The current predicament of the perennially cash-strapped classical troupe WSC Avant Bard is no joke, yet its scrappy response sets up an obvious one-liner.
Q: What play sounds right for a suddenly rootless theater company after losing its performance space?
A: “No Man’s Land.”
“That certainly is not the reason we chose it,” says Tom Prewitt, the new WSC Avant Bard artistic director, of Harold Pinter’s enigmatic 1975 drama.
“Would it sell more tickets if we said it was?” jokes actor Brian Hemmingsen.
With “No Man’s Land,” WSC Avant Bard is displaying an exceptionally united front. The production is anchored by three of the company’s artistic directors: director Prewitt, who started in February, actor Hemmingsen, who stepped down in 1996, and actor Christopher Henley, who ran things for the years in between.
The idea of doing “No Man’s Land” dates all the way to the 1980s, when Hemmingsen and Henley — who have performed together in more than 40 Washington area shows — put it on their long-term calendar for later life. Their moment finally arrived thanks to bad luck: Less than two years after WSC was ushered in as a resident company of Arlington County’s Artisphere (the old Newseum in Rosslyn), the county switched to an operational plan in December that pointedly left the theater company out. (The issues cited were sound buffering with an adjacent ballroom and Artisphere’s goal to make more income using the space for performances with shorter runs than WSC’s.)
The move forced WSC to “de-couple,” in Henley’s phrase, the two-play repertory scheduled for this spring. The ambitious one-two punch would have featured John Webster’s seldom-seen 17th-century revenge tragedy “The White Devil” with the brand new, classically tinged “Caesar and Dada,” by local playwright Allyson Currin. Neither show would have fit in the extremely tight Theatre on the Run.
Enter “No Man’s Land.” In the fall, Prewitt directed Hemmingsen in “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” and at the closing-night party, Hemmingsen planted the Pinter seed with Prewitt. When the Artisphere residency was yanked and a limited spring slot emerged at Theatre on the Run, “No Man’s Land” was on. Prewitt says, “We thought it would be a lot of fun for three generations of artistic directors to work together on this project.”
The attraction of the notoriously tricky Pinter seems clear enough as Prewitt, 56, Henley, 56, and Hemmingsen, 58, talk before a rehearsal. Exploring Pinter’s brusque style and elusive meaning in this drama — about four men “marooned together in a room,” Prewitt says, with their relationships unclear, but vaguely threatening — plainly trumps the sober chat about the hazards of running WSC.
“I think it still has the same sensibility we started out with,” says Hemmingsen, one of the eight people who founded the company in 1990. (Henley has long been the last founder still actively connected with the troupe; Hemmingsen’s return as an actor is recent.) “It’s kind of scrappy. It’s always fighting an uphill battle.”
Henley recalls several “near-death experiences” for the organization, which amassed a long tenure in another county-controlled building, the leaky but spacious warehouse that for 16 years was the Clark Street Playhouse in Arlington. WSC has always stayed non-Equity, fearing that it would be impossible to meet a union payroll for the large casts required by the troupe’s alt-classical sensibility. That aesthetic has led to such novelties and adventures as an all-female “Taming of the Shrew” and an all-nude “Macbeth,” Edward Albee’s rarely done “Tiny Alice” and plenty of offbeat Tennessee Williams.
But even without saddling up for Equity rates, money has always been tight.
“That’s a pressure,” Henley says of what he calls the “crushing golden triangle” of big casts, small theater capacities and modest ticket prices.
Hemmingsen responds to much of the financial chatter by reclining to nearly horizontal and staring at the ceiling; this thicket hasn’t been his affair for years. He says he’s still owed $6,000 or so — “which I never expect to see” — from working for $7 an hour as the troupe’s head in the 1990s.
“None of us got paid,” Henley says of the artists who came up as local theater boomed in the 1980s and early 1990s. “You did it for love of the work. That’s one of the reasons it’s time for me to go, because I have that ethos. It’s tough for me when somebody makes a fuss about money.”
Charting the course now falls to Prewitt, a well-traveled director whose 10 years at Woolly Mammoth included seasons when that bold troupe was between permanent homes. Prewitt can’t say whether WSC Avant Bard (which, until 2011, was known as the Washington Shakespeare Company) will keep its roots in Arlington, relocate to Washington, or venture the peripatetic life. Nothing is known beyond June, when the company will produce Currin’s “Caesar and Dada” at Catholic University, in the District.
But Prewitt believes that even though home doesn’t exist and finances are rocky, the company enjoys good will and what he calls “social capital.”
“That’s what we’re banking on to carry us through this rough patch,” he says.
At least WSC is keeping up a public presence with the Pinter play, a subject that gets the group to straighten considerably. “With Pinter, I’m never bored,” Hemmingsen says, leaning forward and grinning. “You can see the actor in the writing.”
Henley — who, believe it or not, has a dog named Harold Pinter — made a pilgrimage to New York in 2001 when the dramatist performed in his own “One for the Road.” “I got to see Pinter act in a role I had done,” Henley says, “which was just overwhelmingly wonderful.”
Hemmingsen is playing Hirst, the controlling host in “No Man’s Land.” Henley is Spooner, the rather eager new man in the room. (WSC vets Frank Britton and Bruce Alan Rauscher round out the cast.) In 1975 the roles were famously played by Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud; this fall, Patrick Stewart (Hirst) and Ian McKellen (Spooner) will bring their own “No Man’s Land” to Broadway in rep with Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” — which, naturally, Hemmingsen and Henley once did together.
“These two gentlemen are emblematic of why I took over,” Prewitt says of his predecessors.
But do those two old hands, who have done 19 Pinter shows between them (many outside of WSC), listen to the new boss?
Prewitt laughs, but says he was slightly concerned, “especially when they started telling their war stories about all the productions they’ve done before. But yeah, they do listen. It could have been contentious, could have been a different story.”
Recently, the trio found themselves comparing notes as artistic directors, which led Prewitt to reflect on his new day job wrangling the wild horses of infrastructure, development and marketing. “Then I get to go to rehearsal,” Prewitt says, “and it feels like such a relief.”
Pressley is a freelance writer.
Through May 25 at Theatre on the Run, 3700 S. Four Mile Run Dr., Arlington.
June 19-July 14 at Catholic University’s Callan Theatre, 3801 Harewood Rd., the District.