There is Too Much Theatre in D.C.

Did I get you to come here and read this, DC theatre people, with the title?  Well I was being slightly misleading.

I think there may be too much theatre in D.C.  But by “in D.C.,” what I mean is just that – inside the District.

And by “too much,” I mean “relative to how little there is outside of DC.”

The local combined metropolitan area, when you include DC, Baltimore and the full scope of the region, is the fourth-largest in the country with 8.7 million people.  There are something like 200 theatre companies in the area, especially when you count in the number of new, small and fringe companies that are putting in an appearance or debut at this year’s Fringe.

But most of them, it seems, perform in the city.

Now, of course, the city is the population and culture axis for the region.  But I think it would be far better and healthier for the community if the theatre would just… spread out.

How many productions are going on downtown at any given time (especially during festival season) or in the immediate Metro-accessible areas like Bethesda and Alexandria?  –Okay, now how many are going on in Fairfax?  Woodbridge?  Gaithersburg?  Columbia?  Bowie?  There’s a decent amount of community theatre and educational theatre way out there in the wild far suburbs, but not so much of the experimental, modern, daring, professional or otherwise diverse theatre which can be found in a seven-mile radius of the Mall.  Outposts like Olney Theatre Center, Rep Stage, 1st Stage and Venus are the exceptions that prove the rule, along with the rare regional tour put on by the likes of Faction of Fools.  I mean, look at this map and compare DC to Fairfax County.  The population of DC is about 600,000; the population of Fairfax County is 1,000,000.

Does no one think that the suburbanites want that kind of theatre?  Are they all expected to come down on the Metro (or try and drive) to catch something other than another community theatre production of Hello, Dolly! (not that there’s anything wrong with Hello, Dolly!)?  Or do they deserve – or suggest a market for – a wider range of accessible choices?

Of course, there are several likely reasons why the theatre companies congregate downtown, most of them to do with economies of scale and the power of a concentrated cultural center.  So I’m not advocating that some companies get “kicked out” and go make their home in Manassas or Upper Marlboro.  Out there where the population is more family-based and spread out, it would be death for most companies to try to put down stakes.

What I’m calling for is more touring.

We have SO MUCH theatre downtown – SO MANY little companies, making original work or doing fresh, innovative and experimental takes on recent or classic works – but it all just stays there.  Lots of these little companies live and die in a short time because they can’t survive just doing two shows a year, each with six performances, trying to attract the attention of the same few thousand patrons and handful of critics who are willing to attend theatres smaller than Woolly or Signature.  (It’s almost like it’s more important to many of the theatre people in DC to get the approbation of their fellow theatre people over getting a wide-ranging and ever-growing audience.)  The spaces they rehearse and perform in are expensive and they’re dependent on the Metro.

So why not take those shows on tour?  Start in D.C., sure, and use the downtown advantages to try and build your reputation and hone your show.  But then bring it all around the region.  You don’t have to drive more than an hour outside the city in any direction; find those underutilized performance halls and other spaces and give those soccer moms and too-poor-to-make-it-downtown-recent-college-grads a taste of your artistry.  If you’ve got a wonderful puppet version of The Tempest, I’m sure there are families in Chantilly who’d love to see it when they see a notice in their local paper, but will never make it downtown to do so (if they even hear about it).  If you’ve got a brilliant in-yer-face multimedia original tragicomedy, I’m sure there are young folks in Ellicott City who’d love to see it, but are too tired after work to slog down into Baltimore, let alone DC.

So I’d love to see a dozen hit Fringe shows do a hurricane tour of one-off performances in various venues circling around the city.  (You all know, after surviving Fringe, that you can break down and set up into a nonstandard space in a hurry.)

Because the situation we have now is like if theatre companies were honeybees in a great big field filled with grasses and dandelions and the occasional shrub, but in the middle is one great glorious flowering cherry tree, and all the bees swarm about that because, well, look at it!  While meanwhile, the rest of the field withers and is ignored.

You small theatre companies have an advantage here over the big-budget, immobile landed giants.  You can make your show transportable, and go to the people instead of forcing them just to come to you.  You can pick up and go and perform in a church in Waldorf or a high school auditorium in Herndon for 50 people and that’s 50 people who wouldn’t have seen your show otherwise.  (Do that a couple times and you could very well double the attendance you had on your downtown run alone.)  Sure, it’ll be tough – very tough – to do, but then again maybe it’ll actually be really easy.  Once upon a time this was how theatre operated, after all – none of this “two months rehearsal, two weekends of performances in one location, and then it’s DONE FOREVER” crap.  If there are people out there who would have seen your show but couldn’t make it to your short run, and there’s some other place nearer to them for you to do it, the show is NOT DONE.  Keep DOING IT.

So don’t let’s have everybody always crowding themselves into U Street, H Street, Penn Quarter and Eastern Market all the time to the exclusion of everywhere else.  Pollinate.  Spread the light.

(Utopian afterthought: wouldn’t it be great if the small theatre companies had a network that allowed them to share outside-the-Beltway resources, helping each other cycle in and out of those outer venues, joining together in advertising to the suburbs and nabbing those Gazette reviews?)

(Final disclaimer: I very well realize that not every theatre company – perhaps not even a majority of them – could really take their shows on the local road like this, but I sincerely believe that far too many of them aren’t even considering it as an option, and there could be a lot more of it.  In other words, think of this as more of a dare than a demand, despite my provocative title.)



  1. There are quite a few volunteer theatre groups working outside the Beltway, like Silver Spring Stage. In our annual One-Act Festival, we will bring 17 plays to the stage from around the world.

    The Festival will take place over three weekends in August: Aug 9-12, Aug 16-19, and Aug 23-26. Each play will run for one of those weekends. Find out more at, and we hope to see you at the Stage!

    1. Silver Spring Stage is awesome and I always want to catch more of the shows there than I do. I think their success with less old-chestnut material, even as a “community theater,” helps show that there is an audience for stuff like your world-sourced One-Act Festival outside of the city center!

  2. I rented a local high school theater (which are often underutilized in summer time) to perform our Fringe show again. It was a blast! I love the idea of people using underutilized performance spaces. For this new space/area, about 90% of our audience was new to the show. Sure, the venue doesn’t have the “coolness factor,” but once the show starts, and if that show is good, the attention is fully focused on what’s happening on stage. People won’t mind sitting in a nontraditional space if they are witnessing captivating, live art. One of the best plays I’ve ever seen took place in a small blackbox theater in folding chairs, with only one small setpiece. Great article!

    1. Thank you! Which Fringe show was it? How hard was it to rent the space and draw an audience? I’d love to hear more about your experience out there.

  3. Joseph Musumeci · · Reply

    A couple of thoughts: a) I find the distinctions we draw between performing arts groups (experimental, chestnutty, professional, community, etc.) often get in the way of useful dialogue. Living in Frederick, MD, where one of three arguably “professional” companies is dying a slow and ugly death and another is struggling with the usual vagaries of space inequity and difficulty in casting in the “:sticks” (the other is a dinner theatre I have only attended once) I can wholeheartedly aver that Silver Spring Stage, for instance, has maintained, over time, a far more “professional” approach and enjoyed more “professional” success than many “professional” companies… I speak as someone who is/was a company member of the Maryland Shakespeare Festival (v1.0 AND 2.0) and has often adjudicated SSS performances – I love them both, but they’re more apples to apples than some would like to admit and the pittance you make performing for some of the “professional” companies doesn’t warrant the title, OR outweigh the media exposure of performing for a high caliber “community” organization. b) As the manager of a venue, I deal with several groups that actually make the “touring” thing work: they have a venue in MoCo (mine) a venue in DC, and a venue in NoVa, and their audiences have learned that each performance will come to “a theatre near you”. On the other hand, with ___ years of designing for outdoor and indoor touring shows under my belt: it sucks. Everything is compromised for the sake of portability, weight, and efficiency, and it too often means that good performances and good writing gets short shrift behind these factors and the exhaustion resulting form companies having to load themselves in.
    c) SO: I am especially enamored of the idea of something like a “bulk Fringe” tour… take 4-8 high-performing fringe shows, (or one-acts – there is a reason that people still write them – they’re fun, they sell,in packages and they are easy to produce in a quality fashion…) and promote them on a tour around the region. Find relatively small, intimate venues, but large enough to provide a “more than Fringe” production gestalt, and bring the quality to the people. Because, believe me, there are plenty of people who would go see a thought-provoking, interesting quirky twenty-minute show, if it were packaged with enough other critical mass to make it feel like an evening out and it came practically to their doorstep in stead of requiring them to risk the least interesting mass transit in the world or the worst streets in the east. For the record – i am doing my First Evah Fringe show this year, and am very stoked about it. I think ti would be brilliant fun to find other Fringe shows and put on a triumphant fringe tour.

    I’m in.

    1. Thank you for that thought-provoking response. I have some more lengthy reactions which I will post tomorrow, but two quick things:
      1) Which show are you doing, this First Evah one?
      2) Do you think a mini-Fringe would work? Since most Fringe shows are 60-75 minutes, a bill of short one-acts couldn’t really be assembled from a wide range of Fringe shows alone. But what about some friendly venue hosting an entire day with say a half dozen hourlong Fringe hits, with intermissions, carnival-like stuff, etc, in between? Or is that too out there an idea?

  4. Joseph Musumeci · · Reply

    And holy c___ that was a lot of typos.

  5. The Victorian Lyric Opera Company is performing at Fringe, but it’s a remount of a production of “Trial by Jury” that performed in Rockville, Md. last month. The advantage of Fringe is that it allows the suburban companies to tap into the urban DC market, and perhaps some of those patrons will follow us out to the suburbs next season to see us perform again!

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