To ask Capitol Hill Arts Center's artistic director, Matthew Kwatinetz, how the place is doing is to know exactly how much both he and the company have changed in the last three years.
"We're doing pretty much what we projected," he says. "The way the startup model that we've engaged with works is that we get a pile of money up front and we plan on how many months we're going to burn money. We're for-profit, so we convince people of our vision, and then they buy into it with the expectation that we'll lose money for the beginning, and then we'll slowly start reducing our cash burn until we're cash-flow positive. Then we'll slowly make back the money that we spent—and then we'll make a lot of money, hopefully."
This is from someone who in September 2002 was a nice-looking guy with a fuzzy ponytail on top of his head and a mellow sincerity that led him to describe his ambitious, 9/11-inspired Waging Peace festival as a means for people "to process things that maybe they weren't able to process, in a community that is large enough and accepting enough that it can be supportive of that kind of processing."
Kwatinetz means business now. He still has the emphatic sincerity, but the ponytail is gone—and with it some of the touchy-feely earnestness that could have sent his dream of a theater company based on compassionate politics the way of good intentions. CHAC has thrived artistically—a tribute to Kwatinetz's willingness to pay heed to the difference between intent and execution. Where the 9/11 festival had heart, the venue's projects have since demonstrated a more consistent artistic craft within their social concerns: Ionesco's Rhinoceros, as disturbingly funny as it was timely; a big, broad, splendid production of Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui that served as a pitch-black comic punch in the gut before Election 2004; Odet's Waiting for Lefty,transformed from a polemic into a heart- stopping, foot-stomping reminder of the human price of corporate oppression. Good directors, good acting, good planning—and a constant turning away from the kind of easy preaching to the choir that has made tired messengers of lesser companies.
"We're not interested in doing that at all," Kwatinetz acknowledges. "That was one of the lessons of Waging Peace. Our politics haven't changed, but understanding the efficacy of actually achieving something as opposed to demonstrating your politics—those are completely different questions. We want Republicans in here, we want conservatives, we want progressives, we want people who can't make up their minds. We want to bring those people together. That's where we're going to have an effect. If we're just a place where everyone comes to see something about what they agree on, where's the art in that?"
He's hoping to strike that same balance with his own staging of Dario Fo's Archangels Don't Play Pinball (opens Thurs., July 7; 800-838-3006 for tickets). In what Kwatinetz calls "a story of true love and choosing your own destiny," a disabled-war-veteran-cum-crooked-simpleton is hoodwinked by his fellow hoods into marrying a prostitute, then finds that his unexpected love for her fills him with the desire to be worthy of such an emotion.
"It's great in that it's not heavy-handed," Kwatinetz says. "It's not filled with politics, although they're all in there. It's a fun play, which is very different than a lot of other plays that we've done. There's live music, there's vaudeville, there's dancing. People will have a fantastic time, and hopefully they'll think about some things—but it won't be in their face."
In the meantime, he has the future of CHAC to think about: an expanded upcoming season and a move toward audience subscriptions, a renovation of the downstairs bar into a viable second performance space, and attention to community projects like the Golden Ticket program, which offers free admission to low-income families, senior citizens, and homeless or at-risk youth. But, hey, things are looking up, despite some internal squabbling that made the gossip rounds earlier this year.
"Next year is when we're supposed to be cash-flow positive," Kwatinetz notes, "and we projected theater to be the thing that we thought would do the worst, initially, and the bar to be the thing that would do the best. [But] the bar is the thing that's doing the worst, [and] the theater is the thing that's doing the best. Counterintuitive, I know. But we've had such a great run of theater."