Shining a Spotlight on the Hot D.C. Theater Scene

In the capital city, not all the drama (or comedy) is political. Acclaimed stages draw crowds and produce Broadway-bound hits.

D.C. theater folks give their regards to Broadway. And maybe Broadway should say “thank you”? We’ve sent at least two current hit musicals north—“Dear Evan Hansen,” which premiered at Arena Stage, and “Come From Away,” which made its final-check run at Ford’s Theatre. This reflects a tradition—testing a show’s words and moves first on capital stages.

Consider Zero Mostel tuning up Teyve when “Fiddler on the Roof” made its last-minute stop at the National Theatre or James Earl Jones warming up for fame and “The Great White Hope” at Arena Stage. Our wise and worldly audiences have often helped tweak and polish Broadway-bound productions.

Ford's Theatre

But now … a reality check. At 90-plus stages across northern Virginia, southern Maryland and the District, curtains rise on an array of entertainment. Venues range from suburban and downtown troupes with community and professional players to companies with special interests (Spanish language, Jewish identity, mime, social issues), from children’s playhouses to the grand halls of the Kennedy Center.

One well-traveled, longtime patron of American theater, attorney Paul Mason touts the diversity. “I could go to good shows here five nights a week, and that’s not possible in San Francisco or L.A.”

Mason serves on the board of Bethesda, Maryland’s acclaimed Round House Theatre. The company’s producing artistic director, Ryan Rilette, typifies those adventurous spirits who’ve made Washington, in his words, “one of the top theater cities in America.”

Kennedy Center

He credits the strong base of actors, designers and directors that companies can draw from. Proximity to New York factors with some casting there (D.C. veteran actors like Nancy Robinette in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”) and boosts the careers of some younger actors picked for national tours. But Rilette insists, Washington theaters have “no special relationship” or dependence on the New York scene.

Rilette identifies his company’s strength as “ensemble acting” and its focus as “plays that demand discussion and empathy.” When he books each six-show season, Rilette reconfirms the company’s passion for developing new material. By staging works-in-progress, “we get the first chance to weigh in.”

The TheatreWashington organization promotes and celebrates the region’s stages and each year bestows awards named in honor of the “First Lady of American Theater,” Helen Hayes. Panels of judges gauge more than 200 productions, both plays and musicals, in costume and set design, lighting, choreography, acting, writing and directing.

Arena Stage

Hayes (1900-1993) grew up in Washington, where a National Theatre production inspired her early stage career. She took her last bow in O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” at Catholic University’s Hartke Theatre. Between those hometown markers, she won the first Tony given to a lead actress, a second Tony, two Oscars, an Emmy, a Grammy, a Kennedy Center Honors Award and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Can a theater here win a Tony? Indeed three local companies have earned the statuette for outstanding Regional Theatre—Arena Stage in 1976, Signature Theatre in 2009 and Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2012. Honoring the pioneering Arena Stage came as a surprise then, but not so for the later two, both run by Washington-based directors who paid their dues in New York but made their greater impact here.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall

Michael Kahn, artistic director of Shakespeare Theatre, has helmed New York productions and since 1968 taught at The Juilliard School’s Drama Division. Signature’s director, Eric Schaeffer, has created an ongoing connection to the work and person of Stephen Sondheim. In 2012, he was shortlisted for Drama Desk best director for the 2011 revival of Sondheim’s “Follies,” but he had established his cred already with “Million Dollar Quartet” which earned him a Tony director nomination.

The story of Signature Theatre reads like a plot for its own stage. Young actor/graphics designer (Schaeffer) comes to northern Virginia to help run a community theater, wins awards for “Sweeney Todd” in a school auditorium, converts an auto garage into a theater and, in 2007, moves his company into a $16 million facility.

Signature celebrated its 25th year with Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George,” the musical that Schaeffer has directed often over the years. Sweet fact: years back, before his successes, he paid $1,000 for the original Broadway set and stored it in his garage.

Jean Lawlor Cohen
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