Though Broadway bustles only four hours north, theatrelovers in Washington, D.C., know they have high-caliber productions and some of the nation’s greatest artists (writing and performing) in their own back yard.
D.C. has also served as a breeding ground for impactful new works on their way to Broadway. Shows including Dear Evan Hansen, Come From Away, Mean Girls and Beetlejuice found their start in D.C., and headed to the Rialto with much fanfare.
With so many local theatre companies operating, finding your next favorite play or musical might be daunting—particularly for out-of-town visitors. While not an exhaustive list, here are five well-known D.C.-area companies to start with:
The John F. Kennedy Center For the Performing Arts
2700 F St NW, Washington, D.C.
ABOUT THE COMPANY: The Kennedy Center presents and produces a wide range of work, from cutting edge performances to international productions to Broadway shows. While the Kennedy Center may be best recognized by its Opera House, the complex actually holds nine presenting spaces. Five of those spaces present theatre programs—homegrown and touring production—that vary in size, from the Broadway Center Stage series to the ongoing small shows like Shear Madness.
THEIR STYLE: Theatre at the Kennedy Center aims to produce and present at an unparalleled quality. “We always strive to bring in the best work being done on Broadway and around the world, and we look to equal that same level of talent with the productions we produce ourselves,” says Jeffrey Finn, Vice President of Theater Producing and Programming. The venue often attracts big Broadway names, as well as top notch national tours.
WHO IT’S RIGHT FOR: Audiences who want a little taste of everything—from theatre to dance to music. Theatrically, those who want to see big name talent in classic and well-known titles in an impressive venue will be satisfied. As America’s living memorial to President John F. Kennedy, the landmark institution attracts visitors each year to more than 2,000 performances, events, and exhibits—which makes it great for any age.
PAST PRODUCTIONS: From the original production of Annie to the 2011 revival of Follies, the Kennedy Center has a long history of producing work that will reach Broadway. In the past two years, Kennedy Center productions have expanded to include the starry Broadway Center Stage series of musicals in semi-staged concerts including Chess, In the Heights, Little Shop of Horrors, and The Music Man. It also offers original productions of American plays, such as this season’s Byhalia, Mississippi.
READ: Casey Cott, Mandy Gonzalez, Christian Borle, Wesley Taylor, More Set for The Who’s Tommy at the Kennedy Center
1101 Sixth Street Southwest, Washington, D.C.
ABOUT THE COMPANY: One of the original resident theatres, Arena Stage was formed 70 years ago and expected to be all things to all people in the community, but “about 25 years ago, we refined our mission to focus on the American artist’s voice,” says Edgar Dobie, executive producer. “That idea informs all of our programming decisions, whether on our stages or in our classrooms.”
THEIR STYLE: “Our style is to create a warm and gracious working environment for our artists, and have that embrace extend to our audiences and everyone that is involved with our programs,” says Dobie.
WHO IT’S RIGHT FOR: Audiences looking to engage with their theatre. The company has a legacy of producing thought-provoking playwrights—like Pulitzer Prize winners Ayad Akhtar and Paula Vogel. Arena often hosts events, panels, talkbacks, and more to instigate conversations between audiences and artists. They also invest in musical theatre, with about one new musical a year and intimate productions of classics.
PAST PRODUCTIONS: Tony winner Dear Evan Hansen had its start here. Other notable productions include A Raisin in the Sun, Oklahoma!, Two Trains Running, and Stanley. The musical Dave premiered here in 2018.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D St NW, Washington, DC
ABOUT THE COMPANY: Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company asks its artists and audiences to engage with the world in unexpected and often challenging ways. The theatre employs an affiliated company of artists committed to its culture of provocation, and who embrace plays that take risks with both style and content.
THEIR STYLE: Maria Manuela Goyanes, artistic director of Woolly Mammoth, describes its style as “the highest artistic excellence meeting the most daring and radical new plays in the country.” Woolly plays are often dark, humorous, thought-provoking, and socially relevant to the world we live in right now.
WHO IT’S RIGHT FOR: Audiences who are excited to wrestle with big ideas and big theatricality—especially the experimental kind. Not for the faint of heart.
PAST PRODUCTIONS: An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins; Women Laughing Alone With Salad by Sheila Callaghan; Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play by Anne Washburn
1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC
ABOUT THE COMPANY: Studio Theatre presents exceptional contemporary theatre, plays and occasional musicals, in deliberately intimate spaces, fostering a more thoughtful, more empathetic, and more connected community.
THEIR STYLE: A contemporary theatre featuring the edgiest playwrights.
WHO IT’S RIGHT FOR: Those looking for a fearless interrogation of the human experience, question the status quo, and seek out theatre with adventure.
PAST PRODUCTIONS: Bad Jews; The Wolves; Constellations; Red Light Winter; This is How It Goes
4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, Virginia
ABOUT THE COMPANY: Signature’s company has a mission to “invent and reinvent” with its season of offerings. Artistic director Eric Schaeffer explains the inventions are world-premiere musicals and plays, while the reinvention comes from taking shows and bringing a new life or perspective to them—often including boundary-pushing design conceived and built on site.
THEIR STYLE: “One of the great things about Signature is that we produce our work out of two black box theatres. And so we’re not designing a set when we produce a show, we’re designing a theater,” Schaeffer says. “Each experience is unique for audiences and provides an opportunity for them to experience a show like no other theatre in town.” That could be seen in recent productions like the ship set of Titanic, the Harlem Jazz Club of Ain’t Misbehavin and the bombed-out museum of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
WHO IT’S RIGHT FOR: Adventurous theatergoers and musical lovers looking for grand productions. Signature’s eight-show season is eclectic, with world-premiere plays and musicals, contemporary plays, and new takes on musicals. Great for families.
NOTABLE PAST PRODUCTIONS: In addition to 29 Stephen Sondheim musicals in the past 29 years, some of Signature’s most notable productions include its new version of Titanic, which is aiming for Broadway; Chita Rivera and George Hearn in The Visit; and the world premieres of Sheryl Crow’s musical Diner and James Lapine’s play Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing.
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