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Washington has no shortage of live theaters. And as the failure of the Lincoln Theater shows, it’s not easy to keep them above water: It’s a new entertainment world out there, after all, in which people have a lot of options for their nights and weekends.
But while the Lincoln generated a flurry of press interest when it announced it would need more city funding to avoid going belly up, another underperforming venue—the National Theatre, on Pennsylvania Avenue across from Freedom Plaza—has almost escaped notice. The Lincoln suffered from being dark about half the year, but the National will only be used for nine weeks this year, most of which coincide with the upcoming run of Jersey Boys.
How is that possible? No for-profit theater would make it with that kind of vacancy. The National Theatre doesn’t even get any government funding.
It’s hard to say, really. The 176-year-old National Theatre is now owned by the Quadrangle Corporation, and has been operated since 1982 by the Shubert Organization, which owns and manages a portfolio of theaters in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Early on, Shubert was able to attract Broadway shows before they went to New York. But the Kennedy Center’s opening in 1971 had sucked up a lot of the big shows, which had started looking for larger venues then the National’s 1,600 seats. You can’t charge more for those tickets, so the theatre isn’t really worth a Broadway show’s time. As a consequence, that stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue stays dark and lifeless almost all year round. The theater hasn’t even published annual reports since 2007, despite relatively high attendance in 2009, when Jersey Boys first came to town (for a decade-over-decade comparison: 223,000 tickets were sold in 1999, and only 64,000 in 2010).
That may start to change soon. This year, the National got a new executive director who wants to turn things around. According to Tom Lee, some of the blame for the venue’s lifelessness belongs to the Shubert Organization, which didn’t adapt to find more uses for the space.
“They will tell you, ‘We book Broadway productions, and we promote first class Broadway productions,’” Lee says of Shubert. “That’s what they’re known for, that’s what they do, and they have not moved into other areas. But they are becoming aware, if they can’t find a way to make it occupied 30 weeks out of the year, that we have to find other ways to give this theater to the community.”
The Shubert Organization’s 30-year contract expires in September 2012, and Lee isn’t sure whether it’ll be renewed. In the meantime, he’s trying to attract more users, renting at rates that groups can afford.
“We are prepared to rent some of the facilities for receptions or dinner parties or things of that nature when the theater is dark, or even when it’s not dark,” Lee says. “Let’s find out who in the community might be interested in using the National Theatre, and what we need to do to make it available…It makes me sick to walk in there and not to have any activity for any period of time.”
That would be a boon to downtown—if it works. As my colleague Ally Schweitzer reported, the National has been charging even more the Lincoln, which was too expensive for many non-profits. Fortunately, Lee seems determined to find a rate that groups can pay in order to activate a piece of downtown that’s been darkened for too long.