- The Washington Times - Friday, July 11, 2003

“It’s been a tough two seasons for Washington theaters,” says Joy Zinoman, artistic director for Studio Theatre. . The fallout from September 11, the anthrax scare, the Beltway sniper and terrorist alerts converged to depress area theater attendance. But you would never know it by the theater building boom under way locally, D.C.’s answer to the revitalization of Times Square.

From the 14th Street Corridor north to Silver Spring, from Bethesda northeast to Baltimore, new theaters are “bustin’ out all over” in the words of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel”:

• The Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, currently toggling between temporary homes in the Kennedy Center and Theater J, is scheduled to move into a new theater of its own at Seventh and D streets in the fall of 2004.

• In June, the Studio Theatre on 14th Street spilled out if its original confines into the historical building next door in an ambitious expansion that includes two new theater spaces and ample room for costume and scenery shops and a soaring, two-story, glassed-in lobby.

• In Baltimore, the Hippodrome Performing Arts Center, a restoration project encompassing three landmark buildings, will open in February 2004 with the multiple Tony Award-winning musical “The Producers,” possibly starring Martin Short and Jason Alexander.

• These structures join the Round House’s new building in Bethesda. and its sibling, Round House Silver Spring, an edgier performance space that opened this spring right next to the AFI’s new home at the Art Deco gem, the Silver.

• The Imagination Stage, an intimate, reach-out-and-touch-the-actors theater, just cut the ribbon in June on its $12 million, 437-seat facility on Auburn Avenue in Bethesda. The 40,000 square-foot space, which caters to children and families, contains two theaters, six education studios, a digital media studio and the Just Imagine Cafe and Shop. The theater boasts a copper, limestone and glass facade, with artist-designed terrazzo floor and cherry wood finishes inside.

• Starting this summer, Olney Theatre Center in Olney begins construction of a new, state-of-the art, 440-seat theater that is expected to open in time for the 2004 season, as well as an intermission gallery and lobby that will connect the new space to the main theater.

Here is a closer look at some of the major projects in the Washington area; three different theaters with three different agendas.

WOOLLY MAMMOTH: NO MORE VAGABOND WAYS

For its 25th anniversary in 2004, the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company moves into its new home on Seventh and D streets, right across from the Shakespeare Theatre and down the street from the MCI Center.

Since 2001, when Woolly lost its monthly lease on its warehouse space at 14th and Church streets, the company has roamed between the American Film Institute theater at the Kennedy Center and Theatre J at the Jewish Community Center on 16th and Q.

Woolly’s new digs will house a 265-seat theater, a light-filled three-tiered lobby fronted by a glass wall, classrooms, a massive rehearsal hall that can also be used for staged readings, and administrative and production support space, all nested within a luxury apartment complex called The Jefferson at Penn Quarter.

“We have a built-in audience at the Jefferson that has no excuse to be late for the theater,” jokes Kevin Moore, managing director.

Currently, Woolly’s administrative offices and rehearsal areas share space with Rent-A-Wreck on M Street, near the new Convention Center. To the old office decor of theater posters and scenery, blueprints and building plans have now been added. Artistic director Howard Shalwitz unfolds the architectural drawings with understandable excitement: It’s not often that a small theater company gets a new theater built to order. Usually, they make do with adapted warehouses or storefronts.

“Woolly has been searching for new space since 1993,” says Mr. Shalwitz. “We ended up being part of a winning bid by JPI Development Corp. to develop this downtown parcel. They’re providing a 30-year lease at $1 a year for the raw 30,000 square feet of space, which is valued at $4.5 million. It is an incredibly hot piece of real estate.”

The site was the last parcel allotted by the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. (PADC). Created under Nixon-era legislation, the site had a stipulation that at least 5,000 square feet be reserved for live theater. After Woolly was awarded the site in 1999, it negotiated with the developer for more space. JPI’s architect, Phil Esocoff, a long-time Woolly fan, “basically told us they’d build what we needed,” says Mr. Shalwitz.

The theater architect will be Bethesda-based Mark McInturff, who will work closely with Theatre Projects Consultants of London and New York. “We went with Mark because he had an edgy vision that matched the kind of theater Woolly does,” says Mr. Moore. “We did not want another Landsburgh,” he explains, referring to the the Shakespeare Theatre’s more stately facility.

“Theaters are incredibly complicated because of the lighting, sound and scenery challenges,” says Mr. Shalwitz. “And this is particularly difficult because of all the different facades and levels. That’s where Theatre Projects Consultants come in, they know all the technical needs.”

With the architect and developer in place, Mr. Shalwitz and Mr. Moore, along with the theater’s board, started to concoct a wish list. “The question was: How to situate the theater within the building in a dramatic way?” recalls Mr. Shalwitz. “The solution was to locate the theater entrance and lobby adjacent to two different outdoor courtyards, which provides loads of light. There is a cutaway wall of glass that gives us that dramatic entrance.”

The theater space itself is a courtyard theater, a style much more common in England than here. “The courtyard theater concept is much more exciting and flexible than a bland, black box or standard thrust stage,” contends Mr. Shalwitz, who toured London theaters with Mr. McInturff last fall for design ideas.

“We have taken advantage of natural light in the courtyard, the skylights and the upper observation space,” says Mr. Moore.

“During the day, the theater is full of light, and in the evening we can employ all sorts of subtle and dramatic lighting effects.” Mr. McInturff, he says, is creating “a raw, back alley” atmosphere using raw, unsanded concrete and design elements that reflect Woolly’s mission to produce new and experimental work.

Seating is stacked on two levels — intimate and theatrical, sort of like a boxing ring. “The multiple levels and angles within the space serve to make the audience very aware of itself,” Mr. Shalwitz says. “This is compelling given the work that Woolly does, which aims to make people aware, make them think, make them talk and question things.”

With an expensive new theater and twice the seating capacity, will Woolly Mammoth have to give up risk-taking plays by Paula Vogel and Tony Kushner in favor of “Oklahoma!” in order to fll the seats and pay the bills?

“We are the funky theater in town, that won’t change,” promises Mr. Shalwitz.

STUDIO: THE WALLS COMETUMBLIN’ DOWN

It all started in the costume and scenery shop.

“We do 11 productions a year, and we simply needed more room,” says Joy Zinoman, artistic director of Studio Theatre. So they did the logical thing: They busted through the walls into the historic car showroom and auto repair buildings adjacent to Studio’s headquarters at 14th and P streets.

“About two and a half years ago we began negotiating for the buildings, which took great patience because there was a family of 48 people who had stakes in the property,” sighed Miss Zinoman.

Armed with an $11 million Capital Campaign, the Studio broke ground this June on a renovation and expansion that will give the company four theaters, new rehearsal and classroom space, a two-story glass atrium lobby that unites the theaters, bigger administrative offices — and, yes, twice as much space for the scenery and costume shops.

“We’ve been selling out and extending shows,” says Miss Zinoman. “The new theater is partly in responses to that, more audience and more possibilities.” With the expansion, Studio doubles its space from 24,000 to nearly 50,000 square feet. In addition to the new structures, the existing Mead and Milton theaters will get spruced up with new paint and carpeting. The Milton will be used for special events and SecondStage productions.

Miss Zinoman also yearned for a “sister space” to the Mead. “At first, we thought of finagling the Milton, but that theater is so perfect that every time we tried to re-configure the space, we got sad,” she says. The happy solution is the new space, a two-story, double-height, 200-seat theater as yet unnamed.

“Anyone in the donor community who would like to have a theater named after them, just let us know,” she jokes, half-seriously.

Russell Metheny, responsible for both the Mead and Milton’s interiors of warm wood, industrial materials and sculptural touches is also project designer for the new theater and expansions. “He will continue the industrial urban style from the current building, while combining turn-of-the-century motifs with contemporary styles and materials,” says Miss Zinoman.

The $64,000 question in the Studio expansion is parking, scarce in the neighborhood no matter what time of day or night. “My favorite topic,” Miss Zinoman says. “We have some secret things going on with some of the condo and apartment developers in the area, so the parking issue is being addressed.”

The top floor of the building will house Studio’s second new theater, a raw-space facility with flexible seating for 50 to 200 people. This theater will accommodate SecondStage productions, rehearsals and play development programs. “It’s a beautiful space with lots of windows, raw cement and brick walls,” says Keith Alan Baker, project director. “The great thing is that the space is not fixed, so artists can do site-specific productions, no more scrambling for alternative venues.”

The first show in the SecondStage theater will be “The Who’s Tommy,” a rock musical which requires a cast of at least 20 and a rock orchestra. “We finally have somewhere big enough to hold it,” says Mr. Baker. “I am so excited about that it’s been in my mind since we did ‘Hair’ a while back.”

A central lobby fronting 14th Street sporting a modern sculptural arch atop the glass atrium will unite the four theaters and feature an expanded box office and Patron Services Center, as well as a cafe and lobby bar. A grand staircase rises up from the center of the lobby, leading up to the two-story atrium to reach all points of the new facility.

“This is my favorite part of the design,” says Mr. Baker. “The idea of three buildings being united into one complex, the theaters, the school, the offices are all together, which gives the complex a lot of energy and interplay.” Mr. Baker estimates the renovation and expansion should be ready in 15 months. “Most of it is interior, and it doesn’t affect our ability to produce theater. We’ll be up and operating the whole time.”

THE HIPPODROME: EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN

The Hippodrome was a grand vaudeville and movie palace designed by noted theater architect Thomas Lamb in 1914. Once a proud host to Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller, and Burns and Allen, the place fell into disrepair and closed in the late ‘70s after playing host to blaxploitation films and all-night “Fight and Fright” horror and kung-fu marathons.

After a $70 million makeover, the restored theater — cumbersomely rechristened the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center — will seat 2,250 and host crowd-pleasing spectacles such as “Mamma Mia!,” “The Lion King,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Miserables.”

It will have two lobbies, created from the two 1880s-vintage banks that flank the theater.

“The theater itself, typical of structures of that time, did not have a huge lobby,” says Mark Sissman, president of the Hippodrome Foundation. “So, we’re taking these two historic bank buildings and converting them into two-tier lobby spaces that can also be used for private parties and receptions.” The upper level also gives balcony patrons quick access to restrooms and concessions during intermission.

The theater is attached to a 700-car garage, and a large lot is also available across the street. “We want people to relax about going downtown to see a show,” says Marks Chowning, the Hippodrome’s executive director. “There will be plenty of parking, places to eat, and other comforts.”

The grand old venue was well past its prime when it was earmarked for revitalization. The gilt and ornate plasterwork was chipped and tarnished. John Waters shot scenes for his twisted film “Cecil B. Demented” there, to give you an idea of the state the theater was in just a few years ago.

The gutted interior is being painstakingly restored in all its former glory. “We had to make new casts of 40,000 square feet of the original plasterwork and have had artisans come in from Eastern Europe to re-create the intricate stencilwork,” says Mr. Sissman, who admits that some of the fruit-and-flower patterned embellishments on the ceiling have been rendered in Styrofoam to keep costs down. “There was considerable water damage to the ceiling, which had to be 40 percent reconstructed,” he continues. “We worked from old photographs and drawings to figure out what the interior originally looked like. It was like an archaeological expedition.”

The theater’s elaborate ceiling medallion is being repaired, and the National Endowment for the Arts awarded the Hippodrome a $15,000 grant to restore artist Vincent Maragliott’s 1914 mural.

“The mural will be re-installed above the proscenium arch,” says Mr. Chowning. “It is an allegorical mural featuring goddesses of the arts and the muses of History, Lyric Poetry, Dance and Comedy. It is going to be gorgeous.”

The ambitious renovation project is tailored to blockbuster musicals. The stage is 110-feet wide and a bit more than 50 feet deep. “Most of the shows that are out there touring — ‘Phantom,’ ‘Lion King’ — need at least 40 feet of depth,” says Mr. Chowning. “There isn’t a show out there that this space can’t host.”

Performers will also get their share of glitz, with 20,000 square feet of dressing room space, including two star suites complete with a separate dressing area, bedrooms, and access to the catering kitchen.

By February, the new Hippodrome will be ready to strut its stuff. “We’ll be known for having the big shows, but the challenge is also seeing how we can take this wonderful house and ingratiate it into the community,” says Mr. Sissman. “We want to have opera, dance, musical acts and smaller productions that will bring people into our theater for more than just a once-a-year, special night out.”


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