While so much of DC is monumental and static – especially seen from the drive along the Virginia side of the GW Parkway or stretches of Rock Creek Parkway- its urban neighborhoods and its suburbs are in many ways unrecognizable as the places in which I walked and biked and got myself lost throughout my adolescence. High-rises and traffic jams and urban loft condominiums seem to have sprung up in places where farms and dive bars and parking lots used to be. I am a child of the Adventure Theatre and Kennedy Center era, with parents who recall moving to the city before any stadium or arts center was named for a Kennedy. I’ve moved back to the city at a moment when it feels as though all the buildings have been renamed for Reagan (Yes, I stubbornly call it National Airport). In an age when sports events and venues are named for products (FedEx, Verizon, Tostito, QualComm), it’s refreshing to see DC’s theater venues have names that actually correspond to theater (Arena, Round House, Studio) or human beings at least. These names evoke sites of history, memory, confrontation and experimentation – what I often hope to find in the theatre. What’s in a name? What’s in a place? I wonder that when I look forward to watching plays in the new homes of theater companies like Studio, Gala, or Woolly Mammoth with memories of their older locations and productions in my head. What opportunities do the new Tivoli or Arena buildings offer the theaters that they house, and what possibilities do they foreclose? When I was living in London in a period of massive, largely Lottery-funded theatrical renovation and construction, it seemed the struggle to find spaces for theater companies was turning into a struggle to fill and maintain the newly-built spaces. The challenge seems to lie in finding the balance between devoting resources to the field of dreams and nurturing the talent and substance that makes the field worth visiting. This is not a Luddite dismissal of cutting-edge technology or of funding ambitious theatrical construction projects. Experiencing theatrical magic in an architectural marvel might be a means of remaking or revitalizing a community, but there might also be other, more sustainable means. Converting existing spaces or reclaiming neglected monuments is one possible route – here in DC and in many cities, such creative use of space can free companies from the overhead associated with the grander designs being built.
Yet some of these new designs offer exciting possibilities for theater artists. A recent NY Times article discussed several new designs for smaller theater spaces in venues like Lincoln Center and BAM, which will undoubtedly reshape the theatrical ecosystem in New York.
We can find such spaces in some of the larger theatrical institutions in Washington, and they are becoming more active sites for developing new playwriting and experimental productions. One very promising project here in DC is The Inkwell Theatre, not a physical site, but more of an agent or source and conduit for playwrights to develop their work from draft to production. They have partnered with established and aspiring playwrights, directors, actors, and dramaturges, as well as playgoers and readers, with the mission of developing the material, the voices, and the audiences essential for vital theatre. The blog for their project – http://www.inkwelltheatre.org/blog/ – is a fantastic kaleidoscope of insights on theater from macro to micro, and a great builder of community as well.
So DC now has its Arenas, Studios, Inkwells, and Round Houses – no Globe here, but happily a more varied and dynamic Constellation than in the “good old days”.