Round House Revival

Round House Revival

How artistic director Ryan Rilette has transformed the Bethesda theater into one of the D.C. area's best

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Photo by Liz Lynch

Editor’s note: Errors that appeared in this story in the January/February 2018 issue of the magazine have been corrected.

Ryan Rilette was sitting on his wife’s parents’ couch in Atlanta in late 2005 when he discovered the script that would change his life as an artist. 

At the time, he was the producing artistic director of New Orleans’ Southern Rep Theatre. He’d sought refuge in Atlanta after Hurricane Katrina ravaged his home and his city—and closed down the theater company—in August of that year. He frequently shuttled between the two cities, and his days in New Orleans were full of mold-infested walls, maggot-covered refrigerators and deserted neighborhoods. That day in Atlanta, Rilette felt an immediate connection to Kimberly Akimbo, a dark comedy about a teenager who has a disease that causes her body to age rapidly and is convinced that she’s actually the normal one in her family. A funny but sad survival saga, the play examines how hard it can be to live with other people, and Rilette thought it was perfect for Katrina refugees who’d spent months living with extended family.  

He staged the play for a reopened Southern Rep in May 2006, and residents flocked to see it.  Rilette then tapped even deeper into the community’s shared experience by commissioning Rising Water, which tells the story of a husband and wife hunkered down in their attic to escape the floodwaters below. Rilette directed the world premiere of the play in 2007. New Orleanians found comfort—and rediscovered laughter—in “talk backs” after the play, he says, gatherings where they could recount their own stories of terror and loss, with the help of counselors he’d invited. 

“I thought, ‘Oh, this is how you do this,’ ” says Rilette, now artistic director of Bethesda’s Round House Theatre. “People needed to talk. We were all deeply scarred. We needed to hear stories, tell stories, laugh together, cry together. Often theater is a luxury. Storytelling is a necessity. It’s like Joan Didion said: ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’”

 

Round House Theatre in Bethesda. Photo courtesy of Round House Theatre?

More than a decade later, the hurricane and its aftermath still shape Rilette’s work in the theater. He’s never forgotten how the post-Katrina audience responded to Southern Rep shows—including Rising Water—and his experience at the theater company taught him that what happens onstage is just the beginning. “Part of our mission at Round House is to produce plays that demand conversation,” Rilette says, “so we think deeply about the discussions that we want our work to provoke, and we pay close attention to the ways that our work intersects with the present moment.” 


Round House Theatre co-produced Angels in America in the fall of 2016. Photo courtesy of Round House Theatre.

When Round House co-produced Tony Kushner’s Angels in America—a play set in the mid-’80s, at the beginning of the AIDS crisis—with Olney Theatre Center in the fall of 2016, the Republican National Committee had just passed what some called its most anti-LGBTQ platform in history. “Roy Cohn, a central character in the play, was once again in the news because of his [earlier] association with then-candidate Trump. And just as we were starting to rehearse Belize’s speech where he says, ‘the white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing, he set the word free to a note so high nobody could reach it,’ Colin Kaepernick [was] starting to get national attention for taking a knee,” Rilette recalls. “Those contemporary points of reference became a focus for our conversations with our audience.”


The lobby at Round House. Photo courtesy of Round House Theatre.

Before Rilette joined Round House in 2012, the theater was struggling to fill seats. His second day on the job, Rilette was told that there wasn’t enough cash to make payroll that week. Things are different now. The current season opened with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, also co-produced with Olney Theatre, which became the top-selling show in Round House’s 41-year history. The 2016-2017 season was Round House’s highest grossing ever. Last March, Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks called Round House “the current meteor in D.C. theater.” He also wrote: “To the Big Five in Washington theater, we should be adding a sixth.” 

During Rilette’s time at Round House, the 395-seat theater has shed its debt and increased its operating revenue by 66 percent (from $2.9 million to $4.8 million), netted dozens of awards—it won two Helen Hayes Awards in 2017 alone—and catalyzed downtown Bethesda’s emerging reputation as a cultural hub. “Round House has made such a searing transformation since Ryan arrived five years ago, in terms of the quality and type of work that appears onstage,” says Managing Director Ed Zakreski, who left D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company for Round House in 2016. “On the business side, it’s the growth of ticket sales and financial stability that will let Round House reach to be one of the great theaters.” 

 
Photo by Liz Lynch

Rilette, 44, began acting in plays as a high school senior. His all-boys school in New Orleans announced that an all-girls school was looking for two boys for its production of Bye Bye Birdie. He auditioned in hopes of meeting girls, he says, and ended up getting the part—and finding a girlfriend. That summer, Rilette accompanied her on an audition for a community theater production of Merrily We Roll Along, and both got a part. The same summer, his father, Gary, died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 44. “I was very, very close to my father, and [a] therapist I talked to suggested I find ways to express what I was feeling,” Rilette says. “Theater was how I expressed what I was feeling.”

Rilette started college in the fall at Tulane University in New Orleans, and he didn’t act again until he transferred to nearby Loyola University as a junior. He hoped to become a journalist, and when he learned that Loyola offered a dual drama and communications degree, he figured he’d do it. That year, a theater professor suggested he apply for the elite American Conservatory Theater’s (ACT) Summer Training Congress in San Francisco. After attending the program that summer, he began to think about acting as a serious career option. “I was really energized after that, but I still wasn’t committed,” Rilette says. “I applied to the top three grad schools [for acting] in the country and figured if I don’t get in, it’s the world telling me it wasn’t meant to be.”


Rilette met actor Derek Cecil, who has played Seth Grayson on Netflix’s House of Cards, when they were in graduate school, and the two still get together when Cecil’s in town. Photo courtesy of Ryan Rilette

In 1995, Rilette was accepted into ACT’s master of fine arts program for acting. He and his wife, Christy, who’d met as juniors at Loyola, moved to San Francisco, where Rilette found himself surrounded by people who’d grown up going to shows and acting in community theater. “Growing up, theater for me was Mardi Gras and the Catholic Church,” Rilette says. He was determined to fill in what he saw as gaps in his education, and spent hours in the library learning about how theaters functioned. Derek Cecil, who has played Seth Grayson on Netflix’s House of Cards since 2014, went to ACT with Rilette and recalls how he would voraciously read new plays. He says Rilette remains “the best-read actor” he has ever met.

At the end of Rilette’s first year of grad school, classmate Dennis Trainor Jr. asked him to direct a play he’d written. The show, Plug, received critical acclaim, and Rilette’s professors suggested that he might have a promising career as a director. After graduating in 1997, he and Christy relocated to New York City, where she attended graduate school for library science and he took a day job in publishing. In his free time, he and Trainor founded the Rude Mechanicals Theater Company, and Rilette served as artistic director. Three years later, Rilette and his wife returned to New Orleans. He was suffering from burnout after devoting nights and weekends to Rude Mechanicals, and looking forward to focusing on the publishing job he’d found in his hometown. When he was asked to co-star in a production of Sweet Bird of Youth at a Tennessee Williams festival, he declined. Unless the director position was open, he needed a break from theater, he said. He got a call a few weeks later: The director was pregnant and looking for a replacement. Rilette accepted the job. 

A board member from Southern Rep who was in the audience for that play asked Rilette if she could pick his brain for ideas about revitalizing the failing theater company. Soon after, he was offered a job there as producing artistic director. Rilette thought about his father’s death and wondered whether he’d ever found enjoyment in his career as vice president of an electrical engineering firm. “My dad was in a high-stress field, and he worked way, way too hard,” Rilette says. “I had fallen in love with theater, and I guess I figured that if I chose something I loved to do for my career, it might just keep me alive longer.”

He accepted the position on a part-time basis in 2002, and said if he could turn the theater company around in six months he would make it his full-time job. Six months later, Rilette stood in his boss’ office at the publishing company to tell him he was leaving to work at Southern Rep. “Before I could tell him, he said, ‘I have great news. There’s an opening for publisher of the Virginia Beach business newspaper, and I want you to take it,’ ” Rilette says. “It was a six-figure job. I said, ‘Stop talking. I’m leaving to take a theater job that pays $32,000 a year.’” 

 

Rilette (far right) as part of “The Memphis Mafia” on the set of Elvis, a 2005 CBS miniseries. Photo courtesy of Ryan Rilette

On an August evening, about 60 people are milling around in the lobby at Round House Theatre, sipping wine and nibbling on cheese and French bread. A large blowup of the Washington Post story proclaiming Round House as one of the area’s top six theaters sits on an easel like a masterpiece painting.

The reception follows an “Inside Look” event designed to give theatergoers who’ve donated money to Round House a chance to meet the artists and director involved in a performance. Tonight’s guests are talking about I’ll Get You Back Again, scheduled to make its world premiere a couple of months later. 

“World premieres are what make a theater a great theater,” Rilette says.

New plays also can be risky to stage, as they lack the road tests of audience responses and critics’ reviews. The risks paid off for Rilette in New Orleans: Southern Rep’s budget quadrupled in three years, and the theater company won a series of local awards. During that time, Rilette built Southern Rep’s reputation for producing world premieres, and the theater company joined the National New Play Network, an organization he would go on to lead as president. The growth came despite an eight-month hiatus after Hurricane Katrina, during which Rilette was the company’s only employee. He held benefit readings and fundraisers at theaters around the country as he worked to rebuild Southern Rep, as well as his own home. 

In January 2007, the Rilettes became the parents of twins, Mia and Caroline. Rilette started rehearsals at Southern Rep the following week, and it seemed life was back on track. But that June, as the heat returned to New Orleans, the Rilettes realized their home was still full of mold. He started applying for jobs elsewhere. In 2008, the family moved across the country after Rilette was hired as producing director of the San Francisco Bay area’s Marin Theatre Company. During four seasons there, the theater company produced six of the top 10 best-selling shows in its 45-year history and increased annual revenue from $1.8 million to $3.3 million, Rilette says. He credits his time at Marin with helping him hone his financial management skills, which Rilette says have been essential to his work at Round House. He had to find creative solutions for financial problems—he sold the theater’s roof rights to help the organization start a reserve fund, and worked with a nonprofit finance fund to learn more about nonprofit management. 

As his daughters approached school age, Rilette started yearning for a return to a position as artistic director, and he knew he needed to find a job in a place with a great school system. When the position at Round House came up, Rilette applied. Mitch Dupler, a nine-year veteran and current president of the Round House board of trustees, says the panel was drawn to the fact that Rilette was as skillful a financial manager as he was an artistic director. “He started to discuss how doing spreadsheets was almost a hobby of his, a mark of a very strong business sense, and that has proven indispensable,” Dupler says.

Board members told Rilette the job wouldn’t be easy. The theater had struggled to keep up in a competitive market. “There were a number of things about the challenge that appealed to me, and one of those things was the financial management,” Rilette says. “The thing is, Round House was worse off financially than the board even realized.”

 

In 1970, the Montgomery County Department of Recreation launched Street ’70, a program that provided educational outreach in schools and staged performances throughout the county. Seven years later, county officials offered Street ’70 space to perform in the former Bushey Drive Elementary School in Wheaton. The school’s round building inspired the theater’s name, which came shortly after the move. In 1982, Round House Theatre incorporated as a nonprofit but remained part of the county’s recreation department until 1993, when it separated and became a nonprofit professional theater. Today, in addition to its main stage in Bethesda, it maintains a six-classroom education center, administrative offices and rehearsal space in Silver Spring, along with a scene shop and a storage facility in Rockville.

When Rilette accepted the position at Round House and moved his family to Potomac, the theater was projecting a surplus for the year. But there were still significant financial challenges, Rilette says, including a lack of liquidity and $570,000 in debt that the theater had taken on during the recession. Knowing that ticket sales alone would never erase that amount, Rilette sought forgiveness of some of the debt and worked with past donors to restructure endowment gifts they had given to Round House, which enabled the establishment of a line of credit with a bank. 

In 2013, Round House suffered a second blow. In addition to its main stage, the theater company had been operating a second space, which was owned by the county—a simple and unadorned performance venue with black walls and a flat floor—next door to the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring. Rilette had looked forward to staging new plays there, but several smaller theater companies had been leasing the space from Round House, and they protested when they learned that Round House wanted to restrict their access. 

“I had huge plans for what we wanted to do there,” Rilette says. “We fought for a while, but we eventually realized our best move was to let it go. It ended up being a phenomenal decision, because it forced us to focus on making our main stage stronger.” 


In 2017, Rilette played Andréy in No Sisters at Studio Theatre. Photo courtesy of Ryan Rilette

Rilette spent the next year and a half working with the board to answer some big questions: Who are we? Who are our audience members? Who do we want to be going forward? He imagined differentiating Round House by producing challenging plays from international playwrights, and becoming a leader in gender parity by producing plays written by women. Round House would be somewhere between Arena Stage and Studio Theatre in D.C., Rilette thought—not as commercial and classic as Arena, not as intimate and avant-garde as Studio. Rilette also set a goal of hiring mostly local actors. 

“[The] D.C. market is maybe one of the strongest markets for actors in the country,” he says. “Like any regional market, there is a lack of depth in certain areas as a result of people going to places like New York. But it has never been a struggle to fulfill the value of hiring local actors.” 

Rilette and the board agreed that it was important to continue Round House’s mission of theater education. That led to programs such as the Teen Performance Company, which offers free master classes with the region’s best actors, and Play It Forward, which provides roughly 800 free tickets to high school students each season. Rilette also began to tune into his new audience. Round House theatergoers, he says, are highly intelligent, politically astute and well-educated, unlikely to be satisfied by a play that merely entertains. “Some audiences are happy with a super-visceral play that doesn’t open up into a larger conversation about the world,” says Rilette, who still acts from time to time. “Not here. Here, plays need to have some larger idea in them.”

Rilette opened the 2015-2016 season with the world premiere of Ironbound, an immigrant tale from Martyna Majok that ran as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. He went on to forge a partnership with Olney Theatre Center in 2016 and ignite the box office with Angels in America. During the 2016-2017 season, the theater’s best, attendance grew to 42,293, a 19 percent increase over the previous season. The theater won a string of Helen Hayes Awards, including the Charles MacArthur Award for original new play or musical for Ironbound. “Even though it wasn’t a huge commercial hit, that felt like a big, monumental achievement,” Rilette says. 

Rilette has also incubated new plays by hosting—and sometimes directing—other world premieres, and has realized his goal of including plays written by women in at least half of the theater’s programming. And he’s hired local actors for the majority of parts.

Rilette says he regularly enjoys moments that underscore what he loves about working at Round House. At a November rehearsal for The Book of Will, written by Lauren Gunderson, he recalls suggesting that actor Todd Scofield make a small adjustment during a scene with Maboud Ebrahimzadeh. The resulting scene involving the two local actors “was so beautiful, I was openly crying in rehearsal,” Rilette says. “I was tired going into rehearsals, but you get a moment like that and it’s impossible not to feel energized by it.”

Rilette’s twins, Mia and Caroline, are now fifth-graders at Beverly Farms Elementary School in Potomac. The girls have both acted, playing no-neck monsters in Round House’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 2016 and alternating the role of Kayden in Baby Screams Miracle at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in early 2017. They’ve also become ardent theater fans, and they begged their dad to take them back to see In the Heights—the hit musical about life in a Latino neighborhood in New York City—after falling in love with the show the first time they saw it. When Rilette and his daughters returned to Olney Theatre Center, where the joint production was running, they sat behind a group of Latino high school students who were speaking to one another in Spanish. For Rilette, the experience highlighted why he values diversity in programming. “[The students’] pure, unmitigated joy in seeing themselves onstage was infectious on a level that is hard to describe,” he says. 

Rilette says he’s just getting started at Round House, with plans to create new-play and resident-artist programs in the coming years. “As the community grows, if its institutions don’t grow with it, that community will be out of balance,” he says. “We intend to keep growing.”

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