The giant John Deere backhoe wasn’t parked in its usual spot by the front door. The circular saws had ceased their whining, the contractors had carried off their battered toolboxes, and the snarled orange ropes of industrial-strength power cords were coiled in out-of-the-way corners so the first-night audience wouldn’t have to worry about tripping over them. But when Hip 2: Birth of the Boom opened on the evening of Oct. 9, Studio Theatre was still very much under construction.
In fact, the pioneering company’s $4.5-million renovation and expansion project, under way since mid-July, won’t be completed until sometime next year. But that Wednesday, Studio honcho Joy Zinoman was ready to launch her new seasonnever mind that the District had issued a certificate of occupancy only that afternoon.
After months of working in a makeshift office bullpen in the middle of a construction site, Zinoman is more than happy to show off Studio’s lavishly rebuilt first-floor performance space, with its new sound-baffling entrance locks and its updated lighting and sound systems. With an energy that borders on the manic, she leads a tour of Studio’s 25,000-square-foot building, a vintage auto showroom at 14th and P Streets NW. The company, which only recently bought the cavernous place from its landlord, formerly occupied just 40 percent of it. Now it’s moving to fill every corner: There’s an imposing marquee going up outside, an impressive vaulted lobbyall raw wood and industrial sheet metalthat’s more than twice the size of its cramped predecessor, and big new public restrooms that Zinoman can’t resist urging visitors to peek at (to the apparent distress of the individual occupying the Ladies’). But that’s just the cosmetic stuff.
Functionally, the Studio renovation is more like a revolution. Upstairs, there’s a second 250-seat theater under construction; when it’s done next year, it’ll be a virtual copy of the ground-floor performance space. This is the heart of Studio’s vision: Zinoman wants to be able to extend the run of a successful production, but she’s adamant about not sacrificing the intimacy between performer and audience that depends on a small space, and she knows it doesn’t do to unnerve subscribers with frequent schedule changes. So she and Studio resident designer Russell Metheny have created what they hope will be “a national model for other regional theaters”a redundant space built expressly as a backup.
The benefits should be financial as well as artistic. Soon Studio will be able to milk a successful show for as long as audiences want to keep shelling out for tickets, drawing new patrons while still keeping the company’s all-important subscriber base happy with predictable opening dates and the comfort of familiar seats. Here’s how: When a production clicks, it can stay in the downstairs space indefinitely while the next show goes into the second-floor theater instead. While word-of-mouth brings new theatergoers to see the hit downstairs, subscribers eager to move on to the season’s next scheduled production can be shunted upstairs with a minimum of fuss; they won’t have to juggle their schedules, and because seating arrangements in the two theaters match, their subscription tickets don’t need to be reprinted and redistributed.
Vastly expanded support facilities should mean smoother, smarter productions. A monstrous 35-foot-deep custom-built elevatorZinoman says it’s the largest the Schindler corporation has installed in 25 yearswill haul both sets and patrons between floors. The set shop sits conveniently opposite the elevator, and massive overhead doors will make moving large set pieces easy. A warren of new dressing rooms and passageways connects the two theaters; performers and technicians can get to both without emerging into public areas. Shower facilities and a green room with kitchen should make life a little nicer for actors and crew.
Above all this, a third-floor suite will house skylit rehearsal studios, a theater lab, and classrooms for Studio’s 20-year-old acting conservatory and experimental Secondstage. Also on the third level, administrative types will toil in a huge open office, drenched in sunlight from the enormous windows on the building’s southern and western sides.
Aggressive fund-raising and long-term planning have put Studio in an enviable position; Zinoman says the company’s post-renovation monthly mortgage liability is no more than what it was previously paying in rent. Its 29-member board, chaired by Jaylee Mead (a vibrant sprite of a woman and a major donor to the renovation campaign), oversees an organization with a subscriber base of 5,000, a 70/30 ratio of earned to unearned income, a healthy cash reserve, and an operating budget of nearly 2 million dollars.
And now, or at least very soon, it’ll have a genuine showplace to work in. The day after the Hip 2 premiere the noise and dust and confusion are all back with a vengeance. At each performance, Studio staffers sit “fire watch” on orders from the city, as smoke detectors and flame suppression systems aren’t functional yet. Amid the confusion, though, art is being madeand Joy Zinoman, who can see a long-term dream being realized before her eyes,
is a very happy woman. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Charles Steck.