As bait-and-switches go, Studio Theatre is offering D.C. theater patrons a pretty honest deal. The theater announced Tuesday that because of scheduling conflicts, it will not be bringing the big hit of the 2012 Edinburgh Festival Fringe to Washington in June. Instead, Studio has booked the big hit of the 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
“This is theatre’s answer to ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ ” said Britain’s Independent newspaper in its rave review of Studio’s replacement play. That’s high praise, especially given that “Grounded” is a 21 / 2-year-old show by a little-known Ohio-based playwright that took off once it received attention overseas. The production coming to Studio will be the same that appeared at the festival and transferred to London’s Gate Theatre. Lucy Ellinson, a 30-something British actress, director and activist, will continue to star as a former fighter pilot who joins a drone technician team after she becomes pregnant.
George Brant’s play will replace “Beats,” Kieran Hurley’s one-man show about coming of age at ’90s disco raves. David Muse, Studio Theatre’s artistic director, said Hurley asked to pull out of his summer engagement in Washington after being offered a commission from the National Theatre of Scotland. Muse says Studio is still looking to bring “Beats” to Washington, possibly for the 2014-15 season.
Muse says he’s pleased that the opening will allow Studio to jump on a play that is so hot right now. “Grounded” is running off-Broadway at Walkerspace in Manhattan and was the subject of a New York Times feature Sunday. The Studio production is one of at least three others planned in United States this season, but before the Edinburgh festival run, the most visible stagings of “Grounded” were readings at small Midwestern theaters.
“This is play that bubbled up, rather than coming from the top down,” Muse said. “Usually you hear about shows after a big run in New York. This one started smaller.”
Brant, 44, wrote “Grounded” in 2011, and the play received a series of readings in 2012, including one directed by his wife, Laura Kepley, who is the artistic director of the Cleveland Play House. Another was at Baltimore’s Theatre Project, with Georgetown University’s Derek Goldman directing and Washington-based actress Kimberly Gilbert in the role of the fighter pilot. Goldman said he is in discussions to direct the show next season at Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre.
But as of June, this American play will receive its first full Washington staging designed and performed entirely by Brits. “Grounded” will be the final show in what Studio is calling its “British Invasion” series, featuring contemporary plays from the U.K. Muse said importing the Gate Theatre’s production isn’t a snub to local talent; he simply saw the show at Edinburgh and couldn’t imagine a better production.
“We could have chosen to produce the play ourselves,” he said. “But they’ve just figured out such a smooth way to stage it. After I’ve seen that, I don’t want to try to do it.”
Both “Beats” and “Grounded” reflect a similar budget line for Studio, Muse said, and the British Council, an arm of the British government that supports cultural exchange, has come on board as a funder for “Grounded.” This follows a string of Studio projects that have received international support, including 2011’s “Penelope” (Ireland) and last year’s “Baby Universe” (Norway).
“Grounded” will be a much more politically charged play than an updated myth or a Scandinavian puppet show. Studio will capitalize on that by planning post-show conversations on the topics of drone warfare, U.S. unmanned-aircraft policy and mental health in the armed services.
“It is much more about what it means psychologically, and about what it means for a soldier to go through that experience, than it is a political play,” Muse said.
When Muse became Studio’s artistic director in 2010, there was a changing of the guard not only at the top but farther down the line in the theater’s leadership. Since 1987, Morey Epstein had played a role at the theater informally described as former artistic director “Joy Zinoman’s right-hand man.” In actuality, Zinoman gave Epstein a series of titles, starting with “marketing assistant” and ending with “executive director of institutional development.”
In December, he joined the staff of Synetic Theater as director of development. Epstein is the fourth person to hold the job in theater’s 10-year history, but he’s the first with serious experience in Washington philanthropy. His goal is not to help Synetic beg for money, but to attract investors by doing a better job of communicating its needs. The company, which specializes in Eastern European movement theater, is helmed by Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili, emigres from the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
“Philanthropy is not a matter of getting people to do things but giving them the opportunity to do want they want to do,” Epstein said. “You have to have a conversation along the lines of, ‘What do you need in order to make things happen?’ . . . Synetic has a core group of supporters, it is just a matter of expanding that . . . and communicating what the needs are.”
For example, Synetic would like to take more of its productions into schools. The company’s rough-and-tumble fight scenes and rowdy dance numbers appeal to tweens and teens, and the literary bases for the shows — usually Shakespeare or classics such as “The Three Musketeers” — should appeal to English teachers. But the company’s $1.5 million operating budget needs more targeted donations and grant money before it can put on more school assemblies.
Working as an arts administrator can be exhausting, which is why Signature Theatre’s executive director, Maggie Boland, was happy to spend a recent relaxing afternoon with theatergoers who have been enjoying the company’s shows for 24 years instead of schmoozing with corporate donors or filling out grant applications.
In honor of Signature’s upcoming 25th anniversary season, the theater held a luncheon Jan. 15 to honor the 13 people who have subscribed to the company’s previous 24 seasons. Over food from Carmines and homemade cupcakes, Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer told his guests they’d all be receiving free subscriptions for 2014-15.
“These are the folks who, 24 years ago, signed up for three plays with this unknown company,” Boland said.
The 13 subscribers include three women who knew Schaeffer when he was a director at a community theater in Arlington and one man who now frequently stops by Shirlington to deliver baked goods to the box-office staff members. In early January, he stopped in to drop off bread and insisted on filling out his renewal form, which the theater didn’t process.
“There are so many reasons in the world to be cynical, and then you go to a lunch like this, and we just wanted to stay for hours talking with these people,” Boland said. “It was just so lovely.”
Ritzel is a freelance writer.