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It’s 45 minutes before the pay-what-you-can preview of Renee Calarco‘s The Religion Thing, and I’m exchanging niceties with Ari Roth, Theater J’s artistic director. We’re chatting about the importance of telling stories with real-world weight when he hits me with this: “When you talk about the theater-ticket-buying community, they don’t give a rat’s ass or a flying fuck about local playwrights. They want the next hot show.”

He doesn’t mean it as an indictment of the community, or even as an effort to tell the audience what it should want to see. It’s about proving to the audience that artists worthy of their attention are living all around them. That, anyway, is what drives Theater J’s first annual Locally Grown Festival, which includes a four-week run of The Religion Thing, four workshop productions of a oneman show (Jon Spelman‘s The Prostate Dialogues), and staged readings of four plays-in-progress (by Jacqueline LawtonStephen Spotswood, Gwydion Suilebhan, and Laura Zam.)

It’s risky, of course. “There’s not a proven track record of theaters doing well by serving the local playwright,” Roth says.

Fortunately, the house at Wednesday’s preview was close to packed. Including patrons and the artistic staff (who are still getting notes and making changes during a preview), only 20 spots were unoccupied in the 240-seat house.  The talk-back following the performance held the attention of about a quarter of the audience. The responses to the play were widely varied, and the reasoning for the feedback candid and deeply personal.

“It’s very important that our writers come to value the conversation with the audience,” says Roth.  To that end, there will be feedback sessions following all the workshops and readings, which loosely follow the method for critical response developed by choreographer Liz Lerman. It’s audience feedback, explains Roth, in an “importantly structured way, so you can’t come in with an uzi and lay waste to a work in progress.”  We start with “quick impressionistic feedback” and “what story people understood.”  We “take a while before we ask people for their concerns. The writer becomes sensitized to hearing both what people took in, what people loved, and what people were confused by and ultimately what they didn’t like.”

Naturally, individual plays are not the only works in progress that may evolve over the next six weeks.  Any city’s relationship with its artistic community will always be exactly that, as will that community’s relevance on the national scene.  “We’re hoping to turn the corner from saying local means cheap…to saying local means really high quality. We can grow it just as good and we can make it just as remunerative.  That’s when we as a city have the same kind of theater musculature as a town like Chicago.”  So, the questions Locally Grown will help to answer go beyond Theater J’s reputation, and the trust audiences have in that company’s taste. Is theater in Washington about producing something everyone will love, or do people want to engage in the process of giving constructive feedback to their writers?  Are the two mutually exclusive? And even if the audience had a blast last Wednesday, will they keep coming once the ticket price increases?

“The Religion Thing” is in previews until Jan. 8 and opens Jan. 9. Locally Grown Festival runs during January and February. Visit the Theater J website for a list of performances.