- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 16, 2002

The glass is either half-full or half-empty these days for the many Washington-area theaters embarked on ambitious building or renovation schemes.

A seemingly unprecedented number of performing-arts organizations are making major moves to take over new sites or enlarge and enhance their existing buildings.

Arena Stage in Southwest is almost alone among the larger theaters in not announcing a capital campaign or producing architectural plans.

“There is speculation internally, but nothing planned,” publicist Denise Schneider says. “We have a wish list,” she says, hinting that any announcements probably would not happen until Arena’s 10th-anniversary gala in May.

Raising large amounts of money in an uncertain economic climate creates its own drama. Managing directors and development officers at local theaters generally put an optimistic face on the challenges ahead, at least in public. Privately, they well may be bemoaning their prospects. Demographic figures projecting large population increases don’t necessarily guarantee that theaters, once built, will be supported.

Nonetheless, the push is on. Arlington’s Signature Theatre is pursuing two directions at once. Signature representatives are talking to Arlington County about an arrangement in which the county would help pay for a new space, possibly above the new Shirlington branch library. The theater wants the county to pay for part of the construction, estimated at just less than $5 million, as recognition of the nonprofit organization’s importance as a cultural institution.

Talks are “progressing,” Signature Managing Director Sam Sweet says. “We still are looking at some of the options in the District. Ideally, we want to make a decision by late spring.”

Nothing has happened yet that would require action by the theater’s board of directors. “We have to approach this cautiously and be sure we can achieve our fund-raising goals,” Mr. Sweet says. Ideally, Signature would be in a new home by the summer of 2004.

The District’s Shakespeare Theatre had at least one of its wishes granted Feb. 5 when the D.C. Council passed special tax legislation that channels over 12 years the equivalent of $15 million or more in property taxes to developers of a site where the theater hopes to construct a new 850-seat facility on F Street NW between Sixth and Seventh streets.

“Instead of [CarrAmerica Realty Corp., the developer] paying property taxes, they will put the money in the property,” says Brian Marcus, the Shakespeare Theatre’s development director. “That’s not just our site, but the whole Terrell Place development, the location of the old Hecht’s building.”

The $15 million would cover just part of the costs of construction. An additional $50 million or more would come from private donors even before a capital campaign is undertaken with appeals to national foundations and local businesses and individuals. A new theater would seat 850, compared with the existing 450-seat Lansburgh theater two blocks away, which would become space for less expensive productions. The theaters would operate simultaneously.

“We wanted to stay downtown, and this was the only site near the Lansburgh that was suitable,” Mr. Marcus says.

A study is under way for the design of the new space, and a decision is expected by April 30 on whether to go ahead. The architects are A.J. Diamond and Donald Schmitt of Toronto.

The District’s Studio Theatre is off and running on its scheduled expansion, announced in early October. Studio has raised about $5.5 million, at least in pledges, for its $9.5 million capital campaign, named “The Changing Face of 14th Street.” An additional $200,000 came from a Feb. 2 gala with the theme “Concrete Dreams.” Trustees Gilbert and Jaylee Mead offered $1 million at the start, with the total expected to be raised in the next two years.

The money is to go toward the purchase of two former automobile showrooms on 14th Street NW, near the existing Studio building, costing $2.75 million. The work will give Studio’s SecondStage a permanent home and allow for expansion of the Acting Conservatory, studios and other space.

Neighboring Montgomery County seems to be creating a cultural world of its own. Round House Theatre spokesman Jonathan Graham takes the glass-is-half-full approach when discussing his theater’s moves, saying, “We’re doing well. We are on our way.” All this before he says the theater “has not gone public yet” about plans for a multimillion-dollar endowment campaign.

Round House will relocate from Silver Spring to new main-stage space in downtown Bethesda in the Chevy Chase Bank complex at Wisconsin Avenue and East West Highway. Opening night in the 400-seat theater is planned for May 29 with a production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” A second theater a smaller, more flexible space is scheduled to open in spring 2003 adjacent to the American Film Institute theater at Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring.

Through what Mr. Graham calls “a complicated financing scheme,” Chevy Chase Bank has become the theater’s patron of sorts by including a cultural amenity on site. “The county asked that the amenity be a theater,” he says. “and an intermediary committee chose Round House to be stewards of the space space technically the property of the county, which then rents to the theater.”

The challenge is finding money to outfit both theaters they need lighting and sound systems and a lobby design and provide an endowment for future needs.

“Bethesda is a collar city on the edge [of Washington], but it is a district in itself,” Mr. Graham says, waxing cheerful about such nearby projects as the Strathmore Hall Arts Center concert hall, which broke ground last fall, and the presence of the Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts. “They help make it more of a destination area, and all will be Metro-accessible.”

Olney Theatre Center for the Arts has undertaken an $11 million capital campaign with “the bulk in hand $8.7 million,” Director of Development Mary Toth says. “Most of it is from state and county public sources.”

The institution broke ground last fall for a new 440-seat theater to complement its existing one. “Nobody will be any farther than nine seats away from the stage,” she says.

When completed in 18 months, the complex will be in three parts and include a soaring glass-enclosed lobby and an education and administration building on Olney’s 14-acre site at 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road in Olney. “We see this as a campus,” Ms. Toth says. The design is by the New York architectural firm of Hart/Howerton.

Other theater activity includes:

•Horning Bros. has signed with GALA Hispanic Theatre to develop the theater space inside the historic Tivoli Theater at Park Street and 14th Street NW.

•Horning Bros. also has been selected to develop the old Wax Museum site at Fifth and K streets NW. It selected the Washington Stage Guild as the theater for its multiuse development. Signature Theatre was affiliated with a losing bid for the site.

•Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company will have a new home in a multiuse development in the block bounded by D, E, Sixth and Seventh streets NW in what is called the Penn Quarter neighborhood. Meanwhile, it is putting on plays in the American Film Institute theater at the Kennedy Center.

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