To the Big Five in Washington theater, we should be adding a sixth.
That’s the firm impression these days, after you emerge from the Bethesda Metro station and arrive at nearby Round House Theatre on East-West Highway. Or, more to the point, once you’ve left the theater, having taken in one of the rousingly accomplished plays or musicals the company has mounted recently.
Under the leadership for the past five years of artistic director Ryan Rilette, Round House has gradually been moving up in qualitative rank, to the point where its seasons rival those of the five companies that form the elite spokes of the regional theater community: Shakespeare Theatre Company, Arena Stage, Studio Theatre, Woolly Mammoth Theatre and Signature Theatre. Round House’s forthcoming season, unveiled Monday — an ambitious portfolio that includes a world-premiere play staged by the director of the Broadway hit “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” in her Washington-area debut — has the potential to be its liveliest and most rewarding yet.
For its adventurous programming and deepening investment in local talent, Round House has become over these years an ever more satisfying destination for the serious Washington playgoer — no small cohort in a town with a burgeoning theater reputation. It’s no accident that the current season is by some vital statistics the most successful in the organization’s 41-year history: The just-ended revival of the Tony Kushner-Jeanine Tesori musical “Caroline, or Change” is Round House’s highest-grossing production ever, putting it on track to break all box-office records for a single season, according to the company.
“I spent a lot of time figuring out who we are, at our core,” Rilette says of the troupe’s advances. “The best stuff we do hits you in the heart, and in the belly. . . . We’re an actor’s theater, and I’m an actor first and foremost.”
That ethos seems to be striking a chord. Attendance is on the upswing, a highly encouraging result for a company that has found it challenging to fill the theater’s 400 seats with customers from beyond its home base in southern Montgomery County. Round House productions played to 52 percent of capacity during the 2012-2013 season, but that number has steadily climbed, rising this season to 68 percent. The company, too, is freshly debt-free on an operating budget of about $5 million, and it has made a greater commitment to business expertise by creating a managing director post, hiring Ed Zakreski, formerly of Shakespeare Theatre and the Kennedy Center.
All this, and some noteworthily resonant productions of late — a staging of Suzan-Lori Parks’s probing epic “Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 and 3)”; a collaboration with Olney Theatre Center on Kushner’s “Angels in America” plays and the mounting of “Caroline, or Change” — appear to have endowed Round House with a new sense of confidence.
“I want to work there. I want to be a part of this place,” declares veteran Washington actor Tom Story, a Juilliard graduate who played Prior Walter in “Angels” and to whom Rilette has entrusted a coveted directing slot next season. “It’s because of what he’s building there and the material he’s picking and the way he treats actors. It’s paying off for him.”
The 2017-2018 season extends the bets that Rilette is placing on a rich brew of new and classic offerings, to rival the rosters of such companies as Studio and Arena. It starts with a revival of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s “In the Heights” (Sept. 6-Oct. 1), a second co-production with the county’s other major company, Olney. The show will be performed at Olney, featuring in the central part of Usnavi actor Robin de Jesús, who was nominated for a Tony Award for a supporting role in the original Broadway version; the director is Marcos Santana.
What follows on the calendar are three contemporary plays, and it’s worth mentioning that they’re by women: the world premiere of Sarah Gancher’s “I’ll Get you Back Again,” (Oct. 4-29), directed by Silver Spring, Md., native Rachel Chavkin, of “Natasha, Pierre” fame; Lauren Gunderson’s “The Book of Will” (Nov. 29-Dec. 24), directed by Rilette; and from London’s highly regarded Tricycle Theatre, Moira Buffini’s “Handbagged” (Jan. 31-Feb. 25), directed, as it was in its transfer to the West End, by Indhu Rubasingham. (The last of these is Round House’s contribution to Washington’s second Women’s Voices Theatre Festival next winter.)
The final entries are a revival of Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold . . . and the Boys” (April 11-May 6, 2018), directed by Rilette, and then Story will direct the regional premiere of a new play by Matthew Lopez, “The Legend of Georgia McBride” (June 6-July 1, 2018).
The variety speaks to a theater leader’s goal of a season itself as an artistic statement.
“The way he chooses seasons is more collaborative than anyone I know of,” Zakreski, who joined the company eight months ago, says of the American Conservatory Theatre-trained Rilette. “He maintains a very clear personal vision but is easy to collaborate with,” he adds, explaining that scripts under consideration are circulated to the entire staff, which is invited to discuss them at lunches twice a month.
Other initiatives are under discussion, including one that would invite actors into the company with annual guarantees of work, and plans beyond that for some changes to the physical plant.
In the meantime, the company seems energized by an aspiration to maximize impact on theatergoers’ consciousness.
“We could easily have done ‘Noises Off,’ ” Rilette observes, referring to the crowd-pleasing farce that he sees as programming for an organization lowering its sights. And limited horizons are definitely not what Rilette has in mind.
“That would have put money in the bank, but long term, it wouldn’t have helped the company,” he says. “And my goal is the long game.”