As word of mouth steadily grew in early August and tickets started to fly out of Arena Stage’s box office, Stacey Mindich knew that the musical she helped nurture, “Dear Evan Hansen,” would have a life after Washington. A New York theater producer who had brought the project to Arena, Mindich watched the show catch fire with audiences as its creators refined and reshaped it during the inaugural summer run.
Before it even finished the engagement on Aug. 23, Mindich had sealed a deal with off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre for the next stop in the musical’s journey. And as a result she could feel vindicated in the decision to unveil the musical by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul and Steven Levenson in the nation’s capital.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been so sure of something in my producing career,” Mindich said of staging the world premiere in the District. “We came to Washington for some really substantial reasons. I wanted an East Coast city and an audience that could understand what we were trying to do, and I had always been a fan of Arena Stage. I wanted other producers to have an opportunity to embrace it as well.”
What Mindich plugged into with “Dear Evan Hansen” was a current that has been gaining in strength for years now, even if relatively few people in or out of the city seem to have kept track of it. At every level of production, the Washington region is not only witnessing the continuing maturation of its own theater world. It is also sending more and more theater out into the world.
The evidence of D.C. theater’s expanding export capability can be found in productions materializing everywhere from Tokyo to Los Angeles, from New York to London. Some of these pieces are transfers attempting to make the difficult segue from Washington’s nonprofit sector to commercial venues elsewhere. The Kennedy Center and the National Theatre, for instance, have become go-to start-up sites for Broadway musicals, with revivals sent north in recent years of, among others, “Ragtime,” “Follies” and “Side Show,” as well as the new musical “If/Then.” Arena Stage, too, has been developing and presenting more and more work that winds up in commercial runs on Broadway, such as the retooled musical “Next to Normal,” which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize; the Estelle Parsons vehicle “The Velocity of Autumn”; and the rock bio-musical “A Night With Janis Joplin.”
Broadway is far from the only recipient: Hit world premieres at Woolly Mammoth Theatre of “Stupid F---ing Bird,” “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play” and “Bootycandy” have taken root in the nonprofit theater, with subsequent versions produced by other regional theaters and off-Broadway companies. In fact, earlier this month, American Theatre magazine published its list of the 10 plays that will be most frequently produced across the nation this season, and both “Stupid F---ing Bird” and “Mr. Burns” made the list, with seven productions each. Works unveiled in recent years at Signature Theatre (“Giant,” “Really Really”), Shakespeare Theatre Company (“The Liar”) and Theater J (“Imagining Madoff”) also have enjoyed follow-up runs in nonprofits across the country. Even members of such homegrown avant-garde troupes as movement-based Synetic Theater and interactive Dog and Pony DC have been hopping into station wagons and taking their shows to far-flung fringe festivals and other venues.
Molly Smith, Arena’s artistic director, says the trend is reflected in the increasing number of inquiries she’s fielding these days. “I’m getting two to three calls a week from artistic directors and producers interested in having their work done at Arena,” she said. Howard Shalwitz, Woolly’s longtime artistic head, concurred about the outside interest. “I don’t think commercial producers are looking routinely at Woolly’s high-risk work,” he said, “but there are certainly New York nonprofits looking at our work all the time.”
If this means that Washington theatergoers are seeing up-to-the-minute material in greater abundance, it also means that Washington theater is facing greater scrutiny from the world at large. This comes with added risk, especially in the cases when the plays and musicals that D.C. originates are moved by commercial producers to the more competitive for-profit market. And so far in this category, D.C. theater is generating more misses than hits, productions that do well in the sheltered settings of nonprofit institutions but turn in disappointing results on, for example, Broadway. For every exhilarating “Next to Normal” there have been three or four underperforming fizzles, such as the lackluster “A Time to Kill,” which ran at Arena in 2011 and then for a very short spell on Broadway in 2013, or Signature Theatre’s one-night Broadway wonder, the 2008 “Glory Days.”
Washington has yet to match the more reliable export record of a larger, more highly evolved theater town such as Chicago, or to have in its midst a theater maker like Diane Paulus, who as artistic director of the Cambridge, Mass.-based American Repertory Theater has transformed it into a Broadway musical-transferring powerhouse (“Pippin,” “Once,” “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” “Finding Neverland”). So there remains a nagging feeling that Washington’s full export potential has yet to be fully developed. The irony is that to foster more original material, the city’s theaters have leaned heavily on talented writers, directors and actors imported to the city for a specific production. The widespread feeling is that until the plays of Washington-based playwrights, directors and actors are more routinely sent out, the city’s claim to reliable export theater cannot be wholly justified.
“My sense in the 30 years that I have been here is that, for the largest part of the time, the city has been building the theater community — it was in the chrysalis stage,” said Edward Gero, a highly regarded actor who has played everything in town from Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” to Antonin Scalia in Arena’s recent “The Originalist” (incidentally, by the D.C.-based John Strand). “Now is the time to come out of the chrysalis. And that is predicated on having more playwrights.”
Although there is a long history of plays and musicals moving on from Washington — whether it was the tryout of “West Side Story” in the ’50s, Arena’s “The Great White Hope” with James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander in the ’60s or the Woolly-produced comedies of Nicky Silver in the ’90s — the pace at which Washington theater flows into America’s cultural arteries has quickened of late. It is certainly a far more active aspect of the theater community here than it was 15 years ago, particularly because the appetite for developing new material now seems far more robust.
It’s a phenomenon that continues to pick up speed. This week, for example, Lupita Nyong’o begins a run at New York’s Public Theater in “Eclipsed,” a play by Danai Gurira that debuted at Woolly Mammoth in 2009. Meanwhile, “Diner,” the Barry Levinson-Sheryl Crow musical adaptation of Levinson’s 1982 cult movie, which premiered at Signature Theatre last winter, will be worked on further this fall at Wilmington’s Delaware Theatre Company. “Photograph 51,” Anna Ziegler’s drama about the English scientist Rosalind Franklin that started at tiny Active Cultures Theatre in Prince George’s County and then produced at Theater J, has hit the big time in London’s West End, with none other than Nicole Kidman playing Franklin. Woolly will take an unorthodox leap in January, when it tours its own production of Aaron Posner’s “Stupid F---ing Bird” — a contemporary spin on Chekhov’s “The Seagull” — to theaters in Syracuse and Portland, Ore. And talks are underway for possible Broadway incarnations for the Arena-bred drama “Camp David” and the Signature-birthed musical “Beaches.”
A number of play-building programs are coaxing the District further out of its chrysalis. Play-commissioning initiatives at Arena, Signature and Woolly, coupled with the advent of new play platforms such as the Capital Fringe Festival and Theater J’s Locally Grown festival, have greatly expanded the opportunities for D.C. theater to help feed the rest of the country. National recognition, in the form of Tony Awards to Signature and Shakespeare Theatre Company, and the Pulitzer that went to “Clybourne Park,” which premiered almost simultaneously at Woolly and at Playwrights Horizons in New York, has drawn increased attention to what Washington companies are up to. The District-based National New Play Network, which arranges for new plays to be staged in successive cities for “rolling world premieres,” has given Washington yet another mechanism for linking its theater to the rest of the country.
All this activity has indeed been a boon to theatergoers looking to book some adventure into their cultural itinerary, along a wide spectrum of originality. It includes work shaped by a local director for a local company, as the director Natsu Onoda Power did in 2012 at Studio Theatre with her stunningly fresh “Astro Boy and the God of Comics,” which was subsequently produced in Boston and Los Angeles. And it continues with the flotilla of shows testing the waters on the way to Broadway, as in the case of the Steve Martin-Edie Brickell musical “Bright Star,” coming to the Kennedy Center in December. Deborah Rutter, the Kennedy Center’s new president, says wider impact is intrinsic to the mission of a national performing arts center. “I think it’s important,” she said, “to create a work of art that has a life beyond this moment.”
The fact that many pieces are attracting outside attention lends energy and credibility to the ambitions of local companies and artists.
“It’s an endorsement at the most vital level of the artistic decisions you’re making,” said Edgar Dobie, Arena’s executive producer, a onetime right-hand man on Broadway to Andrew Lloyd Webber who has been instrumental in securing pieces for the company such as “Dear Evan Hansen.” Though occasional ticket buyers may have little awareness of this facet of the theater’s business, the exporting of work has an impact on some crucial onlookers.
“When we talk to donors, there is a sense of civic pride in the fact that this particular project or this particular story catches on,” Dobie said. “And it certainly helps with your elected officials, when you’re making your case for what makes you stand out, what makes you different, whether you’re worthy of [government] support. And just looking inward, to the people who work here, there’s enhanced pride, an added lift in your step.”
This dimension of the region’s dramatics remains, of course, a sideline to the main mission, stoking local theatergoing habits. Many companies stress that they worry first and foremost about keeping their own audiences happy.
“What we all try to do is concentrate on the production at hand, and if there’s life after that, it’s icing on the cake,” said Eric Schaeffer, Signature’s longtime artistic director and someone who often takes on directorial assignments outside the city. Most recently, he directed a revival of “Gigi” that started at the Kennedy Center — and then went belly up on Broadway after only three months.
Then again, Signature trains a keen eye on the trajectory of the many original pieces it produces; in fact, Schaeffer recently brought on staff Joe Calarco, an accomplished director who has made a living for many years as a freelancer in regional theater. One of Calarco’s responsibilities, Schaeffer explained, is to improve the company’s networking with other institutions across the country, to find second and third outlets for its world-premiere productions.
A fringe benefit in many cases of being an exporter is the extra ring of the cash register: As the originating company, a theater often receives small royalties when subsequent versions are mounted. Signature, for instance, shepherded Ken Ludwig’s comedy “A Fox on the Fairway” to a world premiere in Shirlington in 2010. It has since been staged many times by both professional and community theaters.
“We receive small checks every now and then,” said Maggie Boland, Signature’s managing director. Wistfully, she noted that the kind of payday that comes with minting a megahit remains a lot more elusive. “We haven’t had our ‘A Chorus Line’ yet,” she said.