News & Politics

Area Theater Philanthropists

People who donate big money to Washington's theater scene don't do it to get rich or to whisper in the ear of the director. Investing in plays and musicals is what they do for love of the theater.

Angels in the Wings

By day, Lurita Doan is the hard-charging boss of New Technology Management in Reston. Her company designs, installs, and maintains border-surveillance systems for the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies.

By night, Doan enters another world, another century.

For a time last winter, she was transported to Florence in the Renaissance, consumed with the political intrigue of Alessandro de Medici. Night after night, she would mouth the words of the handsome young Lorenzaccio as he tried to win favor with his patron and not lose his soul in the process.

Lorenzaccio is the title character in a 19th-century drama by French playwright Alfred de Musset. But earlier this year, when the Shakespeare Theatre produced the play in Washington for the first time, Lurita Doan was obsessed with the young Italian.

She was Lorenzaccio's angel.

Theater leaders call their financial backers "angels" because without their support a production would never fly.

There have been lots of movies and plays about Broadway theaters where struggling composers and playwrights perform for potential backers to get them to invest in the show. That still happens on Broadway, and some investors double or triple their money.

Washington theater angels have to be more altruistic, says Joy Zinoman, artistic director of Studio Theatre. They're not in it for the money, as almost all of the professional theaters here are nonprofit. The National and the Warner are exceptions–they are essentially host theaters for out-of-town shows.

In nonprofit theaters, ticket sales pay for about half a production's cost. If a show makes a profit, the money is poured back into the theater to support community outreach and other plays.

"Many of us have education programs that have to be funded by supporters," says Michael Kahn, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre. His theater produces a Shakespeare classic every spring at its Free for All at Carter Barron Amphitheatre. It's free to the public, but the theater still has to pay actors and other professionals.

Enter the angels.

Washington doesn't have the large homegrown corporations that often see support for the arts as part of their civic responsibility, Zinoman says. Instead, the area has families with a tradition of giving to both the visual and performing arts, she says.

Washington's newest angels are individuals. "There are modern Medicis–people who support all of the arts–and then there are donors who are obsessive about theater," Zinoman says.

Angels have deep pockets but not as deep as you might think. For every multimillion-dollar gift to construct a new theater, there are many $25,000 to $50,000 gifts to support one production or a piece of a production. One donor funded costumes for Shakespeare Theatre's production of Cyrano in 2004, contributing $36,000.

Lurita Doan began her involvement with the Shakespeare Theatre as a subscriber when she and her husband moved to Washington in 1986. But her interest went beyond Shakespeare. A Vassar graduate with a master's degree in Renaissance literature from the University of Tennessee, Doan wanted to support lesser-known plays.

"Michael Kahn wanted to do The Silent Woman by Ben Jonson, and he couldn't find a corporate sponsor," Doan recalls. "I had written a portion of my master's thesis on it."

Doan underwrote the production, and it was a big success. Doan and her company have sponsored three productions, including Lorenzaccio, with gifts of $75,000 to $150,000.

Doan says she gets emotionally involved with the plays she sponsors. Before The Silent Woman opened, she read the script, went to readings, and looked at sketches of the costumes.

"After I saw the final dress rehearsal of Lorenzaccio, I sent Michael two pages of comments in the middle of the night," she says. "It's fun to do these things. I have a lot of young employees, and many have never seen a live performance. There is something so riveting about a live performance on stage."

Does Doan's emotional involvement with "her" play pose a problem for the director? "None of our donors has ever asked to be more than a supporter and a friend," Kahn says.

Sidney Harman is the city's newest Medici. He is chair and CEO of Harman International, an audio-equipment company, and husband of Representative Jane Harman from California. He grew up and grew rich in New York. Harman and engineer Bernard Kardon started a hi-fi-acoustics company in the 1950s that became the leading producer of sound equipment, for uses as varied as cars, home computers, and the Sydney Opera House.

As a kid Harman took violin lessons from the superintendent of his New York apartment building. "When he was fired for drunkenness, my career in music ended," Harman says.

He lived close enough to Broadway to see almost every show. But not the whole show, he explains. He would head down to the theater during intermission, when the audience spilled into the lobby and onto the street. Then, when the lights blinked to signal the end of intermission, he would walk into the theater with the crowd, settle into an empty seat, and enjoy the second act.

He has come full circle, he says. Married to a member of Congress who starts her days early, he often has to leave the theater after act one.

When Harman moved to Washington in 1976 to be deputy secretary of Commerce in the Carter administration, he became a supporter of the Kennedy Center. He sees a connection between art and business and prefers poets to MBAs as managers. "Poets are the first systems thinkers," he says. "Shakespeare was a systems thinker–he looked at a strongly complicated world and tried to make sense of it."

Harman was a sponsor of the Shakespeare Free for All when Kahn approached him with a proposal for a larger venue for the Shakespeare Theatre that would enable the company to expand its repertoire.

Harman agreed to give $15 million on one condition–that the new theater be a downtown center for all performing arts.

"Shakespeare is fabulous, endlessly rich. But we need to encourage new work in dance, recitation, et cetera," Harman says.

The Harman Center for the Arts is scheduled to open in 2007 near Seventh and F streets, just down the street from Shakespeare's current theater. Considering the benefactor, the acoustics are likely to be terrific.

Rick Kasten is also a modern Medici. A recent retiree from the Congressional Budget Office, Kasten supports the arts with one project at a time. He's underwritten shows for Studio Theatre, Woolly Mammoth, Theatre Alliance, Charter, and Catalyst as well as new works for the Washington Ballet.

Arena's associate development director, Jennifer Baker Howard, first approached Kasten about becoming an angel in early 2004. Howard knew Kasten from her stint raising money for the Washington Ballet.

Howard thought she had the perfect project to intrigue Kasten. She told him about a one-man show called Love and Taxes–Kasten was a tax specialist at the CBO. He's been involved with Arena ever since.

In 2000, Kasten retired from the CBO at age 50. Now he has more time to go to the eight theaters where he has subscriptions as well as to rehearsals of the plays and ballets he sponsors. He used to go to London on vacation to see more theater, but since he retired, he hasn't felt the need to travel. Now local theater is his getaway.

"Every year I do one big project, and that's sort of a vacation for me," Kasten says.

His latest project is opening this month at Arena Stage–he is one of the sponsors of Passion Play, a Cycle, a world premiere in three parts by Sarah Ruhl, a young playwright. It's a sponsorship that amounts to $25,000.

Kasten read the play and went to an out-of-town workshop production where the playwright worked with the actors. He liked being part of a new work.

Turning a theater fan into an angel is a delicate process. Washington theaters have development directors who run the campaigns to build and equip the theaters and garner support for individual productions. But a theater often is a cult of personality. It is the artistic director who attracts the angels.

"A truly successful theater is the product of one or two obsessed, energetic people," says theater benefactor Esthy Adler.

Major donors to the Shakespeare buy into Kahn's often iconoclastic view of the classics. Woolly Mammoth supporters share Howard Shalwitz's appetite for the offbeat. Some underwriters will support shows at Arena Stage and Studio Theatre if they are directed by their respective leaders, Molly Smith or Joy Zinoman.

Maxine Isaacs donated $1 million for a new home for Arlington's Signature Theatre after finding a theatrical soul mate in Eric Schaeffer, the artistic director.

In May, Signature Theatre will move out of its current building–a converted auto-chrome-plating shop on Four Mile Run Drive–into a new facility in Shirlington. One of the two theaters in the building will be named the Max–for its benefactor.

Isaacs is a lifelong lover of American musicals. "I was a child actor in Cleveland," she says. As a dark-haired girl she often was cast as an Asian. She played in The King and I and The Teahouse of the August Moon.

Isaacs spent a semester in London as a college student. A ticket for a play could be had for $2.50 if you were willing to sit in the balcony. When she wasn't in class, she was often up high in a theater.

These days, when she's not lecturing on public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government or at home in DC's Massachusetts Heights, Isaacs slips off to London every five or six weeks and sees two shows a day.

She came to Washington in 1970 to work in politics–she was press secretary to Walter Mondale and worked for him when he was a senator and then vice president. Her interest in theater never flagged. "I was a subscriber to Arena, I saw everything at Kennedy Center, and I was on the Studio board," she says.

Her husband, Jim Johnson, had also worked for Mondale and later was CEO of Fannie Mae. When Johnson left Fannie Mae and was named chair of the Kennedy Center in 1996, Isaacs felt she could not show a preference for any local theater.

Meanwhile, in Virginia, Schaeffer was turning his theater into a showcase for the musicals of Stephen Sondheim. The composer himself had come down from New York to see Schaeffer's production of Passion. It was the first of several trips Sondheim made to Arlington to see Schaeffer's work. The Broadway veteran developed a growing respect for the upstart director who made the grand creations work in a tiny theater–sometimes better than they had on Broadway.

In 2002, the Kennedy Center hired Schaeffer to put together a Sondheim festival. He directed two of the six shows, and the festival was a big success. It was also the beginning of a friendship between Schaeffer and Isaacs. As soon as her husband stepped down from the Kennedy Center in 2004, Isaacs joined the board at Signature.

Theater boards are an important source of financial support. Members are expected to be sponsors. For example, Arena board members donate or raise $10,000 each season. Board members run the galas and benefits: They recruit the evening's underwriters and "encourage" their friends to buy tickets.

Boards can also be breeding grounds for angels. As soon as Isaacs came onto Signature's board, she agreed to cochair the capital campaign that would enable the company to leave the old plating shop for a new home nearby.

When Schaeffer signed on to direct The Witches of Eastwick in London's West End, Isaacs went over for the technical rehearsal. Isaacs says she is careful not to overstep her bounds. "As an angel, you're not involved in the artistic side," she says.

But supporters do like to be eyewitnesses to the creative process. Isaacs often goes to readings when a production is in its early stages.

Signature underwriters are always invited to the sitzprobe of a musical–the first time that the orchestra is united with the singers. Schaeffer also hosts dinners for donors where he explains what goes into a production.

Signature specializes in musicals. These often are written with big stages, big casts, and full orchestras in mind. Even Signature's scaled-down versions are a challenge. Where most plays may have a cast of six actors, Schaeffer's production of Sondheim's Follies had a cast of 35 plus a 14-piece orchestra.

Isaacs and Johnson were among the producers of Follies–which meant a $50,000 contribution.

Isaacs still thinks of herself as a fan rather than an expert. "I wish I was a critic for the Washington Post, because I'm so uncritical," she says. "I like everything I see."

Jim and Esthy Adler and Gilbert and Jaylee Mead are angels in a class by themselves. The two couples have donated millions to theaters across Washington.

Esthy Adler grew up in Paris performing in plays. "I had a rubber face," she says. Theaters were subsidized by the government, and tickets were cheap. She went at least once a week. She wanted to be a director.

As a boy in Brooklyn, Jim Adler started going to the theater at an early age. When he was 11, Adler and a friend took the subway to Manhattan and made their way to legendary Broadway producer George Abbott's office. They told Abbott's receptionist they were there to offer themselves as child actors. She promised to make Abbott aware of their availability.

Abbott never called, but high-school directors did. Jim was in every play his high school produced.

By the time Esthy and Jim Adler grew up, married, and moved to Washington in 1969, they had their eyes on other prizes. Together they started a publishing business, Congressional Information Service, and for the first 15 years they spent most of their energy on the business. They still went to the theater, but they were simply ticket holders until Zelda and Tom Fichandler asked Esthy to serve on the Arena board.

The Adlers were in the audience at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre for Michael Kahn's first production, Romeo and Juliet. Jim wrote Kahn a fan letter and was invited to join the newly constituted board of the Shakespeare Theatre.

In the past two decades, the Adlers have contributed several hundred thousand dollars and have sponsored productions at Arena, Round House, Woolly Mammoth, and Theater J.

The Adlers are undeterred if their projects don't meet with critical or popular success. "The point is that these are such creative people," they say of those they are supporting. "You are doing something that was really worth trying.

"We feel lucky to be able to watch these geniuses of theater up close," Jim says.

There is a theater at Studio named for Gilbert and Jaylee Mead. The lobby in the new Signature Theatre will be named for Gil's son. No season at Arena goes by without a Mead-sponsored production. They've given to Woolly Mammoth, Source Theatre, Olney Theatre Center, Round House, Imagination Stage, MetroStage, Catalyst Theater, the Harman Center for the Arts, and the Washington Theater Awards Society, the group that gives out the annual Helen Hayes Awards.

"We've supported every theater that has a capital campaign," Gil says.

Until they were nearing retirement age, the Meads had no exposure to professional theater. They met at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt–she was an astronomer, he a geophysicist. They married in 1968. Together, they became active members of MAD, the amateur music and drama group at Goddard. Every fall MAD produced a musical, every winter it did a play, and in the spring it put on a variety show.

It was the musicals the Meads loved. Jaylee was often on stage while Gil acted as musical director and conducted the orchestra. Ethel Merman was her idol. She played Vera in Mame and the grandmother in Pippin, belting out her show-stopping numbers with aplomb.

Neither of the Meads had studied theater. So they decided to go downtown to see how the professionals did it. They bought tickets and took mental notes about the technical aspects of productions. What does a stage manager do? Where did they put the musicians if there was no orchestra pit?

"Arena was spectacular on the technical side," Gil recalls. "You could learn a lot."

Before long, they were inviting friends from MAD to come along.

When the Meads retired–Gilbert in 1987, Jaylee in 1992–they really began to explore the world beyond Greenbelt. They moved downtown to the Watergate and took up second careers as theater angels.

Gil's grandfather had been the founder of Consolidated Paper, a Wisconsin company, a fact that the modest Meads did not share with their Goddard world. When Gilbert's father, Stanton, died in 1988, the Meads' assets increased substantially. With their children they created a family foundation that addresses community needs. Gilbert and Jaylee used their personal funds to contribute to local theaters. Theater watchers estimate that the Meads' contributions top $20 million.

Jaylee chaired the Studio Theatre board for eight years. Gil is on two boards–Arena Stage and Signature Theatre.

"We don't play golf. We don't play tennis. We just love being involved in the theater," Joyce says.

When Molly Smith came to Arena, she had never directed a musical. The Meads exercised gentle persuasion–and they've underwritten at least three of Arena's musicals. South Pacific was the first musical Smith directed. She now plans a musical as the linchpin of every season.

The Meads are always looking beyond the next show, the next season, the next new stage. "I want to enable actors to have enough opportunity here to live and work in DC," Jaylee Mead says.

Both the Meads and the Adlers talk up Washington as a great theater town. "Washington has become the second-most-important theater city in the country after New York," Gil says.

Every year Gil's alma mater, Yale University, sponsors theater trips for its alumni. Last year, for the first time, Yale's trips included London, New York, and Washington.

"We're on the map," Gil says.

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