— Christopher Henley, former Artistic Director of WSC Avant Bard, knows first hand what it takes to lure theatregoers to unfamiliar places. —
It’s a sad, sad story, as old as cities, commerce, and, probably, the arts themselves: artists go into a sketchy part of town, put down some roots, often restoring a derelict space, little by little lure audiences off the beaten track, make a neighborhood cool, other development follows, suddenly it tilts into full-blown gentrification, and, guess what? The artists who were among the early homesteaders, who brought the cachet that flipped a bad neighborhood into a cool, vibrant destination; well, they get squeezed out as they can no longer afford to hold onto the space in which they have invested so much equity, the sweat variety as well as what little money they have.
I was in the cast of the first show Bart Whiteman opened on 14th Street in 1980. That was the same year that Studio opened its first space on Church Street, off of 14th. Believe me, it was a different place then. Comes to that, so was Penn Quarter. When we did plays at DC Space or saw bands at the old 9:30 Club in those days, we didn’t even know we were in Penn Quarter, and when we went out onto the streets after a show, those streets were desolate. Now, it’s like Times Square.
H Street Playhouse, as most of the readers of this article will know, became the latest example of this heart-breaking “victim of one’s own success” circumstance. The ten-year home base of Theater Alliance, H Street Playhouse was also available to itinerant companies, several of whom filled the gaps between Theater Alliance productions. I imagine that the first thing that would have brought most readers of this article over to that part of NE was a performance at H Street Playhouse. H Street Playhouse closed its doors last January.
However, there is a next chapter to this particular story, and its scene is set somewhere that is at least as daunting a location as 14th Street. was in 1980, as H Street., NE was in 2002. On Aug. 14, Theater Alliance begins previews of its latest production, Broke-ology, which will be the maiden full run of a play at the spanking new Anacostia Playhouse.
The theatre community has been buzzing over the last year or so about the prospects of this new venture. Is that neighborhood weighted down with too many negative associations for a theatre space to succeed there? Is it just too much to expect that even those who were early visitors to other neighborhoods that have flipped will take a chance on a trip to the “A” word? Is the river one needs to cross a symbolic, as well as a literal, obstacle? Will Anacostia Playhouse become part of a renaissance in that neighborhood, which we can expect to follow suit and, like 14th Street and H Street, become a gentrified nightlife destination?
– In ten years, will Anacostia Playhouse become a victim of its own success, no longer able to afford a neighborhood it had helped to flip? –
I sat down this week with Colin Hovde, Artistic Director of Theater Alliance, at its offices, a few blocks away from the Playhouse. We were joined after a bit by Adele Robey, who was an owner of H Street Playhouse, is a long-serving and current Board member of Theater Alliance, and is CEO of Anacostia Playhouse. Both are excited about the possibilities for success of the Playhouse, for the theatre company as it moves its home base there, for the venue becoming importantly integrated into the fabric of their new community, and for a more sustainable tenancy in that neighborhood than they ended up having previously.
Located at 2020 Shannon Place, SE , the new venue is just a few blocks from a Metro stop. There is ample parking, on the street and in adjacent lots that currently are only used during the day. Robey reports that she frequently bikes from home (on Capitol Hill) to the space, and remarks on how easy it will be for folks on Pennsylvania Ave., SE to stroll over the bridge, it’s that short of a walk.
She points out that people are surprised when they look over and see how close the Navy Yard is. Robey and Hovde both mention that there are already a couple of places to eat before or drink after a performance (Big Chair Coffee and Grill, Uniontown Bar and Grill), and that you couldn’t say the same about H Street during the early days of H Street Playhouse. (Um, you couldn’t say the same about 14th & S in 1980, I can attest.)
Robey and Hovde have been working at all hours of the day and night and haven’t had any problems, other than one vandalized, broken window. Hovde observes that the neighborhood is “prettier and nicer” than other areas in town that people frequent without thinking twice. There is a lot of construction going on in the neighborhood. In fact, the bridge is getting a lot of work done, which caused my GPS some confusion. This resulted in an unplanned tour of surrounding neighborhoods, and I can tell you that there is a lot of beautiful housing stock, both newly constructed and more historic, and that the streets are much less intimidating than Anacostia’s reputation.
When asked if there was any Board resistance to a move from H Street to Anacostia, Robey and Hovde tell me that the only people who have expressed disappointment with the move are H Street neighbors who can no longer walk to Theater Alliance shows.
The plan was to open the space and perform Broke-ology a few months ago. Of course, construction delays are always to be expected, and the process of passing inspections and meeting codes can be arduous. But what kept Robey and Co. from meeting their opening goal was red tape involving on-site parking. They had secured an adjacent lot for use, thus meeting the on-site parking requirement. But, whoops, turns out there is a public alley separating the performance space from this parking, so, sorry for ya, that parking doesn’t count. Eventually, common sense prevailed and the arrangement was approved, but it cost a few months. Construction was halted, contractors went to other jobs, a lot of time and energy was expended on that hassle.
But, as they say, better late than never. The delay caused Theater Alliance to have to do some recasting, but Hovde took it in stride and even says the delay was “a blessing in disguise,” as he’s ended up with an “incredible team.”
When asked about the prospect of eventually being squeezed out of this new neighborhood, Robey says she hopes and expects that the new location “doesn’t become H Street,” which she describes as “bar-oriented” development. She cites the support received from the new landlord, the Curtis family, a long-time presence in Anacostia. She describes them as “forward thinkers” who “get it,” who understand the importance of the success of this venture, and who aren’t only interested in rent received.
They understand that an arts component can provide an anchor to other development, and are encouraging of, and supportive of, this new theatre space. She mentions that housing values are increasing and “artists are arriving,” both indicators that a revitalized Anacostia may end up more like the community she envisions and less like the nightlife destination that other flipped neighborhoods have become.
After the Theater Alliance run, it’s looking to be a busy Fall at Anacostia Playhouse. Robey rattled off a number of performances that the Playhouse will host, many involving music, and reported that they had just sealed a deal with another theatre company, Pinky Swear Productions, for a tenancy. [Pinky Swear will produce David Henry Hwang’s Bondage, Nov 7 – Dec 14]. Other itinerant companies will no doubt be exploring the possibilities of running shows there. I got the distinct impression that, hoping to attract other groups, rental costs will be quite competitive as against other space options in town. The space (which will have flexible seating with capacity topping out around 150) is impressive.
“You won’t believe your eyes,” I was, in fact, told. I had seen the space several months ago during early construction. The sights and smells brought back vivid memories of when we at WSC were converting that warehouse into Clark Street Playhouse in Crystal City during the mid-90s. (I’m confident that the finished Anacostia Playhouse will avoid the funkier memories some might associate with Clark Street Playhouse.) The electricity was off during my interview, some last minute work was occurring, so I won’t see the finished product until I check out the Theater Alliance production.
Which reminds me, there’s a play about to open. Theater Alliance begins its new season on Aug. 14 with previews of Broke-ology, by Nathan Louis Jackson, the DC premiere of a play that ran in New York at the Newhouse in Lincoln Center in 2009. Hovde described how the play was selected: through connections at the O’Neill Playwriting Festival and networking events at the Kennedy Center with both the playwright and the director (Candace L. Feldman), the script was brought to him. A reading of the play was held at Theater Alliance. There was enthusiastic response to the reading, along the lines of “that was incredible, this play broke my heart, when are you going to stage it?” Among the play’s designers are Reggie Ray, the Helen Hayes Award-winning costume designer who, Hovde reports, so loves the play that he enthusiastically signed on to what must be a situation with less salary and support than he is used to.
Given the neighborhood in which the company is now based (historically African-American), the play might seem particularly inviting. The play’s four characters are a nuclear family, African-American, in Kansas City. In the present, the two sons, with wildly differing talents, interests, and prospects, are dealing with the deterioration of their father, who has MS. Their long-dead mother is the fourth character, appearing in flashbacks and as a kind of ghost.
2020 Shannon Place, SE
Washington, DC 20020
Anacostia Playhouse website
Tickets for Broke-ology
I should report that Colin Hovde is a friend and colleague, who I hired to direct plays at WSC when I was Artistic Director. We spoke about the revised Theater Alliance mission, which focuses more on devised work, community involvement, and socially conscious content. Theater Alliance has substantially thrown in with Anacostia Playhouse. It’s their home base and they will occupy office space there. However, the rest of their season will be all over town. The second production (White Rabbit, Red Rabbit) will involve numerous venues across town. (The script, by an Iranian writer, will be performed every Monday, read cold by a different actor, primarily at different venues, over a several-month period.) The third show of the season (The Wonderful World of Dissocia) will be produced at Atlas Performing Arts Center, presumably allowing those Theater Alliance fans who could walk to H Street Playhouse the opportunity to experience another Theater Alliance show.
Theater Alliance has lowered prices and established a “radical hospitality” model, under which, at all previews and at every Thursday night performance, audiences choose their own price for admission. Hovde spoke of an eventual model under which all of the work is subsidized and, like other social programs such as meals for the homeless, the end user (that is, the audience) doesn’t have to pay for a ticket. But, for now, with a competitive ticket price of $25 and with “name your price” every Thursdays, Theater Alliance has factored out expense as an impediment to experiencing its work.
As I said, there is a lot of buzz about whether Anacostia is a (pun intended) bridge too far. I hope not. Broke-ology will be an early test case. Readers of this article will likely have fond memories of something they saw Theater Alliance do at H Street Playhouse.
Will you be crossing the river and checking out their exciting new space?