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Arts & Theater

Thinking Outside the Black Box


Larger Theatre Companies With Buildings

Requesting a larger company’s actual stage is a huge ask, and often not financially practical for small companies or independent productions. But there are other ways to utilize existing theatre buildings, thinking beyond the actual stage. The bar, the lobby, the rehearsal rooms, even the bathrooms—they already exist as a place where theatre-going audiences like to attend, so why not fill the entire building with innovative programming? Producing a smaller scale show as an auxillary offering to what is happening in the main theatre can lead to great results.

I recently produced a headphone audio installment from Murmuration, a Dublin-based theatre collective, in the lobby of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. We ran the show in the hours leading up to Woolly’s 8:00 performance, which was beneficial for my company because we got exposure to new audiences, and likewise our host at Woolly was happy to offer audiences a broader way to meaningfully engage with their building. Additionally, I produced the previously mentioned show, The Smuggler, in the newly renovated lobby bar at Round House Theatre. I pitched the play there as a way for Round House to show off their newly minted bar/cafe, keep audiences in their building longer, and provide a performance venue for my company. We ran the show between productions at Round House, so when tech was happening inside the theatre for Round House’s next show, audiences were in the lobby engaging with our Solas Nua production. The doors to the public would have otherwise been shut for both our companies, but programming our show during this time offered Round House audiences more engagement in the building as well as a venue for Solas Nua. Both of these experiences showcased how large and small companies can mutually benefit from collaboration and broaden their communities.

Shifting Landscapes

The need for site-specific work is becoming one of financial necessity, not just creative ingenuity. In the past ten years, the DC Area has lost the Logan Fringe Arts Space, Fort Fringe, Warehouse Theater, Flashpoint (which had a theatre, visual arts gallery, and dance studio), and H St Playhouse. There are more theatres set to close in the immediate future, and no current plan from the city for new arts venues to be constructed. While I’ve found success making my theatrical bed out-of-doors, DC city leaders need to believe and invest in affordable permanent homes for the arts.

I’m also torn between two realities. On the one hand, I’m romantic about bringing surprising, memorable experiences to places audiences don’t expect. On the other hand, I’m exhausted from the slog of reinventing new performance spaces. Last season at Solas Nua, all of our shows were hosted by fully staffed venues with box offices, front of house staffs, a cafe, and sweet, sweet air conditioning. The summer before, I lost fifteen pounds in a month setting up an outdoor show every night in the DC summer heat. How can I not do that again? And yet, I’m currently location scouting for multiple shows next year that I’m producing in nontraditional spaces. Not being tied to a building leads me to not only ask the fundamental artistic director questions of “why this play and why now?” but also “where this play?” That seemingly small shift of interrogation opens up worlds of possibilities.

Small companies are where risk and innovation are fostered, and they have a meaningful role to play for an industry currently searching to reinvent itself.

I think small companies have the most to gain from embracing nontraditional spaces. Nearly without fail, these site-specific productions have not only been the most financially successful for my organization, but they are also the shows that are still talked about amongst our audiences. Years after the final performances, the plays I’m asked if I will ever bring back are: “that one in the house,” “that one on the pier,” “that one in the cocktail lounge.” The full production budget for these shows was only what many large companies in DC might spend on the scenic design alone, but the productions have shown that artistry is priceless. The ability to bring productions out into the community is a unique strength that traditional brick-and-mortar theatres don’t have because they are locked into a geographical location. Furthermore, as large companies face the financial burden of keeping substantial overhead bills paid, itinerant companies can provide a new, flexible producing model. I deeply value our large institutions; they provide anchors for our artistic ecosystems. But small companies are where risk and innovation are fostered, and they have a meaningful role to play for an industry currently searching to reinvent itself.

This article isn’t an exhaustive resource. There are so many other amazing people and companies working in this model: Rorscharch Theatre, a fellow small DC company, has found great success by making “magic in rough spaces.” Anu Productions, an Irish company that exclusively makes unconventional work, blends location, theatre, dance, and visual art to create innovative exchanges with their audiences. There are certainly others. I’ve also written a longer guide that has more nitty gritty details like renting equipment, getting permits for locations, and many of the other aspects of producing that you’ll need to consider when in a nontraditional space. Hopefully these recommendations are helpful for reimagining and rethinking where theatre can happen in our cities. While renting out a fully staffed performing arts venue certainly has its benefits, thinking outside the black box can offer artists and audiences unforgettable experiences and can redefine our collective imagination of what, and where, theatre can be.





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