Those discussions ultimately birthed Olney Outdoors, an eclectic season of open-air offerings that launches July 2 with a free production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” performed by Olney’s National Players touring ensemble through July 11.
“We really were looking at a number of scenarios, and how our institution would have to change in order to meet those needs,” says Jason King Jones, Olney’s senior associate artistic director and the head of the National Players. “One of the commonalities in all of those was that we’re fortunate enough to have what a lot of other theater institutions don’t have, and that’s an abundance of outdoor space.”
“I mean, we’re the State Summer Theater of Maryland,” Loewith says. “We’ve already got the mantle. We just needed to grow into it.”
Although Olney has a rich tradition of outdoor performances, which included a long-running summer Shakespeare festival, the theater hasn’t staged the Bard’s work on the Root Family Stage since 2015 because of what Jones described as “scheduling and other strategic choices.” Even when Olney was more regularly utilizing its sprawling campus, the programming never rivaled the scale and diversity of Olney Outdoors, which includes some 50 performances — some free, some paid — running through Sept. 4.
After “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” kicks off the season, Olney Outdoors will feature a cabaret series with local stage favorites; jazz performances shaped by D.C. musician Mark G. Meadows; a program of faith-based Sunday concerts called “Sing Praise!”; theater for young audiences on weekend mornings; spoken-word performances, billed as “Sip ’N’ Slam”; and a two-part drag queen extravaganza.
“Olney Theatre is looking at ultimately trying to not necessarily blow up the plan for traditional theater but just kind of stretch it in so many new directions, so that there really is no reason for anyone to feel like the arts are not welcoming,” says Kevin McAllister, Olney’s first director of curated programs and Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) artist advocate. “It’s important to all of us that we really try to get a huge mirror in front of everything we do and show people that Olney is committed to really expanding.”
McAllister, a decorated local performer and director, was tasked with curating Olney Outdoors shortly after he joined the theater’s staff in March in a pair of newly created roles. Recognizing that Olney Theatre Center sits about 10 miles from Rockville, Gaithersburg and Silver Spring — three of the 10 most culturally diverse cities in the United States, according to a recent WalletHub study — Loewith encouraged McAllister to help the theater broaden its artistic horizons, which previously had remained rooted in productions aimed toward White audiences.
“During the pandemic, we learned a lot of lessons, and we had an opportunity to do some serious thinking,” Loewith says. “One of the things that we learned was, number one, the audience that comes to our plays is among the most loyal audiences in the country for a theater, but we are doing a poor job of expanding and diversifying our audience so that we’re actually serving the communities that are all around us.”
In a first for the National Players, this production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will be performed by a predominantly Black cast. While the staging fits within Olney’s intention to diversify its staff, artists and programming, as communicated in an anti-racism mission statement released in December, the production actually was cast before the pandemic as part of the National Players’ scrapped 2020-2021 touring season. Olney plans to have the same cast perform “A Raisin in the Sun” on its main indoor stage over Labor Day weekend, then take both productions on the road this fall for the National Players’ 72nd tour.
After Loewith and Jones co-directed the more traditional staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that marked Olney’s most recent outdoor Shakespeare production six years ago, they both see this summer’s iteration — helmed by Danielle Drakes with an Afrofuturistic aesthetic — as an apt passing of the torch.
“What does it look like to have predominantly people of color onstage saying these words? It felt like a future,” Drakes says of her vision for the production. “With Black futures, anything is possible and the liberation for all is possible. So we’re really trying to bring that and Shakespeare’s words together, to show that without gatekeepers we can all be free.”
With vaccines required for all full-time staff at Olney and Maryland’s coronavirus restrictions for entertainment venues lifted, the Root Family Stage bleachers will be open at full capacity this summer, though physically distanced seating on blankets or chairs is also available. Masks are encouraged but optional for vaccinated patrons. Should inclement weather intervene, events will move to the main indoor stage, where a full 200-person crowd from outside will represent less than half of the indoor venue’s capacity.
In addition to monitoring audience comfort with the loosened coronavirus precautions, Olney plans to closely evaluate patrons’ viewing habits during Olney Outdoors. As the theater crafts its 2021-2022 season, the plan is less about returning to normalcy and more about using the pandemic as a reset for a more inclusive future.
“We’re actually openly saying that we are changing,” McAllister says. “We’re openly hiring new people, we’re openly reexamining programming, we are openly looking at artists of color and elevating them as best we can. We are giving people opportunities, and I don’t see that in a lot of other institutions.”
Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. 301-924-3400. olneytheatre.org/olney-outdoors.
Dates: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” runs July 2-11. Additional outdoor programming runs through Sept. 4.
Admission: Tickets to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” are free. The rest of the outdoor season is a mix of free and paid programming.