That catapulted Synetic back to its start-up roots, scrambling for places to perform. But as the Amazon deal proved, real estate near downtown has become more desirable than ever, and prices are only going up. For small and midsize theater companies, that means affordable performance space is harder than ever to find.
“At the time, there was more space free to look around and compare,” said Paata Tsikurishvili, Synetic’s founding artistic director. “Now, there’s really a shortage.”
The company began performing two decades ago at the Church Street Theater near Dupont Circle, but that is now owned and occupied by the Keegan Theatre. Arlington County wooed Synetic to an auditorium dubbed the Spectrum, but eventually that went belly-up. Clark Street Playhouse in Crystal City, H Street Playhouse on the H Street NE corridor, the Warehouse on Seventh Street NW — all gone.
“It’s definitely shrinking, definitely harder,” said Rex Daugherty, artistic director of the Irish-themed arts organization Solas Nua. Like the experimental Pointless Theatre, Solas Nua largely performed at Flashpoint’s tiny Mead Theatre Lab on G Street NW, until that space was sold in 2016. Both troupes are now performing at Dance Loft on 14, a venue that’s promising (bigger than Flashpoint’s lab was) but challenging (not ADA accessible) — and currently off the beaten path for Washington-area audiences.
“There’s such a robust small theater scene, and a lot of times that’s what’s keeping artists in D.C. — the entry-level work,” Daugherty said. “The new and experimental work helps push D.C. as an interesting theater city.”
The problem is being noticed at the city government level. In 2015, the D.C. Council passed the Cultural Plan for the District Act, and in January 2018, a 131-page draft was published by the Office of Planning after several years of outreach, listening and research. The ache for venues was amply heard, according to passages such as this one from the draft:
“Industry research for this Plan showed that small to mid-sized cultural organizations are experiencing stress tied to real estate prices. . . . It is time to refine and scale new models for cultural space that will create new cultural infrastructure that provides a sustainable base for District culture.”
The idea is to foster new spaces “through a combination of public-private partnerships and new financing tools,” Office of Planning communications officer Mekdy Alemayehu emailed last week. A final version of the plan is pending.
Local business improvement districts sometimes act as brokers between arts organizations and commercial developers; that’s how Synetic’s Crystal City stage was built more than a decade ago by Arena Stage, which restored an old movie theater as that long-established company renovated its complex in Southwest Washington. The District’s Southwest BID is currently championing a planned black-box stage as part of developer P.N. Hoffman’s plans for Waterfront Station II.
The Crystal City BID remains an ally for Tsikurishvili, and it’s even conceivable that Synetic will be extended in the Crystal City space, or somewhere nearby. “JBGS and Synetic Theater are actively exploring opportunities for the theater to remain in National Landing,” Andrew VanHorn, JBG Smith executive vice president, said in an email. (Developer JBG Smith is the space’s longtime landlord.)
“Synetic is our standout organization,” Tracy Gabriel, president of the Crystal City BID, said in November, as Tsikurishvili beat the drum publicly about Synetic’s dilemma. Concrete development plans and governmental incentives for community benefits are yet to be fully determined for Amazon’s headquarters complex (the Virginia House passed a $750 million subsidy bill last week). “We’re hopeful we’ll be expanding an arts presence, as opposed to contracting,” Gabriel said.
“Companies in specialized niche markets are right size for Arlington,” Michelle Isabelle-Stark, director of Arlington Cultural Affairs, said at the same time, citing the physical style of Synetic and the musical bent of Shirlington’s Signature Theater. “We want them to stay. We’ll help them as much as we can.”
A generation ago, companies such as Studio Theatre, Woolly Mammoth and Signature developed from found spaces into the cultural cornerstones they occupy now, but that kind of evolution has almost stopped dead. In terms of renown, Synetic grew by leaps and bounds in its early years, raking in Helen Hayes Awards and sparking partnerships as the singular troupe — praised for its disciplined, dancerly style, especially with its popular “wordless Shakespeare” programs — performed at the Kennedy Center and at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh stage. When Arena’s renovation on its Southwest Washington facility was complete, Synetic took the opportunity to move into the Crystal City space.
“That allowed us to experiment more, to take risks more,” Tsikurishvili said of the stability. “Artistically, we could settle in.”
But Washington audiences didn’t always “cross the Potomac ocean,” as Tsikurishvili often says sarcastically, to Northern Virginia, despite easy parking and nearby restaurants. Synetic expanded its education efforts and youth performance programs while remaining comparatively small. The full-time staff still numbers only seven.
So now, Synetic is on the hunt again, looking for ways to stage a three-play season in 2019-2020, down from its usual five full shows. Eyeing stages at the same time: Rorschach Theatre, specialists in found spaces when they began 20 years ago but in recent years residents of the Atlas Performing Arts Center. The multi-space Atlas, which books a variety of events, didn’t have an available slot when Rorschach added a third show to this season. So “Reykjavik,” the troupe’s February show, is being staged at the Silver Spring Black Box.
“People find a way,” said Jenny McConnell Frederick, Rorschach’s co-artistic director. “I’m dubious to say it’s much worse.” Frederick points out that for nearly 15 years, Julianne Brienza and the Capital Fringe Festival have found and created makeshift stages that have been especially fruitful for emerging troupes. Fringe is now planning to add more performance space its facility on Florida Avenue NE. But, Frederick said, “it’s always a hustle. Which is one of the exhausting things about it.”
As for how donors fit into the picture: “We need more of them, always,” she said. “How do you chase that? Are you big enough to chase that? Everyone’s knocking on the same 20 doors.”
Daugherty noted not only a lack of black-box spaces — essentially empty rooms, desirable for their flexibility — but also a lack of sophisticated technical equipment in the rentable venues. “Keeping up a certain level of theater has become harder,” he said. It’s not clear yet what his company will produce next season, or where — and he could end up competing for space with Synetic, a bigger fish in a smaller pond. If the deal is a partnership with another company, Synetic “will take up a large spot in anyone’s season,” Daugherty said.
Decisions are imminent; Synetic aims to announce a season at least by March. Tsikurishvili’s advantage is having a higher-profile troupe with a vivid mission and an ability to fill big stages — although the goals he was contemplating even before knowing he would have to move included downscaling, working on a more intimate scale and bringing small European physical troupes to the region.
“D.C. has the potential to become internationally attractive as a center for contemporary physical theater. That’s doable,” Tsikurishvili said. “It’s going to be a bumpy road, but it’s a new adventure and new opportunities. I think in three years, we will find a new space — a home. And then we will go from there.”