The Washington Theatre Laboratory, a teaching and performing theater group, took the D.C. government to task this week for its lack of support in helping local artists find space to work and perform.
WTL director Anthony Abeson also sought help in moving the Theatre Lab from its present home on the fourth floor of a building at 1327F St. NW which D.C. officials ordered closed to the public last November because of building and fire code violations.
"While we believe that the city should move its artists out of illegal buildings, we also believe that, with equal zeal, it should help those same artists into legal ones," Abeson said in a statement to reporters.
Moving is hardly new to WTL, which was started in 1973. Between conducting classes and giving productions of "The Travel Dance," "The Wedding" and "The Snow Queen," among others, WTL has spent a good deal of time looking for adequate and permanent facilities downtown. Abeson said the group has moved at least five times in 4 1/2 years.
The latest episode in WTL's nomadic life came on the eight of Nov. 25 when the group was doing "The Snow Queen" to a full house ("our first commercial success," said Abeson). Midway through the performance, D.C. police and fire officials entered the theater and ordered the group to shut down immediately because the building did not conform to city codes.
Abeson did not deny the violations.
"We had finally found a space that was large enough and, with two means of egress, safe enough to accomodate our needs. Obviously we were incorrect," he said in his statement.
He also noted t that "we had a popcorn machine and hot apple cider. We wanted it to be a hearth, not a cold place like other theaters. Well, even the popcorn and cider were illegal. We were not arguing out of a position of strength."
The next afternoon, WTL opened again, this time at 1227 G St. NW, performing there until Dec. 10. They did one show at a church and on Dec. 17 and 18, they gave the last two productions of "The Snow Queen" at a theater on Church Street. Since then, no space has been available.
For ticket holders, "we had to put up signs, 'come to G Street, come to Church Street,'" Abeson recalled, "and the actors were all out on the street with supermarket cart full of costumes, schlepping from one place to another."
Nowadays, WTL members spend their time lobbying Congress and the D.C. government for support. Fees from students in WTL's acting classes and two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the D.C. Commission for the Arts are not enough to cover expenses. Abeson claims he makes the top WTL salary - $62.50 a week.
To keep itself afloat, the Theatre Lab is giving two benefit performances of "The Snow Queen" on Jan. 22 at George Washington University's Marvin Center. Tickets for the 4:30 and 8:30 p.m. performances will be $10, as will the registration fee for a 1 p.m. acting workshop. The workshop will be led by Abeson, who has studied under stage directors Lee Strasherg, Peter Brook and Jerry Growtowski.
After that, WTL's future is uncertain. It really doesn't want to leave the F Street location.
"It's the first time we've ever had hot water," Abeson commented.
"We had one place across from the Trailways bus station. It was hot . . . and we got exhaust fumes from the buses. And last summer we were at the old ASTA Theater on 6th Street. Swamp Theater, we called it. The roof leaked and the stage was soggy.
When you walked in the lobby, you squished," he said. WTL left ASTA because the District, which owns the building, plans to renovate it.
Abeson claimed that other arts groups in Washington have similar problems finding space to work. Part of the problem is financial, but a larger obstacle is the distinterested attitude of official Washington he said. He has found sympathy, most notably from District Congressman Walter Fauntroy and D.C. City Council member Hilda Mason and John Wilson, but little real help.
In fact, Abeson said, the District's plans for ASTA are symbolic of the government's attitude toward the performing arts. At least nine groups would like to move into that building, which is "in a terrible state of disrepair," but the city is going to turn it into a a restaurant, he said. "Just what we don't need more of," Abeson complained. "Now what kind of attitude is that in the nation's capital?"
In addition to city support, Abeson wants a new municipal code geared to little theaters, not just to "Arena Stage-Kennedy Center types." He wants the performing arts to be included in plans for downtown revitalization. Most of all he wants encouragement for talented local artists who "are leaving (D.C.) every day . . . to be claimed by some other city."