The Shakespeare Theatre Company maintains two major stages, Sidney Harman Hall and the Lansburgh Theatre, a few blocks apart in Penn Quarter. They are the public face of the acclaimed operation that won the 2012 regional Tony Award.
The nerve center, though, is more than two miles away: on Barracks Row, by the Navy Yard in Southeast Washington. That’s where the administrative offices and rehearsal halls are, along with the troupe’s educational arm.
The company’s muscles are all over the place: a prop shop in Maryland, a substantial costume shop across the street from the office in Southeast, and a scenery shop the size of an airplane hangar more than four miles north, near Catholic University. You’d call it a campus if it weren’t so far-flung.
Being in so many places — some owned, some leased — has made STC Managing Director Chris Jennings jittery ever since he came to the organization a decade ago. That’s why the troupe recently announced a deal to buy the former Southeastern University building at 501 I St. SW, a block from Arena Stage, aiming to cut costs and increase efficiency. If zoning hurdles are cleared, groundbreaking could take place as soon as a year from now, according to Jennings and Timothy Fowler, the STC director of operations.
For Jennings, the new site needs to centralize the operation, control costs and provide a sense of stability about core property needs. “It has to work on all three fronts,” he says.
It’s not uncommon for theater companies to have major work done off-site. Arena Stage has long had full shops under its own roof, though it was even more widely scattered than the STC is now while its facility was renovated from 2008 to 2010. Bethesda’s Round House Theatre has its offices in Silver Spring, with a scene shop and storage for costumes and props in Rockville. The sets for the Kennedy Center’s rare self-produced musicals such as “Ragtime,” “Follies” and “Side Show” are built elsewhere, at sites as far away as California (where the center’s recent “Side Show,” now Broadway-bound, was performed before heading here); the Washington National Opera, which calls the Kennedy Center home, has a costume shop and rehearsal space in Takoma Park.
Ford’s Theatre has no room in its historic venue for a rehearsal hall (something Ford’s often sublets from the STC) or for shops. Neither does the Folger, which is where the STC performed until moving to the Lansburgh in 1992. Most of the Ford’s sets are built in Virginia, though the “Christmas Carol” set was built in Illinois. The Folger sets are done in Maryland; costume work is frequently contracted with shops as far afield as New Jersey and Missouri.
But the Shakespeare’s footprint is bigger than most, and the organization produces the most lavish shows of any nonprofit theater in the region. The casts typically are big, and the sets are scaled to fit the 451-seat Lansburgh on Seventh Street NW and the 774-seat Harman Hall on F Street NW, across from Verizon Center. Having its in-house operations so scattered — and so vulnerable, in some cases, to escalating rent — is a headache.
“I’ve often said that the Yale School of Drama needs to add a real estate development course,” Jennings says, only half joking.
For now, this is what’s where, and what will relocate come the day the STC gets a new headquarters:
The STC owns the building it has occupied at 516 Eighth St. SE since 1994. The education department is on the ground floor, administration is on the next two levels, and above is a light-filled rehearsal hall that was home to the STC’s Academy for Classical Acting, the master of fine arts program that relocated to George Washington University after Harman Hall opened. (With two theaters operating simultaneously, the STC needed the extra rehearsal space.)
The STC intends to sell this building, which is now the base for 50 full-time staffers, 20 part-time telemarketers and half a dozen interns. But Jennings can’t safely put it on the market until the zoning hurdles are fully cleared for the Barracks Row site’s redevelopment.
At 507 Eighth Street SE, this facility is convenient because it’s across the street from the main office and because costumers can yank actors out of rehearsal and straight into fitting rooms.
“Actors get lost crossing the street,” needles costume director Wendy Stark Prey.
The rehearsal hall is on the ground floor, along with a small windowless classroom. The costume shop occupies the entire second floor, and it’s filled with enough large work tables to accommodate six teams of four costumers. There are two fitting rooms, plus a craft area for dying fabric and for building accessories from swords to hats. Petticoats and men’s shirts are kept in a corner, and on a wall down a sloping, tunnel-like fire escape hang a thousand belts, by Prey’s reckoning.
But most costumes are stored off-site. The troupe’s collection of shoes is in four locations. How does Prey keep track?
“That’s what we do,” she shrugs.
What’s inconvenient: being priced out of the market on a street where restaurants thrive. The STC offered to buy the building, but Jennings says the owners preferred to keep it. (Jennings and Fowler emphasize that the company, which recently went through a legal scrap to continue performing in the Lansburgh, is on good terms with its various landlords.) The STC just signed a three-year lease extension on the costume shop, but as early as September the troupe could get six months’ notice that it has to vacate the ground floor.
This rented warehouse feels vast as a Hollywood sound studio, tucked in an alley by the train tracks at Catholic University. The footprint is 23,000 square feet, with ceilings 24 feet high.
“Space means we can buy in bulk,” Fowler says over the buzz of a saw and the hum of a large fan.
It also means the staff can build and paint more than one set at a time, and can erect and test sets (including any complicated moving parts) at full scale before trucking the pieces to one of the theaters. The tall moving walls of the recent “Henry IV” repertory got a dry run that way, for instance.
The crew is already getting a jump on the season, creating the ribbed hull of a wrecked ship for December’s “The Tempest.” A custom-built motorized turntable is nearly finished, meaning the artisans will have a solid head start on a “Tempest” visual centerpiece even before executing the design for October’s “As You Like It.”
Technical director Mark Prey — Wendy’s husband — opens a door through a high wall and into the paint room, where scenic charge artist Sally Glass is meticulously painting a scrim spread across the floor. The scrim is 35 feet wide and 26 feet tall. It will take two people more than two weeks to finish.
“This is small,” Prey says. “She’s done 60-foot-wide drops.”
Eleven people work here, and this scene shop is not being relocated; Jennings says the lease agreement is secure.
And the STC map gets bigger: There’s a prop shop in Mount Rainier that doubles as a major costume storage site. There is housing in the 300 block of East Capitol Street that the company owns and will probably sell once the new site is redeveloped. For talent booked from out of town, there is rented artist housing scattered hither and yon, from Capitol Hill to Chinatown. There is even a leased parking lot a few doors from the office.
Come the consolidation, nearly everything but the theaters themselves and the scene shop will share the new site: offices, rehearsal halls, education, costume shop, even storage and enough housing to rent to local theaters.
“The costs of not moving are just going to get higher and higher,” Fowler says.
Jennings agrees, pinning his hopes on the Southwest project that will still take months to clinch. “Everything’s moving forward positively,” he ventures, sounding like a man with his fingers tightly crossed.