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I’d rather have introduced myself with something a little cheerier. But like theater, life leaves you shell-shocked as often as it leaves you cheering. So here goes:
D.C. theater veterans were staggered to learn last week that Source Theatre founder Bart Whiteman had died suddenly of a heart attack—just collapsed in his office, and the next minute he was gone. He was 58. He had a wife and kids. And he was one major reason D.C. has become one of the best theater towns in the United States.
Whiteman had moved to Tennessee in 1992, and news of his death didn’t reach D.C. until a week had passed. The Post weighed in with an obit on March 24, and the City Paper is planning a story for this week’s print edition. Meanwhile local theater types are remembering Whiteman over on Theaterboy.net (my day blog): He was “many things to many people,” writes one designer who’d worked with him—”an entrepreneur when Washington theatre desperately needed one, a genius, a bully, a romantic and an artist and yes, sometimes a crook.”
(That last is a nod, for those not in the know, in the direction of a late-’80s flap in which Source produced plays by major playwrights, living and dead, without getting the proper permissions?or paying the proper royalties. Not long ago, Whiteman, who kept in touch with the D.C. theater scene from afar, weighed in on that flap when someone took his name in vain on Theaterboy as part of a back-and-forth on permissions.)
Whatever noun you choose for Whiteman, to grasp what he meant to D.C. theater you’ve got to remember that when he started Source back in the late ’70s, only madmen and dreamers would’ve imagined that something like the Zinoplex (Studio Theatre’s multi-auditorium drama palace) would one day exist at the corner of 14th and P Streets NW. With Studio’s Joy Zinoman, Whiteman was one of the first theatermakers on a block that’s now a pretty major piece of the American theatrical landscape.
Another way to get your head around it: Source was the first non-Equity theater in town, according to the Post obit. Another way of saying that: Before Source, the D.C. theater scene was nothin’ but Arena Stage and a couple of other big players.
Today, there are 56 professional theater companies eligible for the Helen Hayes Awards (and plenty of smaller operations that aren’t quite big enough to be included in that count). The HH-eligible troupes produced 7,169 performances last year and sold 1.9 million tickets to them.
And if you read what D.C. theaterfolk are saying about Bart Whiteman, that richness, that diversity, that sheer number of people making theater had a lot to do with his role as evangelist and cattle prod and crazy-ass visionary.