Montgomery County's theater scene this year offers more places to go to enjoy the dramatic arts, a diverse mix of plays and more opportunity to see the work of local playwrights.
In community theater, a new group has started performing in Kensington, and the Potomac Theater Company has found a new home for its plays.
In the arena of professional theater, the long-awaited BlackRock Center for the Performing Arts in Germantown, which officially opens Dec. 7, is renting out its facilities for visiting professional productions but will not produce any plays itself.
The addition of the new venues and theater companies will continue to attract people who might not have attended the theater previously, as well as theatergoers who might have visited only the long-established theaters in Washington, said Theresa Cameron, executive director of the Montgomery County Arts Council.
"It's not that people don't want to go downtown, but if they can stay closer to home and add another good theater to their list, they will do so," Cameron said. "We're building audiences who are sophisticated and really want to see the best, and now they can."
Montgomery County is now home to a dozen community theater groups, four professional houses and several children's and college theater groups.
After years of work by area residents, Germantown is about to become a stop on the regional theater circuit, although slowly at first. Five shows, all of which have been previously staged in the area, are scheduled this season at the BlackRock Center for the Performing Arts, starting next month with the locally popular and award-winning musical valentine to showbiz legend Danny Kaye, "Danny & Sylvia."
Meanwhile, the new Kensington Arts Theatre, performing at the Kensington Armory, has been attracting unusually large audiences for a new company. More than 100 people turned out Saturday to see the performance of its premiere effort, "Side Show." The play, which runs through Nov. 23, is an offbeat musical about Daisy and Violet Hilton, real-life conjoined twins who were discovered working in a Depression-era sideshow and eventually had a minor career in show business.
"The direction our president, Craig Pettinati, and the board and I have for the group is to do quality theater, but not to do the same things everyone else is doing, like 'Oklahoma,' for instance," said the group's spokesperson, Heather Andrews. "We want to be on the edge."
Andrews, who said the concentration of theater in Montgomery County was an important factor causing her to relocate here from Alabama last year, said the Kensington group will seek to attract patrons who love and are knowledgeable about the theater while not ignoring more general audiences.
"We don't wish to alienate mainstream audiences by doing things that are so 'out there' that they won't like them, but we're hoping to find unusual pieces that everyone can see and enjoy and not be scared off," she said.
The Kensington group formed this year when Sandy Spring Theatre Group returned home to Sandy Spring after a dozen years performing in a variety of theaters in the region. The group's last stage had been at the armory in Kensington, and some members of the troupe decided they would prefer to stay there.
The new group's eclectic lineup of plays will continue in March, when it will present the bold musical "Songs for a New World," followed by the mainstream play "Steel Magnolias" sometime later.
The Sandy Spring Theatre Group started off its season with a performance of the Broadway-bound play "Franklin of Philadelphia" at the Sandy Spring Museum. The group is negotiating for a permanent home in Sandy Spring.
Potomac audiences also have a fresh theater to visit. Potomac Theatre Company is now presenting its plays in a new facility at the Blair Family Center for the Arts on the grounds of The Bullis School. The troupe's three-play lineup encompasses a wide range, starting with the classic musical, "Guys and Dolls," which opens Nov. 22. The less seen and ambitious musical "Amadeus" follows in March and the troupe's annual showcase for original plays by local playwrights is set for June.
The two busiest community theaters in the county, Silver Spring Stage, which concentrates on plays, and Montgomery Playhouse at Asbury, which mixes plays with musicals in Gaithersburg, both have schedules featuring material new and old.
Silver Spring Stage opens with Lorraine Hansberry's 40-year-old look at the moral problems of a Jewish intellectual in Greenwich Village in "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window" tomorrow.
Meanwhile, the old Montgomery Playhouse, which has relocated to the Cultural Arts Center at Asbury Methodist Village and incorporated the new venue into its name, has a couple of large-scale musicals scheduled, beginning with "Once Upon a Mattress" later this month.
Rockville Musical Theatre is currently in mid-run with the rollicking musical "The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue." Its nonmusical partner, Rockville Little Theatre, has familiar community theater fare on tap, including "The Rainmaker" in January.
Rockville is home to a third theater company, the Victorian Lyric Opera Company, which serves fans of Gilbert and Sullivan. "The Pirates of Penzance" is scheduled for February.
"It's hard to characterize the season because the theaters have, in many cases, lineups that are quite unique to the particular theater companies," Cameron said. "One thing I can say is that many of them are now doing some of the strongest work they've ever done."
Perhaps the brightest spot in the county theater scene belongs to the professional Round House Theatre, which is now in its first full season in spacious new quarters in downtown Bethesda, reporting full houses and a 40 percent increase in subscription sales.
"We owe our success to strong community support," said Jonathan Graham, associate director of marketing.
The county's major professional theaters have substantially different approaches this season. The Olney Theatre Center is mostly sticking to tried-and-true favorites, such as "Charlie's Aunt," while Round House, which opened Chekhov's classic "The Cherry Orchard" this week, will continue with several new plays, including "When Grace Comes In," by D.C. playwright Heather McDonald, in April.
Meanwhile, the county's other professional troupe, the quiet and steady Quotidian Theater Company in Bethesda, opened the season with Ibsen's "A Doll's House" last week and will return to its usual Horton Foote fare in May.