D.C.’s Studio expands

Capital campaign continues for new venues

WASHINGTON — The explosive growth in D.C.’s regional theater scene has the Studio Theater here sitting pretty.

It celebrates its 25th anniversary this season with a huge capital expansion campaign, fueled by solid artistic and box office success. And its acting conservatory is riding a wave as the area’s premier professional training facility for actors and directors.

Snug in its cozy but soon-to-expand complex, Studio leads the so-called “second generation” of regional theater here. It joins Arena Stage, the Shakespeare Theater and Woolly Mammoth Theater Co. as one of the city’s most successful theater orgs, and is regarded as Washington’s equivalent of an Off Broadway house.

It’s where local auds will find today’s edgiest contemporary playwrights, such as Neil LaBute, Kenneth Lonergan and Christopher Durang, as well as stalwarts like August Wilson, Tom Stoppard and Edward Albee.

Studio’s success is an enormous satisfaction to Joy Zinoman, the irrepressible maestro who launched the enterprise in the once dicey Logan Circle neighborhood scarred by the Martin Luther King riots. Now it’s trendy.

Zinoman still serves as Studio’s artistic and managing director and heads its acting conservatory.

An exacting boss known for her fierce passion for theater — and impatience with those who don’t share it — Zinoman says she is simply following the path set by her Northwestern University professor, Alvina Krause.

Studio’s high-caliber productions endear her to audiences and colleagues alike, especially playwrights such as Stoppard, who two years ago intervened so Studio could present his play “The Invention of Love” while it was still running on Broadway.

Actors and directors praise Studio’s high production values and nurturing atmosphere. “It is an incredibly important force in our theater community, responsible in no small part for theater growth here in general,” says Holly Twyford, one of Washington’s busiest performers.

Her view is echoed by veteran actor-teacher Floyd King: “Studio’s success is all because of Joy. Her enthusiasm is the same as it was 25 years ago.”

Studio is also a place for innovation. It claims credit for a unique concept in regional theater — a “for-profit model” of building extensions into the planning of every show. No play there ever closes at the end of its initial run if business warrants otherwise. Contracts with performers are always inked with an extension option.

To implement the concept, Studio has built two identical 200-seat theaters — and soon will add a third — so it can extend shows while launching new ones. If a play becomes a B.O. success, as with this season’s surprise hit, LaBute’s “The Shape of Things,” more perfs are added.

“It’s like having your own overflow house, and it changes the finances of our theaters,” Zinoman says. For example, Stoppard’s “Indian Ink” played to full houses for four months beyond its initial booking in 1999, pulling in $750,000 over the run. Extensions also help explain how Studio, with its $5 million operating budget, has ended recent seasons with a surplus.

Zinoman says the concept blends the entrepreneurial spirit with high art and exposes the “bankrupt idea” in regional theater of closing shows that could be earning income and reaching new audiences.

Although Studio aggressively courts subscribers, “We love the energy and pop from people who just want to come and see (a particular) play,” she says.

This season’s sked is typically eclectic. It opened with an uproarious production of Peter Nichols’ newly revised “Privates on Parade,” followed by LaBute’s thought-provoking “The Shape of Things.” It also includes a new play, “Runaway Home,” by Javon Johnson; Edward Albee’s “The Play About the Baby”; and finishes with the musical “A Class Act.”

Studio’s experimental non-Equity Second Stage program ushered in its 15th season with the quirky “Bat Boy: The Musical.”

One year ago, Studio launched a $9.5 million capital campaign with the purchase of two buildings next door to its facility, a former Peerless Auto showroom at 14th and P streets. Resident designer Russell Metheny will head the project to adapt the new buildings, while Zinoman helps raise the final $3.5 million needed.

Zinoman finds the project exciting and bit scary, but is undaunted. “I consider myself extremely lucky to have found something that I love,” she says. “That interest has been sustained for my whole life. It doesn’t get boring.”

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