BETHESDA, Md. — The ascension of Round House Theater among D.C.’s top-tier professional troupes is being officially recognized with its entry into the powerful League of Resident Theaters. Yet while the move might imply new artistic success, the local theater community has long regarded the 28-year-old company as a premier operation.
All of which makes Blake Robison one happy fellow. Robison is in his second season as Round House’s producing a.d., having assumed the reins from Jerry Whiddon, who nurtured the theater’s growth over 20 years before retiring in 2005.
Robison arrived here from Knoxville, Tenn., where he headed the U. of Tennessee’s Clarence Brown Theater, another LORT facility. So he’s keenly aware of the advantages of membership in the national org. Among them: access to a national network of mutually supportive theaters; professional development opportunities for staffers; and collective bargaining authority with Actors’ Equity and other theatrical unions.
It’s also big news regionally. Washington-Baltimore now has five LORT houses, more than any other metropolitan area in the country. Round House joins D.C.’s Arena Stage, Ford’s Theater and Shakespeare Theater and Baltimore’s Centerstage. In all, 75 theaters belong to LORT.
Round House’s steps toward membership were begun under Whiddon’s tenure and were not a particular stretch for the org, Robison says. “For example, we were already paying at or above LORT minimums to most of our artists,” he says.
The move underscores the ability of theater orgs to incubate and flourish within public/private partnerships. The company was born in the late 1970s as a program of the Montgomery County, Md., Dept. of Recreation. In 1993, it became a separate and independent professional theater troupe performing at a 200-seat house in nearby Silver Spring. With financial support from county and state governments and private sources, Round House debuted a gleaming 400-seat theater in Bethesda in 2002, and has since opened a 150-seat black box in Silver Spring as well as a new education center there.
Its artistic accomplishments are equally impressive. Round House productions have received 23 Helen Hayes awards, the D.C. theater community’s version of the Tony. Recent shows include the 2005 world preem of “columbinus,” by P.J. Paparelli and Stephen Karam (which went on to play Off Broadway at New York Theater Workshop); a 2003 production of “The Drawer Boy,” by Michael Healey; the 2001 premiere of “Shakespeare, Moses, and Joe Papp,” by Ernie Joselovitz; and “A Murder, A Mystery & A Marriage: A Mark Twain Musical Melodrama,” based on a recently discovered Twain short story.
In a city where every professional theater can become known for a particular kind of production, Robison has staked Round House’s turf on adapting literary works. He opened the current season Sept. 13 by directing Simon Bent’s adaptation of the John Irving novel “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” This season will include adaptations of “The Little Prince,” Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” and the musical “Summer of ’42.”
The format appears to be a hit. At a time when many theaters are struggling to maintain their subscription bases, Robison reports a 10% improvement in Round House’s subs over last season.
So what’s next for the theater? With the board’s support, Robison hopes to turn Round House into a center for literary adaptations by commissioning writers to develop plays. As its first project, it has enlisted playwright Karen Zacharias to adapt Julia Alvarez’s 1991 novel, “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.” He figures the multicultural story, with its complex characters and challenging political undertones, will be just right for those adventurous Washington auds.