Major Critics Conference Raises Hopes for Area Theater Community
The Tony Award is synonymous with New York, but Washington theaters are trying to get in on the Tony act — and the prospects look better than ever. That’s because the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) — the group that recommends who should win the Regional Theatre Tony Award — held its annual conference for the first time in D.C. this year, a real coup for a city that’s been tirelessly marketing its vibrant and ever-growing theater scene.
Each year, in addition to honoring theaters on Broadway, ATCA gives a special Regional Theater Tony Award to a nonprofit theater located anywhere in the country outside New York. Despite D.C.’s close proximity to New York, the nation’s capital has nabbed this prize only once (Arena Stage won the prestigious honor in 1976), with the Chicago Shakespeare Theater receiving the Regional Tony for 2008, and Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre winning in 2007.
“We haven’t received the award since the burgeoning of the theater community in D.C. over the last 10 to 15 years,” said Jon Palmer Claridge, chairman of the ATCA conference host committee and a program director for Arlington Cultural Affairs.
“Washington is considered the second most prolific theater scene, over Chicago and Los Angeles,” Claridge added. “Although it’s been documented over many years, the vitality and prolific offerings of the metropolitan Washington theater scene often come as a surprise to those outside of our community. Hosting this important body of critics was an important way to educate a national array of key ‘taste-makers’ about the region’s tremendous offerings.”
Indeed, the conference was a unique opportunity to get critics from all over the country to witness D.C.’s up-and-coming theater presence firsthand. From June 17 to 22, some 100 critics and guests each saw nearly a dozen shows staged by 18 of the area’s most prominent theaters.
The conference was affectionately named “The Bus & Truck Tour of the Metro Washington DC Theatre Scene” because actors and actresses most often travel by bus or truck when touring with their shows. Likewise, conference participants were chauffeured to and from shows, business meetings, various presentations and group panels throughout Maryland, Virginia and Washington.
“The critics were limited in the number of plays they could see, so we had artistic directors on panels and hosting dinners so the critics could meet folks they wouldn’t otherwise meet,” Claridge explained. “The critics also were exposed to many of the theaters that weren’t hosting shows, like Gala Theater at the Tivoli and the new Bethesda Theatre.”
This year’s ATCA host was Brad Hathaway, an editor and reviewer for the Web-based theater resource Potomac Stages. Hathaway began proposing the idea of bringing the ATCA conference to D.C. about four years ago and approached Norma Kaplan of the Arlington County Cultural Affairs Division for help. The Virginia group — nationally recognized for its Arts Incubator program, which has spurred the growth of professional theater in Arlington — decided to take the lead, with other area troupes signing on to the project.
“The theater community really stepped up for this,” said Claridge, noting that four organizations offered dinners with their respective artistic directors. Participants dined with Michael Kahn of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, who also invited notorious Shakespeare Theatre regular actors Harry Hamlin, Sabrina LeBeauf and Avery Brooks. The Studio Theatre’s Joy Zinoman, Signature’s Eric Schaeffer and Arena Stage’s Molly Smith participated as well. There was also a private session with Broadway composer John Kander and acclaimed actors George Hearn and Chita Rivera, all of whom are currently involved in the Signature Theatre’s production of “The Visit.”
In addition, critics saw some of the newest venues that the area has to offer, including the Shakespeare Theatre’s striking new 775-seat Sidney Harman Hall, Signature’s recently built multiple-venue home, and Studio’s expanded facility along the city’s revitalized 14th Street corridor.
Conference panels, meanwhile, touched on significant and timely industry topics. One panel examined theaters that have created their own niche, such as Theater J, housed in the Washington DC Jewish Community Center, and Gala Theatre, which produces Spanish-language plays. Other panels hosted local actors and directors, as well as reporters and critics who regularly cover the area’s theater scene.
According to Claridge, a longtime Helen Hayes Award judge, likely D.C.-area candidates for the Regional Tony Award in 2010 (he said the judges have already sought out nominees for 2009) are the Signature, Shakespeare and Studio theaters, as well as the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
So keep an eye out for what’s playing on Washington stages — this conference could be a sign of good things to come and you could very well be watching a future Tony honoree.
About the Author
Lisa Troshinsky is the theater reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.