Theater Alliance Rises

Reimagining a Community Pillar

Night Falls on the Blue Planet. Photo: C. Stanley Photography

Theater Alliance has emphatically found its voice. Last year the company earned seven Helen Hayes Awards; this season it’s won a $10,000 National Theatre Company Grant from American Theatre Wing, bestowed on theaters that have “articulated a distinctive mission, cultivated an audience, and nurtured a community of artists in ways that strengthen the quality, diversity and dynamism of American theatre.”

But like all seemingly “overnight” successes, Theater Alliance’s rise is really a testament to decades of sustained support and the tenacity of visionary leadership.

From its humble origins as a community theater, by 2002 Theater Alliance had joined Washington’s fledgling professional companies and taken up residence at the new H Street Playhouse amid burgeoning neighborhood revitalization. But eventually management changes and a tough economy took their toll, reducing the company’s 2010 season to just one production: a reprise of Black Nativity.

Enter Colin Hovde. In 2011, H Street Playhouse founder and Theater Alliance board member Adele Robey asked Hovde to apply for the theater director’s job — a position he seemed destined to take.

A self-described child of hippies, Hovde chose a career in theater as a form of social service; a way to build community connections. As a teenager approaching high school graduation, he’d even contemplated joining the Peace Corps — until his mentor said he could do more to help people in the theater. At the University of North Carolina School for the Arts, he realized his mission: producing plays that challenge people to think in a more compassionate way.

“I want our theater to be about your daily life. I want you to walk down the street and feel more connected to the people you see,” Hovde says. “Of course we want theater to be entertaining, but it’s so much more fulfilling when it entertains and asks hard questions that make us think.” As a friend of his once said, “I do theater for people who are strong enough to pick up Thor’s hammer,” the powerful weapon of Norse mythology capable of crushing mountains.

In 2004, when nearly every one of his college classmates made a beeline for New York, Hovde took off for Macau, China, to produce the Worldwide Arts Collective Festival. Strangely enough, that’s where he met Jeremy Skidmore, a kindred spirit who was then Theater Alliance’s artistic director. The two North Carolina graduates immediately connected, and Skidmore invited Hovde to become the company’s associate director the following year.  

After his work at Theater Alliance, Hovde spent the next five years as a free-lance director and producer until he received Robey’s momentous call to return. He would spend the next year rebuilding the company’s financial base and navigating its transition from H Street to the new Anacostia Playhouse.

“It was a pivotal moment for Theater Alliance,” he says. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘Why are we here? Why do we need to stay alive? What value do we add to the community?”

In March 2013, Hovde finally found his answers in Word Becomes Flesh, a hip-hop exploration of a father’s right to choose between a commitment to his child and abandonment. The heart-breaking piece featured five young men grappling with fatherhood, visibly changing the perceptions and stirring the emotions of audience members, and Hovde himself.

The play influenced Theater Alliance’s first season as the resident company at Anacostia Playhouse. All three of the season’s plays were rooted in relatable human experience, but produced in distinct ways that stretched theatrical boundaries: Broke-ology is a classic “kitchen sink” production, using a realistic set to portray the ordinary struggles of a working class family; White Rabbit, Red Rabbit eschewed scenery and even rehearsal altogether, featuring various actors reading the play for the first time at venues across the city; and The Wonderful World of Dissocia was a sort of naturalistic fever dream that explored mental disease caused by trauma — and received four Helen Hayes Awards. 

The next season built on the company’s momentum, including a production of Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, directed by the widely acclaimed Timothy Douglas — a major coup for the company. For Hovde, an even greater milestone was Occupied Territories, a story of the lasting impact of war that deeply affected its audiences. “When a play really hits people, they need to talk about it,” Hovde says. “It opens doors by allowing us to be more vulnerable.” Like other Theater Alliance productions, the play included post-show “talkbacks” for audience members to discuss their reactions. Hovde learned that after seeing the play, one Vietnam veteran was able to talk to his daughter about things he had never told her before. 

“Theater gives us the space to talk about important issues in a more nuanced and personal way, often with perfect strangers,” Hovde says. “We need to be talking about race. We need to be talking about gender inequality. And theater gives us to the opportunity to do that face to face with people we may never otherwise speak to about these things.”

There must be an art to selecting such powerful works, but according to Hovde, “The shows choose us. We produce plays that demand to be produced. … You know when it’s right.” He aims to showcase issues that are never fully addressed, in the voices of people who are too rarely heard: veterans grappling with the psychological effects of war; gay youths dealing with bullying and rejection; people with disabilities confronting prejudice. And it’s no accident that today Theater Alliance features the works of playwrights who are more often people of color than white; more often female than male.

Some of these playwrights emerge from Hothouse: Theater Alliance’s program to develop new works by local writers. This year Hothouse received 23 submissions and selected four, based on not only the potential of the work and its phase of development, but also the under-represented perspectives of the playwrights themselves. “These are important stories that we don’t often hear,” Hovde says. “And even though they may not have anything to do with one audience member’s, life they are so specific that they capture a universal human challenge that crosses boundaries.”

Theater Alliance nurtures these works by hiring a director, actors, and dramaturg to spend one week with the playwright, talking, trying new things and rewriting, culminating in a public reading followed by further conversation with the audience. But the relationship with the company continues long after the program ends, with playwrights submitting new drafts or other plays in the works, and Theater Alliance lending a special understanding of how the writer thinks and speaks. This year’s season opened with a world premiere of a Hothouse play: Kathleen Akerley’s Night Falls on the Blue Planet, part of The Women’s Voices Theater Festival that the company describes as “a woman’s complex and unexpected journey to herself.”

Hovde seems most excited about the return of Word Becomes Flesh, the play that redefined Theater Alliance’s mission back in 2013. Presented in repertory with For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, the play is now part of a complex conversation at the intersection of race and gender. While the plays’ stories are about black men and women, men and women of all races can relate to their characters, and people of each gender can learn about the opposite sex, revealing answers to questions they may not be able to ask for themselves. The theater will extend this conversation to D.C. youth by recruiting sponsors for a series of student matinees.

“These two pieces are why I do this work,” Hovde says. “I am a true believer: What we do saves lives and increases compassion. That’s not an abstract concept. It’s a reality. Even if we never personally see the difference theater makes, it’s happening every day.”

For more information about Theater Alliance and the new season, visit theateralliance.com

Occupied Territories. Photo: C. Stanley Photography
Word Becomes Flesh

Barbara Wells is a writer and editor for Reingold, a social marketing communications firm. She and her husband live on Capitol Hill.