In an ongoing series of posts, I’m examining the current state of affairs for those of us writing and making new plays in the DC metropolitan area. The series began with a look at what I call the audience problem, then continued with an examination of civic pride (or the lack thereof), and it will continue throughout the next few weeks. Today’s subject:
Most of the genuinely new work being produced in DC, let’s admit it, is emerging from the city’s smallest companies and from collections of artists working together from project to project. I admire the hell out of these people; I’ve been one of them (or am I still?), and I know how incredibly hard it can be. Not every small company is focused on making new plays — some are doing Shakespeare on a shoestring, some are doing fifth or sixth or tenth productions of plays, and some are even (almost inexplicably, if you ask me) doing chestnuts — but many of them are creating and telling stories that have never before been seen: from Bright Alchemy to Pinky Swear to Dog and Pony. Heroes all, if you ask me.
Ask most of those heroes what makes their heroic deeds most difficult, and among the answers they give you will almost certainly be “finding inexpensive space to rehearse and perform in.” It’s a problem that some small companies have solved in novel ways: the Taffety Punk Theatre Company, for example, has taken up residence in the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop; the Hub Theatre found a home in the New School. But for those who are just getting started, the initial impulse to create something new is often met with “Great, but where?”
The typical lament about DC and performance space goes something like this: we never had a manufacturing base, so there aren’t any empty warehouses sitting around waiting to be converted on the cheap. I myself have repeated this line several times over the years, but I am beginning to think that it’s actually a great over-simplification.
We may not, in fact, have enough inexpensive spaces in which to produce theater… but perhaps it’s only a matter of perception vs. reality. Not long ago, the Cultural Development Corporation launched an incredible new tool: the DC Space Finder, which helps connect performer with place to produce work. (My brief analysis is here.) Early anecdotal responses suggest that there are more available spaces than people realized, which is a good thing.
To my mind, though, those unknown and unheralded spaces are almost certainly much better for rehearsing than for producing and performing. Convincing audiences to come to an unfamiliar space to experience an unfamiliar story? A double-dose of difficult. But I do think we have one (partial) answer sitting right under our noses: the under-used spaces inside the big fancy buildings our community has already built over the last decade.
Hey, artistic director of a big local theater… does your space happen to go dark any time this year? Do you mind if we use it? All you have to do is open the door for us; we’ll take care of the rest. We’ll even split the box office with you. We’ll bring our audience into your space, which will help introduce you to new people, and we’ll give your audience a little change of pace at the same time. Not a bad deal, huh?
I do think more local theaters are testing the waters of this “never be dark” model… but we can go farther. And I think we should go farther, too. The local theatrical economy devoted a lot of its resources to architecture, rather than art and artists, over the last decade or so: Arena, Woolly, Studio, Signature, Shakespeare, and so on. Those institutions may technically “own” the spaces they’ve built — and they’re very impressive accomplishments, to be sure — but they belong to the city, really: to the city’s artists and audiences. (Go ahead, call me a socialist.) So what’s the best way to make use of them? How do we get the most benefit out of them for the most people?
The answer, I think, is to share them. (Note that I don’t say “rent” them. It’s not the same thing.) A great model: the way that Round House Theatre shares its Silver Spring space with Forum Theatre. I’d like to see more and more of this. I’d like to see every large theater company in DC “adopt” a smaller theater company, or intentionally leave even one small slot a year open for an annually-rotating cast of guest artists.
What do you think? How do we make space for art… in the spaces we already have, or elsewhere?
Next post: A Critical Ally