In Shuffling of Venues, Some Local Arts Companies Get Displaced
A shortage of midsize theaters and a surge in development is making it harder for small companies to find homes.
It’s been an eventful year for local theater companies when it comes to putting down roots. Just under a year ago, the H Street Playhouse announced it was moving across the river to Anacostia after being priced out of the H Street Corridor, and at the end of December, Rosslyn’s Artisphere evicted WSC Avant Bard as its in-residence theater company. This week it was announced that Woolly Mammoth, Cultural DC, and Keegan Theatre have all purchased their current spaces in Penn Quarter and Dupont Circle, while just yesterday news emerged that Montgomery County’s Round House Theatre is being forced to relinquish management of its Silver Spring black-box theater, possibly leaving companies such as Forum Theatre and Happenstance Theater homeless.
The problem, says Forum artistic director Michael Dove, is that Washington just doesn’t have the space for all the theater groups that have emerged in recent years. Five years ago when Forum was mulling a move from H Street to Silver Spring, there was already a sense that the Atlas District might be outpacing the H Street Playhouse (where Forum was then based) in terms of development, and jeopardizing its future in the neighborhood. “Even then it seemed a little scary, and so the offer to move to Silver Spring became very attractive,” says Dove. “It’s the old adage about art leading development in neighborhoods, but what sucks is that the arts sometimes get pushed out when that development happens.”
Theater Alliance, which used to be based at the H Street Playhouse, is staging its first show at the Anacostia Playhouse in August, but won’t be basing itself permanently east of the river. “I can see us producing numerous shows in Anacostia, but I don’t want to jump in blindly without building a relationship first,” says artistic director Colin Hovde. “It’s about starting a dialogue so people can see what kind of work we do, and how we can find ways to serve the community.” Scena Theatre, which was also formerly based at the H Street Playhouse, is staging its next production, Oscar Wilde’s Salome, at the Atlas Arts Center on H Street while considering options for a suitable long-term space. Starting in the fall, the company will produce staged readings of “ancient and modern classics” at non-theater venues across the city while it looks for a new home.
While arguably Anacostia is now emerging as the next hub for small arts companies in DC, Dove says Forum has really connected with the Silver Spring area and is hesitant about moving back to DC. “It was a big deal for us to move from DC to Montgomery County, but what we discovered was that we kept most of our DC audiences and almost all of our growth came from here,” he says. “Montgomery County is incredibly diverse, and the type of audiences that come to see our shows really inform the work that we do.”
Forum’s 2013-14 season is secure at Round House Silver Spring, with the exception of its final play, Gidion’s Knot, which is scheduled to run in July after Round House will no longer manage the space. The play, which ran at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in 2012, features a lengthy and emotional conversation between a young teacher and the mother of one of her pupils. “We’ll do it somewhere,” Dove says. “We’ll go do it in a classroom if we have to.”
Forum now has to decide whether to join the Lumina Studio Theatre-led consortium of Montgomery County arts groups that has canvassed the county for ownership of the Silver Spring theater, or whether to try to find a new space to base its company in. During the past season almost half of the venue’s performances were produced by Forum, and the company enjoyed a unique artistic partnership with Round House. “Lumina has reached out to us and we’re going to meet with them next week, but we’re very curious to see what the model is and what the plans are,” says Dove. “It’s certainly scary, and it’s so funny that this is happening in a week when CDC and Woolly and Keegan are all buying their buildings. We’re so small, we know possibilities are going to have to come to us, rather than the other way around.”