Washington, DC is a thriving cultural capital where each season approximately 80 professional theaters produce more than 350 productions that play to more than 2 million audience members. In fact, the nation's capital has the second-highest per-capita number of theater productions annually (second only to New York City). On any given night, curtains are rising on upwards of 200 performances at theaters in the District, Virginia and Maryland.
And DC's theater scene is only getting bigger. Several of the city's most popular playhouses are responding to the demand for live entertainment through capital improvement campaigns, adding playing spaces, educational facilities and more.
The magnificent National Theatre is the "Theatre of Presidents" located only a short walk from the White House. The National Theatre has operated longer than any other major touring house in the United States. Though it is still located in the same place on Pennsylvania Avenue, the structure has been rebuilt six times since its opening in 1835. Because of the National Theatre's scope and size, it is best suited to stage-touring Broadway spectacles like "Les Miserables" or "Cats." A bit of history: Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth's father Junius Brutus Booth was an actor in the first production at the National Theatre.
Opened in 1971, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts doesn't have the storied past of the National Theatre; however, it has become one of the world's premier performance spaces, showcasing the classics in performance art while fostering new talent.
The Kennedy Center complex includes two main performance halls, several rehearsal spaces and smaller stages. The Opera House is the main performance space for the Washington National Opera. The Center enabled Washington to become an international stage, hosting the American debuts of the Bolshoi Opera and the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, as well as the first-ever U.S. performances by Italy's legendary La Scala opera company.
Since 2000, the Kennedy Center has featured the Millennium Stage, which offers free performances every night of the week. The Kennedy Center is also home to a 324-seat Family Theater, allowing the Center to expand its vibrant family and children's programming. Americans across the country can get a glimpse of the Kennedy Center on television when the venue hosts the prestigious "Kennedy Center Honors" in December.
Based on its association with the Lincoln assassination, Ford's Theatre and the recently opened Ford's Theatre Center for Education and Leadership is arguably the most famous stage in DC. The Ford's Theatre complex serves as a living legacy to Lincoln and his appreciation of theater, offering a lineup of acclaimed and innovative performances, as well as the much-beloved "A Christmas Carol" every winter.
Warner Theatre's place in the history of Washington began in the 1920s, when dozens of grand theaters and movie houses lit up downtown. Built first for vaudeville and silent movies, the theater opened as the Earle Theatre in 1924. It was converted in the 1950s to a cinema-only format and continued as such through the 1960s. During the 1970s, the theater reinvented itself as a major concert venue and as a stop for touring Broadway and pre-Broadway shows.
The Washington Ballet is Washington, DC's only permanent ballet company. Since 1976, when ballet pioneer Mary Day founded the organization, the Washington Ballet has put on annual reviews at the Kennedy Center, the Warner Theatre and the Center for the Arts at George Mason University. The company performs under the direction of acclaimed artistic director Septime Webre and is known for creating a DC-based version of "The Nutcracker," with "George Washington" as the Nutcracker.
Opera lovers count the Washington National Opera among the best in the nation, with a season of powerful performances.
Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts is America's National Park for the Performing Arts. A typical season at Wolf Trap includes pop, country, folk, blues, orchestra, dance, theater and opera, as well as innovative performance art and multimedia presentations. The Filene Center season runs from the end of May to the beginning of September, with an average of 90 performances each year. Lawn seating allows patrons to bring their own picnics and appreciated performances under the stars. From October to early May, the indoor venue, The Barns of Wolf Trap, presents a diverse lineup of artists in a casual atmosphere.
The Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company was founded in Washington, DC in 1980. Today, Woolly Mammoth operates out of a 268-seat theater and arts education complex at the corner of 7th and D Streets NW in downtown Washington, DC. A pioneer in using theater to reach out to the broader community, it was one of the first American arts organizations to offer pay-what-you-can performances to make theater affordable to all. For more than two decades, Woolly Mammoth has held its place at theater's leading edge. It is widely considered Washington's most daring theater company, as a regional and national leader in the development of new plays, and as one of the best-known and most influential small theaters in America.
The African Continuum Theatre Company is a professional theater company which works to illuminate the human condition and the African American experience through a variety of productions, while serving as a training ground for emerging professionals. ACTCo is part of the Atlas Performing Arts Center.
A 150-seat black box theater, rehearsal studio and home of Gallery H, the H Street Playhouse is home to performances by the Theater Alliance - an organization spearheading the revitalization of the area in Northeast Washington surrounding the Playhouse. Other companies presenting works at the H Street Playhouse include the Forum Theatre, African Continuum Theatre Company, Essential Theatre Company and Capital Renaissance Theatre.
The Tony Award-winning Arena Stage was the first not-for-profit theater in the United States, as well as a pioneer of the regional theater movement and resident theaters. It was the first regional theater to transfer a production to Broadway; the first invited by the U.S. State Department to tour behind the Iron Curtain; and the first outside of New York to receive a Tony Award. Today, Arena Stage is considered the largest theater in the country dedicated to American Voices. While it typically produces American classics, Arena Stage premieres new American plays and supported works in progress. Arena Stage recently opened a dazzling $120-million facility, the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. The 24-hour theater campus features three theaters, multiple workspaces and artist apartments, enabling artists to live, work and perform in the same space.
Recipient of the 2012 Regional Theatre Tony Award, the Shakespeare Theatre Company is one the nation's premier classic theaters. STC provides audiences with the opportunity to connect with the most famous works of the Bard and his contemporaries The theater consists of two performance spaces - the Harman Center for the Arts, an 800-seat stage located downtown, and the Lansburgh Theatre in Penn Quarter, a 451-seat venue. The Shakespeare Theatre also produces two weeks of free Shakespeare during the Shakespeare Theatre Free For All, held each summer at Carter Barron Amphitheatre in Rock Creek Park.
The Studio Theatre has built a national reputation for the production of bold American and European works, innovative revivals and original performance art. A highly energetic and urban theater, The Studio is a centerpiece in the artistic revival of Logan Circle and the 14th Street area.
Located in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, Gala Hispanic Theatre makes its home in the city's historic Tivoli Theatre as the East Coast's only National Center for the Latino Performing Arts. Gala seeks to promote the culture of Hispanics in North America through the presentation of bilingual theater. Like The Studio Theatre, Gala is helping to reinvigorate a DC neighborhood, Columbia Heights, which will welcome new retail, restaurant and residential development.
On Capitol Hill, the Folger Shakespeare Theatre is the performing arts extension of the Folger Shakespeare Library. The theater works to engage scholars and artists who present Shakespeare and other period writers' works both traditionally and in the avant-garde. The Folger also stages premieres related to Shakespeare, mimic his style or embody the value system of Elizabethan theater.
Signature Theatre, located just outside the District in Arlington, Va., is a 2009 Tony Award-winning theater committed to producing new works. Signature presents Broadway-quality productions in its facility in Arlington's Shirlington neighborhood. Signature also specializes in presenting the works of luminary Stephen Sondheim, a tradition that began in 2001 with the production of "Sweeney Todd." Since then, Signature has presented Sondheim classics like "Into the Woods," "Passion" and "Gypsy."
Theater festivals and repertory performances are also growing in popularity among DC visitors. The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Free for All draws large crowds of classic theater fans to Rock Creek Park each May and June.
Each summer, the Capital Fringe Festival attracts residents and visitors for a showcase of edgy and unusual productions. Local, regional, national and international artists converge on the nation’s capital to present hundreds of traditional and non-traditional performances, including theater, dance, spoken word, puppetry and even genres that are so edgy they can't be categorized.