Founded in 1938 as a summer playhouse, Olney Theatre Center (OTC) now produces year-round world and American premieres of plays and musicals, and reimaginations of familiar titles; presents the work of leading companies; tours nationally and locally; teaches students of all ages; and mentors the next generation of theatremakers. For more than 8 decades, OTC has brought impactful theater performance and education to our community, helping to grow the vibrancy and vitality of our home in central Maryland.
Over the years, some of the biggest names in theater and film have appeared on our stages, including Tallulah Bankhead, Helen Hayes, Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, Bob Fosse, Phillip Bosco, Eve Arden, Eva Gabor, Burl Ives, Jose Ferrer, Carol Channing, Olivia d’Havilland, Tony Randall, Paulette Goddard, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Jane Seymour, Anne Revere, Frances Sternhagen, Arthur Treacher, James Broderick, Olympia Dukakis, Sir Ian McKellen, Marica Gay Harden, John Colicos, Uzo Aduba, Alan Cumming, Cheyenne Jackson, Robin de Jesus, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, among many, many others.
Olney Theatre is now the cultural anchor of a rapidly changing region and serves one of the most diverse, best educated, and wealthiest counties in the country. Situated on the unceded land of the Picataway-Conoy people, the Olney area was once a rural farming community with a unique Quaker heritage. Now the area is occupied by every kind of family that makes up 21st Century America, along with major corporations, shopping districts, civic associations, non profit organizations and a diverse collection of houses of worship. Montgomery County’s 1 million residents play a dynamic role in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, and is a driving force behind the region’s creative economy.
As of January 2020, Olney Theatre Center employed 40 full time staff, 20 part-time positions, 26 early career apprentices and players, and more than 400 professional artists. The Theatre intends to continue expanding to better meet the needs of our community.
1938: The theatre was founded by Stephen E. Cochran, Harold Smith, and Leonard McLaughlin. It began as a summer playhouse popular on the “Straw Hat Circuit” and intended to serve as a relaxing weekend destination for Washington dignitaries. It was built on the Woodlawn Lodge estate, which was the site of a former roller skating rink in what was then rural Montgomery County. Cochran, (who was also managing director of the National Theater in Washington, DC) was the first managing director and actress Ethel Barrymore was the first associate director. The National Academy of Stage Training, a professional school of drama that had been founded by Cochran in 1932, moved to the Olney Theatre and began its first summer course there on June 20, 1938. The class was taught by Dorothy Martin and George Vivian.
Olney Theatre's first production, The Lady Has a Heart, had its first performance on July 25, 1938. The first show was sold out. Elissa Landi and Leslie Denison starred, along with Gordon Richards, Howard Ferguson, and Zoyla Talma. Olney Theatre had a rustic feel, with inverted peach baskets serving as chandeliers and an open-air lobby with an oak tree growing in it. Olney Theatre advertised itself as the “South's first professional summer theater.” Tickets for evening performances cost $1.67
The Theatre is sold to C.Y. Stephens, an owner of High's Dairy Stores. He remodeled to upgrade the facility and added air-conditioning. In 1941, the theatre was forced to shut due to gas and tire rationing during World War II. It reopened the following summer, and proceeded to operate as a summer stock playhouse, presenting 5 shows each summer along with 238 other summer theatres around the country known as the Straw Hat Circuit, although Olney was the only one in the region of "consistently high quality."
It was in 1948 that Helen Hayes protested the National Theater’s segregation policy by moving the production of Alice-Sit-by-the-Fire to the desegregated Olney Theatre. Starring in the show with her daughter Mary MacArthur, the run was completely sold out. In a letter to the editor printed in the Washington Post following the run, Hayes wrote,
For 13 straight performances, 9100 Washingtonians from many stations in life and of all races and colors—9100 Americans—have sat side by side in the Olney Theatre in nearby Washington. Of this number, only 10 have registered complaints with the theater management--an overwhelming and gratifying indication that the people of Washington, given a chance, will back a theatre with the courage to practice actively and conscientiously our Bill of Rights.
Helen Hayes returned to Olney Theatre in 1949 with Good Housekeeping, a run that was interrupted when Mary was hospitalized and ultimately died of polio. Mary had been in several other productions at Olney earlier that summer, and was supposed to be in Good Housekeeping. Although we have never seen the evidence, rumor is she contracted polio in the swimming pool that used to be on campus. Over the years, stories have been told that her ghost still lingers in our hallways and backstage spaces.
Players, Inc. (now known as National Players, Olney Theatre Center's touring company), was created by Father Gilbert V. Hartke in 1949. It brought live theater and educational programming to students and public audiences across the United States and overseas.
In 1952, C.Y. Stephens invited Father Hartke to come to Olney for a meeting where he was asked to take over the theater. The two negotiated, and Father Hartke took over management of the property under his nonprofit touring company's umbrella. In 1955, after struggling to meet financial needs, Father Hartke asked William H. Graham, Sr. to serve as Olney Theatre's general manager. His work, combined with the directorial talents of Robert Moore, Leo Brady, and especially Jim Waring drew large audiences, favorable reviews, and net profits.
Of note: President and Mrs. Truman attended An Evening with Beatrice Lillie in September of 1952.
One of the legendary stories to come out of the decade was Carol Channing’s turn as Eliza Doolittle in a production of Pygmalion during the 1953 season. She had hoped to parlay her performance into gaining the lead role in a new musical being developed by Lerner and Lowe called My Fair Lady. Ultimately, she was passed over for Julie Andrews.
In 1960, Stephens gifted the Theatre to Father Hartke. Stephens gradually transferred all of the property's stock to Players, a branch of which is now known as Olney Theatre Corporation. Father Hartke became the corporation's president, a position he held for 33 years. The changes in American theatre were reflected in such enterprises as the 1965 “Festival of the Absurd” that included productions of Waiting for Godot, The Dumb Waiter, The Zoo Story and The Bald Soprano.
Suburban sprawl was creeping closer to Olney, but as Washington Post critic Richard L. Coe rhymed in a 1967 review of Richard III:
Governor Blair Lee named Olney Theatre the Official State Summer Theatre of Maryland in 1978. These years were highlighted by an ongoing collaboration with the Irish Playwright Hugh Leonard which included the world premiere production of his play Da in 1973, directed by Jim Waring. The show would go on to a Broadway production and win a Tony Award for Best Play in 1978, as well as receive a film adaptation.
In 1979, Susan Rose saw Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at OTC in a production that Jim Waring originally created at Catholic University consisting mainly of CU students. Though only a year out of college, she was so taken by the show that she and her friend Gail Berman raised $150,000 to remount the production at Ford’s Theatre downtown. The producing duo went on to successfully mount the show’s Broadway premiere where it won seven Tony Awards including Best Musical and ran for 747 performances.
Father Hartke died in 1986. The next year, Maryland State Arts Council designated Olney a "major arts organization," making it the only arts institution outside of Baltimore to hold such status at the time. In 1984, future Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden stars in Beth Henley’s, Crimes of the Heart. William Graham begins to expand the schedule beyond summer months, scheduling 24 weeks of performances in 1986, saying to the Washington Post, “Summer is a state of mind.”
In July 1987, Ian McKellen brought his one-man "Acting Shakespeare" play to Olney Theatre. He apparently enjoyed his stay and helped raise money to refurbish the dressing rooms in the 1938 Original Theatre. During one night, power went out during the first act of his performance but he continued on with only a candelabra to illuminate him. The second act was also performed entirely in candlelight.
In 1991, Olney Theatre began a capital campaign to match a $625,000 state grant. The money was to be used for much needed improvements to the facilities and to realize Father Hartke's goal of operating year-round. Olney Theatre added two shows to its 1993 season, and it began production in April and ended in late October. A scene shop and a costume shop were added to the mainstage building. Prior sets had been built outside, and costumes were built on the Crawford House porch.
Jim Petosa was appointed artistic director of the newly renamed Olney Theatre Center in 1994. Petosa renewed emphasis on 20th-century American classics, musical theater, new works, and area premieres. In 1996, Petosa's other troupe, The Potomac Theatre Project took up summer residence for a decade, producing more political and experimental fare. In 1998, Olney Theatre Center began year-round performances with a seven-show mainstage season. The Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab was built in 1999 as the first step towards a new master campus plan.
In a rare overlap of Washington sports and theatre, DC football legend John Riggins made his stage debut in 1992 at OTC in Illegal Motion where he played a beleaguered college football coach. The critics were kind to Riggo, although his off-stage exploits were rumored to be of-a-piece with his scandalous reputation.
2000 - 2012
In 2000, Olney Theatre Center began a capital campaign for a $10.5 million expansion. In 2003, The Kresge Foundation awarded Olney Theatre Center a Special Opportunities Initiative grant of $1 million. The next year, Olney Theatre Center acquired an additional 5 acres for its cultural campus. In 2005, Olney Theatre Center opened its new amphitheater, the Root Family Stage at Will's Place, which gave a permanent home to its Summer Shakespeare Festival. In 2005. Olney Theatre Center held the grand opening of its New Mainstage theater, a 429-seat facility with stadium seating and advanced technical capabilities. Olney Theatre Center expanded its mainstage season to eight plays and introduced its New Play Initiative with the world premiere of In the Mood in 2006. Petosa continued to grow the Olney audience with a broad variety of works, stating in a 2008 Washington Post interview,
"I guess what we are saying is 'We are you,' To be more specialized than that I don't think allows us to be a four-performance venue on a 14-acre campus in the middle of a city-suburban sprawl that literally meets at our front door. And if anything," he adds, noting the rising Asian and Latino populations in the region, "what I'm looking for is further diversification."
2013 - Present: A Decade of Growth and Impact
In February 2013, Jason Loewith was hired as Artistic Director. He shifted the programming focus to meet the demands of an ever-growing diverse community by producing multiple plays and musicals for a variety of interests, helping to grow the community’s interest in and support of the theatre. In 2014, Debbie Ellinghaus was hired as Managing Director. The two carved a pathway for the theatre to grow its operating budget by 50% and receive regional and national recognition with 12 Helen Hayes Awards and 96 nominations, World and American Premieres, and partnerships and collaborations with leading theatre companies.
Production highlights include Rolling World Premieres of Colossal by Andrew Hinderaker (winner of the Charles MacArthur Award for Best New Play), I and You by Lauren Gunderson in 2014; Bad Dog by Jennifer Hoppe-House in 2015, and The Magic Play by Andrew Hinderaker in 2017. In 2016, OTC announced a two-year co-production agreement with Round House Theatre, a landmark arrangement between Montgomery County’s two most prominent theatres. In the fall of 2016, Angels in America by Tony Kushner, both Part I: Millennium Approaches and Part II:Perestroika were mounted in-rep at Round House’s Bethesda home to critical acclaim. The following fall, In The Heights by Lin Manuel-Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes was a critical and Box Office hit at Olney, shattering Box Office records and selling-out prior to Opening Night. That production would go on to win the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Production of a Musical. During this period, Olney also earned a reputation for its holiday-time musicals, which would attract multiple generations to see theatre together and create memories at hits like Mary Poppins, Annie, Elf, and Singin’ in the Rain. Also during this time of artistic growth, musicals like Cabaret and Once set box office records and garnered critical praise, helping to expand the theatre’s impact. This period of artistic and organizational success set the stage for exciting developments.
In 2018, Staging the Future, a capital campaign initially structured to raise $25M, began its silent phase to raise support to renovate aging buildings and improve infrastructure for the growing company. Thanks to seed funding from the State of Maryland, Montgomery County and several private individuals, the OTC raised $14M and began the first phase of a multi-phased campus-wide construction project. They hired the architectural firm Eskew Dumez Ripple to design the new campus. In May 2020, the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab underwent renovations, marking the first phase of campus construction.
In 2019, an endowment was established with an initial seed gift from the Eugene B. Casey Foundation. This restricted endowment helps support all of the theatre’s performance priorities but especially supports work in development through the Vanguard Arts Program. Each year, 2-3 projects are chosen via a selective selection process to undergo a 1 week workshop at Olney Theatre. To date, three Vanguard Arts projects have seen fully produced shows at Olney Theatre: The Music Man, The Joy That Carries You, and A.D.16.
In March 2020, OTC was forced to temporarily close its doors due to the global Covid-19 pandemic. During this time, it developed a series of online programs, including a virtual production of The Humans by Stephen Karam that became a Critic’s Pick in the New York Times. These digital programs increased accessibility to the theatre, and supported a new set of priorities to address the global pandemic and demands for social and racial justice.
Coming out of the pandemic in 2021, Olney Theatre created Olney Outdoors on the Root Family Stage at Omi's Pavilion. Lasting all summer, Olney Outdoors presents concerts, cabarets, films, and other arts programs under the stars. Due to the success of the program, the Root Family Stage at Omi's Pavilion underwent a major renovation as part of the Staging the Future capital campaign and is scheduled to reopen in the summer of 2023. At this time, Olney Theatre’s Board re-evaluated the Staging the Future Capital Campaign and expanded the fundraising goal to meet changing needs brought on by the pandemic and its aftermath. At the start of the 2022-23 Season, Olney Theatre had raised $26M of a $33M goal.
Once performances resumed indoors during the 2021-22 season, Olney Theatre had a historic season with three of its musicals garnering national attention. First, the holiday production of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, directed by Marsha Milgrom Dodge was recognized by People Magazine, MSNBC, Playbill and others as breaking new ground by casting queer, plus-size actress Jade Jones in the role of Belle and Evan Ruggiero, who lost a leg to cancer, as the Beast. Next, the World Premiere of A.D. 16 with music and lyrics by Cinco Paul and book by Bekah Brunstetter received rave reviews in the Washington Post and is expected to move to Broadway. Finally, Olney's production of Meredith Willson's The Music Man, performed in American Sign Language and English galvanized accessibility activists around the world, and was the subject of a segment on the PBS Newshour. In January 2023, TheatreWashington announced 16 Helen Hayes Award nominations for Olney Theatre, including Outstanding Musical for The Music Man and Outstanding Play for The Joy that Carries You.
In April 2023, the Mainstage Theatre was renamed the Roberts Mainstage in acknowledgment of the ongoing generosity and support of Roberts Oxygen and Bob and Eveline Roberts. In fall 2023, the final phase of the Staging the Future Capital Campaign will begin construction. This phase will renovate the 1938 Original Theatre and its lobby and exterior landscaping, and build a new two-story structure to house production shops and a new education center with classrooms, rehearsal, and studio space.