800-seat venue to be completed in 2007

WASHINGTON — The Shakespeare Theater has unwrapped plans for a new $77 million facility being billed as the centerpiece of this city’s first affordable, midsized performing arts center serving theater, music and dance.

Scheduled for completion in 2007, the 800-seat house will be called the Sidney Harman Theater, reflecting a $15 million gift from the philanthropist and Shakespeare Theater trustee. Combined with the 451-seat Lansburgh Theater, the Shakespeare Theater’s current home one block away, the entire complex will be known as the Harman Center for the Arts. Harman promised the new facility “will enhance Washington’s role as a major cultural city in America.”

Artistic director Michael Kahn said the center will enable the Shakespeare Theater “to fulfill its vision of creating a national classical theater, while it also reaches out to embrace its sister arts of music, dance, film and the spoken word, drawing audiences from around the corner and around the world.”

The Shakespeare Theater will change its name next spring to the Shakespeare Theater Co. and will serve as the driving force of the new enterprise.

The organization is $42.5 million toward its fundraising goal, including a $20 million grant from the D.C. government.

Kahn said the new center will provide venues for presenting great ensembles and performers from around the world, many of whom bypass Washington for want of affordable, midsized theaters with state-of-the-art amenities and acoustics. He cited companies such as Theatre de Complicite from London and the Maly from St. Petersburg and dance companies including Spain’s Compania Nacional de Danza and Complexions from New York as likely visitors here. Kahn has established an artistic advisory group to assist in developing and programming the Harman Center.

Design team for the new auditorium includes A.J. (Jack) Diamond of Toronto’s Diamond & Schmitt Architects, Gotham-based theater consultant Joshua Dachs and Chicago acoustician Rick Talaske. They have designed a transformable, adaptable space that will accommodate a proscenium, thrust, semi-arena or bare stage.

A two-level colonnade will surround the performance area. It will be demountable but also connected to the balcony, where actors can enter and exit. In addition, the proscenium arch has been designed to retract on itself like a Venetian blind; it can be flown out of sight and stored in the fly space.

The first five rows of audience seats are on two wagons so they can be rolled at right angles to either side of the stage, creating a thrust stage or even an arena configuration.

“The theater’s total flexibility will allow artists to imagine different ways to produce, perform or think of a classical play,” Kahn says. “We didn’t want to be tyrannized by a fixed architecture that dictated the presentation style.”

The new venue is part of a renaissance in downtown D.C. that includes a new home for Woolly Mammoth Theater and a major expansion of the Studio Theater.

Another new project is a $10 million restoration of the Bethesda (Md.) Theater, an Art Deco cinema, which will become a 700-seat theater to be operated by Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment for midsized touring shows. It is slated to open next fall.

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