So here we are at the tail end of 2000, which is as good a time as any to note that hey, the end of a millennium came and went without inspiring much more than a collective shrug. The Earth didn’t collapse in on itself, the sky remained firmly in place, andrecent electoral hiccups notwithstandingthe last 12 months of the 20th century (or the first 12 of the new, assuming we’re still having that tired argument) just didn’t do much to shake anybody up.
Nor, come to think of it, did Washington theater. Whether it was fiscal conservatism or artistic complacencyor merely a continuing preoccupation with real estateD.C.’s motley companies didn’t do much to rattle their audiences’ collective cage during the year that was supposed to change so much about our lives.
Which seems a shame, if only because local troupes have never known as much about those audiences as they do now, thanks to a first-ever audience survey commissioned by the League of Washington Theatres. Of course, it’s probably not too startling to learn that the play-going public is largely white, prosperous, and well past 40. What may come as a surprise is that suburbanites aren’t as big a part of the mix as one might expect and that the younger patrons in lobbies around town reflect local demographics better than their elders do.
The numbers are more or less in line with similar surveys of Broadway audienceswhich sounds reasonable until you consider that most of D.C.’s houses aren’t profit-driven; that they’ve got a reputation for being a little savvier, a little edgier; and that their audiences might be expected to reflect that outlook. Local theatergoers are actually a less diverse buncha mere 17 percent of us are nonwhite, compared with 20 percent of Broadway’s audiencesthough the league, like Broadway’s pollsters, seizes on the 25-and-under numbers to signal hope for the future: Nonwhites account for 24 percent of that crowd, a figure more in line with the D.C. area’s ethnic makeup (32 percent nonwhite). So maybe the audience-building efforts of companies like Studio and Shakespeare, along with the focused programming of troupes like African Continuum Theatre Company and, yes, Arena Stagewhich targeted fully half of its shows this year at black audiencesare starting to pay off.
“Pay off” is pretty apt, actually. Arena’s year was its biggest ever, with subscribership up again and ticket revenue through the roof. But what currency is artistic director Molly Smith minting, exactly? Shows like Blue, a broad, sloppily sentimental sitcom starring Phylicia Rashad, and the much-touted revival of The Great White Hope were the engines behind the company’s growth. Although boosters pointed to the latter as a sign of Arena’s heft and seriousnessa reminder of its “boundless capacity and commitment to developing new American work,” to quote the press releaseit’s hard to escape the feeling that rekindling past glories isn’t quite the same as lighting the fire in the first place. It’s one thing to stage Hope in 1967, dancing on the edge of bankruptcy to give birth to a controversial drama with a cast of 50; it’s another to mount a pared-down (if still pricey) version of what has come to be regarded as a classic American melodrama. Likewise, if The Miracle Worker and All My Sons are theatrical landmarks, they’re lesser onesBay Bridges in a year that could’ve used a Golden Gate. And where, in that mix, is the challenging new work that will give Arena something to revive a few decades hence?
Even the Kennedy Center scored better on that account, bringing local audiences the intriguing avant-garde puppetry of Stalingrad and the gentle, gemlike musical adaptation of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” Yes, in return, KenCen subscribers had to sit through calculated cash cows like It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues and commercial wretchedness like the year’s undisputed low point, Martin Guerre, but that’s the bargain any booking house makes with the gods of commerce. And, as a couple of shows proved this year, the profit-minded side of the trade-off doesn’t have to be excruciating for audiences. Neil Simon’s Broadway-bound The Dinner Party walked a middle ground, selling out every single seat before it even began previewsand turning out to be a perfectly respectable bit of French-themed farce.
Besides, even while snoozing through drivel like The Scarlet Pimpernel, you had to credit the Kennedy Center’s management for keeping its stages litmore than could be said for the disgracefully neglected National Theatre. The Shubert Organization allowed the house to sit dark for nine months of the year, and when that venerable E Street marquee flickered briefly on, it was only to illuminate the names of one rehash (Rent) and one retread (the underwhelming compilation Fosse, still running). This from the house where “Butcher of Broadway” Frank Rich learned to love theaterand in the very year that his vivid memoir celebrated the midcentury glories that make the place look so faded now.
The Warner returned to its bad old habits, too: Tuna shows, Defending the Caveman, and a Godspell tour were the best it could offer. Ford’s Theatre, which goes unpredictably from year to year, likewise served up standards and retreads, some fine (Marcel Marceau), others less so (Inherit the Wind). The surprise booking that redeemed an otherwise mediocre year in the theater where Abraham Lincoln was murdered was Reunion: A Musical Epic in Miniature, a worthy revue of music from the Civil Wartheatrically savvy, affecting, home-grownin short, precisely the sort of thing you couldn’t drag people to see.
The people flocked instead to the Shakespeare Theatre, which did nicely at the box office (though not quite last year’s boffo 103 percent). A muscular Coriolanus and a compelling, ’80s-themed Timon of Athens were the underattended soft spots in a year whose peak artistically and commercially was a Country Wife that appealed to just about everyone. There were also a valiant stab at Tennessee Williams’ hallucinatory Camino Real and a respectable Richard II (currently running with Wallace Acton in the lead).
The city’s volume champ, Studio Theatre, with 11 shows to its credit (counting Secondstage productions), chalked up a respectably solid year with the sort of fare that has made it the most reliable local purveyor of off-Broadway entertainment. In fact, the one piece of its lineup that qualified as a highlightMarc Wolf’s gays-in-the-military study Another American: Asking and Tellingwas a one-man show imported intact from Manhattan, director and all.
Across 14th Street, Woolly Mammoth stole a little of Round House’s thunder by snaring a new work by a guy who’s come to seem the latter’s house playwright, George F. Walker. Heaven, a scabrous farce that tackled hate and heresy, scored a hit with pretty much everyone in the Woollies’ final season in its Church Street home.
And across the river, a splendid mounting of Adam Guettel’s forward-looking musical Floyd Collins dominated an uneven lineup at Signature Theatre. (Rhythm Club, the troupe’s only show directed by its increasingly on-the-road artistic director, Eric Schaeffer, was the third ambitious musical in as many years to scale back its ambitions after a bumpy run at what’s becoming a perilous pre-Broadway proving ground. Or perhaps the perilous thing, when you’re negotiating the transition from local company to regional powerhouse, is letting the scale of your pre-Broadway ambitions become knownand then managing expectations once the cat’s out of the bag.)
Signature’s suburban cousin, Silver Spring’s Round House, had less at risk and less to show for it; the high point of the year there was probably David Marshall Grant’s sitcomish Snakebitwhich isn’t saying much. And their deeper-pocketed peers at Olney Theatre Center came up with only one really first-class productiona passionate Thérèse Raquin that eclipsed the remainder of its offerings, including a deft but fluffy Tartuffe and a visually striking but torpid Sueño. (The less said about Hay Fever the better.)
Source Theatre scored with smart (and still-running, so get thee hence) mountings of Chesapeake and The Most Fabulous Story Every Told and missed badly (except at the ticket window, which had lines throughout the run) with an all-gay, all-wrong production of The Importance of Being Earnest. On the other hand, the frequently struggling company has clearly discovered a crowd-pleasing box-office niche with gay-themed material this year. Given that Stanislavsky Theater Studio has taken the Church Street Theater off the commercial booking map, that’s probably a savvy financial strategy. Happily, Source’s space-sharing arrangement with the artistically revivified Washington Stage Guild has provided both theaters with a financial lifeline in an otherwise dicey year.
Let’s hope for a similarly fortuitous solution for the Washington Shakespeare Company, which got a one-year reprieve recently when deadlines slipped on the development project that will eventually require the razing of its Crystal City home. The scrappy crew at Clark Street Playhouse turned Strange Interlude, Eugene O’Neill’s unplayable seven-hour horror, into a whip-smart, laugh-a-minute jewel that ran three-and-a-half hours and felt like two; with the increasingly confident Kate Norris as its glittering star and John Emmert doing terrific work as the male lead, it was possibly the single most exciting theatrical experience of the year. (The other big surprise of 2000 came courtesy of Charter Theatre, which appeared from nowhere to stage a stunningly well-acted world premiere of a whydunit called A House in the Country.)
But then, maybe what happened with WSC is what happens when a company’s worried; maybe it’s when you know where you’re going, when you’re consumed by the logistics of getting out of one theatrical home and into another, that energy gets diverted from what’s going on onstage. It’ll be interesting to see how Woolly Mammoth settles into its interim space at the Kennedy Center’s AFI Theater, where it’ll be more convenient to Metro-riding suburban audiences but less accessible to the hard-core urbanites who presumably make better targets for its edgy brand of theater.
And it’ll be interesting to see what happens when mom-and-pop-friendly Round House finally makes the shift from its two-car-garage territory in Silver Spring to Metro-accessible Bethesda, where Jerry Whiddon and his die-hard troupers will be able to draw the same patrons who support Source, Studio, Woolly, and the other downtown companies. That’s a slightly more adventurous crowd than the one Round House is accustomed tomight it mean fewer shows along the lines of this year’s Fantasticks revival?
But that equation, of course, is part of what keeps every artistic director and development chief in town awake nights. New theater companies are only slightly less common in Washington than rats and politiciansthe Helen Hayes organization counts 79 now, up from 54 last year, though both numbers include dinner theaters and tiny companies that do maybe one show a yearand they’re all competing for an audience whose size pretty much leveled off a half-decade ago. They’re all going after the same philanthropic pie, toowhich hasn’t grown much over the last few years, the fundraisers report, despite the economic expansion whose end pundits are now lamenting. Factor in the expansion of seasons at the larger houses and suddenly everybody’s facing the prospect of empty seats and dwindling coffers.
Too often that means cautious programmingsafe shows and safe approacheschosen to comfort donors and draw the widest possible audience. And that means Washington is probably in for another year with more than its share of ho-hum theater, at least until somebodymaybe Janós Szász, the buzzed-about Hungarian due to direct Arena’s A Streetcar Named Desire in March?decides that wowing audiences is a better bet than
wooing them. CP