Washington may be known to some as a government town. But thanks to the growing number of theaters, concert halls, music clubs, and arts groups, the area has become one the nation’s centers for the performing arts. In the process, it’s become a magnet for talent. The region now has the fourth-highest number of artists—including actors, singers, dancers, musicians, producers, and directors—out of 50 metropolitan areas in the country, according to the National Endowment for the Arts.
Here’s a look at 20 of those thousands—recommended by local directors, club managers, booking agents, and critics—who are making a splash. They’re exciting performers you may not know about but may not want to miss.
Making the BSO very good listening
When Marin Alsop was nine, her parents took her to see Leonard Bernstein conduct. “He was so charismatic,” Alsop says. “When he turned around and talked to an audience, you had this sense that he was focused on you.”
Now in her second season as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which has a second home at the Music Center at Strathmore, Alsop is determined to inspire another generation. Her concerts—often a heady mix of European classics and contemporary American works—have become very good listening. She’s won praise for a dynamic podium presence and for strong interpretations of Mahler, Brahms, and Dvorak. “As I’ve grown in my experience,” she says, “I no longer try to go in and change an orchestra’s sound. Instead, I try to build on its strengths. I want an orchestra that can very quickly adapt to a Mozart symphony or a Brahms symphony and sound dramatically different in each.”
Alsop recently recorded Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 with the BSO, signaling a renewed emphasis on commercial releases by the orchestra. She’s equally committed to education and outreach: “I would like everybody in the community to feel some kind of ownership in the orchestra. A lot of inner-city kids just don’t have access to symphonic music. I’m hoping when I come back and visit in my wheelchair and I look at the makeup of the Baltimore Symphony, it will better reflect the diversity in the community.
“Music is important because it provides hope to young people who need things to look forward to, ways to express their imaginations. That is what art is all about.”
Alsop conducts the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Bernstein’s Mass at the Kennedy Center October 26. Other BSO concerts are at Strathmore and Baltimore’s Meyerhoff Symphony Hall through June 2009.
The intensity of a minister’s son
Aubrey Deeker caught the acting bug at age four when he starred as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in a Christmas pageant. “I was hooked,” he says. That first star turn eventually led him to the North Carolina School of the Arts and then to bigger roles, many on Washington stages.
Deeker plays Mercutio in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s current all-male Romeo and Juliet. Later this fall, he’ll star in Woolly Mammoth’s production of Boom by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb.
Fans of TV’s The Wire will know him as Terry Hanning, a homeless vet featured in the final season of the HBO hit. “An intense young actor” is how novelist George Pelecanos, who produced the episode, describes him. “If he didn’t convince as a homeless veteran, then we were in trouble,” Pelecanos says. “He was very convincing.”
Some of that intensity comes from being a minister’s son growing up in a Missouri town. Preachers’ kids “are exposed to a sense of ritual at an early age,” Deeker says, “and we’re raised listening to someone talk about the big questions.”
His favorite role? Raskolnikov in a Round House Theatre production of Crime and Punishment: “It’s the closest I’ve come to a genuine act of the soul—a complete giving of oneself on stage.”
“It’s essential to him to reveal the soul of any character that he does,” says John Vreeke, who will direct the actor in Boom. Deeker backs up that vulnerability with what Vreeke calls an “immense technical talent” and a distinctive personality. “When you combine those three really strong elements,” Vreeke says, “you’re pretty sure that you’re going to have something interesting.”
Deeker can be seen in Shakespeare Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet through October 12, then in Woolly Mammoth’s Boom November 3 through 30. In spring, he’ll be back at Shakespeare for the Euripides drama Ion (March 10 through April 12).
Landing the role of a lifetime
Felicia Curry hedged her bets about a stage career—she majored in broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland and got a job with a nonprofit. The New Jersey native got her first acting part after college when she accompanied a friend to an audition for a show in Baltimore. She decided to try out, and the director was so impressed that he changed a character’s sex so she could play the part. She was Countess Dracula.
Since quitting her day job four years ago to act full-time, Curry, 29, has played the title role in the musical Aida as well as a gibberish-talking, wall-climbing acrobat in The Araboolies of Liberty Street at Imagination Stage and an Afro-sporting daughter of the ’60s in Three Sistahs at MetroStage. She’s been nominated twice for Helen Hayes Awards and is the newest member of the Capitol Steps.
Now Curry has landed the role of a lifetime. In December, she’ll play Eponine in Signature Theatre’s production of Les Misérables. After Signature artistic director Eric Schaeffer saw Curry in Tick Tick . . . BOOM! at MetroStage, he asked her to audition for musical director Jon Kalbfleisch. When they called her back, they asked if she’d try Eponine’s signature song, “On My Own.” “I sang it all through high school,” she told them.
She can hardly wait to sing it again, this time before an audience: “I love watching people take the journey with us.”
Curry appears in Les Misérables at Signature December 2 through February 22.