Approaching the new home of Studio Acting Conservatory—located on a quiet cul de sac in Columbia Heights—is like seeing a mirage. There, on a curve of Holmead Place NW, bursting out of a sea of modest single-family houses, looms a bright red edifice that looks like a Norwegian barn with a New England church spire on top.
In fact, the structure looks like a stage set, which is not surprising, since the newly renovated building is the work of veteran set designer Deb Booth and architect Jon Hensley. The team began its work before COVID arrived, stripping what had been a Baptist church—subsequently reconfigured (and replastered) as a Mormon church—down to its bare bones before the conversion began. It was in the process of that stripping that a giant sculptured mural emerged portraying Christ with his disciples depicted as members of the original church community. (Click here for the story of that discovery and the tale of Studio Acting Conservatory’s exile and its ultimate resurrection.)
The mural—along with all the studios and offices that have sprung up around it in the repurposed building—will be on view to the public on Saturday, August 28, when everyone is invited to the Conservatory’s official open house. The daylong celebration will begin at 11 am with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in front of the building. Afterward, there will be tours of the Conservatory’s new home and a four-hour viewing of the room-size sculpture that was long believed to be lost.
Visitors will have a chance to meet the 75-year-old artist, Akili Ron Anderson, and learn about the process of creating the masterwork. Joining Anderson will be curators from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, who conducted the painstaking process of removing layers of dust—often with Q-tips—without disturbing the original paint.
Last month I had a preview of the tour, and was astonished at the makeover, beginning with the façade. Now painted a vivid red, the color recalls the image of barns in rural Scandinavia. Fittingly, the main entrance—perched on the second floor and reached by way of a steep slatted staircase—was crafted by Neill DuVal modelled on an actual barn door.
The door opens onto a small lobby, which leads to two of the four large studio/classrooms located back-to-back and stretching the length of the building. The first studio has two doors—for Feydeau-like farces as well as ordinary entrances and exits—while the second one offers a close-up of the frieze. The work, protected behind a thick curtain and beautifully lit for display, occupies most of the back wall of the building.
A second entrance, on the ground floor, offers handicap access and leads directly into the guts of the building. This level holds two more studios, a kitchen, an office, a teachers’ lounge, and unisex bathrooms, similar to those in Europe.
Converting a house of worship into one of the nation’s leading professional schools was not that much of a stretch, according to Joy Zinoman, who founded the Conservatory 46 years ago and created Studio Theatre, now a separate entity, as its offshoot. “Theater and religion have always been linked,” she said, adding that the theater is a sacred space. The building’s design deliberately preserves the form of a church—its spire a symbol of hope—while the interior provides a place of sanctuary.
That sentiment is echoed in the words of Nancy Paris, a much-loved faculty member who died last year. Her admonition to the students—“Let this be a safe environment… Try things out, take some risks. Do something you haven’t done before…”—is engraved on the wall on the lower floor in an alcove dedicated to her memory.
Coinciding with the opening of the new building is the arrival of Emily Morrison, the school’s new executive director. I met Morrison on what turned out to be her very first day on the job. Together, we toured the building, then sat down with Zinoman in the teachers’ lounge for a different sort of tour, touching on some of the highlights of a career that includes just about every aspect of the job, including acting, directing, arts administration, and education. Morrison is also a Conservatory alum!
Originally from Virginia, Morrison started out in the world of fashion, handling marketing for Ralph Lauren. Part of her job, she explained, involved creating the scenes in which clothing was displayed. Gradually, she branched out, trying her hand at improv and stand-up in New York, then stage and film in Los Angeles. When she returned to DC in 2009, she enrolled at Studio Acting Conservatory and landed some major roles. (Click here for DCMTA’s rave review of her performance” in Wit in 2018.) Before being recruited by the Conservatory, Morrison worked with the coorporate sponsorships team at WAMU and was board president of the Actors’ Center, a nonprofit that provides career opportunities for actors in the DC area.
“This job,” she said, “pulls together everything I’ve done. But it’s full of challenges.” The biggest of these, she added, is heading up a world-famous school that’s beginning a new chapter, yet still at the mercy of an ongoing pandemic.
Although most classes will be in person, a few will be offered online, allowing people from all over the world to sign up for a form of distance learning that was perfected during the siege. “That’s one of the few good things that came out of the lockdown,” Zinoman laughed. Although she is stepping down from running the show, she will continue to teach Greek drama, Shakespeare, and the plays of George Bernard Shaw, Henrik Ibsen, and Anton Chekhov.
As I packed up to leave, the two of us reminisced about the strange series of events that began with the Conservatory’s eviction from Studio Theatre and ended with the school ensconced, miraculously, in its new home, with a museum-worthy masterwork under its roof and a spire soaring on top.
“It’s beshert,” I said to the founder of the school, using the Yiddish word that describes fairy tale endings.
“Yes,” she replied, “it’s fate.”
Registration is now open for the fall semester. Classes for adults and children age 10–17 begin September 7, 2021. There is a 10 percent discount on all tuition. Scholarships and work-study programs are available on application.
Open House: Saturday, August 28
11 am ribbon-cutting outside the building
12–4 pm tours and viewing of the Black Last Supper
Strict COVID precautions will be observed. Check here for policies.