On Monday evening, a group of local theater notables gathered at the National Theatre to announce the nominees for the 2015 Helen Hayes Awards. Of the 50 theaters and 188 productions that met eligibility requirements, 264 actors, ensembles, and productions received nods, representing 31 theaters. Leading the pack with 28 moninations is Arlington's financially troubled Signature Theatre—the top productions were Beaches and The Threepenny Opera with seven each and Sunday in the Park With George, with six nods. Synetic, also in Arlington, wasn't too far behind with 23 noms—its movement-based production of Twelfth Night garnered an impressive 11 nominations, tying with Theater Alliance's Black Nativity, Imagination Stage's The BFG, and Spamalot at Toby's Dinner Theatre for highest number of nominations per production. Six companies earned their first-ever nominations: No Rules Theatre Company, which led the newbie contingent with six nods, followed by Factory 449 with four, Landless Theatre Company and Unexpected Stage Company with three each, Creative Cauldron with two, and Molotov Theatre Group with one. Among those at the tail end was the National Theatre, which hosted the nomination announcements and received a single nod for its holiday production of Pippin.
This year the awards, now in their 32nd year, are divided into two categories—“Hayes,” which include primarily Equity shows, and “Helen” for mainly non-Equity productions. The awards ceremony will be held Monday, April 6. Read on for a full list of the nominees; you can also watch the nomination announcements via webcast.
America has never quite made up its mind about Mary Todd Lincoln. Honest Abe was a hero. His wife, on the other hand, has been variously accused of being bipolar, overly decadent, a Confederate supporter, and a rube. January 23 through February 22, Ford’s Theatre offers a fresh perspective on the Civil War’s most famous spouse with the world premiere of The Widow Lincoln, written by James Still and directed by Stephen Rayne.
The two first collaborated in 2009 on Ford’s The Heavens Are Hung in Black, about the President during the months leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation. Rayne says he and Still had always planned a follow-up, which evolved into the story of Lincoln’s widow, whom Rayne sees as “one of the most maligned and misrepresented women in history.”
The play—featuring an all-female cast—stretches across a 40-day period after Lincoln’s assassination in which Mary shut herself in a room in the White House and refused the company of all but a trusted few. Still’s work, while based in fact, isn’t a retelling of history but, Rayne says, “an imagining of what occurred psychologically during that period and what happened that ultimately led to her being able to leave the room.”
It might seem counterintuitive for a drama about a woman’s innermost thoughts to come from two men, but Rayne says his and Still’s perspectives provided a good balance; workshopping the play with women scholars and actors also helped. And though Widow chronicles a devastating period in Mrs. Lincoln’s life, it also reflects that “she was an extremely ebullient, lively, intelligent, witty woman,” says Rayne.
Ultimately, the director thinks focusing on Mary Todd Lincoln helps paint a richer portrait of the former President. “His wife was the person who grieved him the most on a personal level,” he says. The Widow Lincoln will, he hopes, help audiences “understand him better through understanding her.”
Tickets ($15 to $62) are available through Ford's Theatre's website.
Made for $5 million by first-time director Barry Levinson, the 1982 comedy Diner introduced a loquacious, improvisational style that laid the groundwork for such successors as Seinfeld and Judd Apatow’s oeuvre. Now Levinson, with singer/songwriter Sheryl Crow and director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall, is reinventing the cult hit as a musical, which has its world premiere at Signature Theatre December 9 through January 25.
The story, about a group of twentysomething male friends in 1959 Baltimore who reunite for a wedding, has autobiographical elements—Levinson grew up in Baltimore—which helped keep the characters fresh in the writer/director’s mind. While the musical is largely faithful to the original, fans will notice differences, including more developed female characters. Levinson’s goal was to expand the film’s universe: “I’m not that interested in simply doing Diner, because I already did it. The challenge was to see if we could create something above and beyond what we did.”
He began discussing the musical with Crow and Marshall more than three years ago, and plans for a 2012 San Francisco premiere and a Broadway run last year were canceled. Still, Levinson has embraced the ups and downs of his first theatrical production, including ceding a movie director’s tight grip on every element. “With a film, you control it, period,” he says. “Onstage, you have other entities you work with, so it’s a different process.” On the plus side, “in a movie, once you finish a scene, you move on, but here I can keep revisiting certain things.”
Despite his Washington ties (he graduated from American University and worked at Channel 9 and Channel 5), he says premiering Diner at Signature is merely a coincidence. As for his hopes for the inaugural run: “The ideal reaction would be ‘Quick, get this to Broadway as fast as you can.’ We’ll play in Washington, do the tweaking and all the things that happen when a musical is getting up on its feet, and see where we go from there.”
Tickets ($40 to $105) are available online.
This article appears in the December 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
OPENING THIS MONTH
At Round House Bethesda through December 28 is a musical version of The Nutcracker, complete with puppets.
Beginning December 2 at Shakespeare Theatre, Ethan McSweeny directs the Bard’s magical comedy The Tempest, with Helen Hayes Award winner Geraint Wyn Davies as the sorcerer Prospero. Through January 15. Don’t forget the theater is now giving away 1,000 free tickets per production; here’s how to snag them for yourself.
Synetic Theater presents a movement-driven adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, directed by company member Ben Cunis, that goes back to the French fairy tale’s darker roots. December 3 through January 11.
The Virginia Opera celebrates its 40th anniversary at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts with a production of H.M.S. Pinafore, Gilbert and Sullivan’s first big international success. Director Nicola Bowie makes her debut with the opera. December 5 and 6.
A Drag Salute to Motown Review, created by former America’s Got Talent contestant Shi-Queeta-Lee, comprises familiar tunes by Diana Ross, Rick James, the Temptations, and more brought to life by local drag performers. December 7 at Howard Theatre.
Famous Puppet Death Scenes at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company is pretty much just what the title says: Calgary’s playful Old Trout Puppet Workshop presents death scenes “culled from the absolute best puppet shows in history.” The company promises the show will, among other benefits, “cure your fear of death.” December 9 through January 4.
Beginning December 10 at Studio Theatre is Terminus, a supernatural work by Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe (which won a Scotsman Fringe First Award at the 2008 Edinburgh Festival Fringe) that follows three characters over one frightening night in Dublin. Through January 4.
Want something different from your Dickens this year? WSC Avant Bard—performing at Theater J—offers A Klingon Christmas Carol, a staged reading of the classic tale in the fictional Star Trek language, with English supertitles. December 15.
At the National Theatre December 16 through January 4 is Pippin, the Tony-winning Broadway revival of Stephen Schwartz’s 1972 musical. Directed by Diane Paulus (The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess), it tells of a young prince on a journey of self-discovery.
Andy Blankenbuehler, a Tony winner for Broadway’s In the Heights, directs and choreographs the Biblical musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Kennedy Center. This touring production stars husband-and-wife American Idol alums Ace Young and Diana DeGarmo. December 16 through January 4.
Julius Caesar is at Folger Theatre until December 7.
Sex With Strangers closes December 7 at Signature Theatre.
As You Like It closes December 14 at Shakespeare Theatre.
Bad Jews is at Studio Theatre until December 21.
A Broadway Christmas Carol is at MetroStage until December 28.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid closes December 28 at Olney Theatre.
Five Guys Named Moe is at Arena Stage until December 28.
One Man Two Guvnors closes December 28 at 1st Stage.
The Gift of Nothing is at the Kennedy Center until December 28.
The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures is at Theater J until December 28.
A Christmas Carol runs through January 1 at Ford’s Theatre.
Improv requires quick thinking and a willingness to follow a story wherever it goes. But creating an entire 75-minute play—in Elizabethan English? That's the gist of the Improvised Shakespeare Company, an all-male troupe that comes to Artisphere December 5 and 6.
ISC specializes in Bard-style plays inspired by a single audience suggestion. Recent prompts have included riffs on existing works—"Henry V Element," "Richard III Part 12"—as well as topics such as "Justin Bieber." Founder Blaine Swen lends authenticity by assigning actors to read Shakespeare plays, quizzing them on vocabulary, and arranging seminars with professors from Chicago's Loyola University, where he studied. While shows don't adhere strictly to iambic pentameter, he says the actors often fall into rhyming couplets that approximate the rhythm.
Cast member Joey Bland appreciates the structure: "We serve the improv gods before the Shakespeare gods, but having the canon to look back at gives us a shorthand, something to play to or against."
Swen founded the group in 2005, and Thomas Middleditch, now the star of TV's Silicon Valley, was an original member. They began with a five-show run on the student stage at Second City, the improv training ground, and by 2006 they had a regular gig at Chicago's iO Theater, still their base.
The cast now numbers 19, allowing for three home shows a week plus about 100 days of touring a year. Swen hopes to expand the touring schedule, and Chicago performances have gotten a boost lately thanks to occasional collaborations with a big name—Patrick Stewart, whom Bland met on another project. Despite such a heavyweight actor's involvement, Swen emphasizes that humor is the bottom line: "Some people get put off by the word 'Shakespeare' because they think it's going to be too highbrow, but it's definitely often lowbrow. Though the show goes off the rails all the time, it always comes together—that's the excitement of it."
Theater J artistic director Ari Roth says the leaders of the DC Jewish Community Center, which houses his theater company, yanked his "Voices From a Changing Middle East" festival, a slate of plays from the region that are often critical of Israel.
The move, which was first reported by the Jewish Daily Forward, is the latest in a string of creative spats between Theater J and its parent organization stemming from productions that take skeptical approaches toward the Jewish state. The Forward framed the festival's cancellation as an action on Theater J's part, but in an interview Wednesday with Washingtonian, Roth says the decision was made unilaterally by DCJCC's board of directors.
Roth told his theater's executive committee in a September memo that friction with the DCJCC was rising, the Forward reported. “We find the culture of open discourse and dissent within our Jewish Community Center to be evaporating," Roth wrote in the memo.
"Theater J did not cancel anything," Roth tells Washingtonian today. "The DCJCC, which is the parent organization, has told the theater that it is canceling future 'Voices' festivals. We would like them to reconsider that. We would never cancel our critically acclaimed and very profitable 'Voices' festival."
But if the DCJCC does not reverse course, Roth says he will shop the series around to other venues.
"I'm committed, whether at Theater J or anywhere else, to keep the 'Voices' festival going," he says.
"Voices" is not an annual event, but when it runs, it has a history of sparking controversy in the wider Jewish community. The most visible reaction came in 2011, when Theater J parterned with Tel Aviv's Cameri Theatre to mount a production of Return to Haifa, a play based on a Palestinian novel about a couple exiled by the 1948 founding of Israel that finds a family of Holocaust survivors living in their former home. The show, which was complicated by an argument with a Chicago theater director, was praised, but stirred up controversy later when the DCJCC caught flak for presenting a show critical of Israel.
"That was a hugely successful production," Roth says. "Three months later a little group started to protest Theater J."
Roth says the "Voices" series is well within Theater J's ambit to present challenging takes on Israeli politics and society.
"It engages with Israel, but shows the complexity of all manner of political, social, and environmental issues that are impacting Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians, Jordanians, Syrians," he says. "The entire region is of concern to us."
The DCJCC exercised its policy against artists who side against Israel earlier this year when it canceled a June show by the Shondes, a Brooklyn rock group whose members support economic sanctions of Israel over its treatment of Palestinians. The show was relocated to the Black Cat.
Carole Zawatsky, the DCJCC's chief executive officer, says nothing in Theater J's current season has been removed from the schedule, and that the matter has nothing to do with donor or fundraiser concerns.
"It's truly about the DCJCC as a community center that has a mission and vision that is dedicated to exploring a breadth of ideas in all areas from our preschool to our Washington Jewish Film Festival," she tells Washingtonian. "We certainly do, and will continue to, explore issues around Israel."
Zawatsky won't comment on the content of Roth's September letter, though she says she has a strong working relationship with Roth.
"I have tremendous respect for Ari Roth," she says. "I think he's one of the most talented artistic directors in the city."
But from Roth's side, the partnership between the DCJCC and its resident theater company sounds awfully frayed right now. Roth says he and his executive committee will spend the Thanksgiving holiday drafting a "respectful, but disagreeing" response to the DCJCC's leaders. But he's also keeping his options open.
"There's a period for the JCC to reconsider a position. We hope it does, and there's time for me to find other opportunities, venues, and context to keep presenting all the work and visions we have artistically."
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
Love that warm cultured glow you get from seeing a play but not the cold, hard cash it requires? Shakespeare Theatre Company feels your pain: On Monday, the theater announced the launch of a new Free Will program, in which it will give away 1,000 free tickets for each production in the current season.
Gratis admission is nothing new for STC, which has been offering its Free for All series every year since 1991. Free Will, in addition to boasting an excellently punny name, extends the idea to the whole 2014/15 season beginning with the current run of the Michael Attenborough-directed As You Like It, which goes through December 14 (though excluding the short February run of Dunsinane and special presentations). “With Free Will, we strive to open our doors to those who do not, or feel they cannot, see theatre and therefore grow the number of people who habitually attend performances in the future,” managing director Chris Jennings says in a press release.
The free tickets will be distributed throughout the course of each play’s run, around 150 to 200 tickets a week, spread across as many performances as possible. Each week’s allotment will be available on a first come, first served basis at the box office, online, or over the phone beginning Monday at noon, with a portion set aside for schools, nonprofits, and other community organizations. Once free tickets run out, you can find the usual discounts for seniors, military, and those under 35, plus rush tickets—or just wait and try again the next week. You can go to as many as you’re able to get tickets for, though they’re nontransferable and all seat assignments are final.
Shakespeare Theatre’s season includes The Tempest, directed by Ethan McSweeny and opening December 2; The Metromaniacs, opening February 3; Man of La Mancha, beginning March 13; and Tartuffe, opening June 2, plus the 25th annual Free For All, which is TBA.
For more information, visit Shakespeare Theatre’s website.
It’s a known truth that in DC, one of the easiest ways to spark millennial involvement in an activity—whether it’s playing kickball, giving to charity, or going to the movies—is to add alcohol. Folger Theatre is trying to apply that strategy to the theatah with its new Brews & Banter program, starting Thursday.
Held once for each Folger production, the series is a pre-show discussion with one of the actors from the play in question, aimed at prompting greater participation from young professionals in what’s traditionally the scene for those of greater age and disposable income. Thursday brings a talk about the current production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, led by the Folger’s Kate Pitt and Helen Hayes Award winner Louis Butelli, who portrays Cassius in the play.
Tickets are $15 and include beer (DC Brau pale ale and Sam Adams Oktoberfest) and snacks, as well as a promo code for discounted $30 tickets to the show that follows or to performances on select future nights. You don’t have to be 21 to attend, though obviously it’s a requirement to drink. The next installment happens February 26, with Kate Eastwood Norris discussing Mary Stuart, in which she plays the title character.
The first Brews & Banter is Thursday, November 6, at 6:30 PM. Find full details and purchase tickets through Folger’s website.
OPENING THIS MONTH
Through November 30 at Anacostia Playhouse, Scena Theatre offers the Washington premiere of Handbag, Mark Ravenhill’s adults-only comedy about the trials and tribulations of parenting in the 21st century.
Studio Theatre stages Bad Jews, playwright Joshua Harmon’s black comedy that explores the dynamic among three cousins divided by religious faith as they battle over a family heirloom. November 5 through December 21.
Last year’s Capital Fringe Festival had a hit on its hands in There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, the tale of two professors who turn to William Blake’s words to defend themselves after getting caught in a very public display of affection. WSC Avant Bard—which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year—gives a second hearing to the couple and couplets November 7 through 23.
At Olney Theatre November 12 through December 28 is The Little Mermaid, the kid-friendly tale of love between man and mermaid.
Tony Kushner (Angels in America) is behind The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures, a nearly four-hour drama centered on a retired Communist longshoreman who schedules a reunion with his adult children to explain why he’s decided to end his life. November 13 through December 21 at Theater J.
Five Guys Named Moe, a tribute to jazz saxophonist Louis Jordan, involves the titular five Moes emerging from a radio to advise a recently jilted man through the power of Jordan’s hits. November 14 through December 28 at Arena Stage.
November 15 only, Warner Theatre presents The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, a supernatural musical created by the star-powered team of Stephen King, John Mellencamp, and T Bone Burnett.
Peter Aguero, a host and performer in the live storytelling series The Moth, is behind the one-man show “Daddy Issues,” about his complicated relationship with his father. November 21 and 22 at Artisphere.
November 21 through December 28 at 1st Stage is One Man, Two Guvnors. Based on the 1743 commedia dell’arte play The Servant of Two Masters, Richard Bean’s zany farce set in early-1960s Britain involves mistaken identities, musical interludes, and plenty of slapstick.
The family-friendly world-premiere musical The Gift of Nothing stars the main characters from Patrick McDonnell’s “Mutts” comic strip, Mooch the cat and Earl the dog, as Mooch searches for a special present for his friend. Aaron Posner directs. November 22 through December 28 at the Kennedy Center.
MetroStage offers another take on Dickens's holiday classic with A Broadway Christmas Carol, which combines the story with well-known showtunes. November 26 through December 28.
Our War closes at Arena Stage November 9. Read our review.
Elmer Gantry closes at Signature Theatre November 9. Read our review.
Three Sistahs closes at MetroStage November 9. Read our review.
Visible Language closes at Gallaudet University’s Eastman Studio Theatre November 16. Read more about the production.
How We Got On closes at Forum Theatre November 23.
Little Dancer closes at the Kennedy Center November 30.
Eric Schaeffer is having quite the busy fall. Signature Theatre’s cofounder and artistic director is a week into the run of the musical Elmer Gantry, which he first directed in Chicago 16 years ago. He’s also prepping to direct a production of Gigi at the Kennedy Center in January, starring High School Musical and Spring Breakers actress Vanessa Hudgens. In between, he’s somehow finding time to celebrate Signature’s 25th anniversary. We caught up with him to find out how he’s juggling his multiple projects and all the packing, script changes, and weenie roasts they entail.
Elmer Gantry opened last week. How was the first show?
It went great. It was kind of a bit of a crazy day because we ended up putting a lot of changes into the show. I cut part of a song, we cut some scene stuff, we put in two additional reprises, we restaged a whole section of it, and we put all new lyrics in one song, as well. So the poor actors were all going into overdrive. They all had a change sheet by their dressing station, and they were like, “Oh, my god, what’s next, what’s next?” But they did great—they got it all in there.
So it went smoothly?
It did. I think the stage manager said it best: “On the surface it was smooth as a duck; underneath, everyone was paddling crazy.” That’s what makes it exciting, though—it’s never the same.
How is this production different from your 1998 production of Elmer Gantry in Chicago?
There are six new songs in the show, so that’s a huge thing. It’s a lot shorter. I like to say it’s the lean, mean version of Elmer, because we probably cut about 20 minutes out of the running length of the show from keeping more focus on Sister Sharon and Elmer. It’s really quite different from what it was. It’s the same story, but there are so many subtle differences throughout.
What’s it like to put this show on at your home theater?
It’s great, because I love the show so much. It’s like visiting an old friend. The show is so good, and I’ve always loved it; I’ve just never felt like it got a to-do. That was one of the big reasons I wanted to do it again and do it here in Washington. People who worked on the show, the actors, they didn’t know the show at all, so when they came in and started hearing and learning the music, they were all like, “Oh, my god, this show is really good!” That’s always invigorating as a director, because they’re getting what you got about the piece.
When do you begin rehearsals for Gigi?
We start rehearsals in December in New York, and we start performances at the Kennedy Center on January 16. I’m really excited about it; I didn’t know the show that well when I started working on it more than two years ago. Heidi Thomas is the book writer [for Gigi], and she also wrote Call the Midwife and is the executive producer and creator of that series. She’s so fantastic and understands this world like none other. Her book for the musical is so good, and it just makes the show feel so fresh and relevant today. It’s exciting because it’s the great [Alan Jay] Lerner and [Frederick] Loewe score with a whole new book and a whole new approach to the material. I think people are going to be really, really surprised. And Vanessa Hudgens is fantastic as Gigi. She’s really a special performer—she just has this great energy and is a terrific actress, and she sounds fantastic singing these songs. It’s great to have her leading the charge on it.
Does the dynamic change when you’re working with someone who’s famous for TV and movies as opposed to well-known theater actors?
I find that with Vanessa, or with huge stars like Carol Burnett and Bernadette Peters, everyone is doing it for the same reason. They’re doing it for the work, and they’re really professional about it. They really are in the trenches doing the work. I find it invigorating because they just want to be in the sandbox with everyone else—they just want to be one more player on the team—and that’s what’s fantastic. Vanessa is exactly like that. I think people don’t understand that; I think they underestimate the stars. Theater is difficult, and it’s demanding. Anyone who makes the commitment to do that is doing it because they love it and they really want to work hard.
Preparing for Gigi has you rehearsing in New York, traveling back to DC for Signature performances, then heading back to New York. Have you developed any strategies for working under the stress of traveling?
You just have to have a lot of extra laundry on the side ready to go. I’m fortunate, because for me it’s just like flipping switches: “Now it’s Gigi; okay, now I’ve got to work on Elmer.” The thing is, even though I’m in the throes of Elmer, not a day goes by that I’m not dealing with Gigi stuff. You end up juggling all of these different projects at once, so it’s really about staying organized and on top of it.
Signature also has its anniversary coming up. How are you planning to celebrate?
Oh, lord, we’ve already started! We had this big celebration in August, and we’re getting ready later this month [on October 20] to do this 25th-anniversary concert with highlights from all of the musicals we’ve done over the past 25 years. In the spring, we’re going to get all the designers and cast and crew and orchestras that have worked at Signature, and we’re going to have a big picnic, a weenie roast, to celebrate, as well.