“How to Succeed at Olney Without Really Trying,” is how Jason Loewith described his game plan for Olney Theatre Center, the venerable Montgomery County institution whose reins he took over recently. “Bad joke,” he added, almost instantly.
Indeed, it’s pretty clear that Loewith really is trying hard. After all, he was squeezing in a phone interview on his drive to a rehearsal last month. How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which he directed, is the first show of the first season that will be entirely programmed by him. The production opened to strong reviews. In The Washington Post, Nelson Pressley wrote, “Any good production of this durably engineered musical will slap a silly grin across your face, and that’s what’s happening with the high-spirited revival now at the Olney Theatre Center.” On DCTS.com, John Dellaporta raved that it “is a very smart production of a very smart musical, and this intelligence is evident in every pore.”
How To Succeed…, Loewith told me, “kicks off our ‘Classic Series.’” And what exactly is this “Classic Series”? To explain, he described the new way Olney will be offering subscriptions to each season, which sounded to me like a creative way to deal with the post-subscription landscape facing theatre all over the country, as well as a way of acknowledging the eclectic aspect of Olney’s programming. The initiative is a “new way” to offer an “easy and more flexible experience” for the Olney subscriber. (Olney, for a while now, has offered a calendar-year subscription rather than the more common model that begins in the Fall and runs through the end of Summer.)
Loewith is splitting the nine-play season into three bundles. He is “curating the season so that if you really love the classics,” you can subscribe only to those. If you want to focus on family-friendly material, that’s another available option. A third, “new play” series will include a pair of world premieres as well as the nearly new Avenue Q. Olney isn’t the first theatre ever to let subscribers choose among a menu of offerings, but the sorting of options by genre strikes me as clever.
“The changing community in Montgomery County is why I believe it’s going to work,” Loewith predicted. The classic season is a way for the theatre to “stay loyal to the Olney friends, some of whom have been going to Olney for sixty years.” At the same time, he “can’t ignore the fact that, over the last 10 to 15 years,” Olney and surrounding exurbs have become “an epicenter for families who want you to provide a cultural experience and entertainment for all ages.”
Citing audience numbers for some of the recent warhorse musicals that Olney has done (“20,000 people came to The Sound of Music; 18,000 came to The King and I”), Loewith cautioned that “we will be less relevant if that’s all we do.” There are “culture vultures who live in and around Olney,” and they are interested in the “much more adventurous things we do.”
Loewith’s long-time predecessor Jim Petosa oversaw an impressive expansion of the Olney physical plant and a transition from Olney as a traditional summer-stock theatre into a year-round organization. The label “summer stock” might not do full justice, however, to a theatre well known for impressive quality and casts. (Former Washington Post critic Richard L. Coe never tired of telling the story of seeing Helen Hayes on the Olney stage from his vantage point behind a tree on the set.) During the 70s and 80s, you could see your share of plays by Philip Barry, Garson Kanin, and Agatha Christie (a lot of Agatha Christie), but you could also see a stage adaptation of Crime and Punishment and edgy plays like Peter Nichols’ A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. I saw Arena Stage stalwart Richard Bauer spend his summer vacation there playing Uncle Vanya. And Olney made an annual tradition of doing a play by contemporary Irish writer Hugh Leonard. Olney is where Leonard’s Tony-winning play Da got its start [and where it was reprised in 2010].
What Loewith is programming isn’t wildly different from the sort of balance Petosa attempted. “The difference is that Petosa previously was trying to sell every one of the plays as a package. If you wanted to see Cinderella, you also got Spring Awakening. However, we are in a time when people are far less likely to subscribe to a large number of productions. We were looking around at the theatre industry and wanted to come up with a solution to keep Olney vibrant and alive. We are looking at the community around us and asking how we can be a leading cultural force in the county and beyond. We want to do as huge a variety of work as we possibly can, pursuing it with extraordinary rigor and diligence whether it’s The King and I or a world premiere.”
Loewith continued that “because we are not surrounded by other entertainment options where we are, we are in the fortunate situation of being the only game in town. For some of our audience, we will be the only theatre they will see in any given year. We want to serve that community in the best way we can, not just with big budget musicals, or with brand new plays, or with classics. For 2014, the gamble is paying off. We have 20-25% more subscribers than we did in 2013.”
At this point, Loewith made his “How to Succeed at Olney” joke (I thought it was pretty good, his less generous evaluation notwithstanding), and we spoke about what attracted him to the musical that will kick-off his first full season. “I have a fetish for work about The American Dream. I don’t think there’s any musical that more directly talks about that in so witty and hilarious a way. I am attracted to its satirical bent. I wanted a comedy that a lot of people wanted to come to.”
Last season’s Spring Awakening, which Loewith described as an excellent production, “turned off a large number of our traditional patrons. It’s been a lot of work to recover their trust over the year. I didn’t want to throw them something crazy. By the same token, I wanted something that would challenge me as an artist, that is an excellent piece of literature. It’s one of only eight musicals to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. I was attracted to its structure, its intelligence, the potential for tons of fun. And I knew I could cast it amazingly well. Whenever you think of doing a musical, you have to be able to cast it in a great way.”
“I had just been working with Sam,” Loewith continued, speaking about Sam Ludwig, who plays the lead role of J. Pierrepont Finch, the role that won Tonys for Robert Morse in the original production and for Matthew Broderick in a revival that had a pre-Broadway run at the Kennedy Center. (Daniel Radcliffe starred in the more recent Broadway revival. He didn’t win a Tony.) Musical Director Christopher Youstra “and I were tossing musical ideas back and forth” and they realized that Ludwig would be a great fit for Finch. These three had worked together at Adventure Theatre MTC on Big Nate, Loewith and Youstra’s musical based on the comic strip. And “we knew that we could assemble enough wonderful talent in the room to make it come alive,” so the choice was made. “I love the love story, the show is so quirky and fun and surprising and driven and eventually redeeming in hilarious ways.”
HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING
Extended! Closes March 2, 2014
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd.
2 hours, 45 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $31 – $63
Wednesdays thru Sundays
On the subject of casting, I asked about Loewith’s attitude toward casting locally. Loewith replied that he thinks it’s hugely important to cast locally, as well as to hire directors and assemble design teams from the area, as much as possible. “I spent eight years in Chicago, and I watched the community nurture emerging artists” to the point where Chicago became a formidable force nationally. “I want to follow that model. DC is on the verge of becoming a community with as much depth of talent. I want us to nurture and work with as many local artists as we possibly can. When there is a need to hire from out-of-town, we will view it as an opportunity to learn” from the out-of-towners as well as to “enliven the local pool. I will never see only out-of-town artists.” To illustrate that the “track record for 2014” is strong regarding local hiring, Loewith said that last year the company spent $50-60,000 on travel and housing, but that this year they will spend less than a third of that.
Speaking of finances, didn’t I hear that Olney was suffering under a pretty substantial debt? Where does all that stand? “We still have a lot of debt,” Loewith noted. “We paid off in 2013 about a quarter of a million dollars of long-term debt and about $150,000 of short term debt. We still have a little under $6 million to go.” Olney has partnered with Eagle Bank and has secured a mortgage-type loan that is more manageable than what they had been dealing with. “It’s a much more stable situation than it was previously. It’s still challenging, but it’s a slow and steady climb.”
So, any regrets about taking the new job? “No regrets,” Loewith said, although he also admitted that, when he worked at the National New Play Network, it was a more relaxed existence, with a lot more evenings free. But “that’s a fine sacrifice.”
Then, it was out of his car, into the rehearsal, and on to making Olney succeed with How to Succeed, whose run was just extended to March 2, 2014.