- The Washington Times - Friday, December 31, 2004

In 2004, Washington proved itself to be a company town. A theater company town.At last count, 85 professional theater companies were operating in the Washington area, which includes suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia.

Productions increased from 360 in 2003 to 422 last year, according to the Helen Hayes Awards organization.

The number of productions — 422 — means that Washington is the second most prolific theater center in the country. (New York, of course, is still the first.) It’s in a class with Los Angeles and significantly ahead of Chicago. .

“For the size of the area, Washington theater is remarkably vigorous and vital, especially with the energy that has been built into making theater permanent rather than transitory,” says Roger Meersman, a professor at the University of Maryland and a retired theater critic. “Twenty years ago, Washington theater was searching for an identity, searching for a way to make a contribution to the cultural life of the city. Now theater is accepted not just as entertainment, but as a way in which the city expresses its intellectual achievement and artistic understanding of what life really is.”

Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center, believes Washington has been a major player for a few years. “Its stature is increasing; Signature, Studio, the Shakespeare Theatre are producing theater that is looked at all over the country.”

In 2004, Washington area shows played to more than 2.21 million audience members — an increase of 128,348 from the previous year, “signaling that after the tragedies of 2001, audiences returned to theaters,” says Linda Levy Grossman, executive director of the Helen Hayes Awards.

What audiences returned to was not that same old folderol in the footlights. Local theaters hosted a slew of world premieres — four in a row at Woolly Mammoth alone — from such admired playwrights as Wendy Wasserstein (“Welcome to My Rash/Third” at Theatre J), Craig Wright (“Melissa Arctic” at the Folger and “Grace” at Woolly) and Michael John LaChiusa (“The Highest Yellow” at Signature Theatre).

“We might be the standard bearer in D.C. for world premieres and commissioned works,” says Howard Shalwitz, artistic director for Woolly Mammoth, where 2004’s new shows were: “Los Big Names” by Marga Gomez, “The Radiant Abyss” by Angus MacLachlan, “Lenny & Lou” by Ian Cohen, and “Grace” by Craig Wright (the head writer for the hit HBO series “Six Feet Under”).

“You can’t say a city is a theater center unless it develops new work that goes onto actual productions” — rather than stagnating in “workshop hell”— Mr. Shalwitz says, adding that there is some interest in doing “Lenny & Lou” in New York and the company has gotten lots of inquiries from the Big Apple about Mr. Wright’s “Grace.”

“We committed to ‘Grace’ from a one-paragraph description — not many New York theaters would take that risk,” he says.

Mr. Shalwitz goes on to say that while a New York production provides valuable cachet, in many ways, the city that never sleeps is snoozing when it comes to theater.

“There is so much parochialism and irrelevancy in New York. In D.C., you have less of that,” he says. “Audiences and critics seem more receptive to seeing new work. And the environment in New York is so cutthroat that many playwrights — Tina Howe, for example — prefer to have their shows produced outside the city.”

Woolly Mammoth and other area theaters are starting to explore how, in some circumstances, they can pull together D.C. investors to produce plays in New York and therefore maintain control over works commissioned and developed locally. “Producing shows outside of Washington would spread the word about D.C. as a theater town,” Mr. Shalwitz says, “but it would also allow the theater to keep the integrity of a show intact.”

Mr. Shalwitz and other Washington directors have learned the hard way that a subsequent New York production is not always a grand improvement upon the original. In fact, quite often the opposite is true.

“Two Woolly plays, ‘Recent Tragic Events’ and “Wonder of the World,’ went on to New York, and they were extremely disappointing productions,” Mr. Shalwitz says.

Michael Kahn, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre, would have loved to have transferred his world-premiere production of “Five by Tenn,” which was part of the Kennedy Center’s 2004 Tennessee Williams festival, to the Manhattan Theatre Club. The evening of Mr. Williams’ recently discovered early one-act plays was radically restaged at the New York theater this fall and was greeted by largely dismissive reviews by the New York Times and other publications.

“The experience in New York put into a big perspective how the Shakespeare Theatre and Washington theaters in general produce theater in a responsible and dynamic way,” says Mr. Kahn, who has produced numerous shows in both cities.

“Having done the plays in New York, I appreciate D.C. more. Shows should not cost as much as they do in New York. And, for the first time in my life, there wasn’t anything I wanted to see in New York after rehearsals were over — very bizarre.”

The 2004 season also brought hidden treasures to light. Jo Sullivan Loesser, widow of the great composer and lyricist Frank Loesser, chose Arena Stage and director Charles Randolph-Wright to stage Mr. Loesser’s never-before-seen musical “Senor Discretion Himself,” which he was working on at the time of his death in 1969.

“We’re feeding the national scene at Arena with such shows as ‘Senor Discretion,’ which is a lost American classic,” says Wendy Goldberg, artistic associate at Arena Stage. “There has been a follow-up reading in New York for investors and a lot of interest, and I perceive ‘Senor Discretion’ will have a life beyond Washington.”

Miss Goldberg notes that another event put the District on the national radar. All five plays at Arena’s Downstairs play-reading series have either gone on to productions at other theaters or are in upcoming seasons.

Other than “Five by Tenn,” the plays from the Kennedy Center’s Tennessee Williams festival have not been produced again. That’s just fine with Mr. Kaiser because “Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” played to 86 percent capacity and “The Glass Menagerie” played to 95 percent capacity — astounding numbers for serious drama.

“The Williams festival was a benchmark for us because it was the second time in recent years we self-produced, the 2002 Stephen Sondheim celebration being the first,” Mr. Kaiser says. “But that we did so well with straight drama, and in the summer — not the easiest time for serious plays — was a breakthrough development.” The last time the Kennedy Center produced theater was “A Few Good Men” in 1990.

The Kennedy Center will stage “Mister Roberts” and “Regina” in 2005, and Mr. Kaiser has three festivals in mind for the next four years.

“While self-producing is essential to keeping the Washington theater scene vital, I don’t feel any compunction to forming a national theater company at the Kennedy Center,” he says. “The country is too regional for that. Washington has a national presence, yet it does not need a ‘national’ theater.”

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