A mural artists created in front of Sidney Harman Hall
A mural artists created in front of Sidney Harman Hall Credit: Courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company

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Theaters were among the many cultural and community organizations that halted operations in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Productions were cut short or canceled, and staff were left wondering how they could use their physical spaces and other resources now that meetings, rehearsals, and performances were paused for the foreseeable future. Now, as many people around the world grapple with the systemic nature of anti-Black racism and police violence and take to the streets in protest, theaters are reopening for another purpose.

The #OpenYourLobby initiative began at the New York Theatre Workshop in early June. NYTW Executive Fellow Declan Zhangreportedly observed police actions against protesters near the theater, and implored his bosses to make NYTW a safe haven. A new hashtag was born.

While several local theaters and performance venues have joined the initiative to support and shelter in some similar ways, such as providing restrooms, bottled water, snacks, menstrual supplies, first aid kits, air conditioning, and a place to recharge phones and use WiFi, the particulars are often determined by location, size, and available resources.

One of the larger operations is in the lobby of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company on D Street NW. The theater, located two blocks north of the National Mall, previously hosted gatherings for Black Lives Matter and opened its lobby for protesters participating in the Women’s March in 2017, 2018, and 2019.

“Part of our mission is to ‘engage with our world in unexpected and often challenging ways,’” saysTimmy Metzner, Woolly’s director of marketing. “The engagement work is about creating authentic relationships with the people in the DMV area—and not just audience members, but everyone. Protesters came through our building [on the weekend of June 6] with no clue who we were or what we did, but were grateful for the services we were providing.” 

The operation at Woolly was largely carried out by a group of volunteers from the local theater community. Theater artist and organizer Dylan Arredondo, who previously had no working relationship with the theater, reached out to Woolly on June 2, after compiling a list of roughly 100 local theater artists willing to volunteer. The initial plan had been to keep the lobby open during daytime protests, but after looking at what had happened the evening before in Lafayette Park, when law enforcement officials violently expelled peaceful demonstrators, it became obvious that there was a need to remain open into the night. As Arredondo notes, “Stuff tends to go sour after the sun goes down,” which led to a security plan being instituted that allows the lobby to remain open as late as 11 p.m. on evenings when there are protests nearby. The plan includes a clear chain of command, a private security guard, and one individual authorized to speak to the police, as well as contingencies in the case of police actions.

The volunteers at Woolly are assigned to specialized teams, including a welcoming team that explains rules before entry, including the requirement to use masks and hand sanitizer and to maintain social distancing once inside the building. Inside, there are teams assigned to keeping bathrooms and other public areas clean and overseeing the distribution of food, water bottles and other offerings. There is also a team assigned to provide first aid, a parenting room for those nursing children, and a volunteer mental health professional. Arredondo says, due to the nature of the protests, “it was important to find Black healers to fill that role.”

While national attention has focused on protests around Lafayette Park and the recently renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza, Arredondo says many of the protesters Woolly welcomed came from gatherings on the Mall and around the U.S. Capitol. The lobby has primarily been open for weekend protests, with weekday afternoons set aside for receiving donations, but it has opened to support some weekday evening protests, such as the June 8 Public Defenders March outside D.C. Superior Court.

Around the corner from Woolly Mammoth, Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Michael R. Klein Theatre is welcoming protesters to its lobby on 7th Street NW. Because of the proximity of the two theaters, their volunteers have shared supplies. STC Artistic Director Simon Godwin says the company’s decision to participate and express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement “is about improving our own practices and becoming a better member of society.” The street-level windows and doors of the company’s other stage, Sidney Harman Hall on F Street NW, have been boarded up and painted with a mural supporting Black Lives Matter created by artists from the Design Foundry and the Denver Smith Foundation as part of the #CRE8CHANGE initiative.

In a June 10 phone conversation, Godwin estimated that about “550 protesters have visited us since we opened our lobby,” and had been served by a team of 30 volunteers coming from STC staff, its acting company, and its patrons. Food and drinks originally purchased for the theater’s concession stands are now nourishing visitors. 

Arena Stage on 6th Street SW has also kept its lobby open, providing snacks, bottled water, and access to the restrooms. “Our neighborhood and friends, including the Southwest BID and Ford’s Theatre, stepped right up to donate the supplies, so it’s accurate to say it was a neighborhood effort,” says Edgar Dobie, Arena’s executive director. Due to the distance from the main protest, however, he says the theater “had the wonderful problem of our neighborhood donating supplies, like water bottles and snacks, so much so that we had more than we needed … We were able to share with other protest rest sites that are closer to the source of activity.”

The larger theaters are not the only ones opening their lobbies. Many of these efforts are scalable to smaller venues. Keegan Theatre on Church Street NW near Dupont Circle can only accommodate 10 people in its lobby under safe distancing guidelines. “We’re less of a rest area than a rest stop,” quips Emily Dwornik, Keegan’s production manager.  Nevertheless, Keegan opened its doors on June 6, in support of a queer and trans rally in the Circle. “That Saturday, we had 180 to 200 people come by,” says Dwornik, “but the following Sunday, between 2 and 7 p.m., we only saw 10 to 15 people.” Time and place becomes key, she says: “We’re using social media to monitor when or where there will be protests in Dupont or on 17th or 18th streets so we can strategize when best to be open, then Marketing Associate Gary [DuBreuil] can get the word out.” Supplies have been purchased by the theater, or donated by neighbors, patrons, and actors.

“It’s a wonderful thing, opening our lobby to protesters, but it’s only a small thing in [the effort to] dismantle White privilege in the theatrical community,” Dwornick says. “These issues of police brutality and White privilege are not going away soon. We owe it to the Black artists in the city.”

On 14th Street NW, Studio Theatre was in the midst of its run of Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Overwhen COVID-19 forced it to suspend operations. The play’s subject matter, which depicts police brutality and incidents of anti-Black racism, underlined Studio’s compulsion to act. “After events in Lafayette Park, we were able to immediately paint ‘Black Lives Matter’ in our windows and started discussing how to open our lobby,” says Managing Director Rebecca Ende Lichtenberg

As of June 11, when Ende Lichtenberg spoke with City Paper, “demand has not exceeded our capacity to serve. Only with the restroom have we had to set limits on how many people are in at a time. We’ll continue opening our doors to protests as long as needed.” At the time, many protesters were walking along 14th Street NW between the White House and Malcolm X Park, making a stop at Studio and “taking time to refuel and recharge.”

Four blocks north of Studio, Source Theatre is also participating. Owned and operated since 2007 by CulturalDC, which operates as both a presenting organization and an advocate for development of cultural spaces, The Source is home to resident companies Constellation Theatre, IN Series, and Washington Improv Theater. According toKristi Maiselman, CulturalDC’s Executive Director, after the events of June 1, including the kettling of protesters on nearby Swann Street NW, “the artists we worked with were calling on us to do something … As an organization located in the historical U Street Corridor, we have a commitment to our local Black and LGBTQ communities.” 

“Boarding up our windows would send the wrong message,” says Maiselman. Though there had been large protests in response to the police action on Swann Street, “everything we have seen in our neighborhood has been peaceful, with no signs of looting or vandalism.”  In putting an #OpenYourLobby plan together, CulturalDC had to consult with its insurance company about liability, and the procedures put in place included information collection for contact tracing. Due to the small lobby, only five people, including two volunteers, can be inside and maintain social distancing, so most goods and services are provided on the sidewalk by two additional volunteers. The volunteers have come from the staff of CulturalDC and the three resident companies.

“Constellation’s core values are to treat everyone we work with dignity, kindness, and respect, and so we had to support Black Lives Matter,” says Nick Martin, an artistic associate with Constellation. According to Martin, most visitors to Source are traveling to and from rallies at the Trump International Hotel, Black Lives Matter Plaza, Malcolm X Park, and along the U Street Corridor, estimating that over the course of the June 6 weekend, the Source had 150 visitors and 600 to 700 passersby picking up supplies. 

Maiselman, noting that CulturalDC has a staff of only three people, says its strength comes from its ability to work with other groups. “Collaboration is how organizations are going to survive this situation.”