[I’ve just recently published two articles about the theater scene in Washington, D.C., which is my hometown (“Washington’s Arena Stage: Under Construction,” 26 November, and “Lincoln & Howard Theatres: Stages of History,” 2 December). Back when I was actively writing theater reviews, I wrote a round-up of what was on the stages of Washington and the metropolitan area for a publication called Stages, the coverage of which I think is self-explanatory. A version of this report appeared as "Stages in DC" in the September 1985 issue. I thought it would be interesting to take a look back 26 years ago at what I saw back when Washington theater was just emerging into its own spotlight. (Comments in square brackets are remarks I added for this republication on ROT.)]
Not too long ago theater in Washington, D.C., meant a touring show at the National, whatever was at Arena Stage, and a college production at Catholic University. Occasionally a special treat, such as a visit from the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, would come along. Otherwise, the choices were pretty limited, and, except for Arena, pretty tame. Not only has the landscape changed considerably since then, but it keeps changing as if there were an earthquake under the Potomac.
In a recent week, dinner and stock theaters outside the city, long an entertainment draw to city dwellers, were hopping with no fewer than a dozen productions including standard musicals and light comedies. Maryland’s Olney Theatre, for example, presented Larry Shue’s The Foreigner with Jack Gilpin in the title role and an endearing, charming performance by Patrick Richwood as dim-witted Ellard Simms. The play, still in performance in New York, may not have much to say, but as an excuse to drive into the country and laugh yourself silly, it cannot be beaten.
The city has no official equivalent of Off- or Off-Off-Broadway, but there are an increasing number of small theaters offering more daring fare. Companies such as the Source, Woolly Mammoth, New Playwrights, Studio, and So Far Theatres present an eclectic selection of new, experimental, and seldom produced plays. [Broadway is represented by the Kennedy Center and the National Theatre.]
The New Arts Theatre, for instance, presented a taut, gutsy production of John Patrick Shanley’s Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, recently seen in New York. While not solving the many problems of the awkward script, the performance showed vibrant and exciting talent from all involved. One might question Artistic Director Camilla David’s choice of script, but never her boldness for trying it.
Already several years old, this proliferation of theaters is only one symptom of the exploding theater life in Washington. The air of change, a distinct pleasure to longtime Washingtonians, has infected the established theaters, too, now.
At the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Peter Sellars’s plans for the American National Theater are already apparent. Two indigenous productions, Henry IV, Part I and The Count of Monte Cristo, launched the ambitious project this fall. The second part of Sellars’s plan, importing productions from other cities, began this summer. The “Chicago Season” brought two companies from that city to the Kennedy Center with two productions each.
The Wisdom Bridge Theatre presented an adaptation by Robert Falls of Jack Henry Abbott’s prison memoires, In The Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison, coming later to New York, followed by Shozo Soto’s Kabuki Medea. Concurrently, the Tony Award-winning Steppenwolf Theatre performed Lynn Siefert’s Coyote Ugly and David Rabe’s Streamers.
Sellars’s future plans include commissioning plays by leading American novelists and co-producing scripts with theaters around the country. If there will ever be a truly national American theater, it will certainly look much like this.
This is not to say that all the productions are unerringly successful. Henry IV closed early to disastrous reviews and Monte Cristo had a luke-warm reception. In the Belly of the Beast, though offering a stirring performance by William L. Peterson as Abbott, is decidedly one-sided and manipulative in its sympathies. It wants us to empathize with Abbott, but chooses the material and language with such obvious bias it makes one uncomfortable and even angry. It is also unclear whether the play wants to be a universal statement about society, prison, and violence, or a portrait of one particular, troubled soul.
Siefert’s Coyote Ugly [not related to the 2000 film with the same title], which attempts to show an earthy, bizarre family in the desert Southwest trying “to escape its dark origins,” has serious problems, too. She has written some striking scenes, performed with incredible intensity by Steppenwolf’s ensemble, and has created some wonderful black humor, but she has not written a play. The many scenes, separated by black-outs, just do not stick together.
The kinds of chances taken by David, Sellars, Steppenwolf, and Wisdom Bridge have been Arena Stage’s habitual territory for thirty-five years. In that time, Arena has become a Washington institution, providing varied productions for a loyal audience. Its last production this season, Emily Mann’s Execution of Justice, exploring the murder in San Francisco of Mayor Anthony Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk by former Supervisor Dan White, may soon be seen in New York. [It was, in 1986. It was also adapted for TV, in a different production, in 1999.]
Far from growing staid and static in its middle age, Arena has just announced plans for a major expansion. It will operate year-round for the first time, double its acting company, increase its artistic and administrative staffs, and initiate several new projects. The company is preparing to purchase the land under its building, and its outreach project, the Living Stage, recently occupied a permanent home downtown. [These plans were different from the subsequent major rebuilding on which I reported in “Arena Stage: Under Construction.”]
Most recently, Arena was designated one of the five regional theaters in this year’s final Foundation of the Dramatists’ Guild-CBS New Play Contest. The contest obligates the company to accept, read, and evaluate unsolicited scripts, and ultimately produce one of the thousands received. [Full disclosure: I served as a script-reader at Arena for this contest, which went out of operation following the 1985-86 season.]
Washington’s third institutional theater, the Folger, is in the throes of change, too. Just last January it nearly closed after fifteen years of operation in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Elizabethan theater. Saved at the last minute when the Board of Directors of Amherst College, which administers both the library and the theater, rescinded its decision, the Folger has announced plans to reestablish itself as a separate entity.
Along with creating its own board and raising its own funds, the Folger will increase its company and initiate touring productions, readings, and workshops. Artistic Producer John Neville-Andrews, who, since his arrival in 1981, has devoted the Folger entirely to works written before 1800, aims to make it the premier producer of classics in America. He is expanding the season from three full productions to four, and moving into the nineteenth-century realm of Chekhov, Shaw, Ibsen, and Strindberg.
Doing the classics at Folger by no means implies presenting museum pieces. Having set Much Ado About Nothing on a Cowardesque cruise ship of the ’thirties, Neville-Andrews last directed a seventeenth-century Midsummer Night’s Dream on a set of ramps, slides, and hanging Christmastree lights with an electronically disappearing bower for Titania and a silvery, NASA-perfect cut-out of the moon hovering over it all. The romanticism of the acting and Elizabeth Covey’s costumes played nicely against the expressionism of Lewis Folden’s set. Particularly engaging were the little fairies, with Covey’s wispy, gossamer costumes and Barbara York’s make-up.
All this activity certainly proves that theater is alive and kicking in the Nation’s Capital. Yet the strongest evidence that Washington acknowledges its own status and is proclaiming it to the world was May’s inaugural presentation of the Helen Hayes Awards to recognize outstanding artistic achievement in the city’s professional theater. Gathering a varied group of presenters connected with Washington theater life over the years, including Robert Prosky, Bruce Weitz, Robert Foxworth, George Grizzard, and Linda Carter, the ceremony is named after one of theater’s true queens, a native Washingtonian. Now, can a city that claims Helen Hayes as a native daughter be anything but a theater town at heart?
[Many things have changed since 1985. Washington theater star Robert Prosky died in 2008; the namesake for the District’s theater award, Helen Hayes, made her permanent exit in 1993. Peter Sellars’s plans at the Kennedy Center went bust in a spectacular way after he alienated nearly everyone in town, from the audiences to the theater press. The American National Theater never developed—and I’ve never forgiven Sellars for that failure because the basic idea was terrific and it was his solipsistic personality that killed it. (The man actually said that he didn’t care if people complained about his productions as long as they were talking about them! Can you believe that?) The Folger Shakespeare Group under Neville-Andrews, as I note in one of my recent articles, became the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger shortly after this report came out and then ceased to exist, morphing into the Shakespeare Theatre Company under Michael Kahn. (More full disclosure: my late father served on the board of the Folger Shakespeare Group; he was also a voter for the Helen Hayes Awards.) At the Arena, as my profile of that company reports, the artistic leadership passed from Zelda Fichandler, one of the founders, to Douglas C. Wager in 1991 and then to Molly Smith in 1998. Several of the small companies I named above have folded, but new ones have arrived on the scene and many have expanded into major Washington-area cultural institutions. At the time I wrote this wrap-up, I’d say that Washington theater was in its adolescence; I’d say it’s now in its young adulthood: mature but not stodgy or set in its ways. I’d even be so bold as to suggest that theater in the District now rivals some of the country’s best theater towns like Chicago, Seattle, or San Francisco. It pretty much got its wind up in the ’80s.]