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Washington Stage Offers Lesson in Theater Economics

For 20 years, Washington's small Studio Theatre has been in a sort of dress rehearsal. Staging one play at a time in a cramped 220-seat semiround, its founders looked forward to the day when they could create a star.

On Saturday night, when it showcased its freshly renovated three-floor building, replete with two stages, acting studios, and classrooms, the Studio Theatre proudly took a bow.

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What was once a small transformer of culture to downtown Washington is now a regional powerhouse.

Outside, cars pull up curbside. Elegant men and women step out to join others already crowding into the Studio's entrance for its gala opening. Above, the brand-new marquee, with the theater's name in bold, lights up the night.

Housed in an old automobile showroom, the theater is part of the 14th Street corridor. In the late 1960s, this and other parts of the city were destroyed by riots. Shopkeepers and many residents fled, leaving a scorched landscape behind. It took years for commercial life to return. Decades later, the area is still run-down and seedy, dotted by liquor stores and check-cashing outlets.

Joy Zinoman, artistic and managing director of the Studio Theatre, spearheaded the job, she says, "so there can be more room to make more plays in this city." That's the "dream" part of developing theaters.

Here's the reality. Across the country, budget constraints have sent government grants for the arts in decline. Social troubles, such as homelessness, are claiming more contributions from the business community. So American cultural institutions like the Studio Theatre have to think about business development; they can no longer rely so heavily on donations.

"This is a real experience in 'theater economics,' " says Fenner Milton, a member of the theater's board of trustees. A major donor to the Studio's $4.5 million renovation, Mr. Milton has been part of the entire process.

He shares two major lessons he's learned about converting a small operation into a regional theater. "First," he says, "hire a staff that is a team. Each member should have artistic as well as business talent. Look for directors who can also plan budgets." Merging creativity with dollars and cents will produce more rational decisionmaking.

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"Second," he continues, "experiment." Only by exploring can a theater find its place. But don't try to be all plays for all audiences, he cautions.

A writer and director, Flint Himes doubles as the Studio Theatre's telefund-raising manager. "You won't find Shakespeare here," she says. "Our niche is contemporary American drama. We do urban themes that are accessible to the mainstream, but in a challenging, provocative way."

For 20 years, the Studio Theatre has taken risks, she says. It has staged bold, eclectic performances. If they are compelling enough, they attract not only regional attention, but interest from outside the area. It is the strength of the Studio's past work and its promise for bigger and better selections that have made calling for dollars a success. "We've exceeded our expectations," Ms. Himes says.

Studio executives are cultivating two types of theatergoers: the subscriber who pays in advance for a series of planned performance dates, and the spontaneous ticket purchaser who is responding to rave reviews, advertisements, or word of mouth.

The subscription audience is the foundation for the theater's financial stability, says Milton, who is the chief scientist of the US Army. But if there were just one stage to serve them - a scenario many theaters face - then the theater would have to abruptly end the run of a show that continued to draw ticket-buyers in order to open another planned performance for subscribers.

To ensure a steady flow of income, one theater is now dedicated to a potential hit and can run popular performances indefinitely, as long as they continue to sell tickets. The other will stay on the more rigid schedule set by subscription series. Currently, one stage is featuring "Sylvia" while the other is performing "Look Back in Anger."

The "Studio" part of the theater - an acting lab of sorts - has launched people like Carrie Simon, an international trade lawyer by day and an actress by night. She recalls when the upstairs "lab" was just a soda machine and two benches. "Look at this place now!" she beams.

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