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It’s not nearly as sexy a topic as saving the National Endowment, but this year, everybody in the theater community is babbling away about “stability.”

Well…not everybody.

Nelson Pressley isn’t. He’s the critic who quit the Washington Times because his editors worried what the homophobes in their readership would think if he said something nice about Corpus Christi. The joke was on them, of course. Nobody liked the Terrence McNally play, Pressley included. But by the time he saw it, he was out of a job (a job, let’s note, that the paper has left unfilled as a raft of shows with gay content have opened in D.C.).

Pressley notwithstanding, everyone else is talking stability. And doing more than just talking, too. Studio Theatre is raising an endowment fund to immunize itself against the sort of market scare that temporarily staunched the flow of corporate giving this summer. The Shakespeare Theatre, which operated at better than 97 percent of capacity for much of its year, plowed funds into a new scene shop and office space. Olney Theatre started fundraising for a $13 million expansion project. And on and on. There’s scarcely a theater in town that isn’t digging in for the long haul, and just a few years ago, everyone was scrambling for cover.

And there’s a reason: Theater, that legendarily fabulous invalid, has proved surprisingly robust hereabouts in the face of national slippage and the collapse of regional theaters elsewhere. Throughout the 1990s, D.C. theater attendance (as reported to the Washington Theater Awards Society, which tracks the numbers for its annual report at the Helen Hayes Awards) has remained remarkably steady at just under 2 million tickets sold per year.

There have been occasional fluctuations—a dip in 1992 to 1.6 million, a surge in 1997 to 2.3 million—but those can be attributed largely to the degree to which the Kennedy Center and the National Theatre succeeded in luring long-running Broadway tours to town. When a Showboat or a Phantom of the Opera settles into the Opera House for months, attracting upward of 18,000 patrons a week, attendance figures skyrocket, and when the National sits empty for 47 weeks of the year, as it did a few years back, they plummet.

In most of the past 15 years, theater attendance in the city has stood at just over 1.8 million, suggesting a strong, stable, reliable audience. Understandably, this situation has led to strong, stable, reliable theater troupes. More and more of them. Whereas in 1990 the Helen Hayes folks listed 30 professional companies eligible for awards, by this year it was listing 54. And the number of eligible productions has risen accordingly, from 149 at the beginning of the decade to more than 220 in 1998.

But local theater administrators are now acknowledging a darker side to those numbers. A few years ago, when patrons had just six or seven established nonprofit stages to choose from (those Helen Hayes numbers include dinner theaters and marginal companies that produce one show a year), there were plenty of subscribers and impulse buyers to go around. But now that there are at least 15 firmly entrenched local troupes with full seasons, and so many niche companies that everyone—whether a fan of the Bard or a speaker of Spanish—has multiple options, the audience is fragmenting.

“The nut that nobody’s been able to crack,” says Washington Shakespeare Company’s Christopher Henley, “is how to grow the audience pie, rather than cutting the same pie in smaller pieces.”

Strategies vary. Some theaters use discounts: Round House tries to counter the graying of its audience by offering $10 tickets to anyone under 30. Other theaters reserve “rush” seats at bargain prices until an hour before curtain time.

But discounting raises a central question: “The landscape is so noisy,” says Arena Stage’s new artistic director, Molly Smith, “with lots of theater companies doing lots of work, that you have to figure out how to distinguish who you are and what you do.”

Again, strategies vary. Arena has a new outreach program in which student “ambassadors” drum up interest on area campuses. Studio, Round House, and Source compete for the rights to hot off-Broadway hits. Some companies do star-casting, which guarantees feature coverage in the Washington Post. Other troupes concentrate on musicals, or classics, or even mime.

But Woolly Mammoth’s artistic director Howard Shalwitz notes that these ploys have one drawback: “Nearly all the ways of cutting through the noise are essentially conservative,” he says. “They’re anti-risk-taking. People seem to feel that every time they go to the theater it has to be a fabulous experience, and when you try to cater to that, there’s no room for experimentation. How does one create an appetite for new work?”

How, indeed, when the paper that matters most at the box office turns up its nose at trend and analysis pieces, and is only really comfortable serving up celebrity profiles. Theater administrators speak off the record of having terrific meetings with Post editors, but having nothing come of them. They also talk of the frustration and despair that ran through the theater community this fall when drama critic Lloyd Rose wrote just four Sunday columns in a four-month period, three of them devoted to: 1) a book about horror-movie director James Whale, in Book World; 2) an art exhibit at the National Gallery; and 3) TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The fourth was a perfunctory, editor-mandated season preview.

But never mind. ‘T’was ever thus.

As for art? Well…

The Commercial Houses

In an unofficial test of the numerical limits of the D.C. audience, Livent, a corporation that exhibits a real talent for shooting itself in the foot, opened two megamusicals in competing venues at virtually the same moment. Ragtime, which opened first at the National Theatre, sold like crazy through most of April. But its box-office tallies dropped by nearly $200,000 per week after Showboat docked at the Opera House in May, and neither house reached sellout thereafter.

The rest of the year was tamer at the National, while the Kennedy Center boasted a mostly splendid schedule that included a five-play repertory from London’s Royal Shakespeare Company, a trio of star-studded “Words & Music” concert musicals (apparently to be an annual event), and a hilarious vaudeville piece called 2 Pianos, 4 Hands. Less successful were a bargain-basement Dreamgirls and the KenCen-produced Footloose, which limped through town on its way to tepid notices and moderate business on Broadway.

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The Warner whiled away another season with theatrical detritus (Stomp, Why Good Girls Like Bad Boyz), and Ford’s Theatre looked as if it intended to do the same (Kudzu) until it imported a fine comic romp by Steve Martin (Picasso at the Lapin Agile). The city’s remaining commercial booking house, the pocket-sized Church Street Theater, redeemed a sparse season at the last possible moment with The Little Tragedies, a stylish (and current, so get thee hence) evening of Pushkin-based pantomime from a new local company called the Stanislavsky Theater Studio.

The Repertory Houses

With bright lights and a fresh coat of paint, a spruced-up Arena Stage welcomed audiences to the company’s Molly Smith era in September, just months after Doug Wager went out in a blaze of comic fireworks with You Can’t Take It With You. Judging from the box office, which has been booming, and subscriptions, which are up from the previous season, patrons have liked what they’ve seen so far. And why not? The acting company hasn’t changed much; nor has production style or general quality.

It helps that Smith is going out of her way to be accessible, hosting post-show “salons” and generally getting to know her subscribers. She’s also getting the lay of the local landscape by attending other area theaters, one result of which will be a production of The Women next month that will be cast almost entirely with local actresses—an Arena milestone, and a symbol of just how smoothly integrated the city’s acting community is becoming.

The Shakespeare Theatre had a respectable year despite the death of director Garland Wright, which caused a last-minute substitution in the company’s schedule. With plays by Ibsen, Williams, and Wilde in 1998, fully half of the troupe’s attractions were not by its titular playwright. But that didn’t faze audiences, who evidently regarded the presence of Dixie Carter and Elizabeth Ashley as ample compensation for any loss of classical verse.

Studio Theatre mounted a parade of box-office bonanzas, and with one of them—Joy Zinoman’s nontraditionally cast Waiting for Godot—the company managed to catch the attention of the New York Times in a way few local theaters ever have. An accident of timing brought Times critic Peter Marks to Studio’s production shortly before he was to review a much anticipated Manhattan Godot starring John Turturro and Tony Shalhoub. Not only did Marks review Studio’s staging positively, but he spent several paragraphs in his review of the other production explaining why he liked Studio’s version better. Then Mel Gussow chimed in, touting Zinoman’s mounting yet again in an article about Beckett. Tarnishing the glow a bit was the Beckett estate’s quibbling (later withdrawn) about certain elements of the production, which—in a twist the great absurdist would doubtless have relished—no one from the estate had actually seen. And qua, qua, qua.

Across 14th Street, Woolly Mammoth did well with its customary diet of eccentric East Coast and world premieres. Enough so that an outfit called Broadway Publishing is readying a volume of wild ‘n’ Woolly play scripts for publication in the spring.

The apex of Washington Stage Guild’s season was a Don Juan in Hell sequence staged as a TV talk show, which says something about the mania for updating classics that has erupted in the city. Theater J’s first season under artistic director Ari Roth was ambitious, and a sure step forward, if not always satisfying. And Source Theatre, though it spent fully half the year waiting for construction permits so it could begin renovating its physical plant, managed to produce six plays in its own auditorium before co-mounting both the season’s single happiest surprise (Playing Juliet/Casting Othello, at the Folger), and its single most excruciating disaster (Les Liaisons Dangereuses, at Rep Stage).

The ‘Burbs and Beyond

Round House Theatre managed to do something similar, entirely on its own. Its vivid The Lion in Winter was every bit as glorious as its yupsters-in-Bible-school Godspell was mortifying. Almost more important, though, than what was on stage was the fact that—partly inspired by Arlington’s success in incorporating arts facilities in its many city centers—Montgomery County is involving Round House in its planning for new theater spaces in both Silver Spring and Bethesda.

Further outside the Beltway, Olney Theatre announced that state and local authorities had already ponied up some $3 million to make possible a wholesale revamping of its rural campus that will include construction of multiple auditoriums, an outdoor amphitheater, and guest facilities for visiting artists. Its season wasn’t half-bad, either, with an arresting Camille and a stylish Amadeus.

Across the river, Signature Theatre moved up another notch in the national recognition sweepstakes when Cameron Mackintosh, arguably the most successful theatrical impresario of all time, helped company founder Eric D. Schaeffer work his directorial magic on The Fix, which had been a London flop célèbre. Much rewritten but still a mess in terms of plot, the show was a visual stunner at Signature and was ecstatically received by the many out-of-town critics who flew in to cover it. Additional fixing is apparently planned for when Schaeffer stages the show next year in a city he refuses to name. Could it be Los Angeles, where critics flipped over his direction of Carol Burnett in the Broadway-bound Sondheim revue Putting It Together? Or Chicago, where they loved his Elmer Gantry? Who knows?

In any event, Signature established that it could survive without its founder’s physical presence in Arlington by mounting its first Schaefferless Sondheim (A Little Night Music). Also that it could recover from a nonmusical catastrophe (Shooting in Madrid) with a nonmusical hit (Nijinsky’s Last Dance, by playwright-in-residence Norman Allen), which overcame a dismissive Post review through scintillating word of mouth and is evidently headed intact for New York, possibly as early as next month.

Arlington’s other companies had less stellar years, though Washington Shakespeare Company fared well with a moving-target Pericles that asked audiences to follow its hero on an odyssey around the Clark Street Playhouse. There weren’t any earth-shattering shows at Gunston’s Theatre II or the Rosslyn Spectrum, but there was plenty of strong work from their resident troupes.

Smaller itinerant theaters—Scena, Keegan, Interact, Cherry Red Productions, and Fraudulent Productions, which tend to shuttle from church basements to storefronts in search of fringe audiences—accounted for fewer surprises than usual in 1998, though the scrappy African Continuum Theatre Company finally found its footing with a terrific Hecuba (which was unfortunately panned in the Post by a second-stringer who mistakenly thought she was watching an adaptation of The Trojan Women).

In sum, 1998 was a fairly typical year for the nation’s fourth-biggest theater town—stable in quality of performance, and likely (when the final figures are gathered in a few weeks) to have been stable in attendance as well.

Which brings us back to numbers. The folks at the Helen Hayes Awards did a decidedly unscientific survey last year after they had assembled their own attendance figures, by requesting the same information from the city’s professional sports teams. The numbers they were given for ’97-’98 season—Redskins 775,000, Wizards 801,240, and Caps 626,285—add up to 2,202,525. That’s up radically from the previous year’s 1,452,000 because of moves to bigger venues, but it still falls short of the 2,384,134 tickets sold for the city’s professional stage productions.

Granted, this is comparing apples to kumquats, and it’s easy to poke holes in the match-up. Women’s professional teams, as well as golf, tennis, and other solo sports have been left out of the equation. The Redskins could sell more tickets if they had more seats (of course, so could Phantom of the Opera), and there’s a huge subsidiary audience for sports on TV (which is not to suggest that theater patrons don’t also look there for drama). Ticket prices differ, too (albeit not by much), and the Hayes folks are at pains to point out that they didn’t audit the figures, all of which were volunteered by the institutions themselves.

Still, the numbers would seem to suggest certain inequities in the way the local media cover these two popular forms of entertainment. Isn’t it clear, for instance, that when local TV stations devote large staffs and five minutes of every nightly newscast to sports, but have not a single reporter covering theater, they are doing both viewers and arts organizations a serious disservice? And that when an institution with the audience clout of the Kennedy Center starts a popular new program like this summer’s Words & Music series, it should merit at least one feature story in the Style section?

Pie in the sky? Probably. But under the circumstances, it’s easy to understand why theater administrators concentrate so much on stability and on conservative strategies for survival. They have to. They’re not getting much help. CP