When the Museum of the Bible opens next month, it will include a handsome jewel box of a stage, the 472-seat World Stage Theater. The maiden attraction is “Amazing Grace,” the musical that ran on Broadway for three months in 2015.
But don’t get the idea that the Kennedy Center and the National Theatre suddenly have a new rival across the Mall at Fourth and D streets SW. The niche theater may be more hospitable to choirs and speakers than to full-blown shows.
“If we still had Mark Twain around and he wanted to talk about the Bible,” says Tony Zeiss, the museum’s executive director, “we’d have him in.”
The appealing aspects of the theater include the expansive city views from the fifth and sixth floors; the theater has been constructed above the main exhibit halls to operate fairly independently. (It’s also sound-locked, says lead architect David Greenbaum.) The orchestra seating is no center aisle, and the balcony is only six rows deep. The house feels intimate.
It also feels ultra-cozy because of the sound-deadening soft surfaces — eggplant fabric on the seats and creamy fabric on the walls. The acoustics will be electronically tuned by a system that “reads” the room’s dynamics and makes adjustments for tone and volume.
Even more high-techy is the array of 17 projectors that can illuminate “every inch of the theater,” Greenbaum says. Add the 12 small steel rings mounted in the ceiling, strong enough to suspend actors, and lights even geared to create effects in the walls around the crowd, and the room seems ready for miracles. This brand of spectacle is more up to date, of course, than the old handmade wagon parades and frightening “hellmouths” that medieval towns used for cycles of mystery plays. (Theater history suffers no lack of material dealing with the Bible, from passion plays to theological dramas and musicals both devout and irreverent.)
On the other hand, a few routine features of regular stages are lacking. Wing space is scant, and so is fly space. The stage floor is not trapped (though it’s a sprung floor, friendly to dancers), and there’s no orchestra pit. So don’t look for a parade of Broadway-style musicals — which was never the purpose anyway.
“We want to be a good neighbor in Washington, and we want to reach diverse audiences,” Zeiss says. “So something that may appeal to our Korean population might not appeal to our Hispanic population, and that’s fine. But we want to have something that appeals to everyone at some time.”
The World Stage Theater’s booking agent is California-based John Steenhoven, and a museum committee checks to be sure each project fits the mission, isn’t an overreach, and makes financial sense. (Tickets to “Amazing Grace,” a non-Equity tour launching here, are $85, which includes entry to the museum’s exhibits.) Engagements can run from one night to eight weeks, and apparently the space is already in demand, which surprises Zeiss. “We did not specifically market it,” he says.
The museum’s education department may produce its own programming for the theater, but booked-in acts and speakers figure to dominate. Early examples include a Korean choir also slated for Carnegie Hall this season; two weeks with gospel singer Kirk Cameron; a variety of international scholars; and even a husband and wife who have an original angle on the Bible.
The programming won’t be strictly Christian: “We don’t advocate any religion or faith or doctrine,” Zeiss stresses. “The Bible is the centerpiece for many faiths. We just advocate the Bible, and get people engaged with it.”
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