The Company You Keep Book-ins on D.C. stages: A boon or betrayal?

I suspect I’ll remember 2010, despite its highlights (Clybourne Park, Candide), transitions (from Studio’s Zinomania to a new Muse), and homecomings (Arena to the Southwest waterfront), mostly as the year I stopped having travel-budget envy. Yeah, I know…more an attitude adjustment than a real change in local theater, but a marker nonetheless.

I used to stew in frustration when The New York Times covered premieres in far-flung theater capitals—Paris, London, Chicago, Tel Aviv—knowing that unless the shows became international smashes, were adapted as films, or got festivalized at the KenCen, they’d be knowable to me only by reputation.

This year though, I’ve caught the hits of L.A., Chi-town, Broadway, the West End, and Galway, all without going near an airport or that big marble shoebox on the Potomac. The world’s attractions have simply shown up, original productions intact, on the stages of what we’ve long known as “regional” theaters.

Odd, that. Being homegrown was the whole point when those stages were startups. Some had rep companies, others preferred the flexibility of pickup troupes. But for the longest time, the DIY nature of this not-for-profit-or-from-NYC movement was a point of pride, its very existence a nose-thumbing rebuke to the commercial establishment.

So, for years as Broadway sent touring companies to the Kennedy Center, D.C. troupes reveled in the advantages of idiosyncracy. Audiences developed relationships with their actors (Jane Beard and Marty Lodge, say, at Round House), their missions (accessible American classicism at the Shakespeare Theatre), their niches (avant-garde with a social conscience at Woolly Mammoth), and the prevailing theory was that theatrical imports would only compromise those relationships.

All of that has changed in recent years, what with Shakespeare Theatre using Helen Mirren’s Phèdre (produced by London’s National Theatre) as a tentpole to boost subscription sales, and Arena partnering with commercial producers to bring Carrie Fisher’s autobiographical hoot Wishful Drinking and the post-Off Broadway, pre-Broadway musical Next to Normal to D.C. before those shows headed off for the Great White Way.

This year, Shakespeare Theatre went further, renting its Lansburgh Theatre for much of the summer to a purely commercial mounting of Avenue Q, and its Harman Hall to television, both live (Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) and televised-live (HD broadcasts of London’s National Theatre Live series). Woolly Mammoth regularly plays host to Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe, and might as well have inducted monologists Mike Daisey of New York (The Last Cargo Cult, How Theater Failed America), and Charles Ross of Canada (One Man Star Wars, One Man Lord of the Rings) as unofficial company members.

Why? Well, money is hardly the only reason, but Shakespeare Theatre reported a $400,000 surplus for the year (a nifty trick for a non-profit troupe), at least in part because it rented its houses during down-time to book-ins. Woolly Mammoth saved a bundle on production costs while keeping its stage lit many weeks longer than it would otherwise have been able to do. Co-productions with regional stages in other cities—Shakespeare Theatre teamed up with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre for its heart-stoppingly gorgeous Candide—are another, increasingly popular way to stretch a season’s production budget.

Arena, for instance, bristles at the notion that its flashy new Mead Center complex—“dedicated to the production, presentation, development and study of American theater”—is a resident theater version of the KenCen, but its initial bookings suggest similar something-from-everywhere-for-everyone-every-minute goals, accomplished through similar strategies. When the troupe co-produces Let Me Down Easy with New York’s Second Stage, or simply imports Steppenwolf Theatre’s acclaimed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? from Chicago, it is adapting longtime KenCen booking practices to its own non-profit purposes just as surely as when it works in tandem with commercial producers.

And I don’t mean to make it sound as if this outward-looking trend is limited to a few resident stages. Bethesda’s Round House Theatre imported shows by a Bronx-based troupe and the Delaware Theatre Company in 2010; in 2011 Studio will present the Druid Theatre of Ireland’s Penelope; and Theater J works regularly with stages in Israel, and is about to bring Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theatre in Return to Haifa. All the world’s on stage, as it were, and right here in town.

You still need tickets. Just not airline tickets.

Correction: Due to a reporting error, the article originally misidentified the Folger Theatre's production of Henry VIII as a collaboration with the Aquila Theatre Company; it was solely a Folger production. The same article suggested that Druid Theatre Company's Penelope appeared at Studio Theatre in 2010; the production is slated to open this March.

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