Charter Theatre, which in its ten-year history produced thirty world premieres, has suspended its program of traditional productions indefinitely, Artistic Director Keith Bridges announced Wednesday. But this does not mean that Charter is out of business. In August, Bridges promises, Charter will reveal a “unique focus on the development of audiences for new plays” through its First Draft series.
Although like many small Washington-area theaters, Charter took a financial hit from the recession, Bridges said that the principal reason Charter has suspended traditional productions is that its original mission of providing a venue for new plays is now no longer essential. “We’re trying to find the best way to serve an audience. I’m convinced that, for us, a full season of traditional plays isn’t it,” Bridges said in an interview with DC Theatre Scene yesterday. “When we started, what we did in promoting new plays was unique. But so many companies in Washington are now doing interesting new work. That part of our mission is not as necessary.”
Charter’s new audience development mission will be a sharp departure from the play development mission which dominated the company’s first ten years. It will initially be in the hands of Charter’s First Draft Reading Series, Bridges says. First Draft has, for the past two years, offered free readings in which the audiences provided feedback to the playwright for further development. Charter believes that this technique develops an audience as well. First Draft Artistic Associate Leslie A. Kobylinksi puts it this way: “The idea is also to get people who had not had the experience of live theater to become familiar and comfortable with that experience – and develop a sense of ownership of a particular work, a playwright or an actor.”
“I anticipate that people who came to the development of the play and contributed to its final form would buy tickets to see it produced,” says Kobylinksi, who notes that the most recent First Draft reading attracted an audience of seventy.
“(We’re) finding ways to reach out to underrepresented and underserved audiences – to give them a live theater experience for free which will inspire them to go to the theater and risk their discretionary dollars on new work,” Kobylinksi said. The underserved populations include, perhaps counterintuitively, older audiences, according to Kobylinksi, and she’s hoping that future plays will address the concerns of older people. “Though older populations sustain the theater, the population which sustains the theater is not growing, and there are many older people who do not attend theater.”
Bridges and the Charter Board have not yet determined what form Charter’s continuing work will take, but Bridges says that a wide variety of options are on the table. “We’re thinking about something like environmental theater… storytelling, live storytelling, dramatic storytelling told in alternative venues – maybe a cinema and drafthouse type of environment in a or a museum or a coffeeshop or a bar.” Bridges promises that the decision will be based on “what’s going to reach and entertain an audience.”
“The next steps will be taken on a case-by-case basis,” Bridges promises. “We may be doing radio plays. We’re thinking about film projects. We intend to expand the number of playwrights we work with, who may address different kinds of audience.”
Charter’s most recent First Draft reading was May 18th’s production of Allyson Currin’s Benched, which it staged at the Arts Club of Washington on I Street NW.
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