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Washington, DC’s Constellation Theatre: High Aims and Lofty Success

Constellation Theatre is one of Washington, DC’s under-the-radar wonders. Founded in 2007, the theater company, in its intimate space, has quietly been doing the big things that theater alone can do. With a BA in religion from Princeton and an MFA in directing from Carnegie Mellon, founding artistic director Allison Stockman set out to do epic, ensemble plays that would engage the audience imaginatively, create a sense of shared ritual and community, and tackle the big questions of what it means to be human. Non-naturalistic plays with heightened language and physicality and large casts–for a new theater company, that seems like a recipe for financial stress. But Constellation has succeeded, winning the John Aniello Award for Best Emerging Theater Company in 2009, drawing ever stronger audiences (almost half of last year’s shows were sold out), and garnering glowing reviews.

I spoke with Allison Stockman about Constellation’s success and the company’s current production, Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding, which runs through March 4, at Source Theater.

PD: Why did you choose Blood Wedding?

AS: It’s a beautiful play, and it’s a great ensemble show. It fits our mission really well because it’s epic in terms of theme, and the language is elevated and beautiful. There are opportunities for heightened movement, and there were design opportunities to transport our audience to another place. It’s had my attention for years because it doesn’t sit the house of naturalism—it’s more symbolic. Mariano Valis composed original music, and we have a guitarist named Behzad Habibzai, who we were lucky to find. The integration of the music into the show is part of what makes this production special.

The translation [by Tanya Ronder] is sparser and more contemporary than some of the other ones. And I’ve heard feedback that people say, I miss some of the poetry, which I think is fair. That being said, there is a lot of poetry in the show. In a lot of ways it feels like a ritual, it feels almost religious with the music, this really visceral imagery of a human moon and death being personified. Something that’s unique about this translation, as well, is that Death is onstage from the beginning, whereas usually that character doesn’t appear until the third act. The first third is composed of these realistic domestic scenes, then there’s the wedding, which has a lot of music and some dance and a party feeling, and then the last third is sort of surreal, and that’s when the moon comes out and Death begins to speak. There’s something interesting that Lorca’s doing in that the play evolves styles, within itself, which I think is appealing but also a challenge.

Some people have seen Blood Wedding as a cautionary tale, that if the characters had toed the line, things would have been ok. But another way to look at it, which is the way I think people in Spain look at it, is it’s a cautionary tale to not try to tame your instincts or passion. If you feel you have to go somewhere, you have to do it, and to deny yourself that will just lead you on a road to misery—which is appealing and frightening but exciting—this idea of seeking your passions.

PD: It takes courage to start a theater company. What has made it work so well?

AS: The number of artists involved with it who are really dedicated to it and have contributed so much of their talent and energy and enthusiasm to making it work. It feels like a family right now. We have thirty associate artists, including actors, stage managers, master electricians, the technical director, the woman who runs the box office staff. What they do as associate artists ranges from getting the word out about the shows to throwing the opening and closing night parties. And we also have other people we work with repeatedly and they’re very invested in the company. I sometimes joke that in starting it, I knew just enough to do it with some degree of success but not enough to know not to do it. Which I think is really true. Even though I had self-produced a fair amount of work and had helped run a smaller theater company before, there were so many things that I didn’t even forsee. But my managing director is also our resident designer, and he’s amazing, he does scenic and lighting design and does our books and website, all our graphics. So I’m grateful because I went into it not knowing that I had that kind of partner.

PD: You have some unique events for your members.

AS: For a membership of just $25, donors can attend a public design presentation. It’s a great event for us because it allows us to engage them in the process early. We show them a preview of the scenic design, the costume design, the music, and props. And we also do ten to fifteen minutes of the play, with actors reading parts of scenes to introduce all the characters, and we talk about why we chose the play and its particular challenges. We also invite them to a thirty to forty-five minute minute technical rehearsal at the end of our tech weekend.

PD: And you have a cocktail party?

AS: This great couple, Sara Cormeny—the president of our board— and Pete Miller, the president of Woolly Mammoth’s board about three years ago invited me to lunch and said we really love what you’re doing and we’d like to help you raise money and get more people in the house. It was like these angels descending!   They have been mentors to me.  The cocktail party is an idea about fundraising that leads to fundraising.  We have a cocktail party, getting people together before the show—artists and donors or potential donors—and going to see the play together. It’s a good time.

PD: What’s next?

AS: We’re doing The Metamorphoses this spring. It’s a beautiful adaptation—a great combination of poetic, powerful, very human, and there’s lot of humor in it. There’s an overall message of love and how that’s the most powerful thing in the universe and should be honored as such. The play begins and ends with the tale of Midas, whose golden touch leads him to make his daughter gold, and he has to travel to the ends of the earth to lose the Midas touch, to make her human again.

PD: What kind of experience are you trying to provide your audience that isn’t being provided by other theaters?

AS: What I think is special about what Constellation does is that we do large ensemble shows with a dedication to design and production values in a very intimate space. So the audience is both transported to another world—most of the plays we do are international—where they can have an experience and can return to their everyday life, hopefully with a revitalized perspective on the world. And because we are small theater, it has the power of really feeling like a community experience. I was a comparative religion major undergrad, so I am very interested in ritual, in the sense that when we come together to see a live performance there’s something about being in the room as a group that is very powerful that can’t be achieved when you’re watching TV or a movie at home. I love pretty much every kind of theater, but I do see contemporary plays that I think would also be great on film. What Constellation does are things that can only be done in live theater, and that require a leap of faith on the part of the audience, where they have to use their imagination to complete the picture. Many of our plays have the same actor playing multiple roles. From a really philosophical point of view I love that because it sends a message subconsciously that that we are of our own creation, that we decide who we are based on our actions and words, not just by our human shells. So in some ways it’s a message of freedom: you can be whoever you want to be.