Washington’s performing-arts scene has an international reputation. We have not just one but two Shakespeare theaters. Our Arena Stage is renowned for its innovative productions of American masters and new voices. The Kennedy Center reigns over all, staging something for everyone in every genre. Don’t assume that these three theaters present only classic renditions from a performing-arts hit list; no, they are each wildly creative in their choices and their presentations. On the other hand, for truly avant-garde theater, seek out smaller stages, like Woolly Mammoth and Studio theaters.
Theater seasons generally span the months of September through May, with the Shakespeare Theatre’s calendar often extending into July. The Kennedy Center’s season is year-round, though it is certainly less busy in July and August. Performance times at all theaters are usually at 7:30pm or 8pm nightly, with Saturday and Sunday matinee performances at 2pm and occasional Wednesday noon matinee performances on the schedule, especially at Arena Stage and the Shakespeare Theatre.
The bad news is that, as popular as theater-going is in the capital, ticket prices have gone through the roof in the past couple of years. A lot of locals subscribe to the big three (Kennedy Center, Shakespeare, Arena), which leaves fewer one-off tickets available. Expect to pay $75 to $100-plus for a ticket—unless you’re able to obtain a discounted ticket directly from the theater or from a discounted ticket service.
Most performing-arts and live-music venues require tickets, which you can purchase online at the venue’s website, in person at the venue’s box office, or through one of the ticket vendors listed below.
The best deals in town might be those posted on the website www.goldstar.com. It costs nothing to subscribe, and you’ll immediately start receiving e-mail notices of hefty discounts on admission prices to performances and venues, including museums, all over the city.
Washington’s discount-ticket outlet, TICKETPLACE, sells half-price tickets online at www.ticketplace.org until 4pm for that day’s performances. TICKETPLACE is a program of the Cultural Alliance of Washington.
Ticket sellers Live Nation (www.livenation.com) and Ticketmaster (www.ticketmaster.com; tel 800/745-3000) merged in January 2010, which means that you can buy full-price tickets for many performances in town from either operation. Expect to pay taxes plus a service charge, an order-processing fee, and a facility fee (if a particular venue tacks on that charge). Or you can visit the Ticketmaster sales booth at the Verizon Center, at 601 F St. NW (Metro: Gallery Place/Verizon Center). For the same kinds of performances, also check out www.ticketfly.com (tel 877/435-9849).
Finally, check out www.instantseats.com, which bills itself as the place to go for “online ticketing for the performing arts.” (The site also sells tickets for river cruises on the Potomac, so perhaps the company defines “performing arts” to cover a multitude of entertainment.) This is the site that handles sales of tickets to embassy.
Smaller but no less compelling, these theaters stage productions that are consistently professional and often more contemporary and daring than those you’ll find in the better-known theaters. These more intimate theaters have their own strong followings, which means their performances often sell out.
Studio Theatre at 1501 14th St. NW, at P Street (www.studiotheatre.org; tel 202/332-3300), since its founding in 1978, has grown in leaps and bounds into a four-theater complex, helping to revitalize this downtown neighborhood in the process. Productions are provocative and the season jam-packed, with 10 plays on tap for the 2014 to2015 calendar. Former artistic director Joy Zinoman, who retired in 2010, helped to create buzz for Washington’s theater scene as well as for the U & 14th Street neighborhood in which Studio resides. Her legacy lives in Studio’s continuing success in showcasing contemporary plays and in nurturing Washington acting talent.
The Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (www.woollymammoth.net; tel 202/393-3939) offers as many as six productions every year, specializing in new, offbeat, and quirky plays, often world premieres. The Woolly resides in a 265-seat, state-of-the-art facility at 641 D St. NW (at 7th St. NW), in the heart of the Penn Quarter.
In addition, I highly recommend productions staged at the Folger Shakespeare Library (201 E. Capitol St. SE, at 2nd Street; www.folger.edu; tel 202/544-7077), which celebrates its 83rd anniversary in 2015. Plays take place in the library’s Elizabethan Theatre, which is styled after the inn-yard theater of Shakespeare’s time. The theater is intimate and charming, the theater company is remarkably good, and an evening spent here guarantees an absolutely marvelous experience. The Elizabethan Theatre is also the setting for musical performances, lectures, readings, and other events.
Headliner Concert Venues
When Lady Gaga, Bruce Springsteen, or Beyoncé come to town, they play at the 20,600-seat Verizon Center, 601 F St. NW, at 7th Street (www.verizoncenter.com;tel 202/628-3200). Situated in the center of downtown, the Verizon Center hosts plenty of concerts and is also Washington’s premier indoor sports arena.
DAR Constitution Hall on 18th Street NW, between C and D streets (www.dar.org; tel 202/628-4780), is housed within a beautiful turn-of-the-20th-century Beaux Arts building and seats 3,746. Its excellent acoustics have supported an eclectic group of performers, from John Legend to John Fogerty.
In summer 2013, the 9:30 Club took over the operation of the historic Lincoln Theatre , 1215 U St. NW, at 13th Street (www.thelincolndc.com; tel 202/328-6000), and thankfully has breathed new life into it. Look for indie favorites like Natalie Merchant and Ingrid Michaelson in the lineup. Once a movie theater, vaudeville house, and nightclub featuring black stars like Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway, the theater closed in the 1970s, then reopened in 1994 after a renovation restored it to its former elegance. But somehow the theater’s appeal just never took off. Looks like this latest manoeuver by the 9:30 Club may finally have saved the Lincoln from obscurity.
The Warner Theatre , 513 13th St. NW, between E and F streets (www.warnertheatredc.com; tel 202/783-4000), opened in 1924 as the Earle Theatre (a movie/vaudeville palace) and was restored to its original, neoclassical-style appearance in 1992. It’s worth coming by just to see its ornately detailed interior. The 2,000-seat auditorium offers year-round entertainment, alternating dance performances, like the Washington Ballet’s Christmas performance of the Nutcracker, with comedy acts including Russell Brand, Margaret Cho, or John Oliver, and headliner musicians like Boz Scaggs.