Sporting a shiny new yellow facade with 6-foot-tall lettering proclaiming its name, DC’s beloved Studio Theater has reasserted itself at the center of the bustling cultural life of 14th Street NW. The welcoming entrance is more than offset by the dramatic renovations inside.
A ticket office, once hidden at the back of a silent lobby, has moved to the center, just inside the entrance. A sleek, white expanse of counter invites everyone in. Walk through the rest of the public spaces and you’ll feel an equally friendly embrace. Beautiful whitewashed wood floors give you the feeling of floating. Shiny refreshments waiting to be stocked. Giant windows keep you connected to the bustling cityscape. Once known as “Automobile Row” because of all the showrooms (think Packards, Nashes and Studebakers) that lined either side of the thoroughfare, 14th Street once again buzzes with pedestrians. Studio is well positioned to benefit and contribute to the buzz.
Striking shades of black, white, and bright mustard yellow play out intriguingly throughout the building, especially in the bold murals that enliven each of the three levels. Take a look at this wordy piece of art on the second floor – it’s all staged. Another fresco immortalizes former Studio players. Efficient new signage directs patrons to each of the four theater spaces.
A powerful land recognition is displayed on the ground floor. Long before 14th Street took on its current form and purpose, the neighborhood was home to the residents of the Piscataway tribe. Fast forward to the 19th century: it reminds us of the unpaid labor of the enslaved Africans who built Washington’s original buildings and who lived in the Logan Circle neighborhood.
Beyond the jazzy public spaces is the completely renovated main stage itself. Renamed in honor of the late leader of Theater Washington and former Studio Board member, the Victor Shargai Theater (formerly the Metheny Theatre) is the quintessential malleable space. “We don’t call it a black box,” says art director David Muse. “It’s so much more than that.”
With no fixed seats and state-of-the-art technical features, including elaborate ceiling and wall grids to accommodate all kinds of lighting, the expansive Shargai Theater invites playwrights and directors to imagine a myriad of possibilities for setting performing new, commissioned and reinvigorated works. . The back wall was deliberately kept pockmarked and unpainted, encouraging us to think of the various businesses that inhabited the building before the Studio Theater moved here in 1987. “There are very few models for this type of space. ”, noted Muse. “It’s in some ways unique.”
An improved ventilation system – invisible to spectators but reassuring in this pandemic-prone era – is also among the many improvements. Customers will have their first opportunity to enjoy Shargai Theater in June when The king of hot wings by Katori Hall inaugurates the space.
Actors, too, will greatly benefit from the upgrade. On the third floor is a huge rehearsal room bathed in light. For the first time, says Studio Creative Producer Patti Kalil, players will be able to rehearse in a space that can match the size of Studio’s fixed and changing scenes.
Beyond the technical upgrades and artistic innovations made possible by the $20 million renovation project, the connection to the community was a third and equally important motivation for change. A cafe on the ground floor, operated by new food and beverage partner RĀKO Coffee Roasters, will be open daily to all passers-by, not just spectators. A 60-seat sidewalk cafe on P Street is also in the works, attracting various customers to what was once seen by some as an unwelcoming fortress for the wealthy. Staff hope these welcoming spaces will spark all kinds of civic dialogues.
Beaming wide and brandishing a pair of bright red giant scissors, Mayor Muriel Bowser carefully cut a yellow ribbon marking the official reopening of the Studio Theater on March 31, 2022. She hailed the public/private partnership that has made this new era of theater life. . Clearly, Mayor Bowser is hopeful that the Studio Theater’s new luster and innovative programming will attract not only local residents, but also visitors from all over.
The Studio Theater will stage an eclectic season of five plays in a renovated building (news as of July 23, 2022, with revised air dates)
Studio Theater is giving its building upgrade a “Hi, nod!” (Photo documentary)