Meme Work: Shakespeare Theatre Company?s As You Like It defied ADD.
Meme Work: Shakespeare Theatre Company?s As You Like It defied ADD.

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

On its surface, 2009 was a hell of a year for D.C. theater. Big names alighted on Washington’s bigger stages, local houses staged a raft of shows that turned up later on Broadway, and one particular up-from-scratch company (Signature Theatre) took home the regional-theater Tony Award—the first time that’s happened here since Arena Stage won the first one back in ’76.

Look deeper, though, and the shine starts to rub off a bit.

Consider: Those famous names were mostly renting space in booked-in Event Theater spectaculars—Helen Mirren in a hot-ticket Phèdre from London, Cate Blanchett in that sold-out Australian Streetcar—or passing through in tours or Broadway-bound standalone productions.

All those local shows that ended up in New York? They got their start elsewhere.

Hell, even that regional Tony is more a popularity contest than a considered assessment of a company’s work…or so jaundiced commentators have been heard to remark, anyway.

Don’t get us wrong: It’s not that book-ins can’t be great theater, or that an outfit campaigning shamelessly for a trophy isn’t worthy of national note. But with big companies laying off staff and smaller companies evaporating entirely—and with the region’s biggest player trotting out a wrinkled and leathery cash cow like The Fantasticks for the holidays—we wanted to look at more fundamental measures of the D.C. theater scene’s health.

So we looked back to the last time the calendar was turning over to a new decade, and what we found was…well, let’s just say we thought things were looking dubious then.

Ten years ago we blamed 1999’s “fair-to-middlin’” theatrical output on artistic directors who, after years of making theater, suddenly took to making theaters. Managements were spending as much time poring over blueprints as shaking up audiences, and the theatrical landscape was changing—literally—for the first time since the 1970s.

Round House’s current Bethesda home was then just a hole in the ground, Arena Stage was threatening to abandon its waterfront home for new digs near Gallery Place, and the Kennedy Center was about to unveil plans (happily since abandoned) for a $300-million ceremonial driveway.

Our take on things back then was that when troupes husbanded resources, tackled building projects, and tended nervously to their subscriber bases, they also tended to take fewer risks. As evidence, we pointed to the numbers: Local theaters in 1999 had produced “more revivals (16) than in any year in the previous three decades,” we noted.

We also noted an uptick in the scheduling of musicals (17, that year), which up to that point were mostly the province of dinner theaters and commercial houses, but which had begun to show up in holiday slots at resident theaters.

Asked back then to put what seemed like an empty-calorie theater year in perspective, Woolly Mammoth artistic director Howard Shalwitz waxed philosophical: “This is not an activist age, and theater is an activist art form,” he told City Paper in December 1999. “We’re all going through a small version of what Soviet writers went through with the fall of Communism, what Athol Fugard faced with the end of apartheid. Everyone’s so damn comfortable right now. It’s why this year’s presidential election seems completely inconsequential.” (Emphasis very much ours.)

“Hmmmm,” he sighed when we read that quote back to him last week. “Probably why Bush won.”

“Well, here we are,” he continued. “After the Bush years, the Obama euphoria and the economic meltdown, we’re at a very different political moment and not so comfortable. I don’t know if my fellow artistic directors feel like this, but when I was choosing plays for this season, I wanted to be looking at big, civic questions. But finding those plays is hard.”

Shalwitz was serious enough about that search that last month, for Woolly Mammoth’s 30th anniversary, he hosted a national forum on “theater, democracy and engagement in the 21st century.” It was, he says, a sort of “public existential crisis.”

“There may be several trends at work,” he says. “One is to play it safe and mitigate risk. But I wonder whether there’s a more positive flip side; that as things look grimmer, there’s a glimmer of a new kind of theater.”

Asked what that new grimmer-glimmer theater might entail, Shalwitz waxes not philosophical but demographical: “We may have gotten to the tipping point.…It’s getting hard to pick plays that are going to appeal to both the under-35 crowd and over-35s. There have always been differences in taste, but these days, under-35 audiences have brains that are just wired in a different way. The whole idea of what a play is is starting to move in a new direction.”

Of course, fretting over ways to pack younger people into the seats has been part of theater-making ever since Sophocles gave his quaint little play about a guy and his mom a Hard-R rewrite. But Shalwitz is very serious and talks like a network executive brought in to nab the 18-35 demo.

“For years now, off-Broadway has been all novelty shows, with the idea that they have to reinvent the event of theater. There’s a video trend, and space-shifting like we did in Full Circle. And at more conservative theaters, every play has to be conceptualized—The Fantasticks with magic, Shakespeare with a Hollywood angle—to have a hook for new playgoing audiences.”

We were tempted to make a joke about an extreme-sports Godot—but then we remembered the number of shows we’d seen this year that featured the parkour-like choreography so popular with kids today, with their Eye-Tubes. Synetic, Studio, Rorschach: All over D.C., directors threw more performers into walls than Ike Turner.

So here’s where we stand: The theater-building boom that started 10 years ago is coming to an end. D.C. now has lots of cushy seats facing state-of-the-art stages.

And what’s on them? Some unofficial numbers (the Helen Hayes Awards folks will supply real ones in a few weeks):

By our count, D.C. theater audiences attended some 150 professional productions in calendar year 2009. That number (which does not include children’s theater or dinner theater), has held remarkably steady for the last decade. It was virtually identical in 1999. During that same period, however, the number of musicals and revivals (so as not to skew the revivals category unduly, we’re not including Shakespeare) has ballooned.

Remember 1999’s 16 revivals and 17 musicals? In 2009, those numbers were 35 and 29, respectively.

Just as striking is the explosion in the number of co-productions and booked-in attractions at the city’s rep houses. Some are quasi-commercial runs with outside producers (Looped at Arena Stage), others are wholly imported shows from other cities (Second City’s Barack Stars at Woolly Mammoth), and still others are evenings mounted in tandem with theaters elsewhere (King Lear at Shakespeare Theater, a coproduction with Chicago’s Goodman Theater).

Mind you, when these arrangements mean local audiences get to see Mirren, Blanchett, Estelle Parsons, Stacy Keach, the Neo-Futurists, et al., this is arguably a good thing, whether it’s happening in a repertory or a commercial house. And with costs rising, it makes sense for theaters to share expenses where they can.

Last year we dared to dream that the new administration would take to the local arts scene in a showy, Kennedyesque fashion—that we’d see the First Family and Friends out and about, at this show or that. After eight long years of a stay-in-and-order-wings president, D.C.’s theater community was itching for some high-profile patronage. An Obama in every loge!

Hasn’t happened. So looking at the horizon, we’re keeping our fingers crossed that next year’s calendar will offer theater thrilling enough to change that—or at least to re-engage longtime D.C. loyalists, and maybe even find new fans among Shalwitz’s attention-challenged young turks.

What’s on that calendar so far? A Richard, a Henry, some vintage McNally and Mamet. Meh. But look! There, tucked away amid the chestnuts: a second Studio Theatre dalliance with the writer of The Brothers Size; at Arena, a Lydia Diamond comedy about interracial romance. Plus a performance piece called from the punks at Taffety, and at Woolly, the deliciously titled Gruesome Playground Injuries—which prove that in the age of The Daily Show, at least a few young theatermakers are finally learning to talk to their peers.

That’s a good sign, right?