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BWW News: A Look at the State of the Theatre in DC with Jane Horwitz, Nelson Pressley and Celia Wren

Left- Jane Horwitz. Top right- Nelson Pressley. Bottom right- Celia Wren. Celia Wren photo by William Chettle.

If you are into politics, you look forward to hearing the President's State of the Union address every year. In the next four years, that might change for many of us, but that's not the point I'm trying to make.

For theatre lovers in our area, we always look forward to what our theatre companies have in store for us in their upcoming seasons. We look to see if there are any trends that stand out to us as audience members. We also see growth in many companies with each new season of shows. Anyone that's been following DC theatre for a while will notice how things have changed in the last twenty or thirty years. One of the biggest examples of this would be the clean up and revitalization of 14th Street, which had direct implications for Studio Theatre and Source.

I have not been here long enough to talk about how DC theatre was back in the day, so I have enlisted three authorities on the subject to give us a glimpse at the past and comment on where DC theatre might be headed. I guarantee you will recognize all of them.

Jane Horwitz's (J) work at the Washington Post has included reviewing as a freelancer and writing her column called The Family Filmgoer from 1993 through July,2016. From 1997 to 2011, she wrote the Backstage column for its Style section. You might also recognize her from the popular WETA Channel 26 program, Around Town. She currently writes about Theatre for Yound Audiences (TYA) for the Post's Weekend section.

Nelson Pressley (N) is a highly-respected drama critic for the Washington Post. His reviews, along with head drama critic Peter Marks, can make or break a production in terms of getting audience. Thus, you could say that Nelson is easily one of the most powerful voices in the local theatre scene. You most likely have read his arts and entertainment features as well.

Celia Wren (C) is a freelance theatre writer for the Washington Post. She is the media critic for Commonweal and a frequent contributor to American Theatre and the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Her articles also have appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Newsday, the Boston Globe, New York Observer, Smithsonian, and Broadway.Com, among other publications.

As you can imagine, this trio of writers are all incredibly busy with the theatre season now in full swing. It took us a minute to coordinate all the elements of this piece, but I think you will find it a very informative and interesting read. I always say theatre - and the arts in general - is meant to educate as well as entertain, so I hope as you read this interview you come out learning something about our rich theatre and arts community that you didn't know before.

My deepest appreciation and thanks to Jane, Nelson and Celia for participating in this piece. And, if you're wondering, Peter Marks will be featured in a future article.

Do any of you recall what your first DC area theatre writing assignment was?

I arrived here in January, 1985, as the new film/theater reviewer at WTTG/Channel 5, then an independent station. Maury Povich was still the anchor. I am not certain what the absolute first play was that I reviewed here, but I do remember getting very lost driving to Arena Stage and not knowing SW from NE. I did eventually find it and see Harris Yulin in Lucian Pintilie's Tartuffe.

N- Only that I was writing for the freebie monthly Intermission, which deployed me a lot once we connected. It was a great way to break in. Verna Kerans ran it; she gave me a chance to get started.

C- While I was still living in New York City, where I was managing editor of American Theatre magazine, I wrote a New York Times feature on the Shakespeare Theatre Company's 2003 production of Ben Jonson's 1609 comedy The Silent Woman. I dearly love a story with an uncommon literary angle, and for this one I was able to interview a Ben Jonson scholar, as well as [Artistic Director] Michael Kahn, and I even got to quote John Dryden. Happiness!

Do you find writing about theatre in DC is different from writing about theatre in other areas of the country (for example, New York)? Please explain why or why not.

J- I started my career as a critic in Dallas, TX, on the ABC affiliate there, WFAA-TV. I had a news director who told me to write as if I were working for PBS or NPR! I rather doubt I achieved that level, but I tried. The difference is the sophistication of theatergoers here in Washington. There were plenty of sophisticated theatergoers in Dallas, too, mind you, in the late '70s and early '80s, but not as many as here. And there was less broad acceptance of politically or socially irreverent work. I had to up my game here, I think, or try to.

N- One big difference is whether you're writing about commercial theater or not. A lot of Broadway is like movies: too much money and corporate mindset. That can happen in not-for-profits, too - amply chronicled over the decades - but it's not really the character of DC. Audiences are different city by city, too (and for me the main experiences are DC, New York, and a good formative stretch in London); the city aesthetic can influence how you write about something. It happens to every critic: you feel something really deserves an audience, and your local audience, defined by its particular opportunities/exposure and habits, may need extra convincing.

C- I don't think it is fundamentally different. If you are writing about local theatre for a local publication, you write features about whatever is new or newsworthy for that area, and you review the shows that are worth reviewing (or that the publication's budget can accommodate). And then a publication can squeeze in coverage of broader theatre trends/interesting phenomena as resources permit. Of course, when writing about theatre in Washington, you can probably focus a little more than you would elsewhere on political themes in theatre, since politics is a thriving local preoccupation.

One of the most visible changes in DC theatre is probably the state of the area around 14th Street where Studio Theatre and Source Theatre are currently located. What was the area like before it was cleaned up?

J- I remember going to performances at Studio Theatre and then Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, each of whom used a cramped space on Church St. off of 14th before building their own theaters. I don't remember much about 14th Street then, except that it was a place to be approached with caution and that one walked to one's car with a companion, even if one had to cajole a theater house manager to play bodyguard. I've heard about the used syringes and condoms on the sidewalk but must confess I never personally saw any.

N- P Street between 15th - where I used to park free in a paint store's parking lot before walking the block to Studio Theatre - and 14th is an utter mind-blower these days with all the development. So is the continually blooming 14th up to and beyond U Street. I got here in the mid-1980s and really plugged into theatre by the end of the decade, so Source was just transitioning to something less wild, wild west than it had been (so goes the lore) under Bart Whiteman. But evenings on the streets felt, um, dicey.

C- I moved from New York City to Virginia in late 2004, and I think the area was already relatively cleaned up by then.

On a related note, do any of you remember Source Theatre founder Bart Whiteman? If so, how did he influence the DC theatre community then and even (potentially) now?

J- I only heard the stories about him and the issue of not paying licensing fees for scripts and such. But whatever his peccadillos, Bart Whiteman was truly a pioneer out there on 14th Street. Source is still up and running, not as a single theater company, but as a home for, I think, multiple performance troupes, including the inventive Constellation Theatre Company, which makes great use of the space.

During the Golden Age of Broadway, DC was a prime tryout spot for shows on their way to NYC. For example, West Side Story started at the National Theatre. The Baker's Wife and Annie 2 died at the Kennedy Center. With the recent exceptions of If/Then and maybe Next to Normal and Dear Evan Hansen, shows don't come here to tryout like they did in the 50's and 60's. Why do you think this is?

J- I've heard stories, which may be apocryphal, about Broadway producers having issues with DC theatre critics and not wanting to try new shows here anymore, but that was before the advent of social media.

I grew up in Chicago, and a fabled (and famously persnickety) critic there, Claudia Cassidy, was quite scary to Broadway producers, too. It even affected how they cast touring shows, apparently. I don't remember Chicago getting pre-Broadway tryouts, either, though that may have been a geographical issue. It's all so different today, with unpaid, often self-published "citizen critics" on social media having their reviews as widely heard and read as professional critics. When I wrote the Backstage column for the Post, I did a story years ago on the question of the power of professional critics and was told by a couple of major Washington artistic directors that they didn't need great reviews any more for a show to do well. I have no idea if they still feel that way. But social media have only grown and there are so many more ways to publicize a show and build a following now.

I think it's a very hopeful sign that Arena Stage has provided a launching pad for two high-quality musicals, Next to Normal and now Dear Evan Hansen. Perhaps it means that more shows will try out in DC again after a long drought. But I'm talking about "art" shows, not something like Wicked trying out at the National as in days of old.

N- Too close to New York - the transportation and information gaps feel like they've just about vanished by now. Heavier budgets/productions - I don't have science here, but note that the decline really took hold during the mega-musical era. Management of the National during the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, when it was conspicuously dark for long stretches. Those are a couple factors, at least. And we're not in any kind of golden age for musicals now.

C- Interesting question. I'd love to interview some more-knowledgeable folks on this subject. I would guess any change in the number of tryouts must have something to do with matters like real estate, theater availability and flexibility, and local organizations' economic models. Perhaps, too, now that theatre is more expensive and so much money is therefore at stake, producers prefer to try out shows further away from New York, so that it's harder for NYC critics to make a quick trip to weigh in on a show before it has had time to get on its feet.

Some DC area theatre companies started really small and have gone on to gain national status. What do you consider to be some of DC theatre's biggest success stories and why?

J- Studio Theatre, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and Signature Theatre spring to mind instantly. I attended all three when they were just aborning. And I think their success represents a blend of stubborn artistic vision and serious fundraising ability. Those companies steadily raised their standards, and that included the physical look of their shows as well as their choice of material. I'm not saying that some artistic choices weren't better than others, but overall, it has been an upward trajectory. They insisted on visual quality in sets, costumes, sound and lighting along with the acting and (in Signature's case) singing. Some smaller theaters stay small and still do quality work because they prefer it that way; or because their fundraising is limited; or because they know the audience for their work is finite.

N- Obviously the Tony winners, Signature and Shakespeare, and you have to applaud how consistent they've been and what a high bar they set for producing musicals and classics - that's a great foundation for any city's theatrical scene. Just about everyone starts small; the ones that succeed have driven leaders like Joy Zinoman (Studio Theatre) and Howard Shalwitz (Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company). It's a combination of artistic standards and administrative doggedness.

C- There are many success stories. Arena Stage's storied role in the history of the regional theatre movement makes it a success story of one kind; Mosaic Theater Company's energy, ambitious programming, etc., following a very recent launch, makes it a success story of another kind. Ford's Theatre is a success story, because who would have thought that the venue where a president was assassinated would be functioning as a theatre, and staging significant productions, so many years later? I always feel that I am experiencing a success story when I visit theatres quite a long way from the downtown Washington, DC metropolitan area-such as The Hub Theatre, and Rep Stage-and find them staging interesting scripts and/or quality productions, and drawing audiences.

One of the aspects of DC area theatre that always thrills me-and that I think is a success story-is the number of local companies that specialize in, or devote a substantial chunk of programming to, Shakespeare. In addition to Shakespeare Theatre Company and Folger Theatre, you can count Synetic Theater, which is particularly known for its ingenious wordless Shakespeare; We Happy Few, which has done some notable stripped-down small-cast Shakespeare; Taffety Punk Theatre Company's Riot Grrls, with their all-female stagings; Faction of Fools, which has mounted some revelatory commedia dell'arte-style Shakespeare; Brave Spirits Theatre, focused on plays from "the era of verse and violence," including the plays of you-know-who; and, of course, WSC Avant Bard, which regularly returns to the playwright from which it took its name. There cannot be any other locale in America boasting so many productions of Shakespeare and such a range of interesting approaches to his work.

The theatergoing public in this area - as with the rest of the country - primarily includes older patrons. What do you think theatre companies need to do to attract a younger audience while still demonstrating commitment to its longstanding core audience? Do any of these actions to attract millennials, for example, have the potential to compromise a company's artistic integrity? Why or why not?

J- It's fatal, of course, if theaters can't attract younger audiences. Based on the crowds of kids I see when I cover theatre for little ones, there's a realistic hope that DC can cultivate new audiences for "grown-up" theatre, too.

Yet the nagging high art/low art thing lingers. The DC area is unusual. There are steady audiences for Shakespeare and modern drama. But pop-rock musicals like Wicked will always bring in audiences who don't necessarily attend other kinds of theatre. I think that more adventurous work will always have a harder time pulling in ticket buyers. It takes advertising genius to bring a younger crowd to see a play like Lynn Nottage's Sweat, seen here at Arena Stage and now running off-Broadway and headed to Broadway. In the light of the election, the play's issues might attract more young people than usual if they promote it well, but I'll wager it's going to be a tougher sell.

And, just anecdotally, I talk to more and more people who opt out of season tickets and just buy seats to single shows; or they opt for the mini-season packages now. Some of that is financial or a free-time issue, but some of it is people looking at a theater's schedule and deciding ahead of time what they think they'll and not like. The young people in my own extended family don't spend any money on theatre at all.

I don't expect theaters to compromise on artistic quality in their quest for younger audiences - at least not too often. Widening their range of playwrights and ideas and casts can only be a good thing artistically and a help in terms of bringing in younger people. I just hope they find new ways of imagining classics, too.

N- Produce exciting shows (there's no substitute for that, obviously), and I think young audiences want shows that somehow matter (didn't we all? Don't we still?). Ancillary events, outreach, social engagement - I don't think any of that is wagging the dog of artistic programming. I do worry, though, about thinking of audiences in isolated segments. I worry that that can influence/cloud not only a marketer's mind, but a playwright's.

C- Mount more plays about superheroes!... But seriously, I wouldn't presume to be an expert on younger people and what might draw them to the theatre. Companies have certainly explored strategies that in no way compromise integrity, including pay-what-you can tickets; lower-price tickets for younger theatregoers; making lobby areas more social-media-friendly so that people can easily snap photos of themselves in a way that creates buzz; otherwise incorporating social media into the theatergoing experience; having dedicated pizza-and-a-play evenings, etc., etc. Without seeing statistics on the impact of such strategies, I would not know which ones to advocate. If there is some style of artistic programming out there that might prove irresistible to young theatregoers, I don't know that it would necessarily compromise a company's integrity; whether it turned out to be a draw for older audiences, too, is a different question.

What are some of the trends in DC theatre today that most excite you? What are the trends that most worry you?

J- I think the quality of musical theatre is improving on all fronts - not just at Signature, where it is a specialty, but at companies like the Shakespeare Theatre Company and Olney Theatre Center. The dancing, for example, has improved by leaps (sorry) and bounds. I think the level of drama (and comedy) at places like Studio, Woolly Mammoth, Arena, Round House and Olney is energizing, as is the work at smaller theaters like 1st Stage and Constellation. Synetic Theater has created an innovative mix of dance, mime and drama. I love the experimentation by groups like Flying V. The health and variety in the Capital Fringe Festival is good thing, especially when some of the Fringe shows get remounted during the theater season.

At the risk of being a curmudgeon, audience manners are an issue for me, and they don't seem to be improving: Not just talking to a seatmate or texting or forgetting to turn off ringers, or not knowing how to control the headphones given to patrons who have hearing difficulty (please turn off your own hearing aids first!).

There's a relatively newer issue: allowing alcoholic drinks in the auditorium. I think it affects audience behavior. One growing problem, a local staffer told me not long ago, is corporations that buy blocks of seats as a perk for their employees, many of whom are not regular theatergoers. They attend pre-show receptions, drink a lot there and then bring more alcohol into the theater. Note the recent Signature incident, when a drunk young woman wandered onto the stage during The Fix and went through a door in the scenery in search of the ladies room. Seriously.

True, these kinds of block purchases are one way to bring in younger audiences, but not all that theater-friendly.

N- Well, ask after the upcoming season is announced. The current selection meetings must be absolutely intense. The trend that excites me has been an increasing embrace of an identity as art of the nation's capitol. Caution and hedged bets are always worrisome. The freer this city's theatre is, the better. But back to an earlier issue: that takes audiences to support it!

C- I was excited to see Swedish writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri's I Call My Brothers at Forum Theatre earlier this year. And I see that Studio Theatre will produce French writer Florian Zeller's The Father later this season. Could a greater number of productions of translated international plays-translated international plays not written by Yasmina Reza, that is-arrive in the future? It would be satisfying to feel that local theatre was in greater communion with international theatre.

The Women's Voices Theater Festival last year was an important development for the nation's theatre, and, as with the "Shakespeare in Washington" festival some years before, it was quite thrilling to feel in the midst of a city-wide artistic initiative.

As for worrying trends, I just hope the vogue for Jane Austen onstage isn't pointing to an approaching dramatization of Mansfield Park....

What do you think DC theatre will be like in say 10 years? Please comment on vibrancy etc.

J- Ever since the economic collapse of 2008, non-profit theaters and other arts organizations have suffered a drop in grants from government and private foundations. I suspect that smaller companies have suffered the most. I don't expect that situation to improve over the next four-to-eight years. However, I am cautiously optimistic that the wide (and cheap) reach of social media can help even the smallest theatre companies get the word out.

The other issue is whether we'll even have professional theatre critics in another ten years. They are an endangered species already and the widening disdain and/or mistrust of the professional classes as a whole may drown them out. That worries me when it comes to calling attention to theatre that challenges norms.

N- I wonder if the formula for season programming will limber up to make theatre more responsive; if any city could benefit from that, it's ours. I have a radical fantasy about how DC's infrastructure of stages could be used not so much by individual companies but by a cooperative consortium of programmers, with troupes floating from stage to stage, always using whichever facility best suits a given project - crazy, right? But I wonder if the iron framework (to use a Zelda Fichandler phrase) of season programming is going to have to bend substantially to be more artistically flexible, and to keep contact with audiences whose metabolism/mindsets are increasingly on the hunt for what's fresh.

Also, ten years is long enough that leadership changes are inevitable around town. You never know where you might end up with different hands at the wheel. I think the last ten years would have been easier to predict than the next ten will be.

C- I wait with curiosity to see.

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