Elizabeth Taylor first drove me into the arms of Bart Whiteman. It was April 1981, and an all-but-comatose mounting of The Little Foxes, to which she was adding pregnant pauses that entire inaugural parades could have marched through, sent me screaming from the Kennedy Center in search of live theater. D.C. didn’t offer much back then, and Studio Theatre and Woolly Mammoth were between shows, so I came to rest at a reclaimed storefront—1809 14th St. NW—above which Whiteman had tacked a bedsheet stenciled with the words “Source Theatre Company.”
Source, which Whiteman founded, had been entertaining crowds in various venues for about four years at that point, and it had settled semipermanently in the long, narrow, commercial space, then dilapidated and Spartan, that now houses the store Go Mama Go! Whiteman, with severely limited resources, was determined to turn Source into a theatrical haven, and with mismatched chairs for just 65 patrons crammed into a small room where the “stage” was simply a spotlit area on one side and entrances and exits were made through a doorway covered with a scrap of fabric, he did. Over the next three nights, I caught his first plunge into that most perilous of theatrical whirlpools—repertory. Two of the three shows—a WASP-ish Butley and a caustic two-hander called Scott & Zelda—benefited mightily from the claustrophobic confines.
The third didn’t, but as I would later learn, what Whiteman cared most about was getting the damn show up. Didn’t matter what show. Didn’t matter what company. Didn’t matter if it was any good or if people came (though it generally was and they generally did). Didn’t even matter if the licensing fees got paid (and they sometimes didn’t, which got him in hot water).
For Whiteman, it was all about the doing—finding ways for actors, directors, and designers to put together three planks and a passion. Which is why it’s such a cruel twist of fate that the death of the theater he founded, its last home bartered away after years of sitting empty, should coincide with the passing of its founder, who suffered a fatal heart attack March 14 in Chattanooga, Tenn. This, even as the ragtag (and not-so-ragtag) companies that are Whiteman’s spiritual heirs in the off–off–Kennedy Center movement are begging to be allowed to keep making theater where he made theater—in the House That Bart Built.
In the months immediately following my first visit to Source, I caught dozens of other productions there, including an area premiere of Martin Sherman’s gay holocaust drama, Bent, that sold out a full month in advance and an Equus starring a burly, sweating Whiteman as the psychiatrist and a then-unknown local named Marcia Gay Harden as the disturbed hero’s girlfriend. Equus rode reviews (and the fact that Harden was briefly topless) to a three-month run. A subsequent Glass Menagerie ran five months, without the nudity. And Whiteman didn’t jealously guard the space he’d created. When he couldn’t fill it for a couple of weeks, he’d turn it over to someone who could—Spheres Theater, say, for a show in which a kid with electric hair and a leer that seemed to have been torn into his face held the audience hostage by positioning a smoldering cigarette half an inch from the open gas tank of a motorcycle. In such cramped quarters, on a street that little more than a decade earlier had been reduced to rubble by rioting, this eruptive theatrical hijacking (the kid was played by Christopher Henley, who now heads Washington Shakespeare Company) had a force that could never have been matched in the city’s tonier theatrical venues.
Whiteman had little patience for the establishment types who told him that what he wanted to do wasn’t possible. He sniffed at Actor’s Equity, a union he thought restricted opportunities for budding performers; he found the city’s better-established stages unforgivably timid; and he had no use at all for the scribes who covered the shows he produced.
“The critics in this town are primarily negative and hateful,” he told Scena Theatre co-founder Amy Schmidt in a 1986 interview she later published in pamphlet form. “Just watch them come into the theater. They look ill, most of them. They look like they don’t really enjoy what they are doing. And they tend to pick on us for rather obvious things.”
Indeed, the press he got wasn’t always favorable. But his production schedule was robust enough—as many as 50 individual plays per year, counting one-act-play competitions at Source festivals—and his street-theater aesthetic inexpensive enough that what the critics said almost didn’t matter. Whiteman’s output was so prodigious that for several years, he kept three theaters lit simultaneously and figured he was giving work to more than 100 actors annually.
And still that wasn’t enough. He found a way to bring the Zagreb Theater Company to town to present its wildly ambitious The Liberation of Skopje, which called for a cast of 45, a horse, a rock band, a pigeon, and a German shepherd. Whiteman set them up at the base of the then-crumbling Apex Building at 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW and gave it a go. It drizzled at the performance I attended, and the smell of melted tar was thick in the air (work crews were just beginning to turn shabby Pennsylvania Avenue into “the nation’s main street”) and the evening, acted in Serbo-Croatian with an English plot summary in the program, was a mesmerizing flow of images, startling in just about every way imaginable.
For all his willingness to do almost anything to make theater, Whiteman could be a royal pain in the ass. Licensing fees weren’t the only payments he missed, Source’s board (which forced him to take a leave of absence over that infraction) wasn’t the only group to bridle at his temper, and critics weren’t the only ones who carped when his scattershot approach resulted in work that was more energetic than polished. But there was a basic practicality to this sometimes abominable showman, who was forever mounting plays on less than a shoestring. In that 1986 interview, Schmidt asked Whiteman what he’d do if someone dropped $2 million in his lap. His answer was instructive. “I’d try to secure the buildings,” he said. “They need work, lots of work. But I think for what we do, the kind of shows, our kind of schedule and the people we’re working with, they’re fine spaces.”
Two of those spaces are long gone, but ironically, with the work finally done on the Source Warehouse Rep and D.C. prepared to forgive a small mountain of debt to keep it operating, this last House That Bart Built is being turned into a poolhall. And he’s not around to rant and rail and shame Source’s board into scotching that deal.
“We’re the theater that takes it on the chin,” Whiteman once said. “I have a big chin. It’s got a lot of scars on it.”
If I were writing a last act to this story, they’d put a plaque above the door of Source with his name on it: The Whiteman Theatre. And audiences would come to know it as the “Old Bart.” And it would spend its second quarter-century—whether under Source’s auspices or those of a consortium—serving up more of the sort of unexpected, dynamic, noise-and-movement-filled work Whiteman always favored. But I don’t get to write that last act, and neither does the showman whose passing this month at the age of 58 was so tragically premature.CP