Packed Auditorium


Long Line of Diversity Takes Center Stage at Lisner

For the George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, not much has changed in the past 66 years. The university still uses the cube-shaped building at the center of campus to showcase student events. But the theater has also undergone plenty of change, namely its transformation into a venue for some of the world’s most talented performers and sought-after acts.

Home to the largest stage south of New York City from the time the auditorium opened in 1943 to the time the Kennedy Center trumped it in 1971, Lisner was at first used only for university events. The first non-student use of the auditorium came in 1946 with the performance of Maxwell Anderson’s “Joan of Lorraine,” starring Ingrid Bergman. Since then, “we’ve hosted rock shows and dance shows and we still do quite a few student shows,” said Carl J. Graci, Lisner’s marketing manager. “You name it, they’ve been here. It really is a historic auditorium.”

Among the famous faces — many of them foreign — who have appeared on Lisner’s stage are the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American folksinger Arlo Guthrie, salsa singer Celia Cruz, superstar Céline Dion, Latin jazz and mambo musician Tito Puente, and author Deepak Chopra.

From the outside, Lisner is a simple cube with clean lines. The rectangular lobby is hardly ostentatious, with its gray-and-white marble walls and a thick carpet sporting square patterns and large “GW” imprints in deep reds, blues and gold. The theater itself lacks the sparkling chandeliers and ornate trimmings of other D.C. venues. Instead, the focus is clearly what’s on stage: There’s no balcony section so there’s no overhang or columns to block the view from any of Lisner’s 1,490 seats.

Despite its almost plain appearance, Lisner is cloaked in international flavor. “We love to bring in artists from other countries that may not have another chance to play in the D.C. market,” Graci said.

The theater has showcased Ballet Folklórico de México, Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club, Italian musician Paolo Conte and Israeli folksinger Chava Alberstein. And the 2009-10 season promises to be as diverse as ever.

Graci pointed out that in November alone, Lisner is featuring Brazilian vocalist Gal Costa, Bollywood singer Kailash Kher, legendary Portuguese fado performer Mariza, and a Japanese drumming group called Yamato.

“Mariza did one of her first performances here at Lisner for D.C. and is without a doubt one of the best ambassadors from Portugal ever because everywhere she goes, she holds the audience in the palm of her hand,” Graci said. “Yamato has been here once before. It’s not just a drumming show. They have so many instruments and they’re so entertaining, and the energy — it’s the type of show where you can feel the energy.

“I’m always impressed with an artist who’s singing in a language that I have no chance of ever learning and yet every emotion comes through perfectly,” he added, referring to Sara Tavares, a Lisbon native of Cape Verdean descent who takes the stage Nov. 14. “You do not need to live in Cape Verde or speak the language to feel every emotion that she puts forth.”

To promote its programming and help international artists feel at home in Washington, Lisner often reaches out to the city’s embassies. “Any time an event comes in with a singer from a country other than the United States, we always reach out to the embassy,” said Graci, who has collaborated with the embassies of Brazil, Cape Verde, Italy and Spain. “Working with the embassies is so rewarding because they’re in the same business we are: getting the word out and educating about culture.”

Perhaps its closest partnership is with the Spanish Embassy, which plays a role in Lisner’s annual flamenco festival, celebrating its 10th anniversary in February. “Every year it brings the best artists from Spain,” Graci noted.

Abram Lisner, the benefactor for whom the auditorium was named, would be proud of what it has become. A German native, Lisner came to the United States at age 13 and amassed his fortune as president and owner of the Palais Royal Department Store. He joined GW’s Board of Trustees in 1909 and left in his will 0,000 for the erection of a theater for use in university events such as graduation exercises, dramatic performances and public lectures.

“Art is an excellent way to get educated about a culture without it feeling like education,” Graci said. “It’s always a heck of a lot of fun. I don’t expect people to know all about Portugal after they’ve seen Mariza, but I think it opens a door to that part of culture of Portugal.”

For a complete list of performances at the George Washington University Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St., NW, please call (202) 994-6800 or visit

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.