Washington, D.C. is overrun with two things every summer: mosquitoes and theatre. The cause of the former is the swampland on which our nation’s capital rests. The latter owes its existence to a kinder, gentler Source – the Source Theatre Company, that is. In a city whose idea of drama is a filibuster on the Senate floor, the Source’s annual Washington Theatre Festival has helped nourish a vibrant homegrown theatre community. Over the past 14 seasons, the festival has become a delivery room for new work, which would make the company’s producing artistic director Pat Murphy Sheehy a midwife of sorts.
The festival encompasses some 40 to 50 original works over a 10-to-12-week span, setting a force of more than 100 local actors, directors, designers and stage managers into action. Why do they do it? “The challenge,” offers Sheehy. “There is something special about a situation that forces you to deal with the bare bones of what theatre is – communicating. You rediscover that imagination is the key thing.”
The productions, ranging from full-scale to script-in-hand readings, are mounted in a whirlwind race against time and money. Intrepid artists find themselves faced with questions such as: How can one pull off a drama about six Southern women spanning 50 years, three generations and numerous exotic locales, with a few chairs, two actors and one pair of tights in the parlor of an embassy.?
When Sheehy brought a production to the Edinburgh Festival a few years ago, she was amazed by the way that festival seemed to take over the city (“You couldn’t open a public telephone booth without a production going on inside,” she avows), and she took the lesson to heart. Since then, the Washington festival has incorporated public buildings, bookstores, clubs and museums as venues. This year, for example, an evening of plays based on Joan of Arc will be presented at the French embassy. If Sheehy has her way, it may soon be open season on Metro stations.
Few are the Washington-based artists who have not cut their theatrical teeth in a festival production. Recent alumni include D.C.-based playwrights Ernest Joselovitz, T.J. Edwards, Oni Faida Lampley, Lucy Tom Lehrer, Allyson Curnin, Judlyne A. Lilly and Gary Bonasorte. When Sheehy accepted her 1993 Washington Post Award for Distinguished Community Service, she asked those who had participated in a festival to stand and accept the award with her. The handful of people left in their seats applauded.
The challenge of finding, nurturing and sustaining new work and talent has always been the focus of Source’s mission. “What I’ve tried to do with to do with Source,” explains Sheehy, who assumed artistic leadership of the theatre in 1987, “is provide some kind of artistically challenging and supportive place, so that the artist has the chance to work his or her way up…so that there’s a progression.”
Creating a supportive environment, however, has not always been easy. “When I took over the theatre, my goal was to slowly put the theatre on solid financial ground, because you can’t try new things unless you’re stable,” says Sheehy. Over the past six seasons, she has consolidated the Source into a single company-owned space and maintained a stable, if modest, $400,000 budget. “We had been somewhat recession-proof in D.C.,” Sheehy reasons, “since the city’s industries are mainly government and tourism. But we are seeing the recession now. This past year was the most difficult I can remember.”
The economy notwithstanding, there is an optimism about Sheehy which suggests seamless resilience. “You can’t let yourself get worn down by the challenge of raising money,” she asserts. “I have to work against synthesizing everything down to that problem, because it’s a constant with theatres. You have to rise above that and stay focused on the work.”
One senses that if she had her “druthers,” Sheehy would move the festival into more inner-city neighborhoods, or search out and produce more new works that address volatile social issues, like the production she directed last September of Kevin Heelan’s Distant Fires, about a racial conflict in nearby Ocean City, Md. Yet the impulses of Sheehy the artist are tempered with the pragmatism of the producer: “I don’t know how many tickets that kind of committed work sells,” she concedes, “and sometimes you have to think about that.”
Wife and mother and artist
This combination of idealism and pragmatism stems from what she describes as a discrepancy in her personality. “I was all these things you weren’t supposed to be if you were an artist. I had this side of me that was very organized and concerned with the community and the big picture, which didn’t at all fit into the stereotype I grew up with of what an artist was. I guess I had to give myself permission to do all the things I wanted to do – like be a wife and mother and artist and organized.”
Permission manifests itself in involvement: Having served as president of the League of Washington Theatres, chairman of the D.C. Commission on the Arts, and on numerous mayoral task forces, her affiliations extend beyond arts advocacy to such areas as neighborhood development and the restoration of historic theatres. Sheehy likes having this much activity on her plate and seems to thrive on it. “Politics and theatre are a hand-and-glove fit in my life. I guess it’s reflective of what I do at Source – a culmination, striving to find a whole picture of myself.”