Washington, D.C. is a town of much renown: it is a government town, a company town, a scandalous town and the political capital of the world. But Washington also has another significant distinction—it is a theatre town.
It is a thriving cultural capital where each season approximately 65 professional theatres in the metropolitan area produce more than 350 productions that run for a total of more than 8,000 performances and play to more than two million audience members. Beyond the numbers, Washington—the theatre town—is more than 200 years old. In 1791 architect Pierre L’Enfant’s plan for the new capital city included a congressional house and a presidential palace connected by a grand avenue lined with academies—and playhouses. More than two hundred years later, on any given night curtains are rising on upwards of 200 performances at theatres in the District, Virginia and Maryland.
And the theatre scene in Washington, D.C. is only getting bigger. Several of the city’s most popular playhouses are responding to the demand for live entertainment through capital improvement campaigns, adding playing spaces, educational facilities and more.
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Having opened in 1971, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts doesn’t have the storied past of the National Theatre, however it has become one of the world’s premiere performance spaces, showcasing the classics in performance art while also fostering new talent. Its roots date back to 1958, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed bipartisan legislation creating a National Cultural Center. The Kennedy Center complex includes two main performance halls, several rehearsal spaces and smaller stages.
The newly renovated Opera House is the main performance space for the Washington National Opera, which performs under the artistic direction of Plácido Domingo. The Center enabled Washington to become an international stage, hosting the American debuts of the Bolshoi Opera and the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, as well as the first U.S. performances by Italy's legendary La Scala opera company.
Festivals are the most popular events at the Kennedy Center. Each September, Washington, D.C. is treated to the Prelude Festival, a two-week gala of performances to open the season. Since 2000, the Kennedy Center has featured the Millennium Stage, which offers free performances every night of the week beginning at 6 p.m. And now, the Kennedy Center is home to a 324-seat family theater, allowing the center to expand its vibrant family and children’s programming.
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Since 1986 the Shakespeare Theatre Company has dedicated itself to becoming the nation’s premier classic theatre. In its 451-seat performance space in the heart of Washington, D.C.'s Pennsylvania Quarter arts district, the Shakespeare Theatre focuses on “works with profound themes, complex characters and heightened language written by Shakespeare, his contemporaries, and those playwrights he influenced.” The Shakespeare Theatre produces five main stage shows at its year-round home in downtown Washington, and two weeks of free Shakespeare at the Shakespeare Theatre "Free For All" each summer at Carter Barron Amphitheatre in Rock Creek Park.
The theatre is expanding its downtown presence with the construction of the Harman Center for the Arts, a new 800-seat playing space slated to open October 1, 2007. The Shakespeare theatre will also continue to operate out of its current facility at the Lansburgh Building, adding to the renaissance of the Penn Quarter with two prime playing spaces.
Folger Shakespeare Theatre
Located on Capitol Hill, the Folger Shakespeare Theatre is the performing arts extension of the Folger Shakespeare Library. The theatre works to engage scholars and artists who present Shakespeare and other period writers’ works both traditionally and in the avant-garde. Performances often include lectures by noted authorities. The Folger also stages premieres that are related to Shakespeare, mimic his style or embody the value system of Elizabethan theatre.
With its name alone, Ford’s Theatre is probably the most famous stage in Washington, D.C. This fame arose from the tragic assassination of President Abraham Lincoln just a few weeks after the end of the Civil War. Ford’s Theatre operates today as a living legacy to Lincoln’s appreciation of theatre. Each season the theatre stages productions that embody the ideals of family life, multiculturalism and national pride.
The Washington Ballet is Washington, D.C.’s only permanent ballet company. Since 1976, when ballet pioneer Mary Day founded the organization, the Washington Ballet has put on annual reviews at the Kennedy Center, the Warner Theatre and the Center for the Arts at George Mason University. The company performs under the direction of acclaimed artistic director Septime Webre, and is well-known for creating a D.C.-based version of The Nutcracker.