After fifteen and a half years and more than ten thousand articles, DC Theatre Scene will cease publishing on December 31, 2020.
After December 31, there will be no more reviews, no more articles, no more theater news.
“We know this decision will affect many people, and I wish we could have continued to serve,” DCTS Editor and Publisher Lorraine Treanor said. “I was in the midst of preparing for my retirement after 14 years at the helm, and DCTS began recruiting. When the theaters shut down in March, revenue immediately dried up and this publication has been surviving on a mix of volunteer and paid staff since then. Facing at least another 8 months without revenue made the situation untenable.
“I couldn’t ask someone to take over the without paying an adequate salary. And I couldn’t ask others to continue volunteering their work.”
The website will remain available at least through 2021 in order make the work accessible to everyone. After that, Lorraine Treanor said, she isn’t sure. “We’ll have a little bit of money left over at the end of this year to pay for a year’s online service. [Further continuance online] will depend on how much money we have after that.”
DCTS has asked its past donors to redirect their generosity to theaters and theater makers in need , Lorraine Treanor said.
Walter “Ronnie” Ruff founded DC Theatre Scene – then called DC Theater Reviews – in June of 2005 with the avowed purpose of providing coverage for small theaters, which were at that time receiving short shrift from mainline publications. The site’s first reviews were of offerings from American Century Theater, Solas Nua, Studio SecondStage, Omaemoda Productions, and NobleHeart. Ruff, a specialist in computer hardware with a gift for website design and a taste for theater,wrote most of the early reviews and articles.
Early in the site’s existence, Ruff asked Lorraine Treanor, who had done work with Potomac Stages and the late Brian Dragonuk, to help expand and professionalize his efforts. Lorraine brought in theater maven Joel Markowitz, who had been organizing theater outings for The Ushers. The trio expanded DCTS’ mission to include all professional theater in the DC area, and recruited writers from Footlights, an organization of knowledgeable and enthusiastic theater patrons. Debbie Minter Jackson, Rosalind Lacy, and Steven McKnight all joined DCTS around that time. Jackson and McKnight continue to write for DCTS.
“I knew we were on our way when Shakespeare Theatre granted us press credentials” to review Titus Andronicus, Lorraine Treanor said. Shakespeare was the last major DC-area company to allow DCTS reviewers into its theater.
As part of its growth, DCTS changed its name (the original name was uncomfortably close to the name of a print publication then in existence) and incorporated as a DC non-profit, 501(c)(3) corporation. Shortly after, Ruff married and moved with his bride to Austin, Texas, leaving Lorraine Treanor in the position of Editor and Publisher.
DCTS continued to expand, enlisting such professional writers as Jayne Blanchard, Alex Kafka, Roy Maurer, and Missy Frederick, among others, and theater artists such as Christopher Henley, John Bavoso, Susan Galbraith, Brett Steven Abelman and John Geoffrion, among others. In all, 220 writers have contributed articles, reviews and news stories to DCTS. In the earlier part of DCTS’ life, actor, playwright and theatrical agent Richard Seff covered New York theater for the site. Critic Jonathan Mandell now covers New York theater for DCTS.
The site scored interviews with some of the top theater talent in the world, including Edward Albee, David Ives, and Terrence McNally. Michael Kahn and Stacy Keach both wrote extended series for DCTS, detailing the director’s and the actor’s process, respectively. And DCTS also interviewed a uniquely Washington theater kind of guy – the character actor and presidential candidate Fred Thompson (R. – Tenn). Thompson told the story of his first screen test – for the role of himself in the movie Marie, about a whistleblower he defended after his work in the Watergate hearings was over. As he watched the result with the legendary producer Francis Ford Coppola, the director explained, “that’s Fred Thompson.”
“Nah,” Coppola said. “That’s [Tennessee Governor] Blanton.” The director tried to explain that the actor he was looking at was the real Fred Thompson. Coppola wasn’t having any of it.
DC Theatre Scene’s coverage of the first DC Fringe Festival was spotty (Lorraine Treanor produced two shows in the first Fringe herself, limiting the time she had to arrange coverage for other shows) but it covered most of the 2007 Fringe and all of the subsequent Fringes, twice in collaboration with DC Metro Theatre Arts. The site eventually drew much of its staff from its Fringe crews, including longtime mainstays Hunter Styles, Ben Demers, who is now a member of DCTS’ Board of Directors, and Bavoso, who in addition to being a reviewer is a notable DC playwright. Another early Fringe reviewer for DCTS was Miranda Rose, now a playwright with a national reputation.
DCTS expanded beyond its website horizons when it pioneered the Gary Maker Award, given annually to an audience member who supported theater in the most noteworthy way. Lorraine Treanor was quick to establish that the Maker Award was not to be given for financial contributions for theater. Rather, it was to go to the person (or couple) who supported DC area theater in a personal, hands-on way, as Maker himself did in his time. David Tannous won the first award; the 2019 Award, the last given, went to Louis Altarescu and (posthumously) Alan Friedman.
DCTS also made an annual presentation at the Smithsonian Institute for three years, unveiling the season to come, with recommendations.
Lorraine Treanor established the site’s journalistic standards early. “We decided right away that we were never going to be a bulletin board,” she said, referring to the practice of some journals, which printed press releases verbatim. “We got a blizzard of press releases but we never just printed them. Each was assigned to a writer, who was responsible for fact-checking, supplementing information where necessary, and organizing the text in a way that our readers would understand and enjoy.”
Under Lorraine Treanor, DCTS would develop a distinct ethos. “We insisted that our reviewers be completely honest,” she said. “If a show was not good, our reviewers were encouraged to say so. We didn’t countenance snide or personal attacks, but our writers wrote about the shortcomings of productions or individual performances when they thought it was merited. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Lorraine Treanor’s position on this issue led to a break with Markowitz, whose “Theatre Schmooze” columns were among the site’s most popular. Markowitz believed that the site should celebrate the hard work and artistry of theatermakers, rather than point out flaws. He left to join Maryland Theatre Guide, and later co-founded DC Metro Theatre Arts with his brother. Markowitz, who died in 2018, received the Gary Maker Award from DCTS for his contributions to area theater.
DCTS had a robust readership throughout most of its existence. Over the last four years, the site averaged over a million visits and about 535,000 distinct viewers annually.
Notwithstanding the readership, financial issues buffeted the company throughout its fifteen-year existence. Annual DCTS revenues, which came mostly from advertising supplemented by grants and donations from generous supporters, never exceeded $40,000. The expense of maintaining the site’s large archival database is significant, and the site never finished its fiscal years more than a few thousand dollars in the black.
The marginal nature of the financial operation caught up with DCTS when Covid struck. All advertising halted in mid-March, although it has come back in a limited way. Notwithstanding the contributions of a few generous donors, Lorraine had to ask the staff to work without compensation. Many did, as did the site’s IT specialist, David Wolfpaw.
The coronavirus and the financial challenges it brought about were a factor in the site’s demise, but it wasn’t the only one. “Whether or not we survived the pandemic, I knew that we needed some leadership changes at DCTS,” said Lorraine, who will turn 77 next February. “I had been putting in seventy-hour weeks for years, and, although I still love our theatre community, this is just not a pace I’m able keep up any more. But the revenues were simply not enough to attract a full-time successor, which is what the site needed. At this point, it’s better to embrace our accomplishments and stand down, rather than push on in some unsatisfying way.”
I asked Lorraine what she intended to do, once she no longer worked on DC Theatre Scene.
“What I’ve done all my life,” she replied. “The next right thing.”