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About 10 years ago, Arlington’s American Century Theater was facing a doomsday scenario. With a deficit of more than half of its operating budget, “we were technically bankrupt,” says Artistic Director Jack Marshall, who had to resort to using contributions from the troupe’s then-current season to pay the previous year’s bills. But the company soldiered on, reorganized its board, and eventually got its finances in order.
Yesterday came the news that American Century Theater’s 20th season, beginning this fall, will be its last. While a press release includes the dubious-sounding claim that “the decision to close is not driven by finances, but rather by a sense that the theater has accomplished what it set out to do,” it’s in part verifiably true: According to American Century Theater’s 2013 tax return, the company, which relies on ticket revenue, donations, and Arlington County funds, ended 2012 with a surplus of $118,444. For a tiny theater company with a typical annual budget of around $200,000, especially one that once nearly folded due to shaky finances, that’s not a quitting figure.
“We were in a very good position to go for another 10 years or another 20,” Marshall says. “I think the point was the 20th year was the time to say, ‘We began this theater with a thesis and an assertion and we proved it.'”
American Century Theater’s thesis was that a scrappy troupe could breathe new life into well-regarded but rarely produced American plays from the 20th century. That’s why Marshall takes pride when graying scripts that his company has staged, like Twelve Angry Men and Lady in the Dark, get produced by other theaters in D.C. and around the country. He also says the local theater scene—-once fond of Shakespeare, European modernism, small American plays, and little else, in his estimation—-is now more open to the kind of big American plays of the 1900s that his troupe resurrects. See Arena Stage, which under Molly Smith has redoubled its emphasis as a “national center for the production, presentation, development and study of American theater.”
Marshall says that the current season of American Century Theater is, artistically, one of its best. (The troupe is currently wrapping up the season with An Evening With Danny Kaye.) Still, it also helps explain why the theater has decided to call it quits.
Take American Century’s recent production of Judgement at Nuremberg by Abby Mann, which Marshall says he thinks “redeemed the honor of the theater community in general,” since the script, the playwright’s adaptation of his famous screenplay, hadn’t been produced in more than a decade. It was an ambitious staging with a large cast, and in Marshall’s opinion “a brave and professional and thoroughly done production” that also allowed the troupe to host a bunch of pre- and post-show discussions. But the Washington Post and Washington City Paper didn’t review it, and the play lost money.
It was during the run of Judgment at Nuremburg, Marshall says, that he decided to go to American Century Theater’s board with four options: The theater could end after its current season, they could find another artistic director, they could talk him out of it, or “we can find $1 million to move to the next level. Of those four, the only one they were happy with was talking me out of it, at least for a year.”
Marshall, Tim Lynch, and others founded American Century in 1994, taking advantage of Arlington County’s Arts Incubator program, which placed fledgling arts organizations in county-owned spaces. But other than a couple of productions, American Century stayed in its black-box venue, Theatre II in the Gunston Middle School and Community Center. That meant the company couldn’t extend a hit show; Marshall also says the middle-school setting undermined American Century’s reputation as a professional company, limiting its ability to attract, say, corporate underwriting.
And because American Century focused on lost-child plays—-the ones that had gathered dust, not the bankable chestnuts—-it remained something of a lost-child company. “We’re founded on an inherently risk-attracting and dangerous mission that is always going to be a struggle, and in fact has been every season,” Marshall says. At lots of theater companies, even daring ones, reliable hits help balance out artistic gambles; at American Century, every show risked failure.
Marshall, who volunteered his time with the company, had always wanted American Century to graduate to its own space, to increase its budget, and to afford more Equity actors. While the company was making its mission work on its small budget, Marshall says he could no longer see a way to grow. “How long are you willing to be on a treadmill, no matter how noble that treadmill is?” he asks. And as a professional ethicist, Marshall says he no longer felt comfortable asking the troupe’s artists and five part-time staffers to work hard for modest pay. “As someone who was honest, I had to point to the horizon and say, ‘we’re going to get there at some point.'” Eventually, he says, he realized they wouldn’t get there.
As for the artists, Marshall says they’ll “be able to work with other companies that will pay them something closer to what they’re worth.”
While next season will be the last for American Century Theater, Marshall still doesn’t want to let the name and mission wither. One possibility, he says, is to spin American Century’s resources into a new charitable organization that would support the kind of forgotten plays the troupe championed.
Marshall’s proud of that work. While he says board members would sometimes urge him to stage a play like West Side Story or Arsenic and Old Lace or 1776, he preferred to always add something new to the theater landscape—-which meant, according to American Century’s mission, something old and unjustly forgotten. “Dinner theaters do 1776,” he says. “Everybody does 1776. We’re not here to do 1776!”