Ten Years and Counting, DC Theatre Scene is Still Going Strong
One June evening in 2005, a woman named Noelle Wilson walks into the Gunston Arts Center’s Theater II to watch a production of The American Century Theater’s The Emperor Jones. She watches ATC’s take on the seldom-produced O’Neill play, notes the performances of Bus Howard in the title role and John Tweel and the other theater artists. She makes a couple of other observations, and goes home.
Eventually she begins to write, and when she is finished she transmits it – probably by e-mail – to a man named Walter Ruff. Ruff, who goes by the sobriquet “Ronnie”, is not the stereotypical theater critic or editor. He is an enormous man, with a shaved head; if you were forced to guess his occupation it would probably be “bouncer” or “retired NFL Offensive Tackle.” He is in fact a computer software specialist, and he is in love with theater.
He has an idea: a website devoted to theater. He’s not the first person to imagine it. Brad Hathaway’s Potomac Stages has been running for a couple of years. But Hathaway’s operation is a one-man show: he reviews everything himself, and posts with the help of his wife, Teddie. Ruff has grander ambitions. He will engage a fleet of reviewers, and feature small theatre companies hitherto ignored by the print media. In addition to himself and Wilson, he recruits Luke Edward and Juliet Moser to write reviews.
Ruff calls his operation “DC Theatre Reviews.” This annoys some people in the theater community; a few months earlier, a print publication called “Washington Theatre Reviews” had opened, and some folks think that people will be confused. This objection simply doesn’t register with Ronnie, who considers other publishers not competitors but colleagues engaged in a collective effort to bring people to theater. He frequently notes their success– linking, for example, to Potomac Stages for having the best guide to 2005’s Page-to-Stage Festival.
Ronnie gives Wilson’s review the remarkable title “Plays that Say Something: Giving the Emperor Jones a Chance to Speak” and runs it on June 23, 2005 – exactly ten years ago today. Wilson delves deeply into the play’s contemporary relevance. In keeping with an ethos Ruff urged on his reviewers, she notes the technical work done by set designer Thomas B. Kennedy and costume designer Rip Claassen. She does not mention any of the actors.
Five days later Ronnie runs the second review, which he writes himself – Solas Nua’s Disco Pigs, by Enda Walsh.
* * *
In its earliest incarnation, DC Theatre Reviews was a blog – the ruminations of Ronnie and his reviewers on local theater. He published whenever he was inclined; several days might pass without an update. The first fifty-six articles were all reviews, often of work from companies that are no longer whinnying with us: Firebelly, Didactic, Trumpet Vine, NobleHeart, Meat and Potatoes, Journeyman, Charter. American Century Theater was a frequent subject. They plan to close their doors this August.
When DC Theatre Reviews ran a news article, it was usually because Ronnie noticed something in some other news source. “Tboy Learns of Spooky Disappointment,” was a typical story. After noting that Trey Graham’s blog gave details of Spooky Action’s failed effort to find a home, Ronnie simply linked to the blog. We weren’t getting press releases because we weren’t on any theater’s radar.
* * *
I wish I could say that I learned about DC Theatre Reviews because of my assiduous attention to theater. That isn’t it at all, though.
If you’re like me – that is to say, if you’re a guy – you’ll understand me when I say that I first became involved with this theater enterprise because of my wife. Here’s what happened:
Lorraine had undertaken a massive effort to revise and revive a 1950s Broadway musical, and had taken it as far as the Chicago Stages Festival, a venue for works in process. She hadn’t been satisfied with the results and was sort of at loose ends.
She loved local theater but wished it was marketed better. She frequently complained that area theater needed a “gateway site” which would introduce potential audiences to the wide variety of theater in this town, and to the possibilities which awaited them.
One evening she told me that she wanted to see a production of something called Experiment with an Air Pump at someplace called Journeyman Theatre. I had work the next day so I didn’t go. I told her that I wouldn’t wait up for her.
I woke up at 2 AM and realized that Lorraine wasn’t there. I called the theater – maybe I had gotten it mixed up and she was not seeing Experiment with an Air Pump but Angels in America Parts I and II. But I got voice mail, of course.
By 3 AM I was really worried. Had she been in an accident? I called the police stations around the theater, without success. I tried the hospitals, and then, with increasing dread, the morgues.
Lorraine sauntered in around five thirty. She had found her gateway site. Deborah Kirby, Journeyman’s Artistic Director, introduced her to a man named Ronnie Ruff. They went to the House of Pancakes and talked for hours about what DC Theatre Reviews did, and what it could do. She wanted to help. And for her first service, she would find a reviewer for the Journeyman show. (Ronnie was doing some marketing for Journeyman and thought that it would be a conflict for him to review). That reviewer would be me.
When I lived in Chicago I had subscribed to Steppenwolf, and I had seen shows at Arena Stage and Round House here. But I had no familiarity with DC’s smaller stages. I figured that it would be like good community theater. I knew community theater, since I had acted in it and served as a judge for the WATCH awards.
Boy, did I dial a wrong number. Experiment, which featured the marvelous Lindsay Allen and future Helen Hayes Award winner Andy Brownstein, was fabulous. And so were the next nineteen shows I reviewed, from Monkeyboy at Charter to Fair Ladies at a Game of Poem Cards at Rorschach to Two Queens, One Castle at MetroStage to The Story at African Continuum Theatre. And on and on and on.
How can I be a critic if I have nothing to criticize? I felt like a fraud, shoveling out the praise. It was actually a relief when my twenty-first show turned out to be a stinker. It gave me a chance to talk about what makes a bad show, as opposed to a good show.
Since then, the ratio has been pretty much the same: twenty good shows to one bad show.
* * *
DC Theatre Reviews began to develop a news desk, and do feature stories. One day Ronnie told me to interview a theater activist by the name of Joel Markowitz. Joel is an intense guy with an almost addicted affection for bad puns. He founded a group of theater-going enthusiasts called the Ushers, and organized trips to area theaters and to New York. I discovered that we came from the same town and shared an enthusiasm for the benighted Buffalo Sabres hockey team.
I wrote an article called “The Rise of Joel Markowitz’s House of Usher.” That was on March 29, 2006. Two months later Markowitz was part of DC Theatre Reviews. He wrote long columns full of colorful observations and awful puns. He won an enormously enthusiastic following, many of whom would write in with comments. Joel would comment on the comments. Hellzapoppin’!
At that point Lorraine had taken on a formal position as marketing manager for DC Theatre Reviews. She and Joel recruited new writers, the old ones having fallen by the wayside. Debbie Jackson, a playwright and actor, Steven McKnight, a lawyer with a ferocious appetite for theater, and Rosalind Lacy, a devotee of Latin theater, joined the team. So did Fiona Zublin, who later left us to write for, among others, the Washington Post.
Joel has left us, too, to found his own theater website, DC MetroTheaterArts, but while he was with us he contributed significantly both to the company’s growth and to its growing ethos. To DC Theatre Reviews, theater was more than business. It was also fun.
* * *
But it was business, too. It had to be, or else the theaters would not treat us seriously. Arena Stage joined the small stages in welcoming our reviews early on. But some theaters were more cautious. After all, anybody could start a blog. And if you could start a blog, you could claim to be a theater critic. Would the Wizards give you two free tickets if you claimed to be an internet sports reporter? [No. At least not then.] So we had to prove ourselves. Ronnie turned over editorial responsibilities to Lorraine, who obsessively improved our writing, sometimes against the reviewer’s (well, all right, my) will.
We knew we were in when the Shakespeare Theatre Company and the Kennedy Center let us cover their stuff. I saw Mame at the Kennedy Center on June 1, 2006, but didn’t get to review Titus Andronicus until April of 2007. After that, though, it was smooth sailing. Every professional company from Baltimore to Arlington found room for us.
And in 2012, we were honored that Michael Kahn, Artistic Director of Shakespeare Theatre company, wrote an 8 week series on directing: Stage Interlude.
To help ensure our stability – and, frankly, to make ourselves eligible for grants and tax-deductible contributions – we incorporated as a DC non-profit, and obtained tax deductible 501(c)(3) status, in 2007.
We also changed our name. We weren’t just writing reviews any more. We were now a larger thing. We were “DC Theatre Scene.” So that became our new name. Friends of Washington Theatre Reviews were also pleased.
* * *
Summer of 2007 was also when Ronnie Ruff fell in love – not with a show, but with a beautiful woman from Austin, Texas. He gave up his job to be with her. He also gave up DC Theatre Scene. After providing intensive training, he gave the keys to the website to Lorraine. And then he took off.
* * *
The rise of theater festivals provided a great opportunity for DCTS and its writers. Debbie went to the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown in 2005, and so enchanted us with her account that we have sent reviewers to the Festival ever since. When the Source Festival began, we regularly sent a reviewer. We covered some, but not all, of the Hip-Hop Festival and the DC Black Theatre Festival.
The first Capital Fringe Festival was in 2006. For the couple of years, we reviewed only a few shows, but we invited the artists to talk about what they were doing. In 2008, though, we reviewed most of the productions, and from 2009 on, every one.
Covering the Fringe provided an unexpected side benefit: we uncovered a fresh cache of good writers from among the people who wanted to review the Festival. One of them was the brilliant young playwright and essayist Hunter Styles, who became a DC Theatre Scene mainstay until he moved out of town for the writing opportunities. The Fringe was the gateway for many other fine writers – Ben Demers, who is now on our Board of Directors, Jennifer Clements, Jon Boughtin, Kelly McCorkendale, and others.
Writers came from everywhere. Jeff Walker offered to write a story about the Kennedy Center’s perennial, Shear Madness, and became a regular reviewer. The veteran freelance journalist Keith Loria came to write features and discovered that he was a gifted reviewer of children’s theater. As the Washington National Opera grew in stature and ambition, Lorraine realized she needed an opera reviewer. Susan Galbraith showed up. When Christopher Henley retired as Artistic Director of WSC Avant Bard to help care for his suddenly growing family, he discovered that writing for DCTS was a good way to share his encyclopedic knowledge of DC theater without leaving his house.
We decided to pay our writers when we got an expression of interest from Jayne Blanchard, who was at that point the senior reviewer for the Washington Times. The Times was – there is no other way to put this – going through bad times, and Jayne was looking for a new home. It would be ridiculous, Lorraine concluded, to expect Jayne Blanchard to write for us for free. It would be undignified. So when Jayne joined us, DCTS took a step up in class. We decided to pay our writers. We became a professional theater journal – one for whom Jayne Blanchard writes.
We realized we were becoming a valuable repository for the history of Washington area theatre. In 2011, the Mary Goldwater Awards entrusted us to archive their Theatre Lobby Awards on our site.
* * *
So here we are, ten years – and 6,551 articles and 3420 reviews – after Ms. Wilson first put electron to electron in order to describe ACT’s The Emperor Jones. We generally post one to five articles every weekday; during the Fringe festival, that might go up to thirty or more. We’ve been the beneficiary of a grant from the DC Council on the Arts and the DC Council on the Humanities, supported in our applications by dozens of area theaters.
We’ve supported ourselves (in addition to payroll, there are costs associated with managing the website; you might be surprised how high they are for a site of this size) with advertising from theaters and with donations from our readers. We get about a million visits a year. We’ve relied on the kindness of strangers, and the kindness of you.
The old guard has been here for a while, and it might be possible that you’ll see some changes in the near future. The measure of a stable organization, after all, is that the institution is larger than the people within it. As the next generation steps up, you can expect them to do so smoothly, without losing a beat.
After all, we’ve done this thing for ten years. Why not a hundred?