National Press Club

Future of Theater Is Bright, Says Retiring DC Theater Pioneer

December 4, 2009 | By Bill Miller |

captions in here

Despite increasing competition, an uncertain economy and predictions of its demise, theater is alive and well in both the nation and in Washington, said Joy Zinoman, a prime mover of the Washington theater scene, in a retirement speech at the Club Dec. 4.

“For all its impracticalities, serious theater still stubbornly persists. It will not go away. … It may even thrive,” said Zinoman, whose co-founding of Studio Theater 35 years ago on a $1,000 shoestring spurred the transformation of the once-rundown Logan Circle area of Washington into a bustling urban neighborhood.

Theater’s future is particularly bright in Washington, predicted Zinoman, who recently announced that she’ll retire as artistic director at Studio next September. Once a theater backwater, the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area now boasts some 70 theaters, most of them founded within the last 20 years, she said.

“In many ways, we can rival New York,” she said. “Washington is less insular, less provincial. It has international interest, has a more sophisticated audience, and lacks the stranglehold of commercial Broadway.”

Studio’s own future is no less bright, she indicated. Pronouncing the theater “in excellent, extraordinary financial shape,” she said that it ran a $522,000 surplus in its last fiscal year, has $25 million in assets – including a four-theater complex, an acting school, and 16 apartments for its apprentice actors – and is in the midst of a $2.5 million capital campaign.

Cutbacks that have struck other arts organizations “so far have not hit us,” she said. “We have endured hard economic times before.”

She cited Studio’s business model as one reason for its success. Although the theater stages 10 plays a year, “seven or eight will lose money,” she said. But by extending the runs of the successful plays, “the theater can survive.”

Still, she said, success isn’t guaranteed. “Over 35 years, the sun has come up every day. But that doesn’t mean it’ll come up tomorrow.”

Zinoman regaled the audience with recollections of her co-founding of the theater. When she first walked around Logan Circle, she said, rats and condoms were rampant -- as was prostitution.

“Slowly, gradually,” she said, the neighborhood changed – with Studio Theater “as an engine.” She pointed to the arrival of the former Fresh Fields (now Whole Foods Market) grocery store as another key to the revitalization.

Zinoman, who will continue to teach in the theater’s acting conservatory after she steps down as artistic director, said that a national search is underway for her successor. “It is a big deal,” she said, pointing out that “requirements of the job now are not those of 39 years ago, or 20 years ago.”

Asked how she views press coverage of theater, she said “the problem is that the press is shrinking,” which has resulted in the loss of a “diversity of views” among multiple critics. For the theater, she said, “it means working harder – not expecting the press to come cover you.”