The Playgoer: Filling DC's Stages

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Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Filling DC's Stages

WaPo's Peter Marks tells us:

In less than a decade, the architecture of Washington theater has undergone the most radical revision in history. Every sizable theater company has either moved into a new complex, extensively renovated or added to its capacity. The result has been some nifty new houses and a hefty uptick in the number of stages and seats. In 2000, just six of the companies that have built new theaters -- Studio, Shakespeare, Arena, Round House, Olney and Signature -- accounted for nine performance spaces. By the end of this year, they will be operating 16, in some cases having doubled or even tripled the seats they can sell on a particular evening.

While the physical expansion has given the theaters of Washington more flexibility, it has also upped the pressure, compelling boards and artistic directors to consider new methods of putting the spaces to work. In many cases, that has meant including in their seasons more plays by visiting companies.
Exhibit A: Shakespeare Theatre plays host to the touring production of Avenue Q.

Can the local talent really not fill these spaces?  Are these fancy new structures too expensive to rent?  Or did these companies just go on a building spree that way oversupplied demand?


Karl Miller said...

See under: Daisey, Mike.

The expansion has been a boon to local talent, actually. DC's just reaching a saturation point for new venues. The good news is that young companies are moving up to take the abandoned spaces left by the bigger expansions.

From Shakespeare to Avenue Q might be a wild stretch, but I think bringing in companies from Philly, Chicago, and abroad is a great thing. Especially for a cosmopolitan circuit like DC. Why shouldn't DC be a host to the rest of the country's artists? That's kinda what the city does already ...

Jason Zinoman said...

Agreed. You know, if DC theaters didn't import the best artists they could find, than audiences wouldn't get a chance to see...Mike Daisey. And then -- get ready -- they would miss a wonderful show criticizing local theaters for importing artists. I mean, it's not like you can find a Mike Daisey in every theater town.

Karl Miller said...

Well, regarding DC, I was referencing Daisey's point about building campaigns, but you're right, Jason.

When theatres have to cut back on costs (due to, say, an expensive new building they now have to heat and fill), they usually cut the number of imported artists. Daisey goes everywhere because he's only one guy with a table - and because he's wonderful. But individual imported performers come with a hefty union-mandated surcharge: housing, transportation, per diem, etc.

If ShakespeareDC (or Studio, for that matter) wants to devote a slice of their massive resources to traveling work like Daisey, Lipsyncha, Avenue Q, or Goodman, Steppenwolf, etc ... I think it works great. And again, it goes with the transient, nation-wide character of the town.

The biggest box in DC - Kennedy Center - brings in a number of touring events, of course. But almost every local artist (AEA and non-union alike) will tell you that they keep the door wide open for local talent, too. Mostly through a rich constellation of play development programs and theatre for young artists/audiences.

I'd worry if DC started leasing its spaces for weddings and bar mitzvahs, but this strikes me as a natural, even healthy, consequence of 15+ years of robust growth.