He has been labeled a “wunderkind,” but no one would mistake this young man who has taken the helm of the Studio Theatre as a “wild child,” a Rimbaud on the rampage, scary, impudent, a feral genius in a state of artistic nature.
For with David Muse, who became at age 36 Studio’s second artistic director when founder Joy Zinoman passed him the reins last September, the clearest impression is of a young man with artistic time and motion studies on his mind, with a bookkeeper’s talent for cutting costs or adding a new line to the budget — either way, it’s the temperament of a manager.
But that would be the wrong impression also.
The best explanation about what makes David Muse run — as an artist himself, Yale-educated twice over, as well as the new manager of Studio Theatre — may come from Zinoman, who says, “David’s story is the classic, American story of a smart, talented kid from a small town who finds his passion, pursues it with dedication and intensity, and manages to win friends and admirers by virtue of his charm, sensitivity and intelligence.”
She has also said of the preternaturally calm and highly cerebral Muse, a vegan, a cyclist and a fitness buff, that “he’s very seductive and charming,” and Susan Butler, Studio’s board chairman, told the Washington Post that “I hope he likes to raise money.” That’s a handy charm in that rarefied realm of courting wealthy patrons, coaxing those birds from their tall trees and out of their mansions, just another talent for Muse to demonstrate.
Muse must use persuasion to find new patrons just as he has also found old patrons, key sponsors like Zinoman of course but also Michael Kahn at the Shakespeare Theatre Company who plucked Muse from New York City to return to Washington in 2004 to become his artistic aide-de-camp. His talent is in having talent and in inspiring others more senior also with talent to appreciate and invest in his own talent. Which is sizable.
Consider that he has amassed a glittering resume as a director — including staging an all-male version of “Romeo and Juliet” — since arriving in D.C. in 1996 to teach calculus to kids at Eastern High School, when he was soon drawn to theater at Studio’s own acting conservatory, where first he was a student and then began to dabble part-time as a “juvenile,” the theatrical term for a male newcomer, enchanted by the stage, focusing on acting at the beginning, one time even dressing as an ostrich in size-13 high heels. He later tackled directing also.
Today he is filling even bigger shoes, succeeding the trail-blazing Zinoman in command of about 60 staff in four stages seating 900 in three buildings with about 60,000 square feet set in the heart of D.C.’s Logan Circle neighborhood, anchoring in a former auto showroom at 14th and P Streets. With its more than $5 million annual budget, Studio is a major force on the local theater scene, mounting major productions every year and with its new and impressive 2011-2012 season just announced. And of course he is also in charge, with Joy Zinoman still as its lead faculty member, of the Studio Theatre Acting Company, where his serious career in theater began.
Born in Appleton, Wis., he spent most of his childhood in Fulton, Mo., a small town (11,000). In high school he threw himself into theater and graduated valedictorian. In 1992 he left Fulton, the first student from his high school to attend an Ivy League school, for New Haven and Yale University where he studied ethics, politics and economics. Upon graduation, Muse joined Teach for America and headed for D.C., teaching math and also leading Outward Bound wilderness programs for troubled youths during the summer. But he also found his way to Studio’s acting school, to hone his passion for drama, and in 2000 he returned to Yale, this time to its drama school, to earn a master’s in directing.
Next he moved to New York City, but then he soon came back to D.C. when summoned by Kahn to become his second in command as associate artistic director at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, where he helped grow the company from its single theater at the Lansburgh with the addition of the new Harman Hall. He also was primary liaison for all the talent. He also began to direct plays at Studio’s smaller and edgier 2nd Stage.
The next year, 2006, also at Studio, he directed Bryony Lavery’s critically lauded “Frozen.” Then, last year, while also directing an electrifying version of Neil LaBute’s “Reasons To Be Pretty” there, he also threw his hat into the ring to replace Zinoman. After a scrupulous nationwide search lasting a year, he pulled that rabbit from out of that hat, emerging from half a dozen finalists to step into her shoes there officially last September.
Asked about his artistic vision, he demures at first, saying that he finds it “challenging to say the least” to define such an overview “when the work here is so purposefully eclectic, with so broad a range of theatrical offerings.” He also offers what he calls “another disclaimer” to having any “broad vision,” in that “you need to leave room,” he insists, for the thespian Holy Spirit, “for what feels right, this year, or at any other moment.”
Besides, Muse says, Studio “is not a place that needed someone to come in, to save or reinvent it.” But that said, he has even so his own vision of course, which is why in addition to his managerial mindset he was chosen for this job.
“The challenge,” he says, is “to balance all the historic strengths of this place with some new energy, and that’s what I aim to do.”
Those strengths, he says, include that it stages what he rightly boasts are “plays of real literary and theatrical merit.” He intends, he says, to build on that Studio strong deck of cards by pulling out some new ones — by “going in a little less familiar direction,” in part by bringing in more international productions but especially by “working with living writers, and working with them on the creation of new work,” not generally seen as a strong card at Studio in the past.
“We want to welcome these writers into the building as active collaborators,” he says, pointing to two world premieres slated for Studio in its just-announced 2011-2012 season.
This year, meanwhile, has included a season of superb performances in productions like the gay-themed “Marcus; or the Science of Sweet” (though Muse is straight and has a girlfriend), a season that has been the result of his collaboration with Zinoman, which will also later feature Anna K. Jacob’s “Pop!” a new musical about Andy Warhol. Muses also draws attention to “The History of Kisses,” set for this summer as an example of collaboration with its author, David Cale, someone Muse calls “an electrifying solo performer, returning to D.C. after a long history here, but having been away for about 10 years.”
But it is with next year’s slate of 11 offerings that Muse lets his own muse come to the fore. First out of the gate, Sept. 7-Oct. 16, comes a new play in its U.S. premiere, directed by Muse, “The Habit of Art,” by Alan Bennett, the English author of “The History Boys,” whose career began decades ago as a member of the Oxford-Cambridge troupe of performers, “Beyond The Fringe.”
Starring the great D.C. actor Ted van Griethuysen as the gay poet W.H. Auden, it is set deep in the bowels of London’s National Theatre as rehearsals for a new play go on and the famed composer Benjamin Britten, also gay, and Auden’s former lover, now troubled at work on a new opera, seeks out the poet after a 25-year separation, to collaborate again, this time artistically. Between visits by Auden’s rent-boy and a biographer — briefly mistaken for the rent-boy — these two aging artists must wrestle with long-buried desire and current jealousy and seek to understand all the reasons their erstwhile friendship fell apart.
Called both wistful and “filthily funny,” the play is what Muse calls “an imaginary meeting” between the two great artists, when after a quarter century Auden comes to talk about collaborating again, but the rent-boy keeps returning” as the play progresses.
Looking to the new season, Muse also points to two world premieres — one in the Lab Series Sept. 28-Oct. 16 — “Lungs,” by Duncan Macmillan,” the chamber drama of a couple trying to face their future in a time of global anxiety over terrorism and erratic weather. The other world premiere comes next February and March in Studio’s 2nd Stage, in a new play, “Astro Boy and the God of Comics,” by Georgetown University theater professor Natsu Onoda Power, who also directs.
Muse says she has been invited to come to Studio “to conceive of this new play” there. It takes on Japanese Manga in a highly visual performance that he calls “a retro and sci-fi, multi-media extravaganza” about the 1960s animation series “Astro Boy,” a crime-fighting boy robot, and the life of his creator Osamu Tezuka.
Another play, set for November-December, is written and performed by former “Daily Show” correspondent Lauren Weedman, who has been called “a female Robin Williams.” This one-woman show, “Bust” is based on her experiences working as a volunteer advocate in a Southern California prison for women. In her solo performance she plays dozens of characters, switching from prostitute to parole officer, addict to editor with what Muse calls “nuance and empathy.”
Other plays will also startle and stir audiences, he predicts, including “The Golden Dragon” by German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig, in its U.S. premiere in November-December. Called both “poetic” and “brutal,” it is set in the cramped kitchen of an Asian restaurant where four cooks pull the tooth of a Chinese co-worker. His tooth ends up in the Thai soup of a flight attendant, and that’s just the beginning of unexpected linkages connected to the young Chinese man sans tooth. Muse calls it “fierce and vicious” but also “a kaleidoscopic look at a globalized world,” where five actors “cross age, race and gender” to play 15 characters showing “how intertwined our lives really are.”
Also certain to draw attention, Muse predicts, will be another of the 2nd Stage productions, coming in the summer of 2012, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” by Alex Timbers, with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman.
“American history has never been this sexy,” Muse says, “in this rowdy and irreverent musical,” a scathing satire that re-imagines President Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson as a rock star.