What does it take to start a professional theatre company in our area, which already has a large number of companies vying for performance space and audiences? One person who knows firsthand is Heather Benjamin, a familiar face in our region for the past 15 years, first as an actor and, starting in 2012, as a director.
Having her own company was always on her mind, she told us, and, in 2014, she began putting together the infrastructure for Perisphere Theater. She serves as its Artistic Director and directs their debut production, David Mamet’s Oleanna, starring Nicole Ruthmarie and Greg Thompson.
What is the greatest challenge to starting a new theatre company in our area?
One challenge is that although D.C. is a healthy market for theater, there are now so many small companies that it is a challenge to stand out. We have a strong mission and one that differentiates us, so I believe that the quality of our work and our choices of material will show us to be a successful addition to the area theater scene.
The greatest challenge, though, is probably funding. It’s expensive to make theater: paying for space, actors and designers, script rights, and so on. There is high demand for performance space in the D.C. area, so you need to be prepared to place your rental deposit as much as a year in advance of any dates on which you would want to produce. That adds to the time it takes to launch a company.
One of our core business values at Perisphere is working within our means and growing sustainably, increasing our investment in more complex design elements and a longer season as those things become possible.
What sets you apart from other companies in the area?
Our vision is to create compelling theater that expands the way DC audiences view the past, the present, and one another. We will produce the best plays from all time periods, and mount at least one show per season directly related to history or social themes.
We are also committed to holding open auditions regularly to provide frequent opportunities for new artists to work with the company, rather than having a core acting company; making available roles that reflect the diversity of our city; and encouraging in people of all ages a love of history. Creative education and outreach will form a major part of our activities as the company grows.
May 20 – June 5, 2016
Logan Fringe Arts Space
Details and tickets
Why did you choose to open with Oleanna?
We looked at a number of plays, focusing on a small cast and simple set as a practical matter for a new company, and staging David Mamet’s Oleanna seemed like a dynamic choice with which to launch. This is a time when colleges are continually in the news for stories related to sexual harassment, racial tension, and in general a major disconnect between students and administrators. Everyone sees something different in this play, and it raises a lot of thorny questions, so we hope that audiences will find it an exciting and challenging night at the theater, just as it was in 1992.
Who have been your biggest supporters so far?
People have been so kind in sharing their advice and expertise with me since the very beginning. Generous guidance has been provided over the past two years by Perisphere’s cadre of advisers (Jenny Leopold, Joshua Morgan, Kevin O’Connell, and Bob Ashby) as well as by friends from American Century Theater, Jack Marshall and Paige Gold.
There have been so many other friends and donors who have expressed moral support, as well as crucial financial support, as we’ve dealt with the challenges of starting up. Friends and family have expressed a lot of faith in the project and eagerness to see things happen, and that’s been very motivating.
Also, our entire board and staff have done a great deal to get the company to this point, and for that I am deeply grateful.
Perisphere Theater’s plans after Oleanna:
From Nov. 30-Dec. 11, we’ll be doing Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen in the same black box space at the Trinidad Theatre – Logan Fringe Arts Space at Capital Fringe. For future seasons, we’ll be doing a wide range of plays, from classic drama by Arthur Miller to contemporary work by Suzan-Lori Parks.