Riding momentum that has led the company to set new box-office highs two seasons in a row, Round House Theatre on Sunday announced a $14 million initiative to upgrade its Bethesda stage and bring artists on staff for paid residencies.
The renovation will force the company off-site for the first half of 2019, so the last two shows of next season — the hot titles “Oslo” and “A Doll’s House, Part 2” — will be produced at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre.
“The theater is going to be the thing that’s the splashiest and the thing that people see most,” says Artistic Director Ryan Rilette. “But all the changes we’re making in the theater are driven by the work we’re trying to do artistically and educationally.”
The renovation will fix sound and sightline problems, and it will expand the lobby into a modern bistro to lure audiences — and people who don’t have tickets — to linger before and after the show.
“The goal is to break down this separation between audiences and artists,” says project architect Tom Kamm, “to provide a setting for discussion, and just general hanging out.”
The initiatives include an ambitious free-ticket program for high school- and college-age audiences, and an enhanced pay scale for artists above the contract standards for a troupe of Round House’s size. The company has made key hires recently, naming Ed Zakreski (formerly of the Shakespeare Theatre Company and the Kennedy Center) as managing director in 2016, and Nicole A. Watson as associate artistic director last month. Both are new positions.
The residencies will bring four artists in-house for two years each, and the inaugural class includes actors Craig Wallace and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, costume designer Ivania Stack and set designer Paige Hathaway.
“I’m over the moon,” says Hathaway, the busy emerging designer of Woolly Mammoth’s “Familiar,” Signature Theatre’s “John” and Theater J’s “Becoming Dr. Ruth.” “So often, company members or resident artists are primarily actors. As a designer, having a place I can call home is really refreshing.”
Resident artists will be involved in at least two shows per season and will do more than act or design. Teaching and participating in season planning are among the expanded roles, and a new class of residents will rotate in after two years.
“It’s a dream to have an institution at your back, willing to invest in you for a sustained period of time,” says Ebrahimzadeh, who recently appeared in “The Book of Will” at Round House. “And it’s important to know that it’s a symbiotic relationship. We’re looking out for the theater, while the theater looks out for us.”
The $14 million initiative includes funding to commission 30 new works, “all by women and writers of color,” Rilette says. “That’s the biggest thing that’s missing in the American theater, and I think that is the thing that will hopefully put the ensemble and the theater as a whole on the map. I want to say, ‘Make whatever you want to make.’ To do that, we have to have a more flexible space.”
The redesign is spearheaded by Charcoalblue, a U.K.-based firm with a client list that includes London’s National Theatre and Young Vic, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse and Baltimore Center Stage. The Everyman in Liverpool was one of several models Rilette pointed to for its user-friendly public space and flexible stage.
The renovation will improve sightlines that “are just not friendly,” Hathaway says, and will accommodate multiple stage and crowd configurations for audiences ranging from 285 to 400 people.
The theater’s back wall will be moved in, and the balcony will be pushed forward. “If you’re upstairs,” explains Charcoalblue partner John Owens, a sound designer and engineer, “you should know you’re part of a bigger group. An audience reacts as part of an audience.”
That, and much else, has felt amiss inside Round House, which opened in 2002 as part of a larger corporate development. The troupe was chosen as the tenant after construction began, and the too-big theater is full of empty air (or volume, as the designers say).
The 2018-19 season opens with Bess Wohl’s 2015 off-Broadway drama “Small Mouth Sounds,” followed by Paula Vogel’s 1998 Pulitzer winner “How I Learned to Drive” and August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” at the end of the year, all in Bethesda. Rilette will direct J.T. Rogers’s international diplomacy drama “Oslo” at the Lansburgh in April, and Watson will direct Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House Part 2” there in June.
Construction costs make up more than $9 million of the project, and more than $5.5 million has been raised, Zakreski says. The plan also includes enhancing the teen performance company and stabilizing finances, which have improved as debt has been retired and as Round House has enjoyed unprecedented box-office hits in the musicals “Caroline, or Change” and the “In the Heights” co-production with the Olney Theatre Center. The just-closed British play “Handbagged,” about the prickly relationship between Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth, reached new attendance records, and this season is on pace to outperform the record-setting 2016-17 season.
It’s a risk for any arts organization to move out during renovations and hope audiences will follow. But the timeline for construction is short, and the Lansburgh is a well-known destination for Washington theatergoers. The potential upside is exposing Round House to theater fans who may not have ventured to Bethesda.
“We’re not asking our audience to make a big trip with us,” Rilette says. “We’re saying, ‘Come see the two biggest plays of last year, in one of the biggest theaters downtown. And then come back for the grand reopening.’ ”