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The Collation

“The Problem of the Theatre”

On May 7, performances begin for Folger Theatre’s production of Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of Metamorphoses, the final production of our 2023-2024 homecoming season. Its run will coincide with the reopening of the renovated and reimagined Folger. While changes in the theater these past few years were not as dramatic as other parts of the building, the history of the Folger’s Elizabethan-style theater has many twists and turns.

Since 1991, Folger Theatre has produced over 100 plays, garnering 158 Helen Hayes Award nominations and 31 wins. It is a vital part of the work we do in connecting audiences to Shakespeare’s works and his legacies. It’s easy to assume the intention was always to produce plays in this beautiful, intimate setting. But the history, as it tends to be, is more complicated than you would think.

Even before the building opened to the public, the purpose of the theater was somewhat unclear. Writing to consulting architect Alexander B. Trowbridge in 1929, Henry Folger stated what he felt the priorities should be:

“We must try to keep in mind that our enterprise is, first of all, a Library, and while there are other features which we hope will be interesting to the public, that of the “Library” is all important. It will therefore be unwise to consider anything in connection with the theatre [sic] construction which encroaches on the space set aside for the main library room.”1

The space was not properly zoned for a theater when it opened in 1932, nor brought up to the necessary fire codes, which could indicate a disinterest in the performance of plays. Yet dressing rooms were built, professional lighting was included, and the East Wing of the building was given its own entrance in seeming anticipation of audiences needing access to the area.2 

It is easy to see then why there was confusion about the space when the building opened in 1932, with the Sunday New York Times speculating “. . . the most popular probably of all objects of this vast expenditure, and most far-reaching in its influence, will be the glamorous little theatre in the library’s east wing…” while American Architect enthused “One can imagine nothing more delightful than to witness, say, a performance of Romeo and Juliet  . . . in this most attractive setting.”3

But a performance would not be seen in the space until 1949, when the The Masquers of Amherst College performed Julius Caesar for a week of sell-out performances and a televised broadcast. Being “a critical hit with the Washington press” and well received by audiences, it heightened the appetite for productions to continue.4

Julius Caesar in the Folger Theatre. Folger Shakespeare Library: Folger Archives.

Publicly, the Folger was enthusiastic about the idea. A 1950 Washington Post column reported that “The Folger is not only willing but anxious to play a greater part in the community life than it has,” while then-Director Louis B. Wright declared his intention to bring the Folger into the second half of the 20th century, saying, “I haven’t the foggiest idea of sitting up with a corpse or running a mausoleum.” 5

Internally, it was another story. Wright may not have been interested in running a mausoleum, but he nonetheless declared “The Folger Library’s main responsibility is to the few, to the leaders of the humanities, to the scholar who can use most effectively its source materials in history and literature.” 6 

An exasperated Appendix to the 1954 Annual Report titled “The Problem of the Theatre” reads like a beleaguered parent explaining yet again why no, you cannot get a puppy, no matter how much you promise to walk it. Practical reasons included requiring structural changes and additional fireproofing, sound proofing in various spaces including the boiler room (“I doubt if that could be done successfully”), and the fact that new regulations since the building’s construction would have to be honored, which “would alert District authorities to our lack of conformity and might cost us a great deal of money and untold grief.”7

Hiring would be a problem, with a designated theater space requiring two additional guards to keep both sets of doors open, telephone operators to respond to ticket requests, and engineers (“Engineers at the moment are almost unobtainable”), not to mention, “We would be stuck with two union electricians all the time” (original emphasis).8

To cap it off, there was a great deal of concern about the theater’s limited capacity and its popularity as an exhibition:

“People come from a great distance to study it … If we shut it off for rehearsals and play performances, the amount of ill-will engendered would offset any good-will from the few people who might hope to see a play there. . . The auditorium is so small that only 260 spectators are accommodated…The necessity of limiting the audience drastically is also conducive to ill-will among people who cannot get seats.”9

For these reasons, the annual report grumpily asserts “as now constructed, we cannot operate a theatre and a library” (original emphasis) nor could the Folger “ever operate a theatre and a library satisfactorily.”10

Thankfully, this proved an erroneous prophecy. In 1969, O. B. Hardison succeeded Wright as the Library’s director, pushing the Folger Shakespeare Library to become more open and to better serve the public. In 1970, the Folger Theatre Group was founded.

Despite its intimate size, the theater has since continued to draw audiences to visit the Folger all year long. There were several iterations of theatrical producing endeavors once the decision was made in 1970 to begin staging plays as a full time practice, from The Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger, which became an independent entity in 1985 and went on to become the Shakespeare Theatre Company now in Penn Quarter, to the newly renamed and reinvigorated Folger Theatre which began in the early 1990s under the direction of Janet Alexander Griffin. 

Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet Photography.
The Reading Room 2024. Photo by Peggy Ryan.

Today’s Folger Theatre, led by Artistic Director Karen Ann Daniels since 2021, continues to build on the work of these predecessors who could see the extraordinary potential of our intimate stage. The theater became the first part of the building to open to the public after a multi-year renovation, welcoming over 10,000 people to our 2023 production of The Winter’s Tale. The Reading Room Festival gives emerging and established playwrights an opportunity to present their works inspired by and in conversation with Shakespeare’s plays. What’s more, the continued activation of Folger Theatre’s physical space has provided a catalyst for projects that include commissioned new works and touring productions within DC, connecting with people where they are and supporting increased awareness of the incredible work being done across the institution.

When Metamorphoses begins next month, it will showcase theater’s magical power to enact transformations through sound, lighting, movement, and costumes while also exploring where our stories come from. Furthermore, its all-Black cast—a first for Folger Theatre—specifically seeks to reflect the DC community within our space, demonstrating Shakespeare’s relevance to the city’s residents and beyond.

As we continue to expand the kinds of stories we can tell, we look forward to welcoming more people from the District and across the country to our home on Capitol Hill.

We can’t wait to see you here.

The company of 'Metamorphoses' at first rehearsal, directed by Psalmayene 24. Scenic design by Lawrence E. Moten III. Photo: Peggy Ryan.
  1. Henry Folger to Alexander B. Trowbridge, 20 May 1929. Folger Shakespeare Library: FA_57_12_035_HCFolger_to_ABTrowbridge_19290520.
  2. In an earlier letter to Trowbridge, Folger advocates for moving the placement to the building line of 3rd St rather than the middle of the plot to increase the space between the west end of the building and 2nd St. He concludes that “It is quite in keeping with a Theatre project to have it as near the side-walk of the street as possible.” Henry Folger to Alexander B. Trowbridge, 13 February 1929. Folger Shakespeare Library: FA_57_12_013_HCFolger_to_ABTrowbridge_19290213.
  3. Barnard, Eunice Fuller. “The Folger Shakespeare Library.” New York Times Magazine. 4 October 1931; Sukert, Lancelot. “Folger Shakespeare Library.” American Architect, 4-16. September 1932.
  4. “Revival in Washington,” League of Wesley Heights, May 1949; Carmody, Jay. ‘Folger Theatre Brought to Life ‘Julius Caesar,’ Star. 29 March 1949; Coe, Richard L. ‘The Folger is Eager to Use its Stage.’ Washington Post. 11 January 1950.
  5. Coe; “Revival in Washington.”
  6. Louis B. Wright: A Bibliography and Appreciation. Charlottesville: University Press of Virgnia, 1968, pg 37. As quoted in Ellis-Tolaydo, Michael. “The Only Show is Not on Stage: The Folger Shakespeare Library and its semiotic effect upon The Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger,” April 22, 1991.
  7. “Appendix: The Problem of the Theatre.” From Folger Shakespeare Library Annual Report. January 1954. 1-2.
  8. Ibid. 3.
  9. Ibid. 2-3.
  10. Ibid. 2.

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