Several months ago, local playwright Stephen Spotswood and Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks asked me how much DC theater companies feel like they are in competition with each other, which led me to author this post on my arts marketing blog.
I do believe that to some extent we are in competition with each other, and that competition provides for a higher level of artistic work for our audiences (nothing motivates quite like pride). However, I’ve been particularly mindful lately of the examples in which the community is brought together by innovative partnerships between theaters.
Demonstrating that the whole is indeed stronger than the sum of its parts, below are a couple of recent examples of local theater companies working together to produce work that might not have been possible without collaboration:
Under normal circumstances, individual theaters don’t have the resources to produce an in-depth festival devoted to the work of a seminal artist, however in 2012, DC audiences have already been treated to two major festivals celebrating the work of Basil Twist and Eugene O’Neill. The Basil Twist Festival was a collaboration between Shakespeare Theatre Company, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, Studio Theater and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, and featured four major productions. Almost simultaneously, the Eugene O’Neill Festival was occurring at Arena Stage, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Georgetown University, George Washington University, Taffety Punk and the University of Maryland resulting in three major productions and more than 20 readings, workshops and panels.
Ford’s Theatre and Signature Theatre will team up in the spring of 2013 to bring local audiences a new production of Hello, Dolly! On the surface, it might seem a little unusual for two local theater companies to co-produce, especially since both have a history of producing large scale musicals on their own. However, I assume by partnering, each theater is meeting an individual need.
Unlike most other DC theaters, Ford’s Theatre does not operate with a subscription base, and a good portion of their business comes from group bookings. In Signature’s case, demand for their most popular musicals can easily exceed the seating capacity of the Max, their largest venue, which although it has a flexible seating configuration, is usually capped at roughly 300 seats. By partnering, Ford’s Theatre can tap into Signature’s subscription base, and Signature has access to Ford’s Theatre’s 661 seat theater. Seems like a good fit.
Visiting Local Companies.
When Arena Stage opened the Mead Center for American Theater in 2010, it invited two local companies to perform at the new center rent free as part of its local visiting companies initiative. Arena Stage partnered with Theater J to present The Chosen in the Fichandler, and Georgetown University to present The Glass Menagerie in the Kogod. Similar to Signature Theatre in the above example, Theater J was looking for a larger venue than its 240 seat thrust theater to remount its wildly successful production of The Chosen, and the 683 seat Fichandler was available and a good match.
After performing at the Davis Performing Arts Center, Georgetown University wanted to move its Glass Menagerie to a place where it would receive a new and expanded audience. At the same time, Arena Stage was transitioning from a regional theater to a national center for American Theater, and as part of its new mission, it sought to present the best work in American theater from around the country at the new Mead Center, including highlighting exceptional work from the nation’s capital. Arena’s new mission and the needs of Theater J and Georgetown University dovetailed to create a perfect opportunity for collaboration.
Rolling World Premieres.
Almost ten years ago, the National New Play Network (NNPN) established a pilot program for what is now called the Continued Life of New Plays Fund, which supports three or more theaters which choose to mount the same new play within a twelve month period. NNPN started to notice a trend that promising new plays were being abandoned after their first production as a growing number of theaters were only interested in producing the world premiere, however theater artists know that for a play to fully mature, often times they need three or more full productions. NNPN addressed this by providing support for theaters to present “rolling world premieres” wherein a production would receive three or more fully produced productions with different production teams.
In the DC area, Woolly Mammoth’s production of Oedipus El Ray by Luis Alfaro was an NNPN supported rolling world premiere in partnership with the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, CA and The Theatre at Boston Court in Pasadena, CA. In addition, this summer, the Contemporary American Theater Festival will produce the rolling world premiere of Barcelona by Bess Wohl.
There are few cities in the United States with a theater market as thriving, and competitive as Washington, DC. With 80 professional theaters and the second highest per-capita number of theatre productions annually (second only to New York City), it can be easy for theaters to view each other as competitors. However, the above examples serve to remind us that although perhaps in some cases we are in competition for resources and audiences, at our core, theater is a collaborative undertaking, with often times the best results coming from strategic partnerships rather than individual efforts.