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Earlier this year, I spent the better part of a week talking to otherwise sane theater professionals who were convinced that Washington had become the nation’s second biggest theater town. The showbiz weekly Variety had reported the fact, I was solemnly told, and phone calls to other cities had confirmed it. Manhattan…then Washington…then the rest of the country.

It’s not true. By any measure you’d care to mention—number of theaters, seats, productions, tickets sold, dollars spent, actors employed, whatever—D.C. gets clobbered by Los Angeles and edged out by Chicago, both of which admittedly have larger population bases. Still, the story seemed plausible somehow in a year that saw D.C. stages recovering from a three-year funding contraction with enough vigor to garner plenty of national press.

The headlines kept coming. Studio Theatre’s $4-million expansion rated a feature story in the New York Times; Patrick Stewart’s photo-negative Othello attracted interest from as far away as London. The KenCen’s investment in Titanic earned it a place onstage at the Tony Awards. Signature Theatre not only sent a show to New York, it sent its artistic director off to direct a 40-city, post-Broadway tour of the musical Big. Arlington’s Cultural Affairs Division was inundated with queries from 34 states and a number of foreign countries about its innovative Arts Incubator program. Arena Stage not only co-commissioned a sprawling, ambitious work by Anna Deavere Smith that will travel to other regional stages, it reached out to Juneau, Alaska, to anoint Molly Smith as its new artistic director.

And that was just the big stuff. Somewhat overshadowed by Studio’s elegant new digs but impressive in their own rights were two other debuting showplaces: downtown’s Cecile Goldman Theater and Arlington’s Rosslyn Spectrum. Less publicized searches for artistic directors netted prize-winning playwright Ari Roth for Theater J and staging whiz Joe Banno (who is also Washington City Paper’s opera critic) for Source Theatre.

Co-productions and cross-pollination didn’t occur just between Arena Stage and theaters in other cities, they also became prevalent enough among local venues to suggest that the area’s most prestigious troupes have recognized the increasing caliber of their once-scrappy competition. It is no longer uncommon to see an actor playing one week at, say, the Clark Street Playhouse and the next at the Shakespeare Theatre, or to find a Washington Performing Arts Society logo gracing a Woolly Mammoth program. Nor did the city’s best designers and directors confine themselves to working at one or two venues in 1997. Even the half-price booth TICKETplace succumbed to the urge to move, finally abandoning (at the insistence of the Kennedy Center) its dead-end location at Lisner Auditorium to take up residence at the Old Post Office Pavilion, where sales immediately quadrupled.

The Washington Post even did a couple of things right for a change. One was turning Chip Crews loose as a writer, where he shines far brighter than most of the folks he was previously editing (his profile of performance artist Brian Freeman was the best theater feature the paper has run in several years), and the other was assigning the Backstage column to Jane Horwitz, who—wonder of wonders—actually chooses to report it. Whereas her predecessors tended to fill the column with rewritten press releases and puff pieces about friends (the frequency with which actors at Round House got mentioned became a running joke in theater circles), Horwitz has generally led with a news story, and been evenhanded, thorough, and clever in her coverage.

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It helps that she actually attends everything that opens, both because she’s a panelist on WETA’s Around Town (full disclosure: so am I) and because she’s an alternate judge for the Helen Hayes Awards. It helps even more that the Post finally moved Backstage to a highlighted position on Tuesday from its graveyard slot in the underread Saturday paper (which hits newsstands too late to influence weekend ticket buying and hence did little good for either theaters or readers). Now, if Style’s editors could just find a competent second-string reviewer to back up Lloyd Rose, the paper’s coverage might once again be more help than hindrance to the city’s theatrical community, as it was back when Dave Richards and Joe Brown offered opposing viewpoints in Style and Weekend, respectively.

There’s been sad news too: the suicide of luminous actress and teacher Grainne Cassidy and the announcement that leukemia has sidelined (hopefully only temporarily) the undisputed dean of Washington actors, Richard Bauer.

Lesser travails were suffered by institutions: Olney Theatre discovered cracks in its roof beams that will require extensive (and expensive) corrective surgery, Alexandria’s MetroStage spent the entire year regrouping after plans for a move to downtown D.C. fell through, and Jane Alexander resigned as head of a National Endowment for the Arts so vitiated by budget cuts and conservative attacks that almost no one has bothered to speculate on who her successor will be.

As for art? Well…

The Commercial Houses

Two years ago, the National could barely stay lit for nine weeks; this year, the theater boasted its best record since the ’70s, packing in audiences for close to 10 months. A trio of fresh musical smashes (Chicago, Rent, and Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk) did most of the business, settling in for extended runs and setting up such a jangling of cash registers that the Shuberts not only remembered that they’re supposed to be booking the house, they accorded it a plum for next year: the first tour stop for the presumptive hit tuner Ragtime, a mere three months after its January opening on Broadway.

The KenCen’s biggest innovation didn’t make a dime, which was just the way chairman Jim Johnson planned it. Hoping to take some of the curse off a building viewed by the price-sensitive as hopelessly elitist, he established a program called Millennium Stage, with free-admission shows every night of the year at 6 p.m. After a shaky first few weeks, the program has apparently caught on, with a core audience of 200-300 bargain hunters showing up in the grand foyer most nights, augmented by substantial crowds when name performers are scheduled (Frank Sinatra Jr. and his 40-piece backup band reportedly played to 4,000 appreciative fans when they showed up to do a free 45-minute set). For the center’s paying customers, it was a mediocre year, with lavishly overstuffed musical revivals and a Broadway-bound Neil Simon comedy predictably doing business, while Athol Fugard’s intriguing, splendidly acted Valley Song played to half-empty houses.

The Warner continued to be a theatrical refuge for one-week-wonder bus-and-truck tours—the sort that milk saturation TV campaigns for all they’re worth and then skip town before word gets around about how skimpy they are. Ford’s was hospitable only to tourists (except for the three weeks Twilight Los Angeles, 1992 spent in residence). And the tiny Church Street Theater appeared to find its niche with a series of evenings aimed principally at gay audiences, including Gregory Henderson’s repeatedly extended one-man show Whirlwind.

The Institutions

Shakespeare Theatre stole a bit of Arena Stage’s thunder by mounting Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra in a manner befitting a great repertory house. Michael Kahn has long maintained that his troupe shouldn’t be restricted to classics penned by its eponymous playwright, and this four-hour evening, with its roots in Greek theater and its head in some decidedly melodramatic clouds, certainly made a strong case for his point of view. Less successful were the troupe’s well-acted but racially insensitive Tempest and its well-acted but racially hypersensitive Othello (which sold out months in advance to crowds who wanted to see Patrick Stewart boldly go where no prudent Caucasian performer had gone since the ’50s).

Star casting didn’t do the trick for Arena, which brought in TV’s Daniel J. Travanti, vaudeville’s Flying Karamazov Bros., and celebrated performance artist Anna Deavere Smith to get Doug Wager’s final season as artistic director off to a flashy start, all with indifferent impact at the box office. Indifferent pretty much summed up the artistic year as well, with the exception of a lovingly reconsidered co-mounting (with Signature) of Sunday in the Park With George. Still, in commissioning Smith to create House Arrest (which one Arena exec describes as the biggest project the company has undertaken since The Great White Hope), the theater certainly put its money where its principles are. As the show gets refined in its next three stops prior to New York, that investment is likely to look smarter and smarter.

Signature’s management, which last year regarded co-producing with Arena as a great leap forward, almost immediately leapt into a whole new league when its mounting of the Leopold and Loeb thriller Never the Sinner not only traveled as planned to Columbia’s Rep Stage, but kept heading north, finally reaching Manhattan, where it has been selling out since it opened more than a month ago. If current plans coalesce, it will graduate from a not-for-profit off-off-B’way house to a commercial engagement at the John Houseman Theatre, with principal acting chores, sets, lighting, costumes, and direction all handled by their Washington originators—a feather not just in Signature’s cap but in this city’s.

Studio Theatre finally spent all that money it had been raising and bought itself the prettiest physical plant in town. The long-planned renovation of its building at 14th and P Streets NW includes an elegant pair of piggyback auditoriums, elaborately renovated rehearsal halls and offices, an expanded lobby, and enough upstairs space to allow a production of Hair to leap, puppylike, from room to room and even out windows. The notion that having two formal auditoriums of the same size and configuration would allow productions to extend indefinitely without compromising Studio’s commitment to subscribers has already proved valid, although with a safe, quasi-commercial schedule built around recent off-Broadway hits, every show this season extended, and there was still something of a booking jam.

Across 14th Street, Woolly Mammoth’s brand of dark comedy proved as popular as ever, with The Big Slam doing well enough to be brought back for a second run in midsummer. And while Brian Freeman’s Civil Sex would have greatly benefited from an extra week of previews, the company’s only real stumble was its misbegotten premiere of Tripping Through the Car House, in which script and directorial vision seemed to be actively at war.

Uneven seasons at Gala Hispanic Theatre and Washington Stage Guild were redeemed by standout productions of Los Hermanos Queridos and Murder in the Cathedral, respectively, while Source was having such an abysmal first half of the year both artistically and at the box office that it had to lay off most of its staff after its summer festival. Since then, a pair of hit comedies has re-established cash flow and done worlds for morale.

Faring better and managing to erase most of an enormous debt load it had incurred while transforming an abandoned Arlington warehouse into the Clark Street Playhouse, Washington Shakespeare Company mounted seven physically impressive, if artistically uneven, productions on a tight budget. At several points, the company’s biggest star seemed costumer Edu. Bernardino, whose flashy gowns and stylish suits threatened to turn several productions into fashion parades with plots. But directorial inspiration also counted, with Delia Taylor’s rivetingly clever Twelfth Night—in which cross-gender casting of one of the Bard’s twins pretty much re-configured all the play’s romantic liaisons—and Michael Russotto’s fiercely corporate (and still running, so get thee hence) Richard III qualifying as high points.

Out in Maryland, Olney scored a stunning triumph with Richard Romagnoli’s white-on-white, giddily heart-rending avant-garde Importance of Being Earnest but otherwise marked time with disappointingly conventional fare. And the story was similar at Round House, where director Nick Olcott’s unexpectedly hilarious Uncle Vanya outclassed the company’s other offerings by a considerable margin.

The Little Guys

Perhaps the year’s happiest news was American Century Theater’s midsummer announcement that it was bringing back its exhilarating Moby Dick Rehearsed for a second run at Gunston Arts Center. The first production in May had seemed too good to be true, a sophisticated blend of theatrical and literary magic that no troupe so young should have been able to bring off. But come October, there it was again: Jack Marshall’s cast conjuring great white whales out of thinnest air and commandeering emotions with a sureness that would be the envy of the city’s most distinguished companies. Both ACT runs built quickly to sellout and could have extended indefinitely if the house hadn’t been committed to other companies. (About the only viewers who weren’t impressed were some evidently boneheaded Helen Hayes Award nominators who thought the show unworthy of consideration by the judges. Whoever ends up winning the Helen for best director should thank his or her lucky stars that Marshall’s work wasn’t in competition.)

Also impressive was a fresh young troupe called the Andrew Keegan Theatre, which debuted downtown with a robust Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and then took up residence in Arlington, where nearly all the interesting new theater companies seem to settle these days. Unlike most of the others—including the increasingly confident foreign-language troupes Le Néon and Teatro de la Luna, and the phoenixlike Horizons Theatre (which lately appears to have made rising from its own ashes a point of style)—Keegan isn’t taking advantage of the county’s familiar Gunston and Rosslyn showplaces. Instead, it has set up shop in a church basement on Glebe Road.

Which is, perhaps, nothing more than an acknowledgment that area theatergoers are less timid than they once were about trooping off to unlikely spaces—office buildings, galleries, colleges, storefronts, and wherever else theatrical word-of-mouth beckons. Arlington’s success in establishing stages in underused schools and warehouses seems astonishing until you realize it simply extends a diaspora that began decades ago when the founders of Studio and Source were considered lunatics for setting up shop on 14th Street.

Audiences, once they’d found a trip into unfamiliar territory rewarding, naturally became more willing to venture there again; witness the fact that several experimental troupes now have to jockey for dates at the District of Columbia Arts Center, an off-the-beaten-track 40-seat facility in Adams Morgan that once had trouble finding attractions. Today, it’s no harder for Scena Theatre to coax crowds to an abandoned storefront for its environmental Helen of Troy than it is for Interact Theatre to get audiences to visit Arena Stage’s Old Vat Room for a Christmas show.

All of which suggests healthy ferment and growth in the nation’s eighth biggest city and fourth biggest theater town.CP