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Theaters in DC: 9 hidden gems you shouldn’t miss

When you think of theatre, you undoubtedly first think of New York and then perhaps Chicago. But did you know that DC and its suburbs earn a close third when it comes to the number of live theatre performances each year?

The DMV has anywhere between 170-200 theaters (depending on what you consider the boundaries of the DC suburbs) and hosts well over 1,000 local theatre performances on an annual basis. There are in fact so many shows at so many venues that it’s frequently possible to see a different theatre production every night of the week.

You’ve already heard of the big-name theatre companies and performance spaces (The Kennedy Center, Ford’s Theatre, Folger Shakespeare Theater, Arena Stage, etc.). But have you visited the smaller theatres and playhouses in the DC area, which oftentimes have equally good shows at a more economical price? 

I’m an art lover who has lived in DC for 12 years and have many friends who started their careers onstage and behind-the-scenes at area theaters. I’ve been to almost every theater around. Here are some of my lesser-known favorites you may not have checked out.

Catholic University’s Rome School of Music, Drama, and Art

Lavish productions of crowd pleasers

It’s unusual for a “don’t miss” list to include performances by college students, but Catholic University drama productions are consistently excellent and deserve a wider audience. (This isn’t to say the performances don’t sell out — they often do — but my opinion is that a greater diversity of people should attend!) The musicals are especially good, not only because the actors and singers are held to high standards but because the university doesn’t skimp on sets or costumes; the drama department understands the value of ambience!

Upcoming Performances

Season: September-May
Address: Callan Theatre, 3801 Harewood Rd NE, Washington, DC 20017
Closest metro: Brookland-Catholic University (red line)

Constellation Theatre

Immersive experiences in an intimate space

The exterior of the Source Theatre in Washington D.C., featuring a marquee for Constellation Theatre's production that reads "Zorro: America's First Superhero" and " Jan 17 - Feb 17." Two bicycles are parked in front of the building, and the address "1835" is visible on the left side of the entrance.
Photo by Ecragg

Constellation Theatre is truly small. Seating is limited and very close to the stage. This is exactly what I love about it, though, because you can see every twitch, grimace, lip curl, and sweat bead as well as all the details of the somehow elaborate sets (visit the theater and marvel at how small the space is, and you’ll understand my wonder). Attending a Constellation Theatre performance is almost like being part of a show yourself — you’re that close. The musicals are particular treasures: fantastically sung and acted, impressively staged, and performed with a surround-sound effect thanks to the small space. 

Upcoming performances include Is God Is, running through July 14.

Season: October-July
Address: Source Theatre, 1835 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20009
Closest metro: U Street (green/yellow lines)

Monumental Theatre

Contemporary shows featuring up-and-coming talent

A group of performers, dressed in business attire, are dramatically posing on stage under vibrant, purple lighting. The scene captures Monumental Theatre's cast of "American Psycho: The Musical" in an expressive moment during their performance, with one actor in a suit and another in a leopard-print skirt standing out in the foreground.
Monumental Theatre’s cast of “American Psycho: The Musical.” Photo by Christopher Mueller, courtesy of Monumental Theatre.

Monumental Theatre exclusively casts emerging artists (recent college graduates and artists still working toward their degrees) and also has a New Works program that produces works written by young playwrights. Because shows are performed in a theater owned by a high school, the season is limited to summer and winter school breaks. You may be familiar with some of the musicals performed, but many of them are obscure shows or shows making their debut. This, combined with the fact that the actors are young and largely unknown so not yet typecast, means you’ll never have a stale theatre experience with Monumental.

Upcoming performances include American Psycho, running through July 21, 2024.

Season: July and December
Address: Episcopal High School, 3900 W Braddock Rd, Alexandria, VA 22304
Closest metro: Potomac Yard (blue/yellow lines); then take the 31, 35, or 36A bus

NextStop Theatre Company

Compelling shows of all types

I had very low expectations the first time I attended a show at NextStop because it’s located in a dreary business park that looks as if it was in its heyday decades ago (if ever). Don’t let the exterior fool you, as I did. The productions are terrific, largely because the casting is consistently outstanding. Each season has a good mix of shows ranging from quirky to hysterical to timely and generally also includes one well-known musical.

Upcoming Performances

Season: September-June
Address: 269 Sunset Park Dr, Herndon, VA 20170
Closest metro: Reston (silver line); then take the 952 bus

Providence Players of Fairfax

Engaging plays at wallet-friendly prices

This community theater has won many awards, and for good reason — it puts on great shows (no small feat for a small-budget theater that relies mostly on crew volunteers and includes many first-time actors in its productions!). I’ve seen a number of hilarious screwball comedies there as well as several suspenseful dramas. As a bonus, regularly priced tickets are astoundingly cheap ($21 as of publishing this).

Upcoming Performances

Season: October-June
Address: James Lee Community Center, 2855 Annandale Rd, Falls Church, VA 22042
Closest metro: East Falls Church (orange/silver lines); then take the 803 bus

Spooky Action Theatre

Thought-provoking and unpredictable plays

Spooky Action Theatre is another theatre company with a seemingly miraculous ability to put on terrific shows in spite of the bare-bones space — in this case, a church basement. Spooky Action’s production variety might be greater than any other small DC theater (and it is indeed small!). None of the plays are well known, many of them are brand new, and all of them have timely themes that provoke conversation and debate. The theater also sponsors a program called New Works in Action, which has a standing, open call for play submissions.  

Upcoming Performances

Season: October-May
Address: Universalist National Memorial Church basement, 1810 16th St NW, Washington, DC 20009
Closest metro: U Street (green/yellow lines)

Theater Alliance (formerly at Anacostia Playhouse)

Black box theatre spotlighting untold stories

Theater Alliance generally presents vignettes of the Black experience (past and present). Sets are often minimal, allowing for the stories to truly be told through the acting. Casting is always strong, and the productions are always thought provoking, regardless of if they’re dramas, comedies, or romances. Shows often include singing, even if they’re not formally labeled musicals.

Upcoming Performances

Season: November-June
Address: Varies; check the website
Closest metro: Varies depending on performance space

Theater J

Lesser explored perspectives on Jewish identity

The front facade of the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center, featuring a grand staircase leading up to an entrance flanked by large columns. Banners promoting the JCC's programs are visible on the building, with trees and a flagpole in the foreground.
Photo by AgnosticPreachersKid

Theater J may be the best known of the theaters on this list, and it’s certainly the largest. I included it for two reasons: 1) Similar to Catholic University’s drama productions, Theater J’s shows are unfailingly excellent and deserve an audience outside of members of its immediate community; and 2) the plays performed at Theater J have rarely been performed anywhere else. One aspect unique to Theater J plays is that all of them tell a story with universal themes but through the lens of a Jewish experience. Many of the plays are new, and equally interesting, a fair number are recent translations of Yiddish works that had been previously banned or thought destroyed by antisemites.

Upcoming Performances

Season: October-June
Address: Edlavitch JCC, 1529 16th St NW, Washington, DC 20036
Closest metro: U Street (green/yellow lines)

Washington Stage Guild

Rediscovered treasures by revered playwrights

What I appreciate about Washington Stage Guild is that while the rest of the DMV theaters are clamoring to put on works with disarming, relevant, and diverse perspectives, the Stage Guild has stuck to what it’s done very well since its first season nearly four decades ago: at least one play each season by George Bernard Shaw, unjustly forgotten plays by other familiar playwrights, and the occasional new play. The performances are solidly acted, and the Stage Guild excels in particular at bringing 19th and early 20th century wit to life. 

Upcoming Performances

Season: October-May
Address: Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church ground level, 900 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC 20001
Closest metro: Mount Vernon Square-Convention Center (green/yellow lines)

One last note…

Be sure to look for venue-specific discounts when purchasing tickets at these hidden gems. Many theaters offer discounted preview nights and special prices for young adults, educators, artists, members of the military, and even neighborhood residents! You can also look for “pay what you will” performances, which allow you to pay based on what you can afford. Just try not to be too skimpy if you can avoid it; live theatre is expensive to produce, and actors and crew members don’t get paid very much!

Elizabeth Moore

Elizabeth spends most of her free time going to one of the DC area's many theaters, and she has been to nearly all of them in the 12 years she has lived in the city. She loves talking all things art, sustainable living, Spain, and volunteering.

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