Because everyone loves a good suspenseful drama, it appears that Keegan Theatre’s year-long $2.4 million construction project will be finished just days, or maybe even hours, before the curtain is set to go up on the first show in the renovated venue.
Performances of Tennessee Williams’s classic “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” are scheduled to begin Saturday, but as of Tuesday, the theater did not have a certificate of occupancy for the building, which is located at 1742 Church St. NW.
“We are pretty confident that we will get it Wednesday or Thursday,” said Jeff Klein, media relations manager for the company.
Matt Orlins, a spokesman for the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, confirmed that Keegan had applied for the certificate but not received it. He could not confirm that the certificate will be issued this week.
Klein said that city inspectors have visited the building and that “just a few issues remain,” including problems with the elevator. Actors have been rehearsing in the building and lights are being hung, he said.
The three-story brick building on a quiet residential street west of Dupont Circle was constructed in the early 1900s and was originally a gym for the Holton-Arms School, which relocated to Bethesda. Since 1975, a succession of companies — some defunct, some still operating — have used the space, including the New Playwrights, Synetic, Forum and Scena theaters. Keegan has been leasing the building since 2005.
But as anyone who has attended a Keegan show can attest, the building could not comfortably hold 100 people, not with those rickety seats, not with its antiquated HVAC system and not with only two toilets for the cast, crew and patrons. In 2012, Keegan began meeting with Stoiber & Associates architects to discuss fixing the bathroom situation. At that point, an anonymous donor offered to help buy the building, which would allow the theater to do more than just add toilets. Keegan announced the purchase in 2013 and subsequently began its In Good Company campaign with a goal of raising an additional $2 million toward design, construction and debt-repayment costs. (The theater also took out a $900,000 loan for the project, and it has largely been repaid.) Klein said the fundraising effort was a success, with the total cost of the project eventually topping $4.4 million. Keegan expects to be debt-free within a few months, he said.
Work on the renovation was delayed last year, however, when the theater faced zoning hurdles and city officials noted that the previous occupancy certificate permitted theater classes but not necessarily performances. (Past companies had used the building for educational purposes.) Construction began in August, and contractors were still scurrying outside last week. Stoiber’s redesign included bumping out the building’s east side, adding a three-story glass vestibule with a new entrance and making the theater much more accommodating for all patrons, including those with disabilities.
Keegan is hardly the first arts organization to cut things close when it comes to dealing with city inspectors. Last year, Dance Place received its certificate just 24 hours before the first performance in its renovated Brookland building, and had advertised contingency plans to hold performances elsewhere if the work wasn’t finished. Susan Rhea, co-director of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” said via e-mail that a delay in opening the play “would be discouraging, but not the end of the world.”
Delays caused by weather, not a construction project, affected dozens of D.C. theater companies last weekend, when severe thunderstorms stranded attendees of the annual Theatre Communications Group National Conference in Cleveland. After sharing cabs to Cleveland Hopkins International Airport on Saturday night, and learning at the terminal that their flight had been canceled, representatives from six theaters decided it was time for a spontaneous collaboration, and rented a seven-passenger van to make it home in time for Sunday matinees, additional travel and Father’s Day brunches.
“It was quite an adventure,” said Jojo Ruf, who attended the conference representing both Georgetown University and the Welders, a local playwrights collective. It was her idea to rent a van and cross the Appalachian Mountains in the middle of the night. At the National Car Rental, she piled into a Dodge along with her Georgetown colleague Derek Goldman, Olney Theatre Center Managing Director Deborah Ellinghaus, Shakespeare Theatre Managing Director Chris Jennings, Woolly Mammoth Marketing Director Gwydion Suilebhan and Theatre J Acting Artistic Director Shirley Serotsky.
Jennings drove the first leg of the trip, during which the van’s stereo was blaring show tunes, Ruf acknowledged. They left Cleveland about 8:30 p.m., and turned off the music once passengers fell asleep and the rain started falling. Ruf, who held a commercial van driver’s license while she was in college, drove the middle leg through the mountains. “It was a little harrowing at one point in Pennsylvania,” she said. “The roads were pretty windy, it was raining hard and there were lots of trucks.”
Suilebhan drove the final miles. After just two pit stops, the van arrived about 2:45 a.m. at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, where several passengers retrieved their cars. Shakespeare Theatre picked up the tab for the van, while other passengers chipped in for gas before returning the vehicle to Reagan National Airport.
The dramatic trip was a somewhat fitting end to what had already been a memorable conference. Ruf served on two panels and enjoyed sideline meetings with an affinity group focusing on women in theater leadership. At the closing session Saturday, Shakespeare Theatre Artistic Director Michael Kahn announced that the 2016 TCG conference will be held in Washington, bringing about 800 theater leaders from around the continent to the capital.
As to whether any future collaborations between local theater companies will come out of the unexpected road trip, it’s too soon to tell, Ruf said, adding: “Check back in two years.”
Ritzel is a freelance writer.