DC: Final critical thoughts

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More random thoughts from the American Theatre Critics Association conference in Washington.

* If the powers that be in Carmel–or any other place that aspires to be an arts destination–hasn’t already made contact, they should reach out immediately and speak to the folks at the Arlington Cultural Affairs Arts Incubator. In short, in a town with no professional arts, Arlington created a program to attract and grow a vibrant arts scene. It did this primarily by offering space at various venues for 10% of the box office receipts. The result not only put Arlington on the map, it also helped grow such companies as Signature Theatre, which started here with a low-budge “Sweeney Todd” in 1992 and recently moved into its own $16 million two-theater complex…in Arlington.

*Speaking of Signature Theatre, I didn’t mean to sound dismissive of its production of “The Visit” a few blogs back. It’s a difficult play, still trying to find a musical voice. The production itself was outstanding and I’m jealous of anyone with easy access to Signature’s work. In August, it’s premiering the new Broadway-bound musical “Ace.” April brings another musical premiere, based on Edna Ferber’s “Giant,” famously filmed with James Dean.

* To help me navigate around DC, I decided to enlist some technological help and took a loaner on the new Verizon Wireless enV2 phone, complete with GPS. In most cases, I didn’t even need to know the address of the theater I was searching for. Instead, I simply typed in National Theatre or The Studio Theatre and it got me there, reminding me along the way if I was on track. As one of the text-message-resistant few who only uses a phone to call people, I was impressed…and on time.

* Yes, they were talking to us critics, but it was nonetheless thrilling to see the passion that the Washington artistic directors we met had not only for their theaters, but for each play they were producing. Their willingness to acknowledge missteps as part of the process was also refreshing.

* Ever hear Bob Mondello’s film reviews on NPR’s “All Things Considered”? Well, Mondello’s first love is theater and he’s been a reviewer since 1987 for the Nuvo-ish Washington City Paper. He was part of a panel of local critics and among the topics was the possible over-development going on here. Theater after theater we visited had either expanded or moved into a new facility. Next up: The city’s senior professional company, Arena Stage, has a massive complex set to open in 2010. Those who have removed their rose-colored glasses are concerned about whether Washington has overplayed its hand, creating more seats than could possibly be filled. Is there enough of an audience for the classics for the Shakespeare Theatre Company to fill its new Sidney Harman Hall and its older digs, the Landsburgh Theatre (as well as its massively popular Free for All outdoor performances)? And will theater companies have to take fewer risks in order to fill those seats?

* It was eye-opening to see that even a place as tourist-centric as Washington is concerned about whether or not “Cultural Tourism” actually works. Sure, busloads of people come in for the Smithsonian and the historical attractions, but DCers aren’t sure if theater is actually pulling people to town in significant numbers. Clearly what’s most important is finding a local, loyal audience.

* Many of the newer theater spaces we visited feature lobbies designed to extend the evening’s experience beyond what’s on stage. Makeshift lobby bars seem a thing of the past. It would be possible to go for a drink in Signature’s lobby without realizing that there’s a theater beyond the doors. Even at the older Landsburgh Theatre, you can order a sandwich and drink before the show and have it waiting for you at Intermission.

* I’m still wrestling with the question of whether or not many theater pieces are now over-developed. A few months ago, I reported from Louisville on a production of “This Beautiful City” at the Humana Festival. That documentary theater look at the Evanglical movement’s influence on Colorado Springs, as filtered through a troupe known as The Civilians, was exciting, theatrical and a bit overstuffed, with a last hour that tried to cram too much in. In its latest public incarantion at DC’s Studio Theatre (with most of the same performers), it still had shining moments, but felt drained of some of the energy and passion. It felt smaller and weaker. This was one of the pieces I was most looking forward to catching, hoping that additional work would clarify the ambitious show. Instead, it seemed to have less of an impact on its new audience then it did on those of us at Humana. Once again, though, I need to applaud its host, Studio Theatre, and regret not having seen some of Studio’s own work.

* Finally, nearly every writer at the conference bemoaned the cutting back of arts reviewing in print publications. I felt like a minority of one as I explained the expanded coverage here at IBJ and the responsiveness of our readers to our reviews, previews and blogs. I appreciate the feedback this blog’s readers have been giving me and I encourage you to continue doing so, whether through posting here or via e-mail at lharry@ibj.com.

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