Kojo looks back on the local impact of Dick Gregory, the legendary comedian and civil rights activist who adopted Washington as his home town.
Enthusiastic theatergoers say it’s not news to them: with around 80 professional theater companies in our region, Washington has long claimed it’s second only to New York in the number of productions staged each year. The recent Helen Hayes Award nominations highlight the variety of work putting Washington on the map when it comes to both new productions and classic plays. From onstage swordplay to political dramas to musical theater, we look at what’s hitting stages this season.
- Trey Graham Arts editor, NPR Digital; Theater critic for WETA and the Washington City Paper
- Linda Levy Grossman President and CEO, Helen Hayes Awards
- Jojo Ruf General Manager, National New Play Network
Photos: 2013 Washington Theater Award Nominees
The 2013 Helen Hayes Awards celebrates the best of Washington’s theater scene. With dozens of regional theaters showing productions ranging from children’s classics such as “The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe” to the rock musical “Spring Awakening,” there’s something for everyone to enjoy. See the full list of nominations, and view stills from some of the nominated shows below.
Retrospective Of The 2012 Year In Washington-Area Theaters
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Enthusiastic theatergoers say it's not news to them. Our region's got more than 80 theater companies, and a longstanding claim puts Washington second only to New York in the number of productions each year. The recent Helen Hayes Award nominations highlight the variety of work putting Washington on the nation's theater map from onstage swordplay to political dramas to musical theater.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's all here. And the season is not short of controversy either with playwrights voicing political opinions offstage, their show titles with expletives and debates over whether dinner theater is award worthy. Joining us to discuss all this is Trey Graham. He is arts and entertainment editor for NPR Digital Media. Trey, great to see you.
MR. TREY GRAHAMGood to see you, sir.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Linda Levy Grossman, president and CEO of Theater Washington which presents the Helen Hayes Awards. Linda, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. LINDA LEVY GROSSMANIt's a pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIAnd joining us from the studios of WMLN in Miami is Jojo Ruf, general manager of the National New Play Network. That's an alliance of nonprofit theaters in support of new works. Jojo Ruf, thank you for joining us.
MS. JOJO RUFThanks so much.
NNAMDILinda, I'll start with you. Something I mentioned in the introduction, an old claim now that our region is second only to New York in theater productions. Where did that claim originate, and is it true?
GROSSMANI would love to dispel the myth and clarify it.
GROSSMANA million years ago, actually, there was a quote that we didn't even place in Variety. This had to have been in 1986, '87...
GROSSMAN...and the claim was that Washington is the second largest theater town in the country after New York. Oh, golly, if Variety said it, then it must be true, right? So we used it. We used it for about three years and then about -- after about three years, I'm talking about like 1990, '91. We thought, you know what, we better check this out, make sure...
GRAHAMMetrics, Linda. Metrics.
GROSSMANYes. And accountability. And we embarked on a research project which in fact we had continued every year since, which is we look at the other major theater towns in the country. We looked at Chicago. We looked at L.A., Philadelphia, Boston, Minneapolis. And we evaluate based on the data that they have to share with us the number of theaters, the number of buildings, the number of theater companies, the number -- the amount of work produced.
GROSSMANChicago can absolutely make the claim that they are -- they have more theater companies than anywhere after New York. L.A. has more theater buildings, but Washington still does more work than any other theater town in the country, and that we do put out year after year.
NNAMDIAs I said, this region is second only to New York in theater...
GRAHAMThank you very much.
NNAMDITrey, presumably the number of productions is less important than the quality of what's on stage here. How would you say Washington is doing on those terms?
GRAHAMYeah, you can't argue with that. There's a lot of great work produced here. There's a lot of lazy work. There's a lot of mediocre work. But there, you know, given the quantity of work -- and I think Peter Marks has been complaining on Twitter recently, the critic for The Washington Post...
GRAHAM...that there was something like 27 openings coming up in the next week or two -- even my own editor at the City Paper where I write about theater is sort of tearing his hair out, trying to get people to all the things that are opening and finding space in the paper. So there's a lot of really adventitious work done in which. I think that's one of the hallmarks of the theater scene here. Companies like Forum Theatre and Taffety Punk, small companies, medium-sized companies doing really, really bold experimental work.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number here. Do you think of Washington as a theater town? If son, why or why not? 800-433-8850 or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Jojo Ruf, your organization, the National New Play Network, is based here in Washington. It supports new work here and around the country. How would you say theater companies here do in promoting new plays?
RUFIt's a great question. I think more and more over the past I'd say five or so years there's more new work that's having its world premiere in D.C., which I think is hugely exciting. Just in this past season in the 2012-2013, there are more than 21 world premieres in D.C., and about half of them are by local writers, which I think is really, really exciting. And these are works that are happening at Woolly Mammoth, at Forum Theatre, at Constellation, so both the much larger regional theater, flagship theaters, as well as the smaller theater companies.
NNAMDIWhy is that important?
RUFBecause I think it's important to give voice to the many playwrights that live in D.C. There are over 240 people who identify as playwrights living in D.C. And I think giving them the opportunity to promote their work, to -- for us to see their work and see what they have to say and, yes, the variety of voices they have and the variety of aesthetics they have is hugely important.
RUFI think it's a trend that's happening across the U.S. And while it -- I think it took D.C. a little while to get there, I think we're probably behind places like Philadelphia, Chicago, even L.A., I think we're finally getting there, and I think that's really important.
GRAHAMAnd it's not just that it's important that we see the plays, the new works from young playwrights getting on stage and so that we can see the diversity of their voices. It's important that they see it. Theater is a thing that only lives when it's on its feet. And if these playwrights can't see how audiences respond to their work, then they don't have direction. They don't have a compass to work with.
GROSSMANI would respond that also we have cultivated audiences that have a taste and a hunger for new work. And Jojo mentioned Woolly Mammoth that absolutely created a very -- a thirst for it many, many years ago. But Washington continues to be an incubator for new plays. Theaters are committing money, calories and time to creating new work.
GROSSMANIn fact, we have two new artistic directors in our midst, both of which -- both of whom -- excuse me -- have their background in new play development. Ryan Rilette is the new artistic director of Round House Theatre. And Jason Loewith was just named the artistic director of Olney Theatre Center.
GRAHAMMm hmm. So looking for exciting things to happen there. And it's worth noting that putting up new plays and developing work is a challenge. We've got, you know, formal incubator programs.
NNAMDIThat's why I asked why it's important, yes.
GRAHAMYeah. It's -- we've got formal incubator programs at places like Theatre J and Arena Stage. Arena has this giant grant-funded new play program that has hit some bumps, so it's worth saying that sort of establishing these programs is really, really hard. Nobody really knows what makes a great new play program.
RUFAnd I think...
NNAMDIGo ahead, please, Linda. (sic)
RUFOops, sorry. Just going off of what Linda said...
NNAMDIOh, this is Jojo.
RUF...I think you're absolutely right that -- yes. Sorry. I think it's absolutely right that both Ryan and Jason as new artistic directors is super important. Both of them -- Jason was formerly the executive director of the National New Play Network and is now, as Linda said, going to Olney, and Ryan for many years was our president and has been part of the board. And for them to know and understand not only the productions of new work is important but the development -- and then the continued life is really important.
RUFSo it's not just about the world premieres. It's not just about productions having won -- or placed -- excuse me -- having won production and then being done. It's about creating momentum and having them seen within D.C. but then also in Iowa City and in Tucson and in L.A. And then maybe they get to New York, maybe they don't, but it's about sort of the regional theater circuit.
GROSSMANI would just add also that Venus Theatre in Laurel has been committed to that mission for years and years to develop new plays, new playwrights. And they have been committed to it and are absolutely diligent in maintaining that.
NNAMDIMichael in Washington, D.C. has an issue that I think is also important for the development of new plays and new talent in this town. Michael, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICHAELThank you, Kojo. I appreciate it. You know, my question is I was a professional actor in Washington, D.C., for several years in the 1990s, and one of the things that I saw that tend to be a trend was that most of the talent for the major theater companies was actually hired from other cities. I was just curious to the panel why do you think that is to draw and the box-office revenue or is it that there's thinking that the caliber of talent isn't great in D.C. as it is in those other cities?
GROSSMANWell, I think that the Helen Hayes Awards would belie the possibility that there's not enough talent in Washington, D.C. It is certainly the -- at the discretion of any director to hire talent from wherever they choose.
GRAHAMAnd the bigger theaters still do hire in a good bit. I mean you've got Richard Schiff in "Hughie" at the Shakespeare Theatre right now. You know, Richard Schiff from "The West Wing" and many other things. But there are any number of actors who make most of -- most if not all of their living working in D.C. and living in D.C.
NNAMDII've been noticing that increasingly. Did you want to weigh in on that, Jojo Ruf?
RUFYeah. I think that, as Linda said, there are many of the largest theater companies -- Arena Stage and Folger and I think Shakespeare Theatre to a certain extent -- do go from out of town. But I also think -- I mean Woolly Mammoth is a great example that a lot of their actors do come locally and a lot of the smaller and mid-sized theaters whether it's because of budget size and they can't afford to bring in out-of-town actors, but I think there is a really strong play community -- acting community in D.C. and just sort of agree with what's been said.
NNAMDIMichael, thank you very much for your call. Tim in Annapolis, Md., wants us to go back to the topic of new work. Tim, your turn.
TIMHey, Kojo. I just wanted to say hi to the show and say hi to everybody, guests on your panel. Thank you, guys, so much for talking about this topic. I'm an actor and a playwright in the area, and I just love D.C.'s focus on new and creative work. I think it's one of the more amazing things about our city and the play writing and the theater sort of situation that we have.
NNAMDITim, have you been able to have any of your work presented here?
TIMYeah. I'm actually about to put some work on in the area, actually not in D.C., couldn't find a venue, don't have that much money. But we're working on it, you know?
NNAMDIOK, man. Thanks a lot and good luck to you.
TIMThank you, guys, so much.
GRAHAMTry the Fringe Festival, Tim.
NNAMDIIndeed, the Fringe Festival might be a good idea. Trey, there's a highly anticipated production at Arena Stage right now. Can you talk about "Metamorphoses" and the background of this production?
GRAHAMOh, "Metamorphoses," Mary Zimmerman. I saw it when it was on Broadway in -- what -- 2001, maybe 2002. It's a play based on the tales of Ovid, the old myths of the gods and the demigods and the mortals who cross them in various ways or pleased them in various ways. It's set in and around a large pool of water.
GRAHAMAnd Mary Zimmerman is directing it. It's been previously produced, I think, in Chicago. This is a co-production with -- what -- the Goodman I think. And it is one of the most beautiful plays I have ever seen. It's deeply moving. It's kind of -- it's -- she has a lyricism about the way she works that just appeals to me so greatly. I'm really anticipating it.
NNAMDIAnd it's my understanding that if you happen to be in the front row or two, you get issued a blanket, that you might get wet.
GRAHAMI think they issue you a poncho.
GRAHAMYeah, a towel or a poncho or something.
NNAMDIWell, that would work. Jojo, what are some of the current shows, some of the new works that you're excited about?
RUFI think one of the ones I'm really excited about is not a world premiere but it's fairly new. It's "Nine Circles" by Bill Cain, which is happening at Forum Theatre right now. This -- the world premiere happened back in 2010 at Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley, Calif. But it's this sort of stunning and very raw play about a private in the Army who receives an honorable discharge.
RUFAnd so he returns home to Texas, and he wakes up in a prison cell. And it turns out he's on trial for war crimes he committed in Iraq. And he has -- he's sort of dealing with psychological illness, mental illness, and it's really -- I mean, it's partially about the war in Iraq, but it's also much more so about the impact of violence about how mental illness is handled in our society about the way we torture ourselves psychologically. And it just opened up Forum Theatre, and it's a really, really jarring and exciting piece, I think.
NNAMDINot that one uses this show for a personal request, but my granddaughter and I want to know about "Anime Momotaro" at Imagination Stage.
RUFOh, it's fabulous. This is probably the most fun I've had in theater in I cannot remember how long. It's the world premier by this Hawaiian playwright Alvin Chan or actually -- I'm sorry, it's the second production. It received its world premier in Hawaii. And it's about -- it's based on this ancient myth about this old couple who finds a peach.
RUFAnd inside the peach is this boy who grows up very quickly and has superhuman strength. And he has to go and fight the ogres. And it's -- it really is sort of this delightful and exciting play. It's -- the set design is beautifully done, and it really is just about an hour of delight and fun.
NNAMDICan't wait. Hope my granddaughter likes it, too.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about some of the other highlights of the current season with Trey Graham, Linda Levy Grossman and Jojo Ruf and you. Call us at 800-433-8850. Do you prefer musicals, dramas or the classics on stage? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking Washington area theater with Trey Graham. He is arts and entertainment editor for NPR digital media and theater critic for the D.C. City Paper. Linda Levy Grossman is president and CEO of theatreWashington which presents the Helen Hayes Awards. And Jojo Ruf joins us from the studios of WLRN in Miami.
NNAMDIShe is general manager of the National New Play Network, an alliance of nonprofit theater in support of new works. You, too, can join the conversation. Call us, 800-433-8850. Linda, we're talking about highlights of the current season. What are some of those you're looking at?
GROSSMANWell, you know, one of the interesting things about Washington theater -- the trends in Washington theater is that there are no trends, that with 84 theaters and close to 400 productions produced every year, 200 of which are about -- are Helen Hayes Awards eligible, there is always something for everyone. And I think that we can look at lots of really interesting stories that are being told right now concerning psychological crisis, human conflict, both internal and external.
GROSSMANJojo was referring to "9 Circles" at Forum, "The Convert" at Woolly, "Hughie" at the Shakespeare Theatre, in the fall, the "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" at Round House Theatre. There's also a lot of stories that are dealing with contemporary issues: classicism, economic strife. You know, theater is always a mirror of what is happening in our society. So those themes are always going to be reflective -- reflected in our theater.
NNAMDIThere are a number of social dramas out there. You feel that this kind of drama is what theater does best. I'm thinking in particular about stuff like "Good People" at Arena Stage.
GROSSMANI think that shines a light on themes that resonate with all of us in ways like no other.
NNAMDIWe've got also two David Mamet plays at the moment: "Race" at Theater J and "Glengarry Glen Ross" -- where I've heard that term before -- "Glengarry Glen Ross" at the Round House Theatre in Bethesda. That may be inevitable in a town with 80 theaters, right?
GRAHAMMm hmm. Yes, indeed. And, you know, it's not just that theaters will accidentally counterprogram or co-program. We've got enough going on here that when, say, the Shakespeare Theater, a year out, announces its season, a nimble company like Taffety Punk will decide to stage a contrasting play or another version of the same play running at the same time.
NNAMDIGetting back to David Mamet, he, that Tony Award-winning playwright, recently sparked a debate among his fans and critics with an opinion piece for Newsweek coming out strongly against gun control, also suggested that the Obama administration is on a Marxist path, the discussion board on to whether or not you would go to see the work of someone with whom you disagree politically. What's your take on that, Linda?
GROSSMANI think that one of the adventures in going to the theater is to go outside of your comfort zone. And how many of us as audience members have sat in a theater and seen stories that are frankly horrendous to us, that are offensive to us? But yet we grow as human beings because we have been exposed to that story and -- while we agree with it or not, and we are going to walk away a very -- being enriched by that experience one way or the other.
NNAMDIHey, "Glengarry Glen Ross" is a great piece of work anywhere you look at it.
GRAHAMAbsolutely. And, you know, Mamet is a classic example of somebody whose thinking has changed over time. He used to be a fairly lefty liberal.
GRAHAMAnd now he's changed, and it's his prerogative. I am friends with some of the people who were very angry on Twitter and were having a really contentious conversation on Twitter with Peter Marks, again, who has really dived into Twitter. I've got to say a shout-out to Peter.
GRAHAMAnd I understand their position. I understand that they don't want to support Mamet financially because of his views, but I would hate to say that I don't want to hear what he has to say especially in something as challenging as a play about race.
NNAMDIWell, any comments on that, Jojo?
RUFYeah. I mean, I think it's a hard conversation to have. I think it's a separate conversation supporting the production, supporting not only theater and the artist and the director and design team, all of whom have worked incredibly hard on this production, speaking specifically about Glengarry Glen Ross or the -- or race and then separate from, would you want to see -- would you want to support financially the playwright that you don't agree with.
RUFI think that in this time of social media, when all of us feel much closer to playwrights to live across the country via Facebook or Twitter or blogs, it's easy to now know what their political views are. And so, I think that it's -- we oftentimes sort of take our personal view of the playwright and wrap it into the piece itself. And I think sometimes it's useful to separate those two.
NNAMDIBy the way, Trey apparently thinks that you and I should have a joint Twitter account because it would have been a great line.
GRAHAMI had a text earlier today saying that the one particular actor and director in town would be very, very disappointed if we didn't get the Kojo-Jojo joke in.
GRAHAMOur very own Ooma-Oprah moment.
GROSSMANI'm glad we stuck it in.
NNAMDIThere it is. Linda, you were about to weigh in on this business (unintelligible).
GROSSMANSure, sure. I was going to say that's -- it's really one of the most key aspects of the theater. It's the most -- one of the most wonderful things and for some, one of the most frustrating things, subjectivity. It is all subjective. Art is subjective. You know, we have 2 million people who sit in Washington theatre audiences every year, and I promise you, they have 2 million opinions. That's what keeps the conversation going. As I said, for some, it's one of the most wonderful things, but there are no absolutes. So for others, it might be very frustrating.
NNAMDIBut this is Washington. If you have 2 million people, you have at least 4 million opinions.
NNAMDIHere is Jim in Takoma Park, Md. Jim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JIMGreat. I'm a longtime member of Footlights, a drama discussion group. It's at footlightdc.org is how you find out about it. But anyway, we constantly have the playwright, the lead, the director lead the discussions of our plays. And a subject that constantly comes up is the quality of our reviewers in the Washington-Baltimore area. And sometimes there's genuine anger, and it's way more sophisticated than just being angry that their play was knocked or something like that.
JIMMany of these people are scholars. I just had a discussion about three weeks ago with the very famous local actress who has won, at least, one Helen Hayes acting award. And she also teaches a college course in drama, the very famous drama program here in D.C. And she -- we're talking about, by name, many of the current reviewers, and she expressed great disappointment that there's a lack of depth in trying to educate people about the theater, in general, in the reviews. And I'd be interested, your guests were...
NNAMDII prefer it if you could be more specific, but I'll ask Trey Graham about this alleged lack of depth.
GRAHAMWell, I can't speak to anyone else, but I have been covering Washington theaters since 1993, probably, and I've seen a lot, and I try to bring that experience to every show I see. And when I teach or when I lecture about criticism, when I talk to young critics or aspiring critics, I tell them that -- a lesson that I learned from Bob Montello, who's been doing it even longer than I have, which is you should sort of operate from a kind of almost Hippocratic principle of first do no harm.
GRAHAMYou don't want to give your reader the excuse to stop reading, and you don't want to say something that gives the reader the opportunity to say, I am not curious enough about this play to think about buying a ticket.
GROSSMANI think there is one other principle that applies to critics is that I think they have to see the show...
GRAHAMThat does help.
GROSSMAN...before they render an opinion about the work one way or the other. It usually helps. And...
GRAHAMHas that happened?
GROSSMANWell, that was what the kerfuffle was all about last week on Twitter with Peter Marks is that...
GROSSMANYes. He made a comment that you cannot -- on Twitter -- you cannot credibly claim, I think, that America is known -- is that Washington is the number two theater town if the most nominated musicals comes from a dinner theater. Now, again, he is entirely entitled to his opinion, absolutely. But he had never seen the work at the theater in question and...
NNAMDII'm -- well, this is an ongoing discussion. You're often asked about theaters that are eligible for Helen Hayes Awards, including places like Toby's Dinner Theatre which received several nominations and has won in the past. What's the debate here?
GROSSMANWell, Peter has his opinion about what he considers to be legitimate theater and what he does not. He certainly can address that, and he has done so, I think quite articulately, in his subsequent posts.
NNAMDIAnd on the air here, but go ahead.
GROSSMANYeah. But our position is, how can anyone blindly say that, because any theaters' work occurs in a type of building or the type of environment is not worthy and is not creative.
GRAHAMI kind of want to give Peter the benefit of the doubt and say that what he was probably trying to say -- and I haven't heard what he said here, and I confess I haven't parsed his arguments on Twitter carefully -- but I want to say that when he was maybe trying to say was that in a town with institutions as large as the Kennedy Center, an arena stage, and even the Shakespeare Theatre producing musicals now on a $15-, $18 million annual budget and Signature Theatre which is nationally known for musicals, if they're not stepping up, there's something wrong.
NNAMDIIs there -- Jim, did the person with whom you spoke specify what he or she meant by the lack of depth? Are they saying that the viewers are too superficial?
JIMWell, he is -- this is, you know, basically not only a fine actress and director but an academic as well. And the lessons of dramaturgy that people supposedly pick up in school and, in some cases, by doing it, she just doesn't find them shown, you know, that that level of depth and understanding of theater just doesn't come out in most writing.
NNAMDIWell, I suspect some people would say that's why there are drama schools for you to learn those finer points of drama. For the average person who's reading one of your reviews, Tim, (sic) I'm not sure that they are interested in knowing the finer points of drama. They just want to know whether you think this work is worth watching, worth seeing or not and why.
GRAHAMI was going to say I'm sort of in the middle ground there, and I think that's the correct position for a critic. For years, I was terrified of writing about Chekhov. I wouldn't do it. I wouldn't go because I was scared of them. And then I realized the play has to work in the house. It's good for you to do your homework as a critic.
GRAHAMIt's good for you to study, and it's good for you to see a lot. But the audience is looking to you as a kind of mediator between the people who know a lot, perhaps too much, about what's going on and the audience which doesn't know nearly as much as I do.
GROSSMANTo address this very issue, I think, we launched a feature on our website called Audi-Turgy, and it is authored by none other than Jojo Ruf. So I'd love to hear what she has to say about educating audiences and bringing them a more fuller experience before they go walk into the theater.
NNAMDISo what, Kojo-Jojo?
RUFYou anticipate me, Linda. I was to jump in with that. So, yeah, as Linda said, we started Audi-Turgy just this past fall, and the idea of this is it's at the moment for world premieres happening in D.C. And the hope is that the articles, all of which come out prior to the production actually opening, helps to provide the theater audiences with context regarding the piece. And so we don't talk about spoilers. And primarily what I do is I will read the script ahead of time, sometimes three or four different drafts of the script if it's changed dramatically over the development and rehearsal process.
RUFI'll interview the playwright. I'll interview the director, the artistic director, various other people who are integral to the productions -- it sort of depends production to production. And the hope is sort of to provide this context to help people, apart from the reviews, to get more in-depth knowledge about the pieces so they can help understand them better.
NNAMDIJim, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Mary Hall in Washington, D.C. Mary Hall, your turn.
MARY HALL SURFACEHi. This is Mary Hall Surface. And I'm a director and playwright in D.C., but at the moment the artistic director of the Intersections Festival at The Atlas. And it's really wonderful to have this conversation. And one of the things that I am interested in is how can we, as an arts community, a total arts community and theater community really support theater artists who are endeavoring to break out of sort of a oil-made play mold of new work and to collaborate with their colleagues in music, film, theater, dance and really push the boundaries of form?
MARY HALL SURFACEAnd I just would love to get some response from the esteemed panel about, you know, how we can help push the boundaries of form as well as content in the theater in D.C.
NNAMDILinda Levy Grossman.
GROSSMANHi, Mary Hall. I will attempt to answer that question, and I think that one of the things that we're seeing frequently now -- first of all, Washington has always been a very collaborative theater communities. And I think -- and that's a really key word there. For instance, we see what Signature Theatre is doing right now with No Rules Theatre. They have sort of taken them under their wing. They've given them a home, their resources and guidance.
GROSSMANArena has been doing with the projects, I think, that they're been putting into the Kogod Cradle as well. But, you know, I think it all lies in that concept of collaboration, sharing resources. There's a lot of cross-pollenization going on and especially with so many of our professionals working in university and college environments, I think that that teaching is going to be organic as well.
NNAMDIMary Hall -- go ahead, Trey.
GRAHAMAnd I don't -- I'm not sure about the teaching and the academic circumstances, but, as it happens, I just got a tweet from Ian Allen who used to run Cherry Red. And he has just announced dates for something called "Puppet Stand-up," in which a bunch of local actors are going to be charting the daily life of a puppet. And I'm guessing that's going to be some form of mash up there.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Mary Hall. Trey, with two Shakespeare theatres and a number of companies that do classical repertory theater, does Washington stand out in that regard?
GRAHAMOh, absolutely. I would challenge anybody to argue that D.C. is not the best classical theater town in this country.
NNAMDIJojo, is a focus on Shakespeare a good thing, or is it limited?
RUFI think it's a good thing. I think having a wide range or different types of theater in any theater town are helpful both to the audiences and also to the actors. I think that no theater town can solely focus on new work. I think no theater town should solely focus on classics. That's just my personal opinion. But I think having that range gives audiences a wide variety of place to choose from when they go out to the theater. I think it's a good thing.
GROSSMANIn your teaser, you mentioned about all the revivals. You know, Shakespeare is a perpetual revival, if you will then. But, you know, everything old is new again, and as we continue to present this work in so many interesting new ways with new concepts, by new directors, those stories are universal.
GROSSMANAnd they have new relevance, a new resonance to all sorts of audiences. So it's not only that Washington is a leader in classical theater, which it is, and musical theater, which it is, and children's theater, which it is, but to continue to be able to tell these stories to new audiences, I think, is going to be really impactful.
GRAHAMI think -- I'm sorry, Kojo. I think it's really important too in that doing classical theater gives actors chops that they would never have otherwise, including sword fighting, which you mentioned.
NNAMDIOh, wait a minute. Since you mention sword fighting, there's some great sword fighting going on in theaters right now. Talk a little bit about that.
GRAHAMThere is. There's, you know, there's a good bit of banging about with, I think, more sticks than swords. There are a few swords in "Henry V" at the Folger, but also in "Zorro," which the Constellation Theatre Company is presenting at the Source. And I should note that I'm wearing my Source Theatre T-shirt as we speak.
NNAMDI"If it's "Zorro," it has to have sword fighting. Here is Jason in Silver Spring, Md. Jason, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MR. JASON MCCOOLHey, Kojo. This is Jason McCool. I'm a local actor and social media advocate. And, boy, this is such a thrilling conversation you guys are having, and I think you're really reflecting the diversity of the theme. I would highly second everyone, get on Twitter and check out the DCArts and DC Theatre hashtags. It's a terrific way to find out what's going on locally and also around the country, getting involved in conversations that are happening, you know, really internationally.
MR. JASON MCCOOLKojo, you always do such a great job covering DCArts, and it's just -- it's fantastic. And what I love about it is it reflects a different side of D.C. that we're -- that, you know, it's not the sort of national stereotype of D.C., that we're just a bunch of wonks here. It's actually a fascinating place to live and be an artist.
NNAMDIWell, Jason, as a local actor, how do you find the opportunities for gigs here, for jobs here in D.C.?
MCCOOLThere are tons of auditions, and, you know, one need only go on to the Actors' Equity website. The Actors' Center is a great place to find stuff. And, frankly, the community of actors is so tight-knit in D.C. And I moved here as an actor after I was trying to work in New York, and I found D.C. a much, much more sort of communal place.
MCCOOLYou know, it was not that same sort of cutthroat energy as New York. And I actually found that, for the first years I was working here, that the quality of work I was doing in D.C. was actually far better than what I was able to do in New York.
NNAMDIOK. Thank you very much for sharing that with us. Linda, I wanted to get back -- we talked with Trey about the sword fighting going on in "Henry V" and in "Zorro." All of that stage fighting involves very specialized choreography. Can you talk a little bit about that?
GROSSMANAbsolutely. In fact, I think that's reflective in this year's Helen Hayes Awards nominations. In the choreography category, the two of the nominees are actually for stage combat. I think it's "Sucker Punch" and the "Chad Deity."
NNAMDIIt was amazing in "Sucker Punch" when I saw that.
GROSSMANYeah. And because the specificity and the construction of that movement is just as refined, just as articulated as dances, and I'm delighted. I'm delighted that that level of awareness is -- has been recognized and that those artists will be able to use that.
NNAMDIWe're going to talk a little bit more about the Helen Hayes Awards coming up in April, but first we're going to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. If you've not, it's 800-433-8850. Do you go to community theater? What do you like about it? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our theater conversation with Jojo Ruf, general manager of the National New Play Network. That's an alliance of nonprofit theaters in support of new works. Trey Graham is an arts and entertainment editor for NPR Digital Media and also critic for Washington City Paper. Linda Levy Grossman is president and CEO of theatreWashington, which presents the Helen Hayes Awards.
NNAMDIAnd you can call us at 800-433-8850. Send an email to us at email@example.com. We got an email from Amy in Washington, who says -- who writes, "I don't have anything to -- new to add here. But I just wanted to say that now that I am at the time of my life where I have the time and money to go to the theater, I so appreciate the wide array of offerings in the D.C. area.
NNAMDI"And I'm so grateful to live here and be able to enjoy it all. It is really quite remarkable." Thank you for that, Amy. Linda, the Helen Hayes Awards, Washington's answer to the Tony Awards in New York, the nominations were announced recently. What are some highlights this year?
GROSSMANWell, I would say, remember, we love all of our children equally, OK? But I would say that a few things that stand out -- what we were just talking about, about choreography -- is that I think this is the first time that I can remember in a long time where there's been such recognition for stage combat. But what -- it's perfect to them because we were talking about before about new plays.
GROSSMANForty-nine of the 150 -- excuse me, of the 200 nominated -- eligible plays, pardon me, were world premieres. So 49 of the 201 productions eligible were world premieres, and that, I think, really says something very consistent with what we were saying before. I also want to point out that one of the special awards that we do every year is the John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company, and this year it is going to be presented to Dizzy Miss Lizzie's Roadside Revue.
GRAHAMWhich is an act that came out of the Fringe Festival.
GRAHAMA bunch of D.C. people who had been working together in various ways for a long time got together and put on a show, and now it's getting a salute.
GROSSMANAnd they got a bar, and now they're doing theater, yeah.
NNAMDIWhich brings me back, in a way, to the Toby's Dinner Theatre conversation we were having earlier, Trey. Can we explore that a little? A lot of reviews only cover "Helen Hayes-eligible work," yet is there such a bright distinction between community theater and professional productions?
GRAHAMThat line is so fuzzy, especially these days. You've got companies like The Little Theatre of Alexandria that does, you know, remarkably good work. I've had friends in shows. I've had friends direct shows there. I've seen shows there. My ex was in a production of "Into the Woods" that I thought was dazzling.
GRAHAMAnd I just -- you know, there are people who work on both sides of that line, and it's increasingly difficult -- for me, anyway -- to say that there should be much of a distinction. Frankly, in the City Paper, that the rule that we only cover Helen Hayes-eligible productions arose because there's so much theater in town that if we didn't draw a line somewhere, we would never have any sort of guiding principle.
GROSSMANWe would never ever want anybody to limit their coverage based on just Helen Hayes Awards-eligible work, but I do understand that the quantity alone just makes it unmanageable. But with regard to the Dinner Theatre issue, I just wanted to add that it isn't -- it is not a matter of professionalism. The -- you know, all of the actors, for instance, at Toby's Dinner Theatre, are compensated. They absolutely are.
GROSSMANAnd they get an opportunity -- some of them have an opportunity to make even more money for -- to create a reasonable lifestyle, to be able to buy a car, to be able to pay their bills because of another opportunity that is made available to them. It is not a matter of professionalism. It is a matter, I think, of geography.
NNAMDIJojo Ruf, what would you say the Helen Hayes Awards do for Washington's theater scene?
RUFI think they -- I mean, I think they highlight the -- some of the top productions that happen. I mean, I think as is natural for the Helen Hayes as well as the Tony's and any other awards in any city that not -- that there's always going to be contested productions that don't get on there. But I think it does a great job of highlighting the new companies that come on.
RUFI think, as Linda mentioned, the 47, 49 nominees that were related to new plays is super, super exciting. And the fact that there's an entire category just for new plays or new musicals, I think, is a great way to highlight all of the new work that's happening in D.C.
NNAMDIHere's Ed in Arlington, Va. Ed, your turn.
EDGreetings, Kojo. Actually, I'm almost not sure where to begin. There's been so much to talk about. Big reason I called though to start with, you're having discussion of new plays, and yet I didn't hear anything -- granted I came in late -- about the Contemporary American Theatre Festival. That's got to be one of the best new or recent redeveloped place productions around. The second is there was a discussion on "Metamorphoses." I was there Sunday night. They didn't give those of us sitting in the front row any protection.
EDI did get wet.
EDBut related there, too, you didn't mention the other production of "Metamorphoses" that was in this town that Constellation Theatre put on, oh, about eight months ago. And, actually, I think it was a better production, not necessarily because they were better than Mary Zimmerman and her cast but because I'm convinced "Metamorphoses" does not work well in the Round.
NNAMDIHmm. So you didn't really think it works at arenas -- don't think it really work at Arena?
EDIt didn't work as well.
NNAMDIOK, not just as well. OK, Ed, we are happy to have you and any other kind of reviewers call. Trey.
GRAHAMWell, I haven't seen it yet. I did see the production at Constellation. I thought it didn't quite click for me because they were -- they -- the approach they took was a little more jocular than I have seen before. But, you know, to each his own. And I'm very curious about the Arena production.
NNAMDIAnd we need to satisfy some of Ed's other desires. Linda, can you talk about some of the festivals we see here and what they add to the theater?
GROSSMANSure. I want to comment also. I agree with you completely about the Contemporary American Theatre Festival. I have been an enormous fan of theirs for many years. I go every summer. I see all the plays, and I have seen stuff that has been -- that has grown there and we see here a couple of years later. And it's a privilege always to see that work.
GRAHAMAnd it's actually...
NNAMDIAnd Trey, of course, mentioned the French Festival.
GRAHAMOh, the French Festival, the Source Festival is open about developing new works. There's tons of stuff going on.
RUFI think -- and I think -- sorry -- I think Inkwell has not been mentioned either, which is a really great resource for new play development in D.C. for playwrights as well as actors, directors and then also for playgoers.
NNAMDIThere is the Atlas Intersections Festival on all arts, music, dance and theater festival. So, Ed, thank you very much for your call. We move on now to Melanie in Alexandria, Va. Melanie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MELANIEGood afternoon. My question has to do with the tendency of professional theaters to audition in New York for plays that are being staged here in the D.C. area. And I was...
NNAMDIHow widespread do you see that tendency being, Melanie? How widespread do you think that tendency is?
MELANIEWell, my husband and I are very active in community theater in the area, Little Theatre of Alexandria and Port City, et cetera. And we have quite a few friends who -- and my husband also has looked at auditions, and it's like, well, but it's in New York, and you don't have time to get up there. And so it's -- I'm not sure exactly how widespread it is, but I do know that it exists. And...
NNAMDIDo you know how widespread it is, Linda Levy Grossman?
GROSSMANWe were talking about this before with the tendency of some directors to hire from beyond Washington, and other directors focus on the talent that is here.
GRAHAMMm hmm. I doubt, though, that anybody in D.C. auditions exclusively in New York. I'm sure they're going to have a local call as well.
NNAMDIMelanie, thank you very much for your call. Linda, you've said that many people are inspired when the Helen Hayes Award winners are announced, and you hear them say, gosh, I wish I'd seen that. How do you translate that energy into theater attendance?
GROSSMANThat is a fascinating question. Immediately after the Helen Hayes Awards are over, I used to stealthily walk through the audience in the lobby looking for people who have bruises on their head for knocking themselves in the head and say, oh, my God. I should have seen that. Why didn't I see that? And always followed by, I got to see more theater. You know, the Helen Hayes Awards is obviously different from the Tony's in many, many ways.
GROSSMANThe day after the Helen Hayes Awards, the box offices are not immediately going to rise because we're not a commercial for the commercial theater, if you will. But what will happen is that the people that will be in that room -- and it will spread and spread and spread -- are going to be more, more inspired to go -- to try new things, to go beyond their comfort zones. And we've seen it repeat -- this trend is repeated over and over for 29 years.
NNAMDIOn now to Emily in Fairfax County. Emily, your turn.
EMILYHi. Thanks for taking my call. I was interested in what your guests have to say about the D.C. improv scene and some recommendations. And what would you say sets one improv troupe apart from another or makes it stand out?
NNAMDIWhat do you think of the D.C. improv scene, Trey?
GRAHAMThis is so not my area of expertise, but I know there's a strong one. Washington Improv Theater, obviously, I think is the flagship. They do a lot of classes. They do a lot of performances. And they were kind enough to invite me in to be a special guest during their fall show, "The Election Spectacle."
GRAHAMAnd I left my phone on, and it went off in the middle of the performance. And they did not drop a stitch. They incorporated the sound that my phone made into the improv, and it became a recurring trope for the rest of the evening. So I got to give them props for that.
NNAMDIWow. They could just as easily slap you or something.
NNAMDIBut that didn't happen. Jojo, any comments on improv?
RUFLike Trey, I actually don't know a ton about the improv scene. And we have seen some set at Washington Improv but not much else unfortunately. Maybe Linda can weigh in for the two of us.
GROSSMANIt's not specialty either.
GRAHAMYou know, it's actually a frustration of mine that, you know, Linda is saying people are always slapping their heads and saying I wish I could see more theater. Well, you can't see at all. One of the great guiding principles that I took -- have taken away from working with Linda Holmes at NPR is that you can't regret not knowing everything or consuming everything because the universe is too vast. So do what you can do and enjoy it.
NNAMDIEmily, thank you very much for your call. Here is Mary Sue in Bethesda, Md. Mary Sue, welcome.
MARY SUEHi. I have a little bit of a different kind of a question about the training of actors. Very few people just, you know, go out for an audition and get -- without any training and get -- put in a performance. We're all familiar with Juilliard in New York.
MARY SUEBut what about local conservatories that -- I'm familiar with the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts, and local actors and directors are teaching classes there. Is that a successful program? Are there other programs in Washington that provide good background and good training to go on to the stage and have a successful career?
GROSSMANThere are amazing programs at universities and colleges all around the area, Georgetown, GW, University of Maryland, American, Catholic University. These are -- have been training professionals for years and years.
GRAHAMAnd if you're not prepared to enroll in a university program, there is an organization called the Theatre Lab that does classes for people who want to do smaller scale plays. But they also have a program that they call the Honors Conservatory where it's specifically designed for people who don't have a whole ton of experience, who want to get in the professional theater at the entry level.
GROSSMANAnd we are just about to launch a new feature on our website, essentially an education selector, which is going to detail classes, workshops, camps, matinees, et cetera, both for adult learning and for children.
GRAHAMAnd it goes -- it's worth saying that The Shakespeare Theatre offers classes at two levels as well. They have a professional training program and they have an entry-level program that's open to anyone.
NNAMDIJojo, I forgot to ask you about Theater J's Locally Grown Festival. You have about 25 seconds to talk about it.
RUFGreat. So Theater J, this is the second, you know, they done their Locally Grown Festival, and it's a -- the new initiative focuses on readings and workshop of all D.C.-based playwrights. So this year, they have two productions, "Andy and The Shadows" by Ari Roth and then "The Hampton Years" by Jackie Lawton, both of which are getting the full productions, as I said. But then they're doing a ton readings and workshops of a whole slew of playwrights -- Norman Allen, Randy Baker, Allyson Currin.
NNAMDIJojo Ruf, she is general manager of National New Play Network, an alliance of non-profit theater in support of new works. Linda Levy Grossman is president and CEO of theatreWashington which presents the Helen Hayes Awards this year on April 8. Correct, Linda?
NNAMDIAnd Trey Graham -- that is Trey with an E and Graham like the cracker -- is an arts and entertainment editor of NPR Digital Media. Always a pleasure, Trey.
GRAHAMIt's so good to see you.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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