Pres­sure? For 40 years, Zinoman ran the show. Now it’s his turn.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS - BY PETER MARKS

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.”

Day-to-day op­er­a­tions

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.

MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST

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.

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