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Regional theaters earn national acclaim

By Mark Vancleave, courtesy Guthrie Theater

Whether it’s watching Shakespeare on the banks of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis; a world premiere play in Houston; an original American play in Washington, D.C.; or a summer comedy in Hartford, Conn., regional theaters offer groups a wide range of quality productions, often close to home.

The rich diversity of productions at regional theaters, sometimes called resident theaters, is part of their strength and allure.

“We do a wide range of plays,” said Paul Marte, communications manager for the Hartford Stage Company. “One of our hallmarks, one of the hallmarks of regional theaters, is that variety.”

Producing and staging the plays themselves with top-level professional actors, regional theaters are bedrocks of the American theater industry, often originating plays that end up on Broadway or on tour at other regional theaters.

Guthrie Theater

Although the play is still the thing at the Guthrie Theater, its five-year-old modernistic building on the banks of the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis is also a magnet for visitors.

“It’s really a great spot to look at the Mississippi, especially in the summer,” said Lee Henderson, communications manager for the theater. “With nine floors of public spaces, it’s a great place to explore and wander.”

The $125 million center has three theaters: an 1,100-seat thrust stage with audience seating on three sides, a 700-seat proscenium stage and a 200-seat flexible-seating studio black box.

The daring design of architect Jean Nouvel features two cantilevered lobbies that extend toward the river, one from the ninth-floor studio theater.

Other than the three theaters, the building is open free to the public daily until midnight.

However, the building is not the reason the Guthrie is a Tony Award-winning regional theater; it is the quality and breadth of its productions.

“We have a really exciting, diverse season,” said Henderson.

“One that sticks out for groups is obviously ‘A Christmas Carol’ in the winter. This fall we will do ‘Much Ado About Nothing.’ When you think of the Guthrie, you immediately think of Shakespeare.”

Next year will feature two American premieres — “Under the Rainbow” and “Roman Holiday” — along with the Guthrie’s first production of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof” in more than 30 years, the Noël Coward comedy of manners “Hay Fever” and Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys.”

Tracie Bennett, who won acclaim in London for her portrayal of Judy Garland during the last weeks of her life in “Under the Rainbow,” will reprise the role at the Guthrie Jan. 28-March 11 before the production moves to Broadway.

Scheduled for the summer of 2012, “Roman Holiday,” based on the 1953 Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn movie, will feature songs by Cole Porter.

Groups can take a behind-the-scenes tour of the theater’s large production facilities and the stages. “You get a chance to see how things go from page to stage,” said Henderson.


Alley Theatre
A staple in Houston for 60 years, the Alley Theatre continues to turn out quality productions on its two stages.

“We do a pretty wide range of plays,” said Lauren Pelletier, public relations associate for the theater. “Everything from classics such as Shakespeare to this year, we did ‘August: Osage County,’ which just recently was on Broadway. Right now we are doing a world premiere for Rajiv Joseph, ‘The Monster at the Door,’ and occasionally we do musicals.

“Some stuff is family friendly, and some is recommended for mature audiences.”

Originally located in a single large room at the end of a long alleyway — thus the theater’s name — the Alley relocated to a converted former fan factory and then to its current home in downtown Houston in 1968.

Its two theaters are the 824-seat Hubbard Stage with its thrust stage for seating on three sides and the 310-seat Neuhaus Stage, which can be configured as either a thrust stage or an arena for in-the-round productions.

The Alley normally presents 11 productions a season, including its two holiday shows, “A Christmas Carol” and “The Santaland Diaries,” and an annual Summer Chills production that is always a murder mystery.

This year it is producing Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” July 2-31 on the Hubbard Stage.

The Alley offers several group packages that include the option of a reception before or after the play in a private venue within the Alley.

Arena Stage
Washington, D.C.
Another regional theater that figures prominently in the redevelopment of its neighborhood is the 60-year-old Arena Stage in the nation’s capital.

Last October, Arena Stage reopened its renovated historic building in the up-and-coming southwestern Washington area near the new baseball stadium of the National League’s Washington Nationals.

Now part of the Mead Center for American Theater, the Arena Stage’s two existing theaters — the original in-the-round 683-seat Fichandler Stage and the 514-seat fan-shaped Kreeger Theater — received facelifts and technical improvements.

A new oval 200-seat theater, the Kogod Cradle, with distinctive wooden basket-weaved walls, was added, along with a large central lobby that replaced separate entrances for the two original theaters.

The renovated building has a 90-foot cantilevered roof aligned with the Washington Monument that tapers to a compass point and an unusual glass wall that surrounds the building with 370 panes of glass.

The Arena Stage, the first theater to receive the regional Tony Award in 1976, focuses on presenting American plays and developing new American playwrights by fostering their new works.

The 2011-2012 season, part of a two-year launch of the Mead Center, spans a full year and includes two world premieres, two musicals and four comedies among its 11 productions.

“Like Water for Chocolate,” a world premiere pre-Broadway musical, will be presented Sept. 9-Oct. 30 in the Kreeger Theater. “Mary T. and Lizzy K,” an Arena Stage commission that will have its world premiere June 1-July 22, 2012 in the Kogod Cradle, is written and directed by Tazewell Thompson, who tells the inside story of the unlikely friendship between first lady Mary Todd Lincoln and her talented seamstress.

Delaware Theatre Company

Wilmington, Del.
The Delaware Theatre Company has not only brought quality theater productions to the Wilmington area for 32 seasons, it has also been a leader in the redevelopment of the Christina Riverfront.

“We are right on the riverfront,” said Amy Watson Bish, director of marketing and communications. “We have been here for more than 25 years. We are one of the pioneers on the riverfront.”

When the Delaware Theatre Company’s sparkling new facility was built in the mid-1980s, the area around it was abandoned lots and industrial decay. With the 400-seat theater as an anchor, the area has steadily been redeveloped; abandoned former warehouses and factories now house a European-style marketplace, an art museum, a children’s museum, residences and restaurants.

The area also has a professional baseball stadium and an innovative environmental education center.

“There are several options for groups,” said Rish. “They could come to the theater for a matinee and go to a Blue Rocks baseball game that evening, with dinner in between.”[Seems like there should be another option mentioned here.]

The theater offers a variety of plays from October to early May.

“We do a mix of classics and contemporary plays and musicals; we run the gamut,” said Rish. “We will open [next season] with ‘All My Sons,’ a great Arthur Miller classic.”

In January, the Delaware Theater Company will do a coproduction with the Philadelphia’s Act II Playhouse of “Time Stands Still,” which recently closed on Broadway. The play will open in Delaware and later be performed at the Act II Playhouse.

“We will close with ‘Crowns,’ an African-American musical about ladies and their hats,” said Rish. “It is a huge group-seller.”

Rish said that before the Wednesday matinee, a member of the education staff talks about the current play in a 70-seat gallery. “If the group is there for the evening, we hold Talk Back Thursday on the second of each month inside the theater immediately after the performance. It is a Q-and-A that involves the cast onstage.”

Hartford Stage Company
Hartford. Conn.
“We do new productions and world premieres, Shakespeare, things that have been in New York, classic plays,” said Marte. “Next year, we are doing ‘The Crucible,’ ‘Boeing Boeing,’ ‘Bell, Book and Candle,’ and a world premiere, ‘Water by the Spoonful,’ by Quiara Alegria Hudes.”

Operating year-round, the Tony Award-winning Hartford Stage Company produces 10 shows a year, including six during its MainStage season from September to June, three in the summer and “A Christmas Carol ” during the holidays.

“In the summer, we generally do musicals and comedies,” said Marte.

This year’s SummerStage included “Fräulein Maria” and the Penumbra Theatre Company’s production of “I Wish You Love,” featuring the music of Nat “King” Cole.

The 48-year-old company’s one theater seats 489. “It is a thrust stage, where the audience sits on three sides,” said Marte. “But it can also be configured as a proscenium when the production requires.”

Marte said the theater’s group sales manager will customize for groups and can arrange space for a dinner or gathering before or after a show.

“We love groups here,” he said.