THE PLAY’S THE THING
For capital theatergoers, there’s no business like show business.
For capital theatergoers, there’s no business like show business
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 first on capital stages. Consider Zero Mostel tuning up Teyve when “Fiddler on the Roof” stopped at National Theatre or James Earl Jones warming up for fame and “The Great White Hope” at Arena Stage. Our wise audiences have often helped polish Broadway-bound productions. But now … a reality check. At 90-plus area stages, 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), 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.” He credits the strong base of actors, designers and directors that companies can draw from. Proximity to New York factors with some casting there and boosts the careers of some younger actors picked for national tours. But Rilette insists, D.C. 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, he says, “we get the first chance to weigh in.”
The TheatreWashington organization promotes the region’s stages and 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. On May 15 at the Lincoln Theatre and the 9:30 Club, TheatreWashington dispenses this year’s awards.
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. 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.
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 an ongoing connection to the work of Stephen Sondheim. In 2012, he was shortlisted for Drama Desk best director for the 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 Schaeffer’s directed often over the years. Sweet fact: years back, he paid $1,000 for the original Broadway set and stored it in his garage. For this month’s shows, see page 54.
IT’S SHOWTIME! (Clockwise from left) Arena Stage; “Fun Home,” at National Theatre through May 13; “Ragtime,” at Ford’s Theatre through May 20; Signature Theatre