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When D.C. theater troupes raise their curtains after 9 p.m., the Helen Hayes Awards look the other way.

There are no nearby restaurants offering three-course, prix-fixe’d, time-sensitive nourishment to fill our stomachs before curtain time. No valets to facilitate proper dramatic entrances. No ushers to provide regal escort to seats.

But the actors’ cadences make this, unmistakably, theater. And the house lights brighten at intermission, according to convention. When they do, a young woman places two gallon water jugs atop a barlike part of the set, along with a stack of plastic cups. It’s the entirety of this evening’s refreshments.

“That beer for the taking, you think?” asks a 20-something in cutoffs standing next to me, as we both pour glasses of H2O and peer inquisitively at the Pilsner Urquell 12-pack stashed behind the scenery.

My thought, exactly—but we both settle for water.

After all, it’s a Saturday night at 11:20 p.m., and we’re part of a group of 50 or so people milling about a steamy old livery stable with erotic artwork on its walls to see live drama. Serious drama. Tony Kushner-adapted drama.

It’s safe to say we ain’t exactly the season-tickets-to-the-Shakespeare Theatre crowd.

The actors took the stage this evening a little after 10 p.m., a start time generally reserved for bands or films. And tonight’s audience, dressed casually in a hodgepodge of shorts, khakis, and T-shirts, probably couldn’t be distinguished from the ticket buyers waiting in line for that evening’s 10:15 p.m. showing of Memento or Lara Croft: Tomb Raider at the nearest Loews Cineplex.

Instead of heading for the concessions, though, we’re waiting for the second half of Pierre Corneille’s 17th-century neoclassical play The Illusion, adapted for modern audiences by Kushner. It’s being performed by the Rorschach Theatre, one of D.C.’s ever-increasing number of troupes offering performances well past dusk. Staged in small black-box theaters, such as the one at the District of Columbia Arts Center (DCAC) in Adams Morgan, and other nontraditional spaces, such as Signal 66, the art gallery in Shaw that’s the venue for tonight’s play, late-night theater attracts a combination of hipsters and night owls more likely to be seen at the Black Cat than at Shear Madness.

“The late-night crowd is usually more accepting—and sprightlier,” explains Rorschach Theatre Artistic Partner Grady Weatherford, who headlines in The Illusion. He quickly clarifies, careful not to offend any less agile patrons: “Saturday at 10—if you’re not having a good time, you’re in trouble.”

Late-night audiences skew strongly toward post-Camelot folks who don’t mind wearing synthetics. “It’s not the gray hairs, the people coming from Annandale,” comments DCAC Artistic Director B. Stanley. The stagings lack the pomp and circumstance of traditional theater—and they lack something else usually considered essential for theatrical performances in D.C.: nominators and judges for the Helen Hayes Awards.

The District’s equivalent of the Tony Awards, the Helen Hayes Awards, named for the Washington native thought by many to be the first lady of the American stage, recognize excellence in local theater. On the first Monday of each May, when the awards are handed out, D.C.’s thespians gussy themselves up in black tie and flock to the Kennedy Center Opera House to honor their own. Although many of the winners come from the area’s theatrical grande dames—the Kennedy Center, Arena Stage, the Studio Theatre—categories such as Outstanding New Play offer a chance for smaller companies to steal the spotlight.

But troupes that choose to raise their curtains after dark aren’t even considered for the prestigious awards. To qualify for a Helen Hayes Award, theater companies must put on 16 performances of a play. And according to award rules, half of those performances must begin on weekdays between 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. or on weekends by 9 p.m.

That means that nominators and judges—people who help create buzz about shows—sometimes don’t even show up to late-night performances (not to mention children’s-theater productions, often staged in the afternoon). Critics have often stayed home as well. “Since [late-night performances] are not Helen Hayes nominatable, they’re not coming out,” says Stanley.

And that has a domino effect on the general theater audience. “We could have Jesus showing up—and they ain’t goin’ out,” Stanley adds, referring to the Washington theater scene’s predominantly 35- to 65-year-old cultural commuters. “The chances of them coming out at 10 o’clock to Adams Morgan is way low.”

When the Helen Hayes Awards began, 17 years ago, the D.C. metropolitan area had 14 theater companies. At last count, that number had blossomed to 83. More than 60 of those are eligible for the awards, and each play that’s considered must be viewed by six independent nominators. If four nominators agree the production qualifies for any award category, then five judges and three alternates attend the show.

Except, of course, if the curtain rises after 9 p.m. Logistics and practicality, say Helen Hayes Awards administrators, account for the curtain curfew. “If you have a theater performance beginning at 10 or 11, it’s hard for some judges to get out that late,” explains Helen Hayes Awards Executive Director Linda Levy Grossman. Until recently, she says, judges who relied on Metro had to be on weekend trains by midnight.

But some in the theater community allege that the Helen Hayes Awards folks use logistics to hide their real reason for the curfew: They don’t consider late-night theater real theater. Plus, the late-night cynics joke, the older crowd might nod off at around 10 p.m.

“That’s perception and absolutely not based on fact,” responds Levy Grossman.

Helen Hayes Awards Theater Relations Manager Lee Gable adds that theater companies may petition the rules committee to change the hours. And he says the committee tries to be as accommodating as possible. “It’s a question of somebody writing me a letter,” he says.

Most theater troupes begin performing late at night for a simple reason: It’s cheap. “It never came out of anything philosophical,” explains Ian Allen of Cherry Red Productions, which is currently performing Seven Deadly Dwarves early evenings at the Metro Cafe on 14th Street NW. Cherry Red, like many other small, struggling D.C. theater companies, began at the DCAC, whose theater space costs just $85 per night to rent—or half the evening’s box-office take, whichever ends up being higher. “It was money, money, money,” Allen says. “If the thing flopped, we’d just be out our production expenses—and $85.”

The low cost of failure fosters a dynamic, experimental environment, and D.C.’s late-night scene pushes the envelope of traditional theater after many of the cultural gatekeepers have fallen asleep. “A lot of our material tends to be a little more off-the-wall,” admits Andrew Baughman of Landless Theatre, which will be presenting late-night performances of Clue!, a musical based on the Parker Bros. board game, next month at the DCAC. “By and large, we prefer to do the 10 o’clock spot.”

Many young playwrights have to take a calculated risk: Scrimp and scrounge to get a spot before 9 p.m. or perform their works late at night and get the cold shoulder from the Helen Hayes Awards.

“The real importance of Helen Hayes to a theater company is free advertising,” says Weatherford. “It’s also a recognition of excellence….

It’s a recognition of ideas and thought and will, in some ways. And it’s a great way to get people interested in donating—particularly for a young theater company.”

For some late-night theater troupes, it’s also an insider-outsider dilemma: They enjoy their status on the fringe but also want to be recognized by the mainstream. So some companies, like Rorschach, try to use the rule for their benefit, scheduling early and late shows the same day to meet the 16-show quota—and to save money. “For us, we use it to our advantage for Helen Hayes,” says Weatherford. “We can get more shows in; it costs more money to run for five weeks rather than four. That way, we can get to 16 shows quicker.”

Some local thespians have suggested the idea of an alternative awards competition. “It has been thrown around by John Spitzer [of Fraudulent Productions] and me that there should be an alternative theater award in town,” says Stanley. “It would be cool for something like that to exist.”

“For the smaller companies, it’s not about the awards,” argues Allen. “It’s about getting put on level with the larger companies so that we can get the actors and we can get the press and stuff like that.”

Not that anyone in the late-night community would miss the annual Kennedy Center event, though. Despite his cultivated nonchalance, Allen still showed up in formal attire last May 7.

“It’s a great party,” he says. CP