Doing it up in downtown D.C.

Proliferation of new venues keeps capital scene perking

WASHINGTON — With the recent proliferation of political plays showing no sign of stopping, it seems appropriate that there are new stages in the center of national politics getting ready to receive them.

The dramatic changes promised for downtown D.C.’s theatrical landscape are taking shape:

  • The Studio Theater has just unwrapped a $13 million expansion of its Logan Circle area complex that includes two new theaters, scene and costume shops, three lobbies and a two-story glass atrium.

  • Spring completion is slated for Woolly Mammoth Theater Co.’s new home on 7th and D Streets.

  • The Shakespeare Theater Co. recently broke ground on an 800-seat multi-use facility that will dramatically expand its mission.

Studio’s new three-building complex gives the theater four performance spaces — three interchangeable 200-seat-plus houses and a black box for its experimental and non-Equity Secondstage. Designed by local architect William Bonstra, it includes classroom and rehearsal spaces for Studio’s 30-year-old acting conservatory as well as new administrative offices.

Debut of the industrial, urban-style facility in former auto showrooms is a proud moment for founding artistic director Joy Zinoman, who has created D.C.’s most vibrant Off Broadway-type theater while helping to transform a riot-scarred neighborhood into one of the city’s trendiest areas.

At the formal unveiling Nov. 20, Zinoman reminisced about the early days when the fledgling box office took calls on a pay phone.

The new facility enables Studio to expand its innovative “for-profit model” of building extensions into the planning of every show. The theater routinely includes an extension option in performers’ contracts so it can stretch the run of its plays when business warrants. The concept means “having your own overflow house,” says Zinoman, and it fundamentally changes the finances of the operation.

Studio’s intimate new Metheny Theater (named after veteran theater and set designer Russell Metheny, who guided the project) debuted with Chekhov’s “Ivanov,” featuring Philip Goodwin and staged by Zinoman. It’s part of a festival of Russian plays that includes “The Russian National Postal Service” by Oleg Bogaev and “Black Milk” by Vassily Sigarev.

Several blocks away, the Shakespeare Theater began construction in early November on an 11-story building that will house the 800-seat Sidney Harmon Hall, named after its chief benefactor, a local entrepreneur. The theater has raised almost $50 million toward its $78 million goal.

The facility will be combined with the company’s current 450-seat Lansburgh Theater nearby to create the Harman Center for the Arts. Its goal is to make D.C. a destination for arts aficionados by showcasing top performing artists in theater, music and dance, while enabling the Shakespeare Theater to expand its repertory, says artistic director Michael Kahn.

In an unusual partnership, the new building will be co-owned by the theater and the Intl. Union of Bricklayers & Allied Craftworkers. The theater will own the first five floors of the building, slated for completion in December 2006.Design team is Toronto-based Diamond & Schmitt Architects, theater consultant Joshua Dachs and acoustician Rick Talaske.

Just around the corner, the peripatetic Woolly Mammoth soon will plant its flag on a new $6.5 million, 30,000-square-foot space that includes a 265-seat theater, three-tiered lobby, offices, scene shop, classroom and rehearsal hall. The 25-year-old troupe is headed by a.d. Howard Schwaltz.

Other area building projects either planned or under way include a $200 million expansion of the Kennedy Center, a $100 million expansion of Arena Stage’s 44-year-old complex on the southwest waterfront and Signature Theater’s new facility in Arlington, Va.

Indeed, a whopping $2.5 billion in arts-related construction is under way in the D.C. region, with additional projects planned. In mid-November, Prince William County, Va., and George Mason U. said they would fund a $56 million, 1,100-seat performing arts center near Manassas to be patterned after La Scala Opera House in Milan.

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