- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Twenty-five theaters. Twenty-five plays. Twenty-one hundred free tickets. That’s the framework of the League of Washington Theatres’ first annual “free night of theater,” set for Oct. 19 in cooperation with the Theatre Communications Group (TCG), the national service organization for American theater.

It’s part of a national campaign to attract new audiences to live theater, but for Washingtonians lucky enough to have snagged a ticket — and yes, all the tickets were snapped up within a half-hour of the online announcement Oct. 1 — it has presented a dazzling array of choices that illuminate the depth of the stagecraft available in Washington.

Theatergoers here will take their pick from playhouses all over town — from the suburban Signature, Round House and Olney theaters to Arena’s Fichandler theater-in-the-round in Southwest to Adams Morgan’s Rorschach Theatre in a church on Columbia Road, to downtown, where the edgy Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, the classic Shakespeare Theatre Company and the legendary Ford’s Theatre are neighbors not too far from the bare-bones Warehouse Theater complex.

They’ll hear Sally Bowles belt out her anthem in Arena’s “Cabaret,” plunge into post-World War II presidential politics in Ford’s “State of the Union,” watch a queen of the fairies fall in love with an ass in the Folger’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” ponder the foibles of an outlander in the Deep South in Olney’s “The Foreigner,” see a monster resurrected in Round House’s “Jon Spelman’s Frankenstein” or watch insects battle for supremacy in Scena’s “The Insect Play.”

A magic word: ‘free’

The “free night of theater” is not limited to the nation’s capital. Tried out last year in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Austin, Texas, by the Theatre Communications Group in an attempt to increase theater audiences, this year’s version will run simultaneously in 11 cities including Washington and statewide in five states.

The idea sprang from a 2003 TCG retreat that explored how theaters could identify and eliminate stumbling blocks to theater attendance.

Not surprisingly, the cost of tickets loomed large.

“Basically, we were trying to find ways in which we could attract people and groups of people who don’t normally go to the theater, limit their attendance to one theater company, or have never been to the theater,” says Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage and a Theatre Communications Group board member.

“There are all kinds of impediments to people coming to the theater, price being the biggest one, I think. But there was also a feeling that if we could get people into the theater, that they would come back.”

And if the Theatre Communications Group has ever wondered whether free tickets could pack the houses, the answer is an obvious “yes.”

“People logged on so quickly and the tickets went so fast,” says Kevin Moore, managing director of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and president of the League of Washington Theatres, after the run on the offered tickets, valued at about $77,000.

“We were stunned, thrilled, gratified, surprised and thrilled by the reaction,” he says, and suggests that those who missed the initial offer of two tickets per applicant monitor the League’s Web site at www.lowt.org to see if more tickets become available.

“Most theaters that participated do have individual waiting lists in case of no-shows,” he says.

While Oct. 19 is the official “free night,” several theaters have offered free tickets for later dates — and these too have been snapped up.

New audiences respond

The demand suggests that those who came up with the idea were right on the money, though they could have guessed that from the response to last year’s pilot program.

Four thousand free tickets were offered initially for the 2005 “free night of theater” in San Francisco, for example — and ultimately 7,500 free tickets were scooped up for 122 performances by 93 companies at 80 Bay Area theaters.

“In general, the idea was to target the non-traditional, non-frequent theatergoers, people who rarely went to theater, or not at all, or once or twice a year at best,” says Mark Shugoll, CEO of the marketing research firm Shugoll Research of Bethesda, which examined the results in San Francisco.

“Regular theatergoers and subscription buyers tend to be more affluent and older. The people we were looking at tend to be young, non-white and culturally diverse, and they’re the ones that came to the free night of theater,” he says.

That’s right in line with the way Hannah Olanoff, director of marketing at Ford’s Theatre and treasurer of the League of Washington Theatres, sees the Washington event.

“I think this gives people a chance to see all kinds of theater, the richness of what we have here — Irish theater, African-American theater, Hispanic theater, big theater, musicals, mainstream, cutting-edge,” Ms. Olanoff says. “We’re hoping to get people to come back, to try the different offerings that are out there.”

The San Francisco data suggest it might work. Mr. Shugoll says 35 percent of the people surveyed in the Bay Area said they were going to the theater more often and attributed this to their free night of theater attendance — and that people were going to more than one theater and were trying smaller, more “edgy” theater companies.

“Almost 100 percent said they would come back to another free night of theater,” he says.

Mr. Shugoll, president-elect of the board of Arena Stage, has a deep interest in the performing arts, and his company has specialized in work for arts institutions and groups.

“Theater is a very special form of entertainment, and I think young people especially respond to it an intense level, given the opportunity,” he says. “It has an immediacy, an in-the-moment quality that television, IPods, movies and the Internet don’t have. It’s intimate, it’s electric.”

Making it work

That said, handing out free tickets — two per person, at that — is both complicated and, for some theaters, financially taxing.

According to Ms. Olanoff, participating theaters were asked to free up at least 25 percent of their house tickets (excluding, of course, season subscription tickets) for Oct. 19 or a later date.

Of course that meant the larger theaters — Ford’s, Arena, the Shakespeare Company — had more free tickets to offer.

“This is a considerable expense for some theaters, especially smaller ones, so this is a big deal,” Ms. Olanoff says.

Some theaters made more than that 25 percent available. Theater J, for one, freed up the entire house on Oct. 19 for its production of “Spring Forward/Fall Back,” a world premiere by Robert Brustein.

Yet not every Washington theater is participating, Ms. Olanoff says, some because they didn’t have plays scheduled for the time and some because their space was too small.

But for those in on the event, it holds great marketing potential.

“I’ve been in this business for 20 years on the business and practical end of it,” Mr. Moore says.

“So this to me is also a major way to encourage people to come and come again. This is one night we should have all of our informational material out — packets on discounts, stampede tickets, pay-what-you-can. We’d be crazy not to,” he says.

By “stampede” tickets Mr. Moore means $10 tickets for each of 10 side balcony seats. “Pay-what-you-can” tickets are those, usually priced at $10, that a theater may offer for the first two nights of production. Woolly and other theaters also offer such discounts as $10 tickets for people 25 or younger.

Yet the free night of theater is more than a tool.

“We wanted to get people excited about going to the theater,” Ms. Smith says. “To me, this is not just a promotion, a marketing tool — although it is all of that — but a really innovative way to show off Washington theater on a large scale. We have a dynamic, diverse community here.”

On the boards

Lucky patrons have an impressive and diverse selection of plays to choose from. Here are just a few highlights:

• Politics figures strongly in the Ford’s Theatre production of State of the Union, a revival of a 1945 comedy about a high-minded, idealistic industrial tycoon being groomed by pros for a presidential run. His estranged wife has a few things to say herself, as do a supporting cast of eccentrics. Here’s a chance to see local actors like Nancy Robinette, Floyd King, Naomi Jacobsen and Hugh Nees at their comedic best, as well as Ellen Karas, sparkling in the role of the wife.

• At the Shakespeare Theatre Company on Seventh Street Northwest, the angry but pertinent-as-ever Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People gets a powerful production from Ibsen’s countryman director Kjetil Bang-Hansen. It’s about another idealist, blowing the whistle on the town’s polluted baths and not being thanked for it.

• Half a block away and around the corner is the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in its new digs, but still at its old business of offering sharp new comedy and new plays. Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis, by Charlotte Jones, is a play touted to be “about the sort of love that gets you all shook up.”

• Nearby, just across the big shadow of the new Washington Convention Center, is the Warehouse Theater complex, where Robert McNamara’s itinerant and always provocative Scena Theatre is doing Karel Capek’s The Insect Play, a surreal but scary play about how bugs resemble humans at their worst — or is it the other way around?

• Looking for Shakespeare? See A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Folger Shakespeare Elizabethan Theater, part of the Folger Shakespeare Library, a national and city treasure.

• Also on Capitol Hill, the folks at Catalyst Theater, a small but increasingly acclaimed group, perform at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. This time it’s Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a less-known Brecht work about a Hitler-like gangster’s rise to power in 1930s Chicago.

• Rorschach Theater is one of the most energetic, inventive small theater groups in the city, with its digs at the Casa del Pueblo at the Calvary Methodist Church in Mount Pleasant, off Columbia Road. It’s a fertile setting for critically acclaimed productions. This one is Monster, by Neal Bell, a take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein story.

• Frankenstein can be found in Maryland too, where the Round House Theatre is presenting Jon Spelman’s Frankenstein as part of its New Works Solo Series in Silver Spring, featuring a master storyteller and performer.

• Arena Stage offers two productions: Molly Smith’s electric production of Cabaret in the Fichandler, doing the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb justice while highlighting the classic show’s capacity to move the modern-day heart. In the Kreeger, an off-Broadway hit called 9 Parts of Desire stars Heather Raffo, who portrays eight Iraqi women and one American-Iraqi who share stories and anxieties.

• My Fair Lady, perhaps the most popular music of the 20th century, at Signature Theater in Arlington, is directed by Signature founder Eric Schaeffer. The production is the company’s last in its lifelong space on South Four Mile Run Drive; Signature will soon move to a brand-new theater in Shirlington.

• One of the area’s oldest theaters is in Olney, at the Olney Theatre Center. It’s reviving one of the funniest and sweetest comedies ever written with the late Larry Shue’s perennial, The Foreigner.

• Watch a Washington theater pioneer and master director at work at the Studio Theater, where artistic director and founder Joy Zinoman directs gifted District stalwarts Jennifer Mendenhall, Kimberly Schraft and Mari Howells in Crestfall by the Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe.

There’s much more. And it’s all free.

What’s playing on the stages

The play’s the thing, so don’t begrudge the lucky theatergoers who snagged their share of the 2,100 free tickets handed out by the League of Washington Theatres for its night of free theater. Just wish them a good time and hope for better luck next time around.

See the league’s Web site at www.lowt.org for tips on such luck — placement on its mailing list, for example. The league also reminds theater fans to check with individual theaters for specials and promotions — not free tickets, but pay-what-you-can performances, preview and “young-professional” prices, special discounts for students and seniors and tickets through Ticketplace, the half-price ticket booth.

That said, here’s what the lucky ones will see:

Oct. 19

The African Continuum Theatre Company: “The Gingham Dog”

Arena Stage (Fichandler Theatre): “Cabaret”

Arena Stage (Kreeger Theatre): “9 Parts of Desire”

Catalyst Theatre Company: “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui”

Charter Theatre: “Short Order Stories”

Folger Theatre: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Ford’s Theatre: “State of the Union”

GALA Hispanic Theatre: “Valor, Agravio y Mujer”/”Stripping Don Juan”

Keegan Theatre: “Agnes of God”

MetroStage: “The Girl in the Goldfish Bowl”

Olney Theatre: “The Foreigner”

Round House Theatre: “Jon Spelman’s Frankenstein”

Scena Theatre: “The Insect Play”

Shakespeare Theatre Company: “An Enemy of the People”

Signature Theatre: “My Fair Lady”

Studio Theatre: “Crestfall”

Teatro de la Luna: “Como Rellenar un Bikini Salvaje”/”How to Fill a Wild Bikini”

Theater Alliance: “The Bluest Eye”

Theater J: “Spring Forward/Fall Back”

Other dates

Imagination Stage: “Sleeping Beauty: the Time Traveler” (Oct. 28)

Rep Stage: “Tintypes” (Nov. 4)

Rorschach Theatre: “Monster” (Nov. 2)

Washington Shakespeare Company: “Equus” (Nov. 3)

Washington Stage Guild: “An Inspector Calls” (Oct. 26)

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company: “Martha, Josie & the Chinese Elvis” (Nov. 8)

— Gary Tischler

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