No matter the town where they produce and perform, theatre groups often relocate, for the race for space is never-ending. What's unusual, though, is for a group to depart one town altogether to set up shop in another. That's the story of the Potomac Theatre Company, which announced recently that it has moved permanently from Washington, D.C., to New York City, beginning with its 21st season this summer.
There are other ways in which Potomac is rather a maverick troupe. It's more than just a company: It's a sanctioned affiliate of the theatre program at Middlebury College in Vermont, where two of its three artistic chieftains, Cheryl Faraone and Richard Romagnoli, are professors during the school year—that's why the Potomac produces almost exclusively during the summer. Chieftain No. 3, Jim Petosa, is artistic director of Maryland's Olney Theatre Center, a professor at Boston University, and, like Faraone and Romagnoli, an alumnus of Catholic University. So there's plenty of academic blood coursing through the Potomac's veins.
The Potomac is really an outgrowth of an Off-Off-Broadway unit called the New York Theatre Studio that produced from 1977 to 1985, when various professional and personal factors dictated the move to D.C. So what's really happening, Faraone says, is something of a homecoming.
Or maybe a valedictory march. For the last 20 years, the Potomac has established a reputation for mounting thinking man's plays—plays of social import and with a political bent. The company's first New York work—a repertory production of Politics of Passion: Plays of Anthony Minghella and Howard Barker's No End of Blame—is emblematic of this aesthetic.
"We're interested in political work, but 'political' has this weird resonance around it," Faraone says. "It's socially and culturally illuminating work, and work speaking to the present moment, and work trying to create a dialogue. We use a relatively austere production style. We look for titles that either argue with each other or that complement each other, which is why, for us, the idea of repertory is so important."
The group decided to move to New York last summer for several reasons. "Twenty seemed like a nice round number," Faraone says. "And given that we can only do a summer season because of our academic involvements—although we could do some winter work in January—our priority has been in the summer."
Faraone worries little about how New York theatre has swelled in the intervening years—whether it is better to be a big fish in a small D.C. pond than a small fish in a big Gotham pond. "We were permanently in the category of small fish because of the limitation of our season" is her reply. "That said, we're not unfamiliar with New York either. In the last 20 years, D.C. has changed—it's a much more active scene than it was in 1987, when we started out, so the pond's fuller. And in that time, we really had two homes: the six or seven years we spent in Georgetown and the last decade at the Olney as one of its theatres in residence. Jim Petosa even built a second stage at the Olney for us in 2000, and in many ways it was terrific. That being said, we'd done it. In doing something for an amount of time, you tend to feel like you're repeating yourself.
"Plus," she adds, "many of the people we've worked with are Middlebury College graduates in New York. There's a huge pool we have a history with but have had little access to in D.C."
And Faraone does understand the risks of New York producing in ways that most who are new to the scene do not, for she has the benefit of hindsight. "One of the things that was true in New York City, and still true I think now, is it feels like you're reinventing yourself every time you do a show," she says. "When we worked here before, it was primarily at the Ansonia [Hotel] and the old Theatre Row, and there was little consistency in anything. There's something to be said for having a clearer identity."
To choose their projects, Faraone, Romagnoli, and Petosa "do a lot of reading, and there's a lot of absorption" of material, she says. "Then we essentially brainstorm and ask why and how various plays connect with each other. I have a fondness for British works because they do seem to expand beyond the domestic horizons, and that is something that particularly interests me." The three Minghella plays "talk about how the lives of people cannot be divorced from the society existing outside their window" and "how we can deal with the political universe that's all around us," she continues, whereas Barker's plays, in her view, are more politically "overt."
Faraone says the idea of political theatre being particularly British or European and American theatre being the province of domestic drama may soon be viewed as a canard. "Whether or not some of this was catalyzed by the NEA Four, I don't know," she says of the four performance artists whose grants were revoked by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990. "But once those voices get out there—once you are able to see the domestic life through the lens of politics and see the lens of politics through domestic life—people begin to see what's possible." Possible, that is, no matter where you do your work.
Politics of Passion: Plays of Anthony Minghella and No End of Blame run in repertory through July 14 at Atlantic Stage 2, 330 W. 16th St., NYC. For tickets, call (800) 838-3006 or go to www.brownpapertickets.com.