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Protease inhibitors notwithstanding, the AIDS epidemic isn’t over. Nor, despite student protests, reform-minded voters, and a theater-building boom, are Milosevic, Newt Gingrich, or the funding crunch for the arts. But didn’t 1996 feel like the end of the plague years?

Sure, congressional conservatives slashed the National Endowments to the point that the U.S. now spends less on culture than does the city of Berlin. And yes, corporate funding for the arts sank to historically low levels, arts education went the way of the dodo, and D.C.’s Cultural Commission was pretty much knocked out of commission.

But in the theater community, as on Wall Street, bearish real-world indicators oft go hand in hand with what Alan Greenspan so memorably terms “irrational euphoria.” Witness Washington Opera’s purchase of the Woodies building, the renovation of which will require fund-raising to the tune of $100 million. Or witness Washington Shakespeare Company’s investment of tens of thousands of dollars in its bustling Clark Street Playhouse, a facility that has undeniably revitalized the troupe, but from which it could be booted on a moment’s notice.

“The theaters that are still here,” suggests Woolly Mammoth’s Howard Shalwitz, “have learned to work in this environment. It’s not what anybody planned on, and it’s certainly not ideal, but after three years of really jolting disappointments from major foundations, we all understand the rules better.”

Those rules dictate increasing reliance on box-office revenues and individual donors, and the streamlining of staffs and overhead. Shalwitz, who has significantly restructured his organization in recent years, is now looking for a physical structure the Woollies can call their own, so the company can start building equity and stop hemorrhaging rent.

Other troupes are employing different survival strategies. Arena Stage expanded its cost-sharing with other theaters, mounting three of its ’96 productions in tandem with resident companies elsewhere. Arlington’s Signature Theatre increased its subscription base by almost half. Gala Hispanic Theatre imported stars from Cuba and Peru. And the free-admission Potomac Theatre Project opted to forgo producing new shows this year and to shore up audience support by reviving productions that had been hits in previous seasons.

Of course, there are a few lucky theater folks who haven’t really felt a crunch. Studio Theatre’s Joy Zinoman, for instance, could have rested easy this season, considering her company’s rising attendance, deficit-free operation, and generally affirmative reviews. Instead, she’s ensuring that the good times will continue by completing an enormous renovation project that will soon provide Studio with a second auditorium, enabling its stream of SRO hits to extend runs indefinitely without inconveniencing subscribers.

And after worrying last year that political threats and economic uncertainty might lead to less innovation in the art form he holds dearest, Shakespeare Theatre’s Michael Kahn sounds downright bubbly. “We took more chances,” he beams, recalling his adventures with such unlikely material as Henry VI and Volpone, “and the audience grew. I personally come out of this year with a sense of having been given permission to continue growing and not repeat myself. A couple of years ago I was very wary. Today, I’m very optimistic.”

Kahn notes, however, that economic questions aren’t the only ones facing D.C. theaters of late. Where once only Arena Stage, the Kennedy Center, and the National competed for audience attention, a wide array of established theatrical institutions is now hellbent on carving out niches, attracting subscribers, and catering to a variety of sharply divergent audiences. And while it’s encouraging that a dozen area stages have been thriving for more than a decade, the more entrenched those organizations get, the more they risk becoming hidebound and inflexible. “You have your mission within a community,” says Kahn, “and the community changes. You have to change, too.”

No one knows this better than Arena Stage, which has, under Artistic Director Douglas C. Wager, made a commitment to reaching beyond the aging white subscribers who have supported the company for nearly five decades. It’s the rare Arena production these days that doesn’t have actors of color in prominent roles, and in each of the troupe’s last few seasons, at least three plays have specifically addressed the concerns of African-Americans.

This realignment has had a price. Some older subscribers, accustomed to a repertory dominated by the likes of Ibsen, Shaw, and Kaufman & Hart, have chafed at brochures trumpeting plays by OyamO and Pearl Cleage. Subscription renewals haven’t been all they could be in recent seasons, though time and high-octane productions have won many converts and attracted some new theatergoers to the company. Wager’s chief legacy at Arena—an October announcement that he’d be leaving at the end of next season took the theater community by surprise—will likely be the nurturing of a younger, more diverse audience that can take the company into its second half-century.

Wager, Zinoman, Kahn, Shalwitz, and the other artistic directors of major institutions who have embraced diversity as a central watchcry for their organizations are increasingly important to the local production of plays about blacks, Hispanics, and other minority constituencies. That’s because only the theater’s major players appear able to get serious consideration from D.C.’s leading daily for such work.

Where the Post has a long history of sending second-stringers (often ones with almost no reviewing credentials) to cover “minority” art, the Style section has recently been reviewing the occasional play at the Lincoln Theatre and even Spike Lee movies from a specifically boosterish, African-American perspective, while sending Spanish-speaking reviewers (who sometimes don’t bother checking the English headset translations) to cover plays at Gala and Teatro Luna.

The theory, presumably, is that only minority audiences would bother with such works unless they come with the imprimatur of a major institution. And never mind that this notion smacks of cultural condescension, especially when inexperienced writers judge plays less critically than Style’s regular reviewers judge other work. When chief Post critic Lloyd Rose carefully (and correctly) notes the structural problems in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running at Studio Theatre and Emily Mann’s Having Our Say at the KenCen, while a stringer lauds amateurishly produced misogynist drivel like La Chunga at Gala Hispanic Theatre for its poetic insight, something’s seriously amiss.

This would be less important if there were stronger critical voices in the African-American or Hispanic press, or if there were even remotely credible coverage of local arts events on commercial TV and radio. But there isn’t. So for most potential theatergoers, the Post’s cultural opinion is the only one that registers, even when it’s uninformed.

The city’s stages could, of course, create other outlets for information. There has been talk in some circles of establishing a weekly pull-out advertising insert that could be placed in various publications including the Post as a means of allowing local stages to control advertising costs and target their messages more effectively. The idea is to become less reliant on the Post’s “Guide to the Lively Arts,” in which a daily 1-inch listing costs upwards of $100—more than some smaller theaters take in at the box office on a midweek night.

But whether area stages could work in concert on such a project is a big question. In six years, they haven’t even been able to get the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington to find a permanent location for its half-price TICKETplace booth. (It’s currently tucked away in GWU’s Lisner Auditorium, selling a fraction of the seats it would on a well-trafficked downtown street corner—a situation that should embarrass everyone who markets theater in this city.)

As for art? Well…

The Commercial Houses

The Kennedy Center’s big gamble didn’t pay off this year, but it was certainly worth the try. Realizing that a dearth of touring plays would leave the Eisenhower Theater dark for the whole summer, the Center’s administration opted to turn its back on the auditorium in an innovative way, reversing the direction of the lights and sound system and temporarily converting the stage and its wings into a cabaret space for intimate revues. The designers and staff sank much time, energy, and imagination into the project. The revues, alas, were pretty ghastly.

The Center had slightly better luck with its serious plays, especially with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s rollicking Midsummer Night’s Dream and the gentle crowd-pleaser Having Our Say, though it took a financial bath with a Mrs. Klein that somehow seemed very small despite the presence of the legendary Uta Hagen. Musical-comedy fans had the snappy South African musical Nomathemba and a pair of robust Christmas shows, Damn Yankees and Black Nativity, to help them forget Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which camped at the Opera House (no doubt delighting summer tourists) for four-and-a-half months.

The National, alas, couldn’t manage to stay lit that long, though the 16 weeks it was occupied—with the zillionth D.C. run of Les Miserables and the world premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s lackluster Whistle Down the Wind—nearly doubles last year’s disgraceful record.

The Warner Theatre’s habit of booking virtually unreviewable one-week engagements has meant that it slipped off my radar screen this year, but the crowds that flocked to Stomp apparently had a good enough time to warrant extensions, which is what commercial attractions are all about. Ford’s stumbled with Gates of Heaven, which was about as anti-dramatic an evening as could be created to deal with anti-Japanese and anti-Semitic prejudice, but the theater fared better with lighter, innocently nostalgic evenings. And though tiny Church Street Theater is clearly not in the same league as the city’s megahouses, it nonetheless proved a hospitable home for a pair of slight but popular for-profit productions about gay life: Party and The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me…

The Institutions

JoAnne Akalaitis’ unexpectedly uproarious Dance of Death and Wager’s magnificent Arcadia bracketed Arena’s year like comic bookends, while a lustrous if less than thrilling Candide became the top-grossing hit in the company’s history. But the news wasn’t so bright in the company’s managerial suites. First, sharp, savvy Kyle Donnelly decided she’d had enough of sitting behind a desk and wanted to pursue free-lance directing instead. Then Wager confirmed rumors that he wanted to leave the post for which he’d been groomed by Arena founder Zelda Fichandler.

Wager won’t actually depart until the end of next season, which will give Arena’s board time to do the soul-searching it didn’t need to do when it anointed him five years ago. In a sense, Wager’s departure will mark the troupe’s real succession from its founding generation, and an opportunity for what might be called a “comprehensive think” about its future. There is surprising agreement in theater circles that Arena’s leadership transition will be, in Joy Zinoman’s words, “seminal…not just for them, but for the entire theater community.”

The Shakespeare Theatre had a solid year with an amusingly stylized Volpone and a breathtakingly creative single-evening Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 sending cheering audiences out onto 7th Street. About the only problem facing artistic director Michael Kahn is how to guarantee that his patrons will still be able to park their cars when the 20,000-seat MCI Center opens a block away next year. “I’m going to put an armed guard on my parking space,” he jokes, before noting that the Lansburgh Theater is within easy walking distance of two Metro stops.

That’s not true of the stages on 14th Street’s Theatre Row, but with all the restaurants springing up around Woolly Mammoth and Studio Theatres, 14th & P Streets NW is becoming a popular enough destination to justify a spur line. The Woollies boasted a series of spectacularly effective performances, chief among them Howard Shalwitz’s crazed singer in The Gigli Concert, Nancy Robinette’s jittery mourner in The Obituary Bowl, and Roger Guenveur Smith’s riveting title character in A Huey P. Newton Story. Studio offered a better-than-Broadway Two Trains Running on its main stage, traveled to a dilapidated 7th Street storefront for a creepily environmental Mad Forest, and came home again for a number of popular, if not terribly satisfying attractions, including Eric Bogosian’s subUrbia and Thomas W. Jones III’s Hip II: Birth of the Boom.

Up 14th Street, Source Theatre mounted a satirical romp called The Loman Family Picnic that reminded patrons why this company was once among the city’s most promising but otherwise had a lackluster year, making Artistic Director Pat Sheehy’s upcoming sabbatical to rethink the troupe’s future appear well timed.

Suburban Maryland’s Round House Theatre, in the fourth year of a five-year phaseout of Montgomery County support, had a strong year artistically, with a haunting tale of paternal love (and anguish) called An Almost Holy Picture and a series of raucously offbeat comedies, but found that good reviews didn’t always translate into boffo box office. Further out, rural Olney Theatre mounted three musicals, including a world premiere feminist western, The Fifth Season, in establishing that a year-round schedule is tenable at what had long been a summer theater. It also firmed up its relationship as host of the Potomac Theatre Project, which found time not only to remount Howard Barker’s stunning arts-funding broadside Scenes From an Execution in Olney, but to take it to Manhattan for a virtually sold-out off-Broadway run.

The Little Guys

Several of the area’s smallest stages seemed substantially less small this year. Signature Theatre found itself sold out to the rafters for 11 weeks when both the local and national press declared its jewellike mounting of Stephen Sondheim’s demanding musical Passion superior to the original Broadway production. By summer’s end, the troupe had played host not only to a reportedly enthusiastic Sondheim but also to his Broadway collaborator/director James Lapine, and to songwriting team John Kander and Fred Ebb, and playwright Terrence McNally, who’d all popped in to rework some scenes in The Rink. Signature also corralled Arena’s Donnelly into directing Three Nights in Tehran, a sprightly John Strand farce about Oliver North.

And slightly down-county at Arlington’s Clark Street Playhouse, the Washington Shakespeare Company had its best year ever, with a pair of brilliantly spare and unfortunately sparsely attended Sam Shepard evenings, a giddy Tom Stoppard romp that allowed the troupe to dig itself out of financial hell, and a remarkable (and current, so get thee hence) Cymbeline that finds an outrageous amount of both fun and horror in what is possibly the Bard’s worst play. If theaters were stocks, ST and WSC would be real comers. With any luck, corporate givers and foundations will invest heavily in them, so that they can realize their full blue-chip potential.

This year, the Ford Foundation and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government did recognize the innovative program that helped these two theaters survive through leaner years. Arlington County’s Arts Incubator received a well-deserved $100,000 grant to enable it to tell other county and state governments how it is managing to nurture so many artists and cultural organizations on such a minimal budget. It’s no coincidence that much of the most interesting small theater activity in the area is happening on the Virginia side of the 14th Street Bridge, when a scant seven years ago almost none of it was. Arlington is home to the worthy French-language company Le Neon, the developing Spanish-language Teatro de la Luna, and a raft of troupes with varying missions that call themselves things like American Century, Monday Night, Impala, and Synergy.

Still, on the north side of the Potomac, there’s the ever-reliable Washington Stage Guild, busily unearthing obscure and underperformed works, often by surprisingly well-known authors, Gala Hispanic Theatre, where Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) was presented capably this year with one of the stars of the Oscar-nominated Cuban film, and the African Continuum Theatre Company, which has lately teamed up with Source Theatre to produce original works about the black experience.

Also providing sustenance in downtown D.C. are Theater J, with its living room-size productions of Jewish plays, the tiny, struggling, avant garde troupes that pop up intermittently at DCAC, and the ambitious but underrated and underattended Actors’ Theatre of Washington, which had the courage (or perhaps foolishness) to try to attract audiences this year to a virtually unfindable theater on the grounds of the Washington Cathedral, using an extremely dated (albeit still scorching) anti-Vietnam satire by David Rabe as bait.

Hope clearly springs eternal. Maybe some day soon, the plague years really will be over. In the meantime, there sure as hell is a lot of activity.