Sporting a brilliant new yellow façade with 6-foot-tall letters proclaiming its name, DC’s beloved Studio Theatre has reasserted itself at the center of 14th Street NW’s vibrant cultural life. The welcoming entryway is more than matched by the dramatic renovations within.
A box office, once tucked away at the back of a muted lobby, has moved front and center, just inside the entrance. A sleek white expanse of countertop bids everyone to enter. Walk through the rest of the public areas and you’ll feel a similarly friendly embrace. Handsome bleached wood floors give you the feeling of floatation. Shiny refreshment bars are waiting to be stocked. Giant windows keep you connected to the buzzing streetscape. Once known as “Automobile Row” because of all the showrooms (think Packards, Nashes, and Studebakers) that lined each side of the thoroughfare, 14th Street now thrums again with pedestrians. Studio is well-positioned to benefit from and contribute to the buzz.
Striking shades of black, white, and bright mustard yellow play out in intriguing ways throughout the building, especially in the bold murals that enliven each of three levels. Take a look at that wordy work of art on the second floor — it is composed entirely of stage directions. Another mural immortalizes past Studio players. Effective new signage directs patrons to each of the four theater spaces.
A powerful land acknowledgment is displayed on the ground floor. Long before 14th Street assumed its present shape and purpose, the area was home to the People of the Piscataway Tribe. Fast forward to the 19th century: we’re reminded of the unpaid labor of enslaved Africans who built Washington’s original buildings and lived in the Logan Circle neighborhood.
Beyond the jazzy public spaces is the wholly renovated mainstage itself. Renamed to honor the late leader of Theatre Washington and former Studio Board member, the Victor Shargai Theatre (formerly the Metheny Theatre) is the ultimate malleable space. “We don’t call it a black box,” says Artistic Director David Muse. “It is so much more than that.”
With no fixed seating and state-of-the-art technical features including elaborate grids on the ceiling and walls to accommodate all kinds of lighting, the ample Shargai Theatre bids playwrights and directors to imagine myriad possibilities for staging new, commissioned, and reinvigorated works. The back wall has purposely been kept pockmarked and unpainted, encouraging us to think about the various businesses that inhabited the building before the Studio Theatre moved there in 1987. “There are very few models for this kind of space,” Muse noted. “It is in some ways unique.”
An improved ventilation system — invisible to theatergoers but reassuring during this pandemic-prone era — is also among the many improvements. Patrons will get their first opportunity to enjoy the Shargai Theatre in June when The Hot Wing King by Katori Hall inaugurates the space.
Actors, too, will greatly benefit from the upgrade. Up on the third floor is an enormous, light-filled rehearsal room. For the first time, says Studio’s creative producer Patti Kalil, players will be able to rehearse in a space that can equal the size of Studio’s fixed and shape-changing stages.
Beyond the technical upgrades and artistic innovations that were enabled by the $20-million renovation project, connection to the community was a third and equally important motivation for change. A ground-level café, operated by Studio’s new food and beverage partner RĀKO Coffee Roasters, will be open daily to all passersby, not just playgoers. A 60-seat patio café on P Street is also in the works, drawing diverse patrons into what was once seen by some as a less-than-friendly fortress for the well-to-do. The staff hopes that these welcoming spaces will prompt all sorts of civic dialogues.
Beaming broadly and wielding a giant pair of bright red scissors, Mayor Muriel Bowser sliced neatly through a yellow ribbon marking the Studio Theatre’s official reopening on March 31, 2022. She lauded the public/private partnership that made this next era of the theater’s life possible. Clearly, Mayor Bowser has high hopes that Studio Theatre’s new luster and innovative programming will draw not only local residents but visitors from far and wide.
Studio Theatre to stage eclectic five-play season in revamped building (news story from July 23, 2022, with revised run dates)
Studio Theatre gives its building upgrade a ‘Hi, sign!’ (photo feature)