by Kathy Janich
The national publication Playbill recently named 20 regional companies that every theater lover should know, breaking them into four categories: stalwarts, Broadway incubators, innovators and those that foster new work.
Greater Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, the largest theater in the Southeast, and the 9-year-old Serenbe Playhouse in Chattahoochee Hills were both named “innovators.” The list encompasses 14 cities in nine states. Here’s a rundown of all 20. How many have you hit?
These six theaters essentially created the American regional theater, Playbill says, and are all bona-fide theatrical institutions.
GOODMAN | Chicago. Dates to 1925 and is the Windy City’s oldest nonprofit company. It stages classics and new works, and is where Alliance Theatre artistic director Susan V. Booth worked before coming to Atlanta in 2001. The Goodman was the first theater to stage August Wilson’s entire Pittsburgh Cycle, the 10-play series that includes Fences, Jitney, King Hedley II and Radio Golf. The musicals The Light in the Piazza and War Paint began here. It won the Regional Theatre Tony Award in 1992.
GUTHRIE | Minneapolis. Founded in 1963 as an alternative to Broadway, which was becoming more and more commercial. For years, the Guthrie had a resident acting company that performed in repertory. The Guthrie Lab opened in the 1980s, a place dedicated to exploring new work and performance techniques. The company won the Regional Theatre Tony Award in 1982.
THE MUNY | St. Louis. Founded in 1919 under the name “St. Louis Municipal Opera Theatre.” It produces musicals (On the Town, Hands on a Hardbody, Side Show, The Little Mermaid) in a giant outdoor amphitheater. Ethel Merman once recreated her Tony Award-winning performance in Call Me Madam here.
OGUNQUIT PLAYHOUSE | Ogunquit, Maine. One of the only remaining original summer-stock theaters in America. Big Broadway names like Mary Martin and John Raitt played here. The theater is on the National Register of Historic Places, with a National Level of Significance notation for its “significant contributions to performing arts education.”
OLD GLOBE | San Diego. Dates to 1935, when it was built as a re-creation of London’s and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. The three-theater complex stages 15 productions each year and emphasizes new works. Broadway’s Bright Star, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, The Piano Lesson and Into the Woods began here. The company won the Regional Theatre Tony Award in 1984.
THEATRE UNDER THE STARS | Houston. Began as a presenter of annual free outdoor summer musicals but quickly became a year-round venue. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and the Maury Yeston Phantom began here, as have several national and international tours. TUTS’ education department trains more than 1,700 students each year through on-site, audition-based classes and community outreach programs that visit local schools.
These six help Broadway-bound projects work out their kinks. If you like Broadway, you’ll want to keep up on their seasons, Playbill says.
AMERICAN REPERTORY THEATRE | Cambridge, Mass. Dates to 1980, is commonly known as A.R.T. and is housed at Harvard. A.R.T. does new American works, under-produced existing works and new interpretations of classics. Broadway’s ‘night mother and 1984’s revival of A Moon for the Misbegotten began here. Since Diane Paulus became artistic director in 2008, it’s housed pre-Broadway stagings of Porgy and Bess, Pippin, The Glass Menagerie, Finding Neverland, Waitress and, most recently, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. The company won the 1986 Regional Theatre Tony Award.
ARENA STAGE | Washington, D.C. Founded in 1950 as one of the country’s first nonprofit theaters.
Arena was the first regional company to transfer a production to Broadway — The Great White Hope with James Earl Jones in 1968. It has developed 22 Broadway productions, including the musicals Dear Evan Hansen, Next to Normal, Tintypes, The 1940s Radio Hour and Raisin; the comedy The Velocity of Autumn; and the dramas Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Sweat.
Arena won the inaugural Regional Theatre Tony Award in 1976.
HARTFORD STAGE | Hartford, Conn. Founded in 1963 and dedicated to both classic and contemporary theater. Broadway productions of Is There Life After High School?, Enchanted April and The Gershwins’ Fascinating Rhythm began here. Since Darko Tresnjak became artistic director in 2011, the pace of Broadway-bound development has picked up. Recent contributions include A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Anastasia and the still-in-development stage adaptation of Rear Window. Hartford Stage won 1989 Regional Theatre Tony Award.
LA JOLLA PLAYHOUSE | La Jolla, Calif. Founded in 1947 by TV and movie actors Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire and Mel Ferrer. After nearly 25 years of inactivity, director Des McAnuff revived the theater in 1983 and established it as a receptive home for Broadway-bound musicals, including Big River, The Who’s Tommy, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1995, with Matthew Broderick), Thoroughly Modern Millie, Jersey Boys, Memphis, Peter and the Starcatcher, Hands on a Hardbody, Side Show and Come From Away. It won the 1993 Regional Theatre Tony Award.
SEATTLE REPERTORY | Seattle. Founded in 1963.
A short-lived musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, titled Music Is, lasted only eight performances in 1976. The Rep was more successful in 1985 with I’m Not Rappaport, followed by The Heidi Chronicles, Conversations With My Father, Two Trains Running, The Sisters Rosensweig, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, The Good Body and, most recently, Come From Away.
It won the 1990 Regional Theatre Tony Award.
STEPPENWOLF THEATRE COMPANY | Chicago. Founded in 1974 by actors Terry Kinney, Jeff Perry and Gary Sinise. Its ensemble includes actors John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf, Amy Morton, Austin Pendleton, Lois Smith and Martha Plimpton, and playwrights Tina Landau, Tracy Letts and Bruce Norton. The Tony Award-winning best plays The Grapes of Wrath, August: Osage County, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Airline Highway began here. Steppenwolf won the 1985 Regional Theatre Tony Award.
These theaters seem committed to taking theater into new territory.
ALLIANCE | Atlanta.
Playbill credits the artistic directorship of Kenny Leon, beginning in 1988, as a time of major growth for the Alliance because he helped attract African-American audiences and staged world premieres, including The Last Night of Ballyhoo and Aida. Susan V. Booth, artistic director since 2001, has continued the trend, most notably with The Color Purple. Booth helped create the one-of-kind Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition, which eases the transition from graduate school to a professional life for emerging playwrights, and the Reiser Atlanta Artists Lab, which gives artists of multiple theater disciplines a producing home for undeveloped work. When not undergoing renovations, as it is now, the Alliance stages 12 productions on two stages.
It won the 2007 Regional Theatre Tony Award.
FIREBRAND | Chicago. This all-musicals company was founded nine months ago by France and Danni Smith on the principle of feminism. Any show it stages must cast at least as many women as men, lend itself to diverse casting and empower women. Its inaugural season features Lizzie, about Lizzie Borden, and 9 to 5. Future plans include developing new work and re-examining classic works with a feminist bent.
IAMA | Los Angeles. The 10-year-old company describes itself as “an ensemble of theater artists seeking to connect and cultivate a new generation of audiences” and is known for producing work that creates dialogue. Many members have been featured in TV and film projects, especially those led by producer/writer Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” “How to Get Away With Murder”), who eventually signed on to support IAMA artistically and monetarily. She’s helping fund new-play development with a culturally diverse group of voices.
SERENBE PLAYHOUSE | Chattahoochee Hills, Ga. Founded by artistic director Brian Clowdus in 2009 to do site-specific work and grow environmental theater. All productions are performed outdoors, with the specific aim of making nature part of the experience. Serenbe is known for its design work — landing a real helicopter for a pivotal scene in Miss Saigon or creating a full-scale carnival for Carousel. The company is committed to using primarily environmentally friendly materials like LED theatrical lighting, reclaimed and recycled materials, and repurposed set pieces, all of which are easily disassembled and minimize a production’s impact on the environment.
Fostering new work
Four to keep your eyes on.
ACTORS THEATRE OF LOUISVILLE | Louisville, Ky. Probably best known for its Humana Festival of New American Plays, an annual event that has introduced more than 400 plays in 40-plus years, including three eventual Pulitzer Prize winners — The Gin Game by D.L. Coburn, Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley and Dinner With Friends by Donald Margulies. It won the 1980 Regional Theatre Tony Award.
DALLAS THEATER CENTER | Dallas. Founded in 1959. It became a conservatory company known for producing experimental interpretations of classics and doing world premieres of works like Blood Money by Heather Brothers and A Texas Trilogy by Preston Jones. More recently, it has developed musicals — Giant, Fly By Night and Fortress of Solitude — all of which eventually played off-Broadway. It won the 2017 Regional Theatre Tony Award.
GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE | Los Angeles.Founded in 1995 and housed by UCLA. Geffen is another Hollywood-adjacent regional theater offering film and TV actors a chance to be onstage. The list includes Jason Alexander, Annette Bening, David Hyde Pierce, Jane Kaczmarek, Alicia Silverstone and Rita Wilson. Its two performance spaces do a total of eight plays a season, mostly intimate productions of classic and contemporary works or commissions. Its commissions include The Quality of Life by Jane Anderson and Time Stands Still by Donald Margulies. It produced the world premieres of Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking and The Country House by Donald Margulies.
GOODSPEED MUSICALS | East Haddam, Conn. Founded in 1959. It made a name for itself by doing older musicals for modern audiences. Its new works include the world premieres of Man of La Mancha and Annie. Today, Goodspeed does mostly musical revivals on its main opera-house stage and new work in a second space in Chester, Conn. It won a special Tony Award in 1980 for its contributions to American musicals and the Regional Theatre Tony Award in 1980.