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Politics Heat Up the Box Office at D.C. Theaters

Ever since the tempestuous presidential election season, the country at large can’t stop talking about politics. In Washington D.C., that’s always been business as usual — only now, locals are showing a new surge of interest in politically themed theater, with a string of box office hits that fly in the face of the old D.C. theater dictum that politics don’t sell on stage.

Arena Stage, the de-facto mother ship of the city’s bustling theater scene, is riding that wave with a new initiative called Power Plays, commissioning and developing 25 new plays and musicals during the next 10 years, each featuring an American story — one per decade dating back to 1776 — that explores people, events and ideas that have helped shape the nation. The initiative comes after the unexpected sales success of “Camp David,” Lawrence Wright’s drama about President Carter’s Israeli-Egyptian peace accords, and an equally boffo run for “The Originalist” (pictured above), John Strand’s two-hander about Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The run of current offering “Intelligence,” loosely based on the 2003 outing of officer Valerie Plame Wilson, sold out before rehearsals had even begun.

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With those successes, and interest high in Power Plays, it’s clear the theatrical landscape has changed. Arena a.d. Molly Smith attributes it to “our broken political system.” “The whole country is awake and politically active today in a way I haven’t experienced in my lifetime, making this the most exciting time to be producing plays,” she said.

The Power Plays initiative will touch on themes that fall within five cycles: Presidential Voices, African-American Voices, Insider Voices, Musical Theater Voices and Women’s Voices. Commissions to date have been awarded to playwrights Wright, Strand, Sarah Ruhl, Aaron Posner, Mary Kathryn Nagle, Jacqueline Lawton, Rajiv Joseph, Eve Ensler and Nathan Alan Davis.

Such a prospect was not even a gleam in Smith’s eye a decade ago, when she took her first tentative steps toward plays with political themes — doing so despite the warnings of associates that political shows wouldn’t sell. It didn’t help that there was little interest in the genre from playwrights, she added. But she stuck to it, propelled in part by a yearning to find a “D.C. theater voice” that would speak to the vernacular of a powerful city.

Then in 2014, Arena commissioned playwright and journalist Wright to pen “Camp David,” the  idea for which was suggested to Smith by Gerald Rafshoon, the prominent D.C. politico and TV producer who had been director of communications for President Carter. The play snowballed into a headturning success at the box office, and also generated new contributed income for Arena. “Those are important metrics when you’re tackling something new,” says a bullish Edgar Dobie, the theater’s executive director.

The following season, Smith headed across the political aisle to direct “The Originalist,” which imagines conversations between Scalia and a gay liberal law clerk. Featured in the lead was one of D.C.’s most prominent actors, Ed Gero. It was another smash, playing Arena’s 200-seat Kogod Cradle theater.

Shortly before that production opened, Smith got the idea for Power Plays. “Our audiences were clearly hungry for this kind of work,” she said. As for those previously disinterested artists? “They are very interested now,” she noted.  “Agents and writers are knocking on our doors.”

“Camp David,” “Originalist” and Jacqueline Lawton’s “Intelligence” are officially the first three Power Play entries. Arena’s current season has also included two other politically oriented productions — Lisa Loomer’s “Roe,” about the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade participants, and a revival of Lillian Hellman’s “Watch on the Rhine.”

Among other Power Play commissions are works about abolitionist Harriet Tubman, John Quincy Adams, an Oklahoma neighborhood destroyed by racial hatred, and broken treaties by the government with the Cherokee tribes. That last is Nagle’s play “Sovereignty,” which will be next season’s Power Play entry as part of the city-wide Women’s Voices Theater Festival.

Not only is appetite strong for politically engaged stage work, but, Smith noted, “the subject matter expertise available here is unmatched anywhere.” Local experts are consulted with every project. Case in point: Actor Gero spent hours with Justice Scalia in preparation for the role over lunch in his chambers and skeet shooting.

Theater boss Dobie hopes Power Plays will continue to yield home runs that mirror the success of  “The Originalist.” That play, he said, “has re-awakened old relationships, fostered new ones, and helped us make remarkable connections in the community.”

On the fundraising front, the initiative’s multi-themed approach enables Arena to segment underwriting solicitations by category, and appeal directly to issue-based advocates on topics like First Amendment and women’s rights, as well as racial equality. The company will also underscore the initiative’s decade-long arc when approaching donors and philanthropists, he said. Meanwhile, it will also entertain co-production opportunities with other resident theaters.

D.C.’s thirst for political theater is decidedly contagious. “Originalist” launched a busy touring schedule in January with a three-month run at Sarasota’s Asolo Rep, and it opens at the Pasadena Playhouse April 11 for four weeks before returning to Arena for a reprise in July. Next season’s bookings so far include stops in Chicago, Philadelphia and two other cities, while a filmed version by Stage 17 will air on PBS stations. It’s also due to become a radio play.

On Broadway, “Sweat,” Lynn Nottage’s suddenly timely look at the pressures on a group of working class friends in a dying factory town, recently opened (following a run at Arena last year), and in L.A., recent outings including Jon Robin Baitz’s “Vicuna” and Robert Schenkkan’s “Building the Wall” have already begun to address life in the Age of Trump.

As for “Camp David,” Wright is currently refashioning his script to transfer the play into a film under a deal inked with HBO. In addition, the play has also enjoyed a run at San Diego’s Old Globe.

Dobie is enjoying the unexpected income from these various productions, which adds to a stream already flowing from last season’s unexpected hit, “Dear Evan Hansen,” which transferred this year. Such revenue goes into Arena’s commissioning programs.

For his part, actor Gero noted that these politically provocative plays get back to the roots of the theater that stretch all the way back to the Greeks.

“Originalist,” he said, resonates with audiences because it provokes them to reconsider their own responsibilities in terms of listening and respect for the other view. Playing such a polarizing figure, he says his favorite reaction is when theatergoers laugh and groan at the same time in response to a line. “I can tell exactly which side of the aisle they’re on!”

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