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Washington, DC’s WSC Avant Bard Mixes Classic Themes with Bold Innovation

Frank Britton in "The Bacchae"

Until the drumming began and the guitars wound their gypsy music across the stage and members of the chorus began to gyrate, I didn’t realize how much I was longing to see something new.

I shouldn’t be surprised that I found it at WSC Avant Bard’s production of “The Bacchae.” Although the play premiered in 405 BC, WSC Avant Bard managed to infuse it with energy, excitement, and novelty. This approach aligned perfectly with the company’s mission to produce classic works in a provocative, bold way.

From 1990 until last year, WSC Avant Bard was known as the Washington Shakespeare Company. But in an area with the venerable, well-funded Shakespeare Theatre Company and the esteemed Folger Theatre, which mainly produces works by Shakespeare, the Washington Shakespeare Company deemed a name change advisable, not only to distinguish itself but to hint at its more progressive ambitions.

WSC Avant Bard, for example, has done a production of “Macbeth,” with all of the characters in the nude throughout; an all-female production of “The Taming of the Shrew”; and a production titled “By Any Other Name: An Evening of Shakespeare in Klingon,” which was exactly what it sounds like.

WSC Avant Bard’s relationship to the community is unique. While the Shakespeare Theatre Company features actors from around the country, WSC Avant Bard employs local actors, training and showcasing the best emerging talent in the region.

WSC Avant Bard moved last year to an intimate black box theater in Arlington County’s new Artisphere, an immense and lovely space for art of all kinds. If Washington, DC, itself is a mixture of stodginess and innovation—the heart of the establishment, besieged daily by the scrappy groups that fight for change—WSC Avant Bard is a fully representative local company. But its work feels much newer and much more exciting—in fact, much more inspiring of belief—than any other “change” around these parts.