Backstage: Prewitt replaces Henley as artistic director for WSC Avant Bard
After 16 years as artistic director of WSC Avant Bard, Christopher Henley is stepping down, swapping that 24/7 life for what is probably the 48/7 life of a parent of twin infants.
Taking over the helm at WSC is Tom Prewitt, a man with plenty of theater cred all over the United States (he’s worked at Shakespeare Santa Cruz and Delaware Theatre Company, among others), off-Broadway and here in Washington (he’s directed at a handful of local theaters and served as associate artistic director at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company for eight years).
Prewitt, who directed WSC’s recent production of “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” is a self-proclaimed longtime WSC fan. Henley will stay on as artistic director emeritus, directing one show a year, and as a member of the acting company.
When you’re the artistic director of a small company like WSC, said Henley, “you’ve got to just keep doing everything or you’re going to miss an opportunity and let people down. It was getting to the point, about a year ago, where I was just feeling that I never wanted to not be there for my family because I had obligations elsewhere.”
An artistic director “has to spend so much more time marketing and [doing] that kind of non-artistic activity. . . . I’ve just reached a point after doing it for over 16 years, the administrative managerial stuff just becomes more and more wearying and less enticing, so I was ready for a change.”
The passing of the baton has been “incredibly amicable,” Prewitt said. “It’s sort of the ideal situation to be coming into, in that respect.” That being said, “there’s no point in making a change unless there’s going to be a change. I’m hoping to bring new ideas and a fresh energy to the table.”
Prewitt added that he has “a real passion for planning, for sort of saying, ‘Okay, this is where we are now, and this is where we need or want to be, and how do we get from here to there?’ ”
Henley said WSC didn’t consider anyone but Prewitt for the job. Henley said he acknowledges that letting go of a gig he’s had for almost two decades won’t be easy. He’s hoping to “just find that right balance of being helpful without crossing the line and back-seat driving or being intrusive. It won’t be the easiest balance to strike, but who knows? Maybe it will be. So far it’s been a relatively easy fit.”
This search for a space is arguably Prewitt’s biggest and most urgent challenge. Prewitt said locations in the District and Arlington are on the table, including the new Anacostia Playhouse. “We have looked at that space because, who wouldn’t?” he said. “It’s the perfect size, the location is terrific [and] accessible.” WSC is also looking at universities around the area and places such as the Atlas “that offer an intimate feel,” he said.
“On a more conceptual or visionary level,” Prewitt said, “the question is really not so much about finding a space as it is about deciding what kind of space or spaces we need and want moving forward. . . . Basically saying, what kind of theater do we want to be and, therefore, where do we want to be performing?”
Prewitt isn’t a rookie at the theater real estate game; his time at Woolly, from 1997 to 2005, encompassed that company’s trajectory from Church Street Theatre to temporary stints all over the District to its current residence on D Street.
“I think the key things that I learned were the absolutely critical importance that, if you’re sort of homeless, you have to retain your sense as an artistic organization,” he said of his time at Woolly. “What you have to cling to during that time are your core values.”
There’s a “scrappiness” about WSC, said Prewitt, and the spirit that infuses the work it does is “kind of risky and daring and on the edge.”
This is a moment in the WSC troupe’s narrative, Prewitt said, to decide “who are we really and what do we want to be five years from now?”
Olney’s 75th-birthday gala
All the cool kids are turning 75 this year.
At least that’s the feeling over at Olney Theatre Center, where the Maryland arts staple realized it shared a three-quarters-of-a-century birthday with a pretty high-profile person: the Queen of England.
“We thought: We need to do a diamond jubilee,” said David Frankenberger, Olney’s director of development. Olney’s Diamond Gala will feature a Justin Timberlake dress code (suit and [black] tie), cocktail hour followed by a formal dinner, silent auctions, live auctions and musical performances from Olney stars: George Dvorsky, Jessica Lauren Ball, Donna Migliaccio, Caitlin Deerin, Parker Drown, MaryLee Adams and Bobby Smith.
Olney “is the oldest theater in Maryland, and there’s a lot that we have to celebrate,” Frankenberger said.
The gala will include “a people’s choice awards” for favorite actor and actress in a musical and a play, going all the way back to Year 1. Although many members of the Olney family weren’t around for those days, a handful of veterans remain.
“When we announced our 2013 season this past June, [then-Artistic Director] Martin Platt [told] this story of a little old man in a walker that came up to him after and said that his very first date, when he was a teenager, was the very first year that Olney opened,” Frankenberger said. “It’s insane, when you think about it.”
The gala will be both a retrospective and a kickoff for the future of Olney. This also will be the public’s introduction to Jason Loewith, the first event with the new artistic director. “It’s been an interesting few months here,” said Frankenberger of the transition period. (Loewith officially began his tenure Feb. 4.) “Jason is going to be looking at our mission statement and trying to find our identity. There’s been a lot of flux here and I think we’re ready to get down to business and focus on our artistic mission here.”
Frankenberger says Olney expects about 200 people to attend the gala. Tickets are $250. The money raised will go to Olney’s educational and artistic programming.
March 2 at 6 p.m., Gaithersburg Marriott Washingtonian Center, 9751 Washingtonian Blvd., Gaithersburg. For tickets, call 301-924-4485, Ext. 128.