Movin’ on up

Often overshadowed by New York, D.C. is hardly perceived as a hot spot for theater. However, countless national awards and successes tell a different story. The D.C. area is home to more than 75 unique, cutting-edge theater companies and venues-the problem is that nobody knows about half of them.

But that may be about to change. In the last decade, Washington’s theater community has steadily gained momentum; now, some of the most popular spaces are overcrowded and insufficient to satisfy audience needs. Faced with unprecedented demand and a newfound ability to fulfill them, venues such as Signature Theatre, Woolly Mammoth, Arena Stage, Studio Theatre and the Shakespeare Theatre are taking the opportunity to build up and out, bringing the entire community along for the ride.

Presently located in Arlington, Va., Signature Theatre’s future 46,000-square-foot space (which currently houses a former automobile bumper-plating factory) has been developing since 2002. A four-story structure in Shirlington is set to open May 2006.

“I think it will be a much improved space for the artists,” said Sam Sweet, managing director for the theater. “(Our current space) is crowded, it’s cramped, it’s not something that provides a great deal of amenities.”

Signature is not the only company feeling claustrophobic these days. Woolly Mammoth, known for innovation and envelope-pushing, opens at 641 D St. in less than a week. Coinciding with the May 10 world premiere of “Big Death and Little Death,” – the first of five Woolly world premieres this year – is the launch of a 265-seat theater more than six years in the making.

Company cofounder Howard Shalwitz (who is also directing “Big Death and Little Death”) is of the same mind as Sweet. “We just sort of exhausted the possibilities of what we could do in that space,” he said. “(The new space) really gives us room to grow artistically, room to grow (in our work’s) scope and scale and room for our audience to grow.”

All this growth, however, has not come easily. Signature’s new theater – the first public-private venture ever undertaken by Arlington County – is also its most expensive, cashing in around $13 million, while Woolly exceeded its original fundraising to rake in more than $8.5 million. So where exactly is all this money going?

“Preserving what’s best about Signature while getting rid of the obstacles that make life difficult,” Sweet said.

Shalwitz sees the cost as a small price to pay for groundbreaking art. “Our vision is to become the epicenter for challenging new theatre in America. When we do a new play at Woolly Mammoth, our goal is to give it the best production it will ever have.” Shalwitz said that the money is about the art, and the art is about the audience. “Really, the space is about the whole community coming together around new work.” And other area theatres have proven that new space can send a welcome breath of fresh air to a community.

Sweet explained that its current space limits Signature’s community partnerships. “It doesn’t give us an opportunity to really come up with programs that will make our work more accessible to a broader cross-section of the community.”

Partnering up with Arlington, however, will give Signature the chance to enhance community theater programs and provide inexpensive tickets to younger patrons.

In fact, some believe that the recent citywide growth of the D.C. arts scene is hardly coincidental. “Frankly, as a city, we were way overdue … it’s not so much that ‘gee, we’re all doing it at the same time;’ it’s, ‘why didn’t some of us do it sooner?’ I think that we’re just catching up on a process that should have been started many years before,” Shalwitz said,

So what does this catching up mean for the future of Washington theater? The minds behind the movement are optimistic. “I think the audience will see a better product,” Sweet said.

Shalwitz agreed, “I know people’s mouths are just gonna drop.”

The new Woolly Mammoth Theatre is at 641 D St., N.W. Signature Theater will open at the end of South 28th Street in Arlington, Va., in early 2006.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.