The Keegan Theatre
On a little side street in downtown Washington, DC a theatrical gem – The Keegan Theatre – strives to present plays that explore the human condition favoring story and honesty. The Keegan Theatre, starting out eighteen years ago on Church Street, has become a resident theater company.
When we asked the theatre’s Artistic Director Mark Rhea about theater’s mission, he told us: “It has meant asking the questions about what shapes us as humans – either as groups or as individuals and what ultimately connects us as a species. The Keegan Theatre selects shows that ‘ask questions or portray events, conflicts, relationships and situations and how they impact us.’ Typically, we don’t pick plays that answer all the questions or that are easy to watch emotionally or that are filled with spectacle. The directors at Keegan offer clear and authentic storytelling. The acting here is all about honesty and telling the story that the playwright has written; it’s about raw emotion. Most of our directors are actors first, so the directing approach is very actor-oriented. Collaboration is vital at Keegan.”
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We asked how he chooses the plays they put on at the theater. Mr. Rhea told us: “The Keegan Theatre selects works by playwrights who have captured the poetry and rawness of language – playwrights unafraid to explore the recesses of the human condition. We make it okay to talk about the negative emotions people feel – hopelessness, violence, isolation, pain, sorrow, loss or anger and present them in a real and natural way. We aren’t asking our actors to cry ‘crocodile tears,’ but rather portray what they honestly feel. We rely on the authenticity of the playwright’s language to tell the story, not splashy lights, overly designed shows or placing the play on the moon. More often than not the audience leaves emotionally connected to the work.”
We wondered about the process of selecting plays for their season at Keegan. Mr. Rhea went on to say: “Choosing a season is one of the most challenging jobs for any Artistic Director. The theatre uses a committee approach; I work with his Associate Artistic Director, Susan Marie Rhea, (and his wife), and a handful of other staff members. The Keegan likes to have diversity and for every season it produces an Irish play, a classic play (or at least one that is well known), a comedy, a musical, and at times, a world premiere. The theatre is committed to producing world premieres as often as it can, even though they are very seldom financial successes and most often they are the opposite. As difficult as it is financially, it is very important that new works get produced.”
The Keegan’s 2016 season will include: Steve Martin’s “Picasso at The Lapin Agile,” “An American Daughter” by Wendy Wasserstein, “Next to Normal” with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt and Martin McDonagh’s “The Lonesome West.”
Mr. Rhea continued telling us: “It’s important for the theatre to also focus on hiring local artists. Our intimate space allows the audience to immerse themselves in the productions and we don’t really have to compete for audiences because there are so many loyal audience members and subscribers. Through word of mouth, people hear about the unique experience they have at the Keegan Theatre and often once they come to see one show they look for what productions to come to next time.”
We also asked about how they bring new young talent to the theater. He told us: “Nurturing young talent is also very important to the Keegan Theatre. More than anything, we want to give young artists the opportunity to work in a professional theatre environment. We reach out to local universities, have had company members recommend high school students and we call in young artists to audition as roles dictate that we are looking for a certain age bracket. It’s always really exciting to work with young people because they have an abundance of energy and enthusiasm and they are yet to be jaded by criticism and rejection and they are willing to take risks because they haven’t been told ‘no’ too many times. The Keegan Theatre is unique from other theater companies in that it is like a family. Once you’ve been part of the family, you’re always welcome. And in a way, that is more true for our younger talent. For those that do stay, he says it is amazing to watch them grow into more mature actors, and ultimately people as well.”
The Keegan Theatre is expanding its’ youth programming. Their Bright Stars Summer Camp focuses on providing an opportunity for a diverse group of middle school students to connect with each other through theatre. The Keegan Theatre hopes to expand its’ programming to younger students in the future through its’ Wee Keegan program. They presented they’re first main stage family programming production: a delightful new children’s musical, “How to Catch a Leprechaun, by local playwrights Mario Baldessari and Ethan Slater, based on a familiar Irish folktale.
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Mr. Rhea told us: “The Keegan Theatre is strongly committed to Irish playwrights. Irish playwrights have a tradition of dramatic writing that is wrought with raw emotions and situations that challenge us as humans, but never let it break their spirits and sprinkling in humor that comes from a genuine place. I’m very much an Irish-American, and I’ve always felt a strong connection to Irish work, so I wanted to honor that part of my heritage when I started Keegan.”
Twelve Angry Men below Working
The Keegan also has “The Ireland Tours,” which tours an American classic or contemporary play to Ireland. Mr. Rhea added: “The amount of time of each tour varies from four to eight weeks. The shows have traveled to Galway, Kilkenny and Cork. When we perform in Ireland it’s like being welcomed home, whether it is in the pubs after the show or having technicians pitching in to help us."
Mr. Rhea, who grew up in Texas, has been an actor and director all his life. He began directing productions in Texas before moving to the Washington, D.C. area in the early 1990’s, and worked as an actor and director before founding the Keegan Theatre in March of 1996. In high school, he was asked to be in a production, and initially he said declined, but when the director informed him the cast included some young actresses, he joined, and found a love for being in the theater.
Mr. Rhea went on saying: “The Keegan Theatre is producing large musicals and has a passionate, committed board of directors. We’re able to explore more educational outreach opportunities. The biggest challenge is continuing to thrive and produce high quality productions at reasonable prices.” For info: The Keegan Theatre 1742 Church Street, NW Washington, D.C. (202) 265-3767, www.keegantheatre.com