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

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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.

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!' "

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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.

"All the theaters are now looking at younger, more diverse audiences, and they're going to have to start marketing themselves differently."

While the LOWT audience survey showed that 83 percent of theatergoers still are white, such statistics "go out the window" when a production speaks specifically to an ethnic audience.

"For example, when Arena did 'The Glass Menagerie' a few years back with an all African-American cast, the audience was majority black," Ms. Nelson says. "What that says to me is that so-called mainstream theaters need to do more work that's relevant to [other ethnic groups]."

Instead of waiting for the big stages to change, however, maverick artists like Nelson and Edu. Bernardino, founder and artistic director of Asian Stories In America (ASIA), are creating productions of their own.

"With the emergence of theater companies like ACTCo and ASIA, more works of this nature are being presented [and] with more clarity and honesty in their presentations," Bernardino says.

Strong leaders are often behind the success of theaters, "creating institutions that are the nucleus of their community," says Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of Woolly Mammoth.

Whether it's theater by and for Latino-Americans at GALA (Group of Artists from Latin America) Hispanic Theatre, or French-speaking shows at Le Neon Theatre, or works by Jewish writers at Theatre J, - D.C. has a show for every description, occasion, or persuasion.

As the Studio's Zinoman puts it, "Our well-kept secret is out."

r For comprehensive D.C. theater listings - including what's playing - go to www.helenhayes.org.

Washington D.C. theater primer

As Michael Kahn, artistic director of The Shakespeare Theatre, says of D.C.'s theaters, "We've grown identities."

Here's a quick sample of the diversity:

Arena Stage: D.C.'s doyenne of theaters, founded by the legendary Zelda Fichandler 50 years ago and virtually the only show in town for some 30 years.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, The National Theatre, Warner Theatre, and Ford's Theatre: Predominantly venues for nonresident, touring shows. Think Tony and Pulitzer prize-winners - and Broadway hits.

The Shakespeare Theatre: The best classical theater in the country, bar none.

Source: The oldest continually running small professional theater in D.C., home of the annual Washington Theatre Festival, a theatrical "boot camp" for new writing. It's proud to have "produced every kind of alternative theater," says Joe Banno, its artistic director.

The Studio Theatre: Funky and urban, with an emphasis on the newer works of more established contemporary playwrights, like Tom Stoppard and August Wilson.

Woolly Mammoth: Eclectic, risk-taking, adventurous, wild, with more than half of the productions being American or world premieres.

Round House: A self-described "non-niche" theater trying to "provide as many experiences on as many levels as we possibly can," says Jerry Whiddon, producing artistic director.

Signature: "Signature's signature is Sondheim." An emphasis on musical theater. Artistic director Eric Schaeffer's international reputation is growing with the recent London success of his musical stage adaptation of "The Witches of Eastwick."

Washington Shakespeare Company: "Classics with a scruffy edge," says artistic director Christopher Henley. It's the smallest of D.C.'s three Shakespeare companies, with the most intimate, immediate performing space.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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