Pressure? For 40 years, Zinoman ran the show. Now it’s his turn.
Angular and soft-spoken, wearing a dark suit and the inscrutable grin of someone who seems to know something you don’t, David Muse rises at a dinner in a sprawling, art-filled house on the edge of Rock Creek Park to deliver a concise state-of-thestage address. “ You inherit a theater in all kinds of conditions,” he says as staffers, donors and board members of Studio Theatre, seated at several tables, push the remnants of dessert around their plates. “I feel like I inherited the healthiest theater in the country.”
He ticks off some particulars: a budget that’s perennially in the black; a complex of four theaters on 14th Street NW and a portfolio of 16 artists’ apartments, all of which the company owns outright; an eclectic array of often well-received plays; a $5 million supplemental fund dedicated to the support of company operations. “A theater,” Muse informs the gathering, “ that doesn’t need reinvention.”
So you have to wonder as this 36-year-old stage director and Yale Drama School graduate adjusts to his new life as Studio’s impresario-in-chief, what is there vital to do for a young guy with inventive dreams of his own?
Studio had been steered for its nearly four decades by only one other person until Muse took over as artistic director Sept. 1. That was the formidable Joy Zinoman, who built the place from small acting school to outsize dramatic force in this town. (After spending the fall in Italy, she is to direct a playlet for a Tennessee Williams festival in March at Georgetown University.) She had the last word on practically everything, including the shape of each season and the size of each theater, limited in Studio’s case to about 200 seats, the dimension Zinoman considered ideal from artistic and administrative standpoints.
Muse was also coming into an organization whose next tier down was completely filled with Zinoman’s trusted picks, a trio of men who no matter how much they liked and respected Muse — he’d directed a number of plays there — had absorbed a management philosophy from his predecessor. The arrangement suggested that the leader would have to learn an awful lot from the led. And more than that, he’d surely feel pressure to maintain Studio’s health as he sought to capitalize on its past successes.
“How can you not feel some anxiety about that?” Muse asks one afternoon over lunch in a Studio conference room. “Because it’s true: In a sense, she wore all the hats at the theater. She was artistic director, director of development, head of production.”
Muse says his inclination is to be a bit more egalitarian: Maybe he’s a little less alpha than she was, too. He has tried not to be too take-charge, and that has had repercussions even in small ways. “ They will call a meeting,” he says, “and no one’s quite sure how to start it and that’s because it would have been Joy-led.”
This sense of a founder’s shadow looming large is a condition that is likely to find currency in the coming years at other first-rank theaters in the city. Zinoman is the first departure in a class of founding artistic directors — including Michael Kahn at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Howard Shalwitz at Woolly Mammoth and Eric Schaeffer at Signature — that has fundamentally altered the DNA of Washington drama. The theater world across the region is watching Muse’s early progress for signs of how smoothly transitions of this seismic sort might be achieved.
Differences in style, training
There has been little in the way of shocks to the Studio system. Muse’s biggest move has been the creation of a literary director position, a cerebralsounding job that he has filled with Adrien-Alice Hansel, formerly of the Actors Theatre of Louisville, a group known primarily for its influential annual newplay festival. Her arrival signals one of Muse’s tweaks to Studio’s offerings: a plan to produce on a regular basis works that have never been done elsewhere.
“It’s not like he has to come in and get the place back on track,” observes Keith Alan Baker, Studio’s managing director and a key aide of Zinoman’s for 25 years. “David and Joy have different personalities, and so for me and the staff and the board and everybody, the biggest difference is one of personality. It’s very interesting how he proceeds with his
“What I liked about David the most was there was a quiet ferocity to his approach.”
— Jerry Whiddon, who appeared in David Muse’s production of “Blackbird.”
day, his attitude, his style.”
Muse could not diverge much more from Zinoman in style and training. She was intuitive and emotional (you could hear her sniffling in the audience on opening nights); he’s coolly cerebral and kind of Zen. At a series of get-acquainted dinners in board members’ homes, such as the one last month in board President Susan Butler’s house overlooking Rock Creek Park, Muse dutifully thanks the friendly crowd for its support, but the index cards he holds for security indicate that he is not yet well versed in how to command a room.
Like Zinoman, the rehearsal room is where he’s most comfortable, although his path to it was far more academic. Zinoman was an autodidact: She was a child actress in Chicago and later exercised her passion for theater in her years overseas with her husband Murray, a Foreign Service officer. Muse, who grew up in Fulton, Mo., came toWashington in 1996 as a Teach for America recruit after completing an undergraduate degree at Yale, where he devised his own major (ethics, politics and economics). He taught math at Eastern High School during the day and attended classes at night in Studio’s acting conservatory before returning to New Haven for a master’s degree in directing from Yale’s drama school. (He is dating actress Rachael Holmes, whom he directed in Shakespeare Theatre’s “Henry V.”)
Guiding actors through a modern text proved to be his forte. He has staged psychologically nuanced works for Studio, two of the highlights being his production of “Frozen,” a portrait of a serial killer, and the recent “CircleMirror Transformation,” about the awkward members of a community center acting class.
“What I liked about David the most was there was a quiet ferocity to his approach,” says Jerry Whiddon, who appeared at Studio in Muse’s well-received production of “Blackbird,” which details the encounter between a man and the young woman he seduced years before, when she was underage. “His concentration was really intense, but at the same time, it wasn’t formidable, it didn’t put anybody off. He was keenly interested in us as actors and how we
made a moment work.”
Muse gained experience in day-to-day theater operations over the last several years as right-hand man to Kahn at the Shakespeare. But that’s a vastly different role from calling all the shots in your own company, one that stages as many as a dozen productions a year. The variety of the responsibilities is daunting. They include recruiting new board members and figuring out how to deal with sign-interpreted performances, all of which steal time from the more profound job of contemplating what kind of impact you want your theater to have.
“If I had to articulate the biggest challenge of being artistic director, it’s making sure that you find time to behave like an artist — to read and reflect and not get bogged down in details,” he says.
That Studio is in good shape doesn’t mean it can’t stretch. Although it has done a fine job as the leading local outpost for a diverse cadre of important or emerging playwrights — Tom Stoppard, Caryl Churchill, Neil LaBute and Tarell Alvin McCraney, to name a few — its renown is pretty much confined to the community it serves. A knock on Studio is the assertion that its roster has so many successes because the scripts it chooses come from a pile of winners. For example, all the plays featured so far this season (which were picked under Zinoman’s tenure) had successful runs elsewhere: “Circle Mirror,” “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven,” “Superior Donuts,” “Mojo” and “Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet.” Muse’s next directorial effort for Studio — the first play solely of his selection — will be David Ives’s “Venus in Fur,” another work that previously received good notices.
This is a formula for sustained audience satisfaction rather than real impact on the world of the performing arts: For that, you really do have to stick your neck out and be there at the creative birth of a play, as, say, Woolly Mammoth Theatre does routinely. Even musicals-driven Signature and classics-oriented Shakespeare Theatre have been shown to be more eager to commission newwork and feature it prominently.
Muse says that because he particularly likes having playwrights in the rehearsal room, he will be looking for new plays with more vigor. He also anticipates more work migrating to Studio from overseas. A harbinger of the trend will occur in March, when the work of Irish playwright EndaWalsh will be spotlighted in a festival arranged under Zinoman.
In the coming months, Muse will take his next significant step, announcing his first full lineup of plays, for the 2011-12 season. All sorts of pressures will weigh on the decision. But perhaps he’ll lean on the advice that Kahn offered him as he took on his new job: “You don’t owe anyone anything.”
Or as Shakespeare put it, “ To thine own self be true.” Neither is a bad thought to hold on to as a young leader tries to make a solid enterprise better.
BEING TRUE TO HIMSELF: DavidMuse brings a different leadership style to running Studio Theatre. He says his inclination is to be more egalitarian than his predecessor, Joy Zinoman, who had the last word on everything.