The new Harman Center for the Arts is being constructed for $77-million and will include the flexible 800-seat Sidney Harman Theatre, to be located on F Street, between Sixth and Seventh Streets NW. The Shakespeare Theatre's existing home, the 451-seat Lansburgh Theatre, located less than 100 yards away at 450 7th Street NW, will continue to operate during construction and after the 2007 launch, making the company a two-venue operation, with music, dance and other events — as well as Shakespeare plays — programmed into the new theatre.
The buildings are "unified by a common artistic mission: to make possible the performance of a larger number and broader range of classical works by The Shakespeare Theatre, while also creating opportunities to feature outstanding local, regional, national and international performing arts companies in a wide variety of disciplines."
Reflecting this change, The Shakespeare Theatre will alter its name in the spring of 2004 to become the Shakespeare Theatre Company, the driving force of the new arts center.
The troupe bills the area of Washington as the "epicenter of the city's downtown arts and entertainment district." The new theatre is named in honor of philanthropist Dr. Sidney Harman (a Shakespeare Theatre trustee) and the Harman family.
The design team for the new Sidney Harman Theatre consists of A.J. (Jack) Diamond of Diamond and Schmitt Architects Incorporated from Toronto, theatre consultant Joshua Dachs of Fisher Dachs Associates of New York City, and acoustician Rick Talaske of the Chicago-based Talaske Group, Inc. Together "they have designed a transformable, adaptable interior space that will accommodate a variety of presentations in drama, dance, jazz, chamber music, poetry and film," according to the Dec. 4 announcement.
JM Zell Partners, LTD. will serve as the theatre project managers, coordinating the design work and representing The Shakespeare Theatre during construction.
According to the troupe, run by artistic director Michael Kahn and managing director Nicholas T. Goldsborough, "Flexible configurations will allow for a proscenium, thrust, semi-arena or bare stage. Whatever the physical dynamic, the distance from the stage will remain the same as in the existing Lansburgh Theatre, maintaining the same level of intimacy in both venues. Acoustically, the space is designed to accommodate the spoken word and is also easily adaptable for chamber music as well as amplified and recorded music."
Through its lead gift of $15 million, The Harman Family Foundation is the Center's largest single private donor. In addition, The District of Columbia has invested $20 million in the form of a grant, supported by Mayor Anthony Williams and unanimously approved by the City Council.
"One key reason for the city’s $20 million grant," stated Nicholas T. Goldsborough "is the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s commitment to reserve 10 percent all tickets to Company productions at $10."
To date, The Shakespeare Theatre has raised $42.5 million, which includes the City's grant, the Harman family gift, and pledges from board members and other outside sources.
"Our downtown should be a vibrant, 18-hour neighborhood, with housing, retail, arts and entertainment at its core." Mayor Anthony A. Williams said in a statement. "The new Harman Center gets us one step closer to that goal. By supporting this project, we're drawing people from across the city and the Mall into our downtown—and creating more jobs and new revenue for our city."
"This center is sure to change our perception of our world, of our very humanity, and of ourselves," artistic director Kahn said. "The Shakespeare Theatre will be able to fulfill its vision of creating a national classical theatre, while it also reaches out to embrace its sister arts of music, dance, film and the spoken word, drawing audiences from around the corner and around the world. The creation of the Harman Center for the Arts is the realization of this expanded mission."
In a statement, Kahn explained the nature of the new facility: "The Harman Center for the Arts will not be a Center in the traditional physical sense of the term—with multiple spaces linked under one roof like the Barbican Centre in London and the Kennedy Center in Washington, or existing geographically on the same parcel of land or campus like Lincoln Center," said Kahn. "We chose the term because it speaks more to the institution we will become. 'Center' refers to the great variety and various combinations of presentations that we will be offering to the public, either separately or simultaneously at the Sidney Harman Theatre and the Lansburgh Theatre."
Michael Kahn established an artistic advisory group to assist in developing and programming the Harman Center. Companies on the advisory group include: The Washington Performing Arts Society, the Washington Ballet, Washington Gay Men’s Chorus, Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, Dance Place, Dana Tai Soon Burgess and the Moving Forward Dance Company, the Washington Bach Consort, and programs of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, among others.
Some programs "will illuminate The Shakespeare Theatre's own productions by offering context and commentary." For example, "a recital might feature various composers' settings of Shakespeare's songs, or a film series might screen different adaptations of Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet."
Unanimously approved by the Historic Preservation Review Board, the Sidney Harman Theatre, at 620 F Street NW, will occupy the first five and one-half floors of an 11 story office tower. The glass curtain wall of the façade will feature a projecting glass bay or "urban window" functioning as a three-story marquee, drawing in passersby to the light and movement within the theatre’s lobby on its orchestra and balcony levels.
"Some people find Shakespeare, music and dance remote, mysterious and intimidating," says Jack Diamond. "That is why the design emphasizes a welcoming transparency. It also creates a truly democratic experience. The entrance to the theatre is right at street level off the sidewalk. There isn't any ceremonial staircase or colonnade but direct access to the life of the building, immediately connecting the visitor to it and, from within, to the urban rhythm and fabric of the city."
Why is the Harman Theatre a flexible black box?
"The beauty of the classic works of literature is that they are open-ended and possess the ability to be infinitely re interpretable," states Michael Kahn. "The theatre's total flexibility will allow artists to imagine different ways to produce, perform or think of a classical play. We didn't want to be tyrannized by a fixed architecture that dictated the presentation style. Our inventive design team, especially with the insight of Josh Dachs, has given us a space where the architecture of the environment will be created by the style of the presentation."
The Shakespeare Theatre moved to its current home at the Lansburgh Theatre in 1992 at a time when downtown Washington was experiencing a period of urban decline. Today, the neighborhood is alive with restaurants, apartments and businesses. Michael Kahn has been artistic director since 1986.