Ralph Remington may just be the most irreplaceable man in Washington theater.
This week marks a year since Remington left his job as director of theater and musical theater at the National Endowment for the Arts to take a position with the Actors’ Equity Association in Los Angeles. In the interim, the federal agency has advertised the position twice but hasn’t filled the job. Many theater professionals have been wondering why there has been such a delay and worrying about not having a national advocate in Washington.
“They need to fill the position,” said Ed Herendeen, artistic director of the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va. “It seems like an obvious answer.”
Herendeen serves on the board of Theatre Communications Group, a national service organization for nearly 700 theaters in North America. TCG board members are concerned, Herendeen said, and talking about “how much everyone is looking forward to the new appointment.”
An NEA spokeswoman declined to comment on why the agency hasn’t filled the post, saying only via e-mail: “We are working hard to find the best candidate. Sometimes that process takes longer than expected.”
In October, the agency hired a new director of music and opera, replacing Wayne Brown, who held the post for 16 years. Brown departed just after Remington, in January, and now leads the Michigan Opera Theatre. Until October, longtime NEA dance director Douglas Sonntag was leading all three performing arts divisions, overseeing millions of dollars in dance, music and theater grants.
It’s likely that the long delay in hiring a theater director has hurt the NEA’s recruitment efforts, especially in the wake of the November elections. Sonntag and the other field directors are not career civil servants; they hold two-year appointments that are renewed at the discretion of the NEA chair, who is appointed by the president. Some stay for years, their terms renewed in turn by Democratic and Republican chairs, while others can lose their jobs after only one two-year term. Candidates who applied when the six-figure theater director job was advertised in May and September may now be reluctant to accept an appointment that could end in 2017, when the current chairwoman, Jane Chu, is scheduled to leave the agency.
“It is an exciting position for someone, but it’s a huge job, and to tell potential candidates that they might only have it two years could be a challenge,” said Deborah Ellinghaus, managing director of Olney Theatre Center. “It takes at least three years to get acclimated and make an impact.”
Remington joined the agency in March 2010 and held the position for nearly four years. He came to Washington from Minneapolis, where he ran a theater company and served on the city council, but earlier in his career, he attended Howard University and worked as Arena Stage’s director of community engagement. His return to the area was widely welcomed, and he has been missed, not only for his local enthusiasm, but also for his national advocacy.
“That’s an advantage of working here in the arts — we have D.C. in our back yards,” said Ellinghaus, a longtime Remington fan. “It is doubly harmful to not have that position filled.”
Remington could be found at theater openings, conferences and schmoozing on the Hill with members of Congress.
“I loved Ralph. He did a fantastic job,” said Jacqueline Lawton, a playwright and dramaturge who has worked at several area theaters. “He made sure to have a real presence in the community. He wasn’t just leading from the top. He wanted to be on the ground with other artists.”
Lawton is also concerned about the delay in filling Remington’s job, but she said she supports Chu, who was confirmed to lead the NEA in June. Lawton said she wants to believe that the delay is necessary to get the right theater director, not the result of a bureaucratic backlog or other internal issues.
“We just need someone who understands what we need for our communities,” she said. “We need someone out there every single day, not just on Arts Advocacy Day.”
Michael Dove, the artistic director of Silver Spring’s Forum Theatre, has long believed that theaters, more so than other artistic disciplines, have a responsibility and an opportunity to address social issues. The challenge, though, is to stay current while planning a season 18 months in advance. For Dove, the solution has been “Forum (Re)Acts,” a series of multidisciplinary performances and discussions that the company began offering four years ago. The events are usually prepared about five weeks in advance, but Monday night’s “(Re)Acts: #BlackLivesMatter” came together in just two weeks.
“This one was fast,” Dove said Tuesday morning. “My head is spinning about the importance and the immediacy of theater, in a very good way.”
About 130 people attended Monday’s event, which featured poets, actors and musicians presenting short works in response to the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice at the hand of police officers. After the performances, attendees stayed at the theater to vent and discuss ways to become agents of change.
“Events like this are most effective when they give people a forum to talk about what’s in the news, and what they are talking about on Facebook,” Dove said. He added that he was pleased that many who came Monday were new to Forum. The success of the event, he said, even has him wondering whether Forum should start saving a slot each season for a play that’s TBD, depending on current events.
“Sometimes it’s a little hard to look into the crystal ball,” Dove said.
The Source Festival is an example of how a Washington theater can turn programming around fairly quickly.
Last week, the D.C.-based arts group announced that it had chosen three scripts to receive full productions at the 14th Street theater in June.
The three plays, out of 135 submissions, are “Blue Straggler,” by Rebecca Bossen; “The Word and the Wasteland,” by Timothy Guillot; and “(A Love Story),” by Kelly Lusk.
The annual festival also includes a series of 10-minute plays and “artistic blind dates,” which pair local theater professionals with other artists.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.