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Midsummer Night's End: No More Shakespeare In The Park

The Shakespeare Theatre Company is one of Washington's most extraordinary success stories, growing from one intimate space on Capitol Hill to a major downtown institution with a national reputation, all in just a couple of decades. Hundreds of thousands of residents and visitors have been introduced to the Shakespeare Theatre's world-class productions through its annual series of free shows at the Carter Barron amphitheater in Rock Creek Park. But those Free for All productions are now history, scrapped in a sad, budget-driven decision that slams the brakes on the city's development into a year-round cultural capital.

Shakespeare Theatre artistic director Michael Kahn announced that starting in 2009, the free shows will move from summer to September and from the park to the Harman Center, the new downtown theater that his company built across the street from Abe Pollin's sports arena.

The Shakespeare company contends that the move downtown will open one production a year to more people than the park venue has been able to accommodate, but that's pure spin. The bottom line is the bottom line, and that is that the theater company concluded that the shows in the park were not translating to new audiences arriving--and paying--to see shows at the company's Lansburgh and Harman stages downtown.

But it's hard to see how putting those same free shows inside the very theater where paying customers ordinarily plunk down $50 or $60 per ticket will serve as an incentive. Why pay if I can get the exact same thing for free, some in the audience will figure.

More important, the move will eliminate a key ingredient in the pitch that is made to many new residents of the region--summer interns, students, newly-arrived professionals--about how Washington is much more than politics and bureaucrats. Those folks who come here first for a summer may not be the most popular people in town, but a great many of them end up staying here for many years, if not forever, and Shakespeare in the park has been a delicious lure, a first step toward sinking roots in a new place.

Shakespeare in the park, a tradition that goes back to early England, became a mainstay of summertime in big American cities when New York's Public Theater started staging shows in Central Park in 1954. Director Joseph Papp turned those glorious productions into a signature event of a New York summer, and when Kahn brought the tradition to Washington in 1991, with a big financial boost from The Washington Post and its owners, the quality of the shows and the lure of great theater under the stars more than made up for the regularity of the thunderstorms and the heaviness of the midsummer humidity. (The tradition was not entirely new to Washington; in the 1960s and 70s, the D.C. Recreation Department and the National Park Service had staged summer Shakespeare festivals at the Sylvan Theater near the Washington Monument.)

A key question raised by the Shakespeare Theatre's decision is whether the company has expanded too far, too quickly. Shows at the new 774-seat Harman facility often play to less than full audiences, whereas the older 441-seat Lansburgh around the corner on Seventh Street almost always seems packed to the gills.

With the explosion of gorgeous new theaters all around the city and in close-in suburbs in the last few years, it may be that the stage scene has to go through some of the same shakeout phase that much of the rest of the economy is suffering through. But while it may be unfortunate to see that facilities such as, say, the National Theatre remain dark for long stretches of time, that disappointment is nothing compared to the loss of an experience that defines summer in Washington for many thousands.

As lovely as the new Harman theater is, a series of free shows there in September--a month that is already perhaps the busiest in the city's cultural calendar--will be just one more bit of programming. In contrast, a picnic in the park and an evening of smartly-produced Shakespeare performed by top-shelf actors in a lush setting just off 16th Street is the kind of distinctive tradition that makes people feel like they have found a thriving, inviting, stimulating home.

As the shocks of this economic shakeup keep coming over the next months, we're likely to see many traditions and institutions fall away. That this one is among the first to die only makes that prospect the more frightening.

By Marc Fisher |  October 27, 2008; 8:16 AM ET
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there's not really an argument here - more a restating of the main news article, but with a tone of disapproval. Is it improper for the Theater to offer shows (at Carter Barron) with a goal of increasing attendance at their downtown stages? No, of course not. Now, is it unfortunate that a non-profit is trading, to some degree, on its public mission to make the arts accessible in order to meet the bottomline? Yes - and possibly the type of thing deserving of this post's disapproval. But you have to state that. You don't get do just disapprove of an organization trying to generate more revenue.

Also, conspicuously absent in the disapproval is any recognition of the Post's role - reducing its advertising support is surely a relevant factor.

Posted by: damnpost1 | October 28, 2008 10:12 AM

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