The idea in stripping the space to its bare bones and removing the fixed seating, Muse said in an interview, is to make the company more functional for immersive multimedia and other types of innovative productions. Until now, this category has been restricted to the smaller, fourth-floor space known as Stage 4, where some of Studio’s most adventurous work occurs. It is where, for instance, the company installed a swimming pool for Lucas Hnath’s “Red Speedo” and staged a sprawling local premiere of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.”
“It’s one of those moments where I do feel something quite fundamental is changing with the company,” Muse said. “There is a hunger for creating ‘environments’ and spaces for immersive things. And sometimes, I notice a slightly uncomfortable fit between play and venue, and I want to do everything I can to mitigate that.”
A measure of how rapidly changes are happening in the physical demands for theater spaces can be calculated in the relatively short span since Studio underwent its last big rehab. That occurred in 2004, when founding artistic director Joy Zinoman oversaw a $12 million project that included the construction of both the Metheny and Stage 4. As a result of that project, Studio had Stage 4 and three fixed-seat spaces — the Metheny and the previously existing Mead and Milton theaters, all about the same size. Muse said that he believed the redundant design of its fixed-seat theaters was hamstringing its aspirations. (The Mead and Milton will remain as-is in the new plan.)
Studio has explored immersive stagings in its penthouse raw space, as evidenced by its highly successful 2016 mounting of “Hand to God,” a dark comedy that placed spectators at tables, in a facsimile of a church basement. But larger-scale efforts of this nature have been out of reach. Just this month, for example, Shakespeare Theatre Company and Woolly Mammoth Theatre announced a partnership for next season to bring “The Jungle” to STC’s Sidney Harman Hall. The large-ensemble play requires a big theater space that can be converted into a squatter camp, in which audience members are divided into refugee groups and watch the action unfold atop the tables that surround them.
It’s plays like “The Jungle,” and musicals such as David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s “Here Lies Love” — a show requiring audiences to follow actors on a series of moving platforms around an open party space — that Muse says he hopes to stage at Studio. Other Washington-area companies are recognizing the opportunities that such spaces provide: Arlington’s Signature Theatre, for instance, is taking over The Anthem concert hall on the Wharf this summer for a run of “Mamma Mia!” that is intended to have a party feel.
The revamping of the Metheny will position Studio to vie more aggressively with these other companies for the fare that tends to entice younger audiences. Studio has raised $11.6 million of the $20 million needed for the project, which is to begin construction in July with a completion date slated for spring 2021, according to Lichtenberg. The money, from a number of private sources, was committed for the “Open Studio” project during an initial phase of fundraising, and it includes a $3 million gift from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
Of that total, $14.5 million will go toward construction and most of the rest will be used for development of new brand and website designs, as well as to improve the facade and upgrade investment funds. The company will remain in the complex during the renovation, Lichtenberg added, offering a slightly streamlined 2020-21 season.
Among the plays Studio will stage next season are two that made splashes off-Broadway: Suzan-Lori Parks’s “White Noise” and Will Arbery’s “Heroes of the Fourth Turning.” Two world premieres are also in the offing: Rachel Bonds’s “Jonah” and Kimberly Belflower’s “John Proctor Is the Villain.” The rest of its ’20-’21 schedule is to be announced in the coming weeks.