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How D.C. Became a Theater Boom Town

How D.C. Became a Theater Boom Town
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Lifelong District of Columbia resident Jennifer Cover Payne has always loved theater. But Payne, now president of the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington, remembers a very different arts city when she was growing up.

"Thirty years ago, the space where Studio Theatre is now? A drug infested building," she says. "Same with Woolly Mammoth. Most people who came to visit and even those who live here did not think of theater as having a presence in this environment."


Studio Theater, courtesy of Flickr user NCinDC

That began to change about twenty years ago, when the local government got interested in creating cultural institutions that might help rehab certain neighborhoods. The city began offering grants to people who wanted to convert empty buildings into something with artistic value. 

That opportunity, in turn, lured a handful of young directors and producers to town, who formed companies like Source Theatre Company, which hosts and annual incubation festival for new work, and Rorschach Theatre, which got its start staging productions in non-traditional spaces like greenhouses. These theaters lured an audience not just from the city, but from nearby Maryland and Virginia suburbs, too. Soon, smaller theaters were regularly selling out, and filling out their seasons with subscribers.

It also brought a new kind of person to D.C.: actors and directors who settled in the District to make a name for themselves, rather than using the city as a stepping stone up to somewhere bigger. "There are a lot of actors moving to D.C. to act, knowing that there are a lot of opportunities," says Emily Morrison, an actress and president of the Actors' Center, a membership organization that provides resources for D.C. area-based actors. The center, near bustling U Street, is chock-full of audition notices. They also run workshops and host networking events. "I work more here than I did in L.A.," says Morrison. "And I didn't always get paid in L.A."

Morrison says that for stage actors, D.C. is now one of the best places to be. "You get all the benefits of living in a large city, but the community is small enough that you can really begin to know people and connect with people," she says.

Still, it can be a struggle to put together a full-time theater career here. There are tons of acting opportunities, but it can be difficult for members of the actor's union, because many big companies still cast up in New York.


The lobby of the Woolly Mammoth Theater. Image courtesy of Flickr user Ted Eytan.

D.C.'s theater scene has exploded in the last decade. As the Washington Post writes:

In just 10 short years, Washington’s theaters have undergone a transformation unlike any in the city’s history. Gleaming new palaces of drama have sprung up or been spruced up all over the region, to the tune of more than $350 million. Companies once operating out of garages or ill-fitting nooks and crannies have settled into sophisticated new digs, and some groups with deeper pockets have erected edifices that have added immensely to the city’s architectural luster.

About 2.2 million tickets are sold annually. And the neighborhoods where many theaters got their start have become hits in their own right. "Developers saw that people will come to an area that people would not ordinarily come," says Payne of the Cultural Alliance. "They thought, 'if they're going to come, maybe I can put my restaurant there.'"

And put their restaurants — and bars, and retail — they did. Neighborhoods like Penn Quarter or the 14th Street Corridor, which once housed theaters and art galleries but not much else, are now some of the most popular nightlife destinations in town, with sky-rocketing real estate prices.

These booming neighborhoods have worked out great for mid-sized theater companies like Woolly Mammoth and Studio Theatre, helping them to build up a sizable audience. Arena Stage, for example, a regional theater in the city's southwest quadrant, started pouring its energy into musicals and new work by contemporary American playwrights. Since 2008, their audience is up 50 percent, says Executive Director Edgar Dobie. The theater also produced Next to Normal, the rock musical about mental illness that won three Tony Awards.

But for a truly robust theater scene, it helps to have a mix of theaters — not just the large houses where musicals can work out the kinks before heading to Broadway, but tiny, 30-seat spaces where young directors can still afford to experiment. And D.C.'s booming real estate market means such cheaper options are now disappearing.


Capital Fringe Festival. Image courtesy of Flickr user Joe Loeng.

In the last decade, seven black box theaters have closed and not reopened. "We could really lose what we have," says Capital Fringe Festival Executive Director Julianne Brienza. "You can't do all that without an amateur and mid-level scene."

Just ask Adele Robey, who co-founded D.C.'s H Street Playhouse in 2002. At the time, she says, buildings on the street were still boarded up from the 1968 riots. "The politics were bad," she says. "No one knew what to do. People said 'any development is a good thing.'" Robey has lived on D.C.'s Capitol Hill neighborhood for most of her life, and she liked the idea of investing in a place, making it better.

For the first four years, she says, it was hard to get people to H Street NE for her shows. ("No one struggled to park," she jokes.) But that's changed. Today, H Street is one of D.C.'s hottest neighborhoods, with new bars opening every month and rents rising fast. Too fast for H Street Playhouse, which became a victim of its own success – the theater closed its doors in 2012, because rent got too high.

At first, Robey thought she was done with theater. But she was recruited to a new neighborhood, Anacostia, by an arts development organization. Anacostia is poised (or, at least, developers hope it's poised) to be re-born as the city's next big thing. The newly named Anacostia Theater opened in August. Christian says she's hoping to help build up Anacostia the way she did with H Street. "Our goal is to really support our community," says Julia Robey Christian, Robey's daughter and partner. "That's how you perpetuate the arts. We're here to support local artists who are doing important things."


Signature Theater. Image courtest of Ecragg/Wikimedia Commons

The story of the H Street Playhouse worries people like Brienza. But in so many respects, it's a success story—for neighborhoods like Anacostia, and for D.C.'s theater scene as a whole. Just as gentrification pushes low-income renters farther out of the city's center, smaller, experimental theaters are being forced to the city's suburbs and quieter neighborhoods. Which means more people can have access to theater more of the time.

Take Signature Theater, located in nearby Northern Virginia. Beginning in 1993, the theater operated out of a renovated auto garage in Arlington, Virginia. Today, it's three times the size, produces all of its own productions, and casts most of its shows locally. It won a 2009 Tony for best regional theater company. The growing number of devoted actors and directors in the region are what made that possible.*

"We're a Washington theater, not only a Virginia theater," says Managing Director Maggie Boland. "We advertise and do co-promotions with our friends in Maryland and Washington. We've kind of moved on from the idea of competition in this market. We recognize that we're all building audiences with and for each other." That is Washington's undeniable theater future: a scene not just grounded in Washington's Northwest quadrant, but thriving around the region.

* Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously reported that outside of New York, D.C. stages the largest number of theater productions in the United States. It also incorrectly stated the year that Signature Theater opened and misstated that the company sent the show Ace to Broadway.

Madeleine Remi contributed research assistance for this story.

Top image: Ververidis Vasilis/Shutterstock.com

Amanda Erickson is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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