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Can’t the Anacostia Playhouse catch a break?

Last week the playhouse’s chief operating officer, Julia Robey Christian, went public on Twitter about the latest in a long line of bureaucratic hurdles that have threatened the theater since construction began last winter. According to Robey Christian, she and her mother, playhouse CEO Adele Robey, are unable to apply for crucial grant money because the IRS has not yet granted 501(c)3 status to their group, DC Theater Arts Collaborative.

The Robeys applied more than a year ago, and their application hasn’t even been assigned to an IRS representative yet. According to an opinion piece Robey wrote for the Washington Post, the delay stems from a backlog of applications worsened by sequestration-related cost-cutting.

Robey Christian writes via email that the playhouse can take donations through a fiscal agent, Fractured Atlas, but “most foundations will not grant money unless you’re a nonprofit and will not work with a fiscal agent.”

After contacting the IRS, the offices of At-Large Councilmember David Grosso and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Post, and even President Obama, Robey Christian took to Twitter in an attempt to further raise awareness of the frustrating hindrance—-one surely shared by many other nonprofits. But her plea worked almost too well. DCist picked up the tweet and ran a blog post on the matter, headlining it “Anacostia Playhouse in danger of closing over IRS holdup.” When word got around to the playhouse’s renters that the venue may be on the brink of shutting down, some of them panicked. The Robeys ended up apologizing on the Anacostia Playhouse website this week for their “own badly worded summation of our immediate future,” reassuring renters and patrons that the venue is not in imminent danger.

The delay in receiving tax exemption status doesn’t threaten the existence of the playhouse itself. Even without 501(c)3 status, it can still operate as a rental facility for theater companies, which is what it did when it was the H Street Playhouse. This is actually how the playhouse is currently operating—-as a venue for Theatre Alliance’s acclaimed production of Broke-ology. What’s at risk is the creation of the DC Theater Arts Collective, the umbrella organization that will allow the Robeys to produce shows independently, produce with other companies, and run outreach and education programs in Southeast D.C.

That makes the IRS issue seem like less of a crisis. But for the Robeys, a new business model was largely the point behind the playhouse. “These changes in operation are, of course, a HUGE part of why we decided to rebuild and to rebuild East of the River,” Robey Christian writes via email. “Further, it’s programs like this and the ability to produce on our own that provide the revenue needed to keep our rents as low as possible and to offer additional discounts for East of the River groups.”

“We’ve had so many roadblocks on this project and the continuing one with the IRS is just wearing,” writes Robey via email. When I ask whether the hurdles have ever caused her to question her involvement, Robey writes, “even if I wanted to, I couldn’t walk away because I have personally guaranteed every aspect of the project including the rent.” She adds, “The problem with me is that I am pretty much incapable of walking away from anything.”

Yet Seeing Broke-ology on the playhouse’s stage revived Robey in a way. “The fact is seeing the first show in there, with things actually working and an audience engaged, is what gave me a bit of a second wind.”

On Aug. 6, the IRS sent Del. Norton’s office a letter addressing the Robeys’ application. It said, in short, that the organization is ineligible for expedited handling because it does not meet the criteria for it. But the criteria also presents a Catch-22: “We give expedited handling…if the organization has a grant of a specific amount pending with a predetermined deadline and can show harm to its operations if it does not receive the grant,” the letter says. “An organization does not meet the expedited handling criteria when it cannot apply for a grant because we have not yet recognized its exempt status.”

The letter acknowledges that the Robeys’ application was received on August 16, 2012 and has been “identified” as “requiring full development.” It goes on to say that “cases that require more information and/or full development submitted at that time are still awaiting assignment to an appropriate specialist.”

Photo courtesy Anacostia Playhouse