News & Politics

Reason 28: We’ve Got Great Theater

Take a seat in the theater where Abraham Lincoln sat, catch a show before it goes to Broadway, or watch a world premiere by a playwright who won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.

Washington is second only to New York as a theater town—and sometimes we beat Broadway to the punch.

Arthur Laurents’s update of West Side Story played here first at the National Theatre. Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone, which premiered at Woolly Mammoth in 2007, had an extended run at New York’s Playwrights Horizons last year in a production starring Mary-Louise Parker.

Joy Zinoman, artistic director of Studio Theatre and the area’s longest-serving theater director, credits the artists, the audience, and economics. Washington boasts a million theatergoers, 3,500 professional theater artists, and more than 60 theater companies.

Our artistic directors have shaped very distinctive stages. When Eric Schaeffer does a Sondheim musical at Arlington’s Signature Theatre, Stephen Sondheim himself comes to cheer him on. Michael Kahn has made the Bard one of the hottest tickets and created “one of the world’s three great Shakespearean theatres,” according to the Economist. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg rarely misses an opening night at Kahn’s stages.

Many great actors got their start here—James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander performed The Great White Hope at Arena Stage in 1967 before taking it to Broadway and the movies. But it wasn’t until the mid-’80s, when Washington theaters started agreeing to Actors’ Equity contracts, that actors felt they could make a living and a life here.
Washington’s greatest theater asset? Its audiences. Our theatergoers are educated and enthusiastic. Where else can you see former Secretary of State Colin Powell singing along to the finale of Mamma Mia? And he knew all the words.

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