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America's hippest theaters? They're just off-Capitol Hill

By Terry Hong Special to The Christian Science Monitor / May 11, 2001


Say Washington, D.C., and it conjures up visions of monuments and museums, not 80 theaters staging 300-plus productions a year in the metropolitan area.

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The nation's capital has built up a vibrant theater scene that appeals to a wide range of demographics. The result? No longer are playwrights, actors, directors, and designers deserting the area for New York.

"People ask me, 'Aren't you sorry you're not in New York?' " says Michael Kahn, who arrived here 14 years ago to take over the artistic direction of The Shakespeare Theater - and has made it America's leading classical theater. "I say, 'Can you tell me where I could have done "Timon of Athens" or "Pericles" or "Camino Real" or "Don Carlos" in New York? They're being done here, and we're filling theaters!' "

Indeed, the theater scene is one of tremendous variety: Among the offerings right now, for example, are Shakespeare's "Two Gentlemen of Verona," Tazewell Thompson's "Constant Star," Federico Garcia Lorca's "Blood Wedding," and a bilingual production of Manuel Puig's "El Beso de la Mujer Arana" ("Kiss of the Spiderwoman").

In D.C., theater-going is in. According to a 2000 audience survey conducted by the League of Washington Theatres (LOWT), an association of nonprofit professional theaters in the greater Washington area, almost 1 in 5 of the respondents (19 percent) go to the theater 6 to 9 times a year. Better yet, the survey shows that a whopping 46 percent go somewhere between 4 and 14 times a year.

Says Ann Norton, LOWT's president, "There are so many different types of theater in D.C. - a veritable smorgasbord - that there is no excuse not to go."

In this virtuous circle, good audiences lure good talent. Says Joy Zinoman, founder and artistic director of The Studio Theatre: "D.C. is attracting artists because ... we have the demand to support these artists."

D.C. recently welcomed playwright Tom Stoppard ("Arcadia," "Indian Ink") for a second time to the latest production of his "The Invention of Love" at the Studio. Judith Light arrives next month to star in "Hedda Gabler" at The Shakespeare Theatre, and Ming Cho Lee (possibly the most honored set designer ever) returned to the Arena Stage to re-create his legendary set for "K2."

Just 10 years ago, the this metropolitan area counted 30-odd theaters. Then came a dramatic explosion, when some 50 additional theaters hit the scene, according to Linda Levy Grossman, executive director of The Helen Hayes Awards, D.C.'s equivalent of New York's Tony and Obie awards.

The older theaters include what Ms. Zinoman affectionately calls the "indigenous D.C. pool" of high-quality theaters. Among them are the Studio, Arena Stage, The Shakespeare Theatre, Source Theatre Company, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, and Round House Theatre.

Added to them have been a large group of "high-quality, small- to middle-sized theaters in D.C. that have beautifully designed, often intimate spaces, because we've been able to buy, own, and build our own theaters," Zinoman says.

"Now we have all these great theaters."

This newer generation of theaters reflects the growing diversity of Washington's metropolitan area. Ethnic theaters have gained in number and prominence in the last five to 10 years.

"The theater-going community as it existed in the '70s and '80s was primarily made up of middle-class whites," explains Jennifer Nelson, the producing artistic director of the African Continuum Theater Company (ACTCo). "As that population aged and became more suburban, the old subscriber-based model became outdated.