and partly inspired by his childhood in Singapore. Fortier played the lead in "The Elephant Man" at Catalyst and was nominated last year for a Helen Hayes Award for best actor. (He will reprise the role at Olney Theatre Center.)
At Theater Alliance, founded 12 years ago, Skidmore has set about the task of finding complex pieces never staged in this country. Later this season, he will present the U.S. premiere of "The Monument," a war-crimes drama by Canadian playwright Colleen Wagner.
"Over the years, the thing that becomes constant is the theater itself," says Baker, who supports himself with a day job in a travel agency. "And so you're a little less concerned about the day-to-day survival of the theater, and you get to put more focus on where the theater is going, and where you as an artist are going. So, for the first time, we actually have time to develop plays, to develop relationships with artists out of town." In keeping with Rorschach's penchant for darker themes, the company is working with dramatist Jennifer Maisel ("The Last Seder") on a "grimy, urban" updating of tales by the Brothers Grimm.
Somehow, too, Fortier says, fiscal issues get solved. An unsolicited gift arrives by mail: "People you don't know are sending in these checks. They are respecting what you do and they want this to happen."
That kind of support makes these artistic directors feel that taking a risk on a theater life here was worth it. Back in 2001, Skidmore came to Washington to be assistant director on a production at Folger Theatre, and when the job was over, he decided to move to Chicago. He was driving a U-Haul there with his father when a feeling came over him.
"I'd been in D.C. for about six months and met all these amazing people," he recalls. "I realized this and turned to my dad in Columbus, Ohio, and said, 'Dad, I'm making the wrong choice.' And a day later, I was back in D.C." A month after that, he was offered a company of his own. And that, sometimes, is how little-theater history gets made.