Many theater companies in the Washington area boast strong ties to the venerable dramatic traditions of Ireland.
Round House is not one of those theaters.
The Kennedy Center has hosted tours of several Irish classics — including plays by John Millington Synge and Tom Murphy as presented by Druid Theatre Company — and next spring will unspool a festival of Emerald Isle arts and culture. The Keegan Theatre tours Ireland almost every year and is now premiering its fourth play by Belfast-born playwright Rosemary Jenkinson. Studio Theatre’s continued commitment to contemporary Irish drama includes its 2016 staging of Deirdre Kinahan’s “Moment,” and helming that drama is Ethan McSweeny, a D.C. native who directs a show each season at Dublin’s Gate Theatre.
But Round House? When it comes to Ireland, the Internet — and the Guinness available at intermission — are the theater’s best resources.
Director Ryan Rilette, lighting designer Colin K. Bills and set designer Meghan Raham have never been to Ireland. When they met to discuss staging “The Night Alive,” Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s latest drama, they realized they were at a disadvantage. Raham kept repeating in her head McPherson’s explanation line for the setting: “An Edwardian house near the Phoenix Park in Dublin.”
“That would be the equivalent of saying the play was set in a garden apartment in a Federal-style building in Georgetown,” Raham said. “For McPherson, it was a kind of shorthand.”
A shorthand that meant little to the design team, until Bills said, “Let’s try Google Street View.” With a computer, a projector and a huge screen at hand, they proceeded to spend the next hour or so cyberspying on dozens of Dublin homes.
“We kept looking and zooming in until we found ones that had Edwardian architecture and backed up to the park,” Raham said. Later that night, Bills e-mailed a link to the photo of the home that would become their model.
“It was just sort of the perfect house,” Raham said. “I just looked at it and thought, ‘I just want to take out that section of wall and open it up,’ and that’s what I ended up doing.”
Her early models showed a sliver of the home’s facade through a window. Although that’s not how her final rendition turned out, Raham said that as a designer, knowing about the physical world where the play is set is crucial, even if audiences never see the exterior she saw on Google Street View. “It told us something about how nice that house once was, although it’s not anymore,” she said.
Perhaps the Irish tourism board — which is marketing “genealogy trips” to Irish Americans interested in their ancestral lands — should consider pushing Google Street View. After spending so many hours on the site looking at Dublin’s brick-lined streets and bridges, Raham said, “We all want to go.”
Woolly Mammoth Theatre will be the site of some serious number-crunching Thursday, when arts leaders gather to discuss a new report that reveals mostly bad news for Washington’s cultural sector.
“Culture Across Communities,” a study released Monday by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, includes comprehensive financial and attendance data from arts groups in Washington, Philadelphia and nine other major metropolitan areas.
The good news for Washington: Arts attendance increased 5.4 percent from 2009 to 2012. The Smithsonian was not included in the study, but if it were, Washington would boast the highest arts attendance in the nation outside of New York. D.C. arts organizations also had the highest increase in endowment levels, a sign that those funds are rebounding after the recession.
To analyze trend data for the Washington area, the Philadelphia Cultural Alliance had access to Cultural Data Project numbers from 106 organizations in the District and Calvert, Charles, Frederick, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland. (Virginia does not participate in the Cultural Data Project, a national clearinghouse for arts data.)
The local data reflects two key national trends: A decline in government and corporate support is persuading arts organizations to rethink their revenue streams, and a decline in subscription sales is prompting some performing-arts groups to reimagine their business models.
But looking closely at other numbers reveals some D.C. statistics that are dubious distinctions, puzzling anomalies and causes for concern. Among the study’s findings:
●D.C. is a theater town. Of the 329 area groups reporting to the Cultural Data Project (more than 200 organizations began reporting since 2009, as more and more funders require it), 21 percent are theaters. Seventeen percent are groups primarily devoted to arts education.
●D.C. tickets aren’t cheap. Ticket revenue in Washington increased 29.2 percent, the highest gain in the nation, but, as noted, attendance is up only about 5 percent. Looking at the data from all 329 groups, admissions, tickets and tuition were the largest revenue sources in Washington, at 24 percent, representing the nation’s highest reliance on such revenue. Many arts groups actually lowered ticket prices in response to the recession, said Maud Lyon, president of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.
●Individual Washingtonians are still giving money to the arts. Individual donations are up 42.1 percent, second only to Cleveland. Seven cities reported a decrease in individual giving. Lyon pointed out that a handful of capital campaigns, undertaken between 2009 and 2012, could be the reasons for major bumps in Washington and Cleveland.
●Foundations are giving far less. Locally, support from foundations decreased by 47.5 percent, the second-highest cut in the nation.
●Endowments are on the rise, with a 56.4 percent increase in Washington; net assets, however, are down 15.4 percent. Both of those swings were the highest in the nation, Lyon said. She could not comment on the endowment bumps, but one organization offloading a $11 million building could have affected the drop in assets.
●Arts organizations have been cutting staff and salaries. Employment spending is down 3.1 percent, the largest decrease in the nation. Overall, most regions recorded gains in the number of employees, especially part-time staffers.
●Larger arts groups are more likely to run large deficits. The average deficit, for a Washington arts group with a budget of $10 million or more, was 2.4 percent. Smaller organizations had an average surplus of 1.8 percent. Both of those figures, however, are worse than the national average.
The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance released the report at its annual meeting and is sending staffers out across the country to share the data with other cities, with Washington up first. John McInerney, the alliance’s vice president of marketing and communication, will be the guest speaker at Thursday’s meeting, which starts at 9:30 a.m. Although held at Woolly, the meeting was organized by Cultural Capital, an alliance of Washington-area arts groups.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.