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Can the National Theatre Finally Come Back to Life?

Having a show: Very unusual. (Lydia DePillis)

Washington has no shortage of live theaters. And as the failure of the Lincoln Theater shows, it’s not easy to keep them above water: It’s a new entertainment world out there, after all, in which people have a lot of options for their nights and weekends.

But while the Lincoln generated a flurry of press interest when it announced it would need more city funding to avoid going belly up, another underperforming venue—the National Theatre, on Pennsylvania Avenue across from Freedom Plaza—has almost escaped notice. The Lincoln suffered from being dark about half the year, but the National will only be used for nine weeks this year, most of which coincide with the upcoming run of Jersey Boys.

How is that possible? No for-profit theater would make it with that kind of vacancy. The National Theatre doesn't even get any government funding.

It’s hard to say, really. The 176-year-old National Theatre is now owned by the Quadrangle Corporation, and has been operated since 1982 by the Shubert Organization, which owns and manages a portfolio of theaters in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Early on, Shubert was able to attract Broadway shows before they went to New York. But the Kennedy Center’s opening in 1971 had sucked up a lot of the big shows, which had started looking for larger venues then the National’s 1,600 seats. You can’t charge more for those tickets, so the theatre isn’t really worth a Broadway show’s time. As a consequence, that stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue stays dark and lifeless almost all year round. The theater hasn’t even published annual reports since 2007, despite relatively high attendance in 2009, when Jersey Boys first came to town (for a decade-over-decade comparison: 223,000 tickets were sold in 1999, and only 64,000 in 2010).

That may start to change soon. This year, the National got a new executive director who wants to turn things around. According to Tom Lee, some of the blame for the venue’s lifelessness belongs to the Shubert Organization, which didn’t adapt to find more uses for the space.

“They will tell you, 'We book Broadway productions, and we promote first class Broadway productions,’” Lee says of Shubert. “That's what they're known for, that's what they do, and they have not moved into other areas. But they are becoming aware, if they can't find a way to make it occupied 30 weeks out of the year, that we have to find other ways to give this theater to the community.”

The Shubert Organization’s 30-year contract expires in September 2012, and Lee isn’t sure whether it’ll be renewed. In the meantime, he’s trying to attract more users, renting at rates that groups can afford.

“We are prepared to rent some of the facilities for receptions or dinner parties or things of that nature when the theater is dark, or even when it's not dark,” Lee says. “Let's find out who in the community might be interested in using the National Theatre, and what we need to do to make it available…It makes me sick to walk in there and not to have any activity for any period of time.”

That would be a boon to downtown—if it works. As my colleague Ally Schweitzer reported, the National has been charging even more the Lincoln, which was too expensive for many non-profits. Fortunately, Lee seems determined to find a rate that groups can pay in order to activate a piece of downtown that’s been darkened for too long.

Comments

  1. #1

    Wasn't the Lincoln dark for all but about five days for the last four months of this year? Was it the same for the first part of the year?

    But hey . It's just taxpayer money, right?

  2. #2

    @Hillman

    There was a show earlier this year. Also, the Theatre isn't subsidized by the government.

  3. #3

    The Lincoln isn't government subsidized? That doesn't seem correct.

  4. #4

    There should be no public subsidy available for theatre arts--period. No one is entitled to write, produce, promote or act in any private theatre or entertainment venture at public expense.

  5. Native American JD
    #5

    Why not use it for a music venue? The 930 club gets way too crowded at some performances...use it for something between DAR and 930 club...or for artists whose audience don't want to stand for 4 hours (aging hipster gripes).

  6. #6

    NAJD:

    Probably because the Fillmore in Silver Spring is going to fill that niche. I don't think this city can really support another small to mid-level music venue. There are only so many shows to go around.

  7. #7

    java master,
    i disagree.
    the government subsidizes business all the time. and many people are better off for it.

  8. #8

    It's OK to subsidize big oil to the tune of $100bn or so. And to let its products pollute and not have them pay for the damage. But try to take away the tax breaks is BAD FOR AMERICA.

    It's OK to subsidize big AG to the tune of $50bn or so. And to let its products pollute and not have them pay for the damage. But try to take away the tax breaks is BAD FOR AMERICA.

    We would not have a 3 company domestic auto industry today if it were not for the Dem's & Obama's single handed decision to subside and support the auto industry. But that is socialism and is destroying the economy and the fabric of American society.

    But give less than $.10 of every $100 spent by the government to help the arts is wrong?

    Java Master, what am I missing.

  9. #9

    I wouldn't want to live in a society whose government did not deem the arts as something worthy of support--financial and otherwise.

  10. #10

    I was never even called for an interview, but years ago I applied to be marketing director for the Warner. I made the point in the cover letter that while the Warner and the National compete against each other on an individual night, collectively it made more sense to market together, because they are trying to maintain, build, and extend the audience for theater amongst people willing to come to downtown to consume it.

    In the presentation I gave a couple years ago to the nat. conf. for the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, I made the point that the theater community needs to produce its own cultural plan--as an element of a broader cultural plan sure--but on its own terms.

    Back then, I didn't think so much about the for profit sector, but more and more in cultural planning and recreational planning, I think that communities should create broad planning frameworks that engage not just civic actors, but nonprofits definitely and forprofits to the extent that it is possible.

    In DC, a theater cultural plan needs to include the National and the Warner as part of the mix.

  11. #11

    if only they listened to you richard.

  12. Native American JD
    #12

    @Ben - Disagree. This year, Stephen Malkmus, Frank Turner, Two Gallants and others have skipped DC entirely, either for Baltimore or Richmond. I think we either lack availability for venues or concert promoters have the false idea that DC and Baltimore are one market.

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