The Other National Theatre, and Other Musings

This handy stamp can be found at The National Theatre Archives, along with tons of programs, photographs, and files documenting the long history of this enduring institution.

Last April, I completed a study guide for the touring production of The Last Ship, a musical composed by Sting – yes, that Sting – as part of my work with the Teens Behind the Scenes program at The National Theatre in Washington, D.C. Ordinarily, the guide would have gone out to student groups in the D.C. area ahead of their free trip to see the show and participate in a discussion with some of the performers (there were no promises that we would get to talk to Sting, who was playing a supporting role, but I held out hope). Obviously, neither Sting and Company nor the students were able to come. Thankfully, The National honored their commitment and paid me for my work. Not only that, they set me up with a new project to help keep the program going: creating a series of websites documenting the history of the institution and showcasing The National Theatre Archives. I’ve been working on them off and on ever since, generously supported by de facto editors Olivia Tritschler and Emily Schmid, not to mention the support of Executive Director David Kitto.

Each site has reached some stage of completion throughout the course of the year, but now, finally, we are preparing to offer them up to schools in the hopes of integrating them into curricula. For now, my work is effectively done, although there will probably be cause to return at some point. Until then, I find myself reflecting on what I’ve learned about The National and its unique place in Washington, D.C. Since its establishment in 1835, The National has often had to play second fiddle in a variety of ways. In fact, every time I talk or write about The National, I have to mentally check that I’m not referring to the National Theatre in United Kingdom, which not only has a greater global reputation but also operates very differently, right down to how the title of “National” is understood. In the U.K., their National Theatre receives public funding, complete with certain national programming demands, and has a powerful symbolic role as a generator of “state-of-the-nation” theatre. It also produces new and classical works in-house, often with some of the country’s leading talents. This National Theatre in D.C., on the other hand, is a largely private institution that operates primarily as a touring house for productions passing to and from Broadway, while periodically hosting other major performances and events. Make no mistake, this one has its own pedigree as well.

Washington’s own National Theatre grew out of a desire among the capital’s elite to have a high-class institution that would help the city compete with more established cultural centers like Philadelphia and New York. It opened in 1835 under the leadership of the same manager who oversaw the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, one of the most respected in the country, and enjoyed some elite bookings for its first few seasons. Being in the national capital, it also enjoyed some high profile visits, particularly from the Presidents but also from a delegate of Native chiefs who came to Washington to “negotiate” land cessions in the northern United States. Despite enjoying elite patronage and drawing some of the country’s top stars, The National rarely enjoyed the status of the nation’s other great metropolitan theatres. On top of that, its first few decades were marked by mismanagement and disaster. Fire, a common enemy to theatres all over the country, was a constant menace. Thankfully, The National also has a knack for bouncing back, often with a big occasion, like the visit of legendary songstress Jenny Lind, known as “The Swedish Nightingale.” Her two concerts in 1850 helped validate the resurrection of The National as a major touring house, and set the stage for future visits from the likes of Sarah Bernhardt and Washington’s own Helen Hayes.

Sitting on what is now part Pennsylvania Avenue kept The National Theatre close to national politics, for better and worse. For much of its life, The National could depend on the favor of presidents. Andrew Jackson is believed to have been at the opening, James K. Polk had his inaugural ball there, Lyndon B. Johnson enjoyed applause at a performance of the all-Black Hello, Dolly! thanks to the quick thinking of star Pearl Bailey, Ronald Reagan helped christen the theatre’s reopening in 1984, and FDR and JFK were steady fixtures. Yet even here, The National can be seen playing a secondary role. For starters, much of the elite talent of politics and performing arts now gravitates to the Kennedy Center, which briefly oversaw The National’s bookings in the 1970s until an obvious gap in the quality of engagements drove it to declare independence. The National even plays a supporting role when it comes to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln was an avid theatre-goer who enjoyed several evenings at The National, where his assassin John Wilkes Booth had also appeared in Booth family favorite Richard III. In fact, Lincoln could have been there on that fateful night of April 14th, 1865; instead, he and his wife Mary Todd went to Ford’s, while their son Tad attended a production of Aladdin at The National. After the assassination, the public’s anger turned on Ford’s, which very nearly burned to the ground; The National’s management, meanwhile, breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t them. Now, however, Ford’s Theatre thrives with the help of major funders and embraces its unique role in history with exhibits and programming. Like a lot of theatres around the country, The National was also involved in the upheavals that greeted social progress in the mid-20th century. It was slow to integrate, and even converted to a cinema in 1948 under pressure from a coalition of activists and artists. By the time it reopened as a playhouse in 1952, Arena Stage, soon to become sort of national theatre in its own right, had arrived on the scene as an integrated institution.

While The National has always played host to traveling productions coming from presumably more established lands, it has also helped send great work in the opposite direction. In fact, one thing The National leadership and I really wanted to showcase was its record as a pre-Broadway tryout spot. Many Broadway-bound shows, especially large-scale musicals, premiere in a major city in order to test audience reception and make any last changes prior to their Broadway bow. The National has played this role for many successful and critically acclaimed productions, including West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, and M. Butterfly, not to mention contemporary hits like Mean Girls and Beetlejuice. It’s also hosted its fair share of duds, one of the most famous of which, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, has been a low-key obsession of mine since I first discovered it. Some shows, like West Side Storywhich received the full website treatment as part of this project, complete with interview with Chita Rivera – underwent relatively few changes on their way to Broadway. Some, like Fiddler on the Roof, swapped out numbers and tried new material. Others, like 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, underwent major surgery – unsuccessfully, in that case. Working with these shows was a special treat for me, not least because they forced me to wrestle with the complex legacies of some shows while acknowledging their enduring appeal. They also drew my attention to the vital changes that can happen in a pre-Broadway tryout locale, an important but seemingly understudied stop on the road to Broadway. Ultimately, all of them went on to their true destination in New York, thankful for their opportunity to test the capital’s waters but always hopeful to make it to that much bigger port of call.

As an institution, The National has been through numerous trials and tribulations, all while constantly dealing with its “other” status. Nevertheless, it has persisted on the very same patch of ground where it was first built and remained prime real estate for major producers. Today its programming is operated by the New York-based Nederlander Organization, which is currently (and somewhat appropriately) enjoying its second stint in charge. It might seem like playing second fiddle in so many ways is to its detriment, but for me it has become a subject of fascination, maybe even something to be proud of. Few theatres have operated, in some form or another, on the same patch of land for nearly 200 years, and few have connected such disparate streams of political power and artistic success. In a way, though it is not “national” in the same sense as its U.K. namesake, this National Theatre is a very American institution. It grew out of a desire for prestige, it shepherded some of the great stars of the stage to and from New York, and it has been entangled with some of the best and worst in American politics. It is the kind of theatre that probably deserves a little more artistic and scholarly credit than it gets, in part because its position is that much more unique, its story that much more complex than its famous counterpart across the Atlantic.

Other Musings

The First of Many Musings on Ted Lasso. As an American with a longtime love of soccer, the success of TV’s Ted Lasso is enormously validating – if a little surprising. Years ago, practically everyone I know sought me out to share Ted Lasso’s first appearances, which came in a series of comical ads marking NBC’s acquisition of the American broadcasting rights for the English Premier League. Jason Sudeikis’s ignorant blowhard of a coach made for a great fish-out-of-water bit when he went off to coach “the Tottenham Hotspurs,” and to think, that shtick made the jump to an Emmy-winning TV show. Of course, it’s not just that shtick: it’s a much more finely observed take on self-belief, masculinity, and community, all of it enabled by some adjustments to Ted Lasso himself, not to mention the addition of a stellar supporting cast. As James Poniewozik wrote in a recent piece analyzing American television comedy’s gradual change in tone over the past two decades, Ted Lasso is the epitome of sincerity. That doesn’t mean it lacks layers, though. Gender politics, particularly with regard to how men understand and present themselves in the macho (but sometimes metro) world of elite soccer, are a major feature of the show that I hope to dig into more later. For now, it’s worth pointing out that Ted Lasso also arrives at a unique moment in soccer’s relationship with the United States. The Women’s National Team (say a prayer for them after their Olympic loss to Canada) reached new heights as icons in 2019, male players like Christian Pulisic are making inroads at major European clubs, and MLS expansions have recently come to Los Angeles, Austin, and Miami. Meanwhile, the money in the game is circulating in and around the United States more than ever, giving us the good, the bad, and the bizarre. The (hopefully) good: elite women athletes and leaders buying into the National Women’s Soccer League. The (hilariously) bad: the European Super League debacle – featuring my club, American-owned Manchester United, – being blamed on the Americanization of the sport. The weird: Ryan Reynolds and Rob McIlhenney (you know, from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) buying a Welsh club called Wrexham(?!). Which brings me to the Etihad group, the Abu Dhabi-based entity that owns Manchester City in England, New York City FC in America, and eight other clubs around the world. Manchester City are a constant fixture in the background of Ted Lasso: they’re the team douchebag striker Jamie Tartt shifts back and forth from, the big dogs who knock Richmond down into the Championship at the end of the first season. They’re also a major fixture in the media thanks to documentaries on Amazon Prime, which has also produced a number of other programs highlighting major clubs and celebrating the Beautiful Game for its American – but really global – audience. Which all leads me to this question: what is Ted Lasso‘s role in the growing Americanization (broadly conceived) of the global game? Is it a symptom of that development or a key player? Or am I making more of this than it is? Expect a full-length blog post to come out of this at some point in the future.

The Second Person in Interior Chinatown. This has a been a bumper year of for-fun reading – I’ve even juggled up to three books at a time at points! As usual, some have stood out more than others, and the one-two punch of Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, soon to be a series under the stewardship of Issa Rae, and Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown was an especially good mini-streak. In fact, Interior Chinatown came along just as I was wondering about the merits of one particular, uncommon technique. First, some background. Yu’s novel takes place in a sort of Hollywood fantasy version of a Chinatown, where the main character, Willis Wu, is struggling to work his way up from playing a variety of Generic Asian Men to his holy grail: Kung Fu Guy. Throughout the book, Willis fights to assert himself in the midst of a cop show called Black and White, starring a ripped Black man and a tough but sympathetic White woman, all while caring for an ailing father and struggling to maintain a relationship with his girlfriend. The book shifts periodically from the novel form to screenplay, forcing Willis to enact some of the racist stereotypes that constrain him. It’s a great way to look incisively at issues of race and representation, as well as the economic situation of people perpetually marked as “immigrants.” Yu, who’s found a lot of success on meta storytelling as a writer for Westworld, also has some fun spoofing tired narrative tropes. Beyond all that, the book is also disarming at times because it’s written in the second person, meaning the person Yu is writing about, Willis Wu, is You. Perhaps there’s some wordplay at work there – Charles Yu writing to You – but there’s almost certainly an effort to make you feel the binds that trap Willis in these boxes and keep him struggling through dead-end pursuits. It guarantees that some readers will have very different experiences of this book. As a White reader, there’s a certain disconnect in being addressed as a Generic Asian Man with aspirations of becoming Kung Fu Guy, in part because in representational terms, my options have never been so limited. An Asian reader, particularly an Asian male reader, would probably experience this book very differently. It’s great to see a book with such a distinctive mode of address: it speaks clearly to those who recognize themselves in it, and dissonantly (in a good way) to those who don’t.

Mission Statements. I recently completed the mentorship program at TheatreWashington and had a fantastic time. My mentor, Round House Theatre’s Naysan Mojgani, was thoughtful, insightful, and genuinely interested in my work, which is always nice. We got a lot out of watching streaming theatre together and picking through major developments in theatre at large, but the exercise that will have a truly lasting impression on me was writing a mission statement. Naysan offered it as a way to help me find the connecting threads that join my many disparate projects together, something I often struggle with. While drafting it was a bit of a challenge (it’s hard not to be grandiose in these kind of documents), it did help me zero in on some of the values that undergird what I do. It still needs a bit of work, though. As Naysan argued, mission statements tend to be more practical than artist’s statements, which can lean toward the broad and thematic. Getting specific about how I do what I do will only help me better articulate what I bring to the field, assuming I’m able to stay in it to some degree. For now, it might be worth my time to revisit some of the projects I’m most proud of. Looking back at my plays tends to illuminate whatever big ideas and dramatic forms preoccupy me; maybe doing the same for dramaturgy, scholarship, teaching, etc. will do likewise.

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