The renovations are finally finished — glossy new tile in the bathrooms, expanded kitchen and living areas, dramatic grand staircase, exposed brick and natural light for days. But this $9 million reno is no rural fixer-upper, no suburban super-sizing, no inner-city flip. This is Round House Theatre in Bethesda, and while the finishes may be fabulous and the details divine, there’s one idea driving the project, one lofty goal that the reveal will reveal.
“The original impetus for this change was acoustics,” said Ed Zakreski, managing director of Round House since 2016. “It was something we had to fight against in every production we did.” Zakreski, who was chief development officer at The Shakespeare Theatre for 12 years, and head of individual giving at The Kennedy Center for 10 years before that, added that Round House brought in a team of consultants, “hoping they’d say, ‘Oh, if you just hang some panels from the ceiling, or put some angles on the side walls…’ but they said ‘No, you’re going to have to, basically, start over.’”
And so they did, starting in January 2019 and finishing up just in time for Round House’s 2019-2020 season, ready to unveil a completely remodeled building with an acoustically superior stage at its heart. “The background noise level is 30 decibels,” said Zakreski. “Which is about the same as a professional recording studio.” Libraries, he noted, are usually 35 decibels. “It’s designed to support the acoustics.”
Zakreski knows that expanded office space, updated green rooms, even vastly improved public areas where audiences can sit to nosh and discuss the performance, are great — but a theater is, first and foremost, a place where plays must be seen and heard. And so the 348 seats (slightly fewer than the original 395, but a bit more spacious and much more comfy) are now on an arc, and the balcony comes farther forward, separated only by a wire mesh that, despites its gossamer appearance, is the same super-strong material used in the cheetah enclosure at The National Zoo.
“It feels like it’s part of the same space,” said Zakreski, noting that the balcony’s former isolation meant that actors sometimes felt challenged, as if there were “two different audiences watching the show. Now the balcony comes forward and embraces the stage.”
The new configuration boasts excellent sightlines and an orchestra that feels closer than ever.
Courtesy of Round House Theatre
That stage, by the way, is now a much more flexible and configurable “thrust” shape, coming forward from the proscenium right into the audience in a smooth half circle. “I like to say, ‘We made Round House round again,’” Zakreski laughed. “Now all of the seats are focused on the center of the stage, which makes it so much easier on directors, and opens up the options that they have.”
Making it easier on the actors are redesigned dressing rooms, a bright new green room (that’s actually painted a pale blue) and a special spot that allows for naps and quiet time. But the most dramatic changes are the ones that become apparent as soon as theatregoers enter the building, which was originally constructed in 2002.
“This is a great place to start the tour because this is where a lot of the transformation can be seen,” said Zakreski, gesturing around the modern, open-plan lobby where sunlight streams in through the dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows. “When the building was built by Chevy Chase Bank, this (theatre) was offered as a public amenity. They donated it to the county, and the county leases to us.”
But post-renovation, the box-office area has traded its bank-like look and feel for a more welcoming point of entry. “There were bullet-proof bank teller windows,” Zakreski pointed out. “Even banks don’t use those anymore. Round House Theatre wanted a more open customer service experience.”
Round House Theatre got it.
The entrance to the theatre space itself is a focal point, but it’s preceded by a gorgeous gathering place, a two-story café area that’s anchored by a sleek, modern bar and punctuated by a grand staircase that provides access to the balcony seats as well as more tables and chairs at which theatregoers can enjoy food, drink and conversation.
“We wanted people to feel, from the moment they walked in, that they were in a warm, comfortable space,” said Zakreski. “We wanted to open this up: Part of our mission is to do shows that demand conversation; we required a place to make that happen.”
Instead of queuing up for coffee or wine, patrons can sit at the bar or at café tables, sip cocktails as well as soft drinks, beer, wine and special “Round House Blend” coffee from Zeke’s coffee in Baltimore.
“It used to be, essentially, a small concession stand,” he said, noting that menu development has been underway, with food and beverage manager Hudson Tang focusing on partnerships with local vendors, like the food truck featuring West African cuisine for “School Girls: Or, The African Mean Girls Play,” this season’s first show. “This is really the beginning.”
The ladies’ room has been a real hit: refit to the suggestions of patrons for privacy and space, with upgraded fixtures and a stunning wall of dramatic tile.
“This is one of the best things,” Zakreski said, moving through to the light and sound box–“value-engineered out at the last minute” in the original build—a space that delivers the audiences into a sound-proof, darkened vestibule where their entry and exit have little impact on what’s happening onstage — even when they’re late, or ducking out during the show.
The warm brick walls of the theatre itself have a special provenance. “Our real desire was to create a feeling of warmth,” said Zakreski, “and our inspiration came from theatres in the U.K.: The Old Vic, The Young Vic, The Royal Court, The Royal Shakespeare Company and the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool.”
Liverpool, he added, has it all: birthplace of the Beatles, home of the world-class soccer champs, Liverpool Football Club and location of “this amazing regional theatre, where not only do they do great work, but it’s just gorgeous! And it was designed by the same theatre designers we brought in.”
Those designers, Charcoalblue LLC (New York and London), got the ball rolling, and Rockville’s Forrester Construction brought the project in on time and on budget. And in addition to the public spaces and the theatre itself, the renovation carved out areas that will allow Round House to reach out in new directions.
“We found office space in parts of the building that weren’t used for anything before,” Zakreski said, noting that in addition to artistic offices, the extended second floor now boasts an event space that can be used for patron parties, fundraisers and as a private events rental, with discounts for non-profits in keeping with the Round House mission. So far, the outreach has been successful, with events centered around showing off the renovation to the community.
“We did these big homecoming festivities: dinner for our board members and major donors, the ribbon cutting in a huge public open house,” Zakreski said. “To see this building through fresh eyes, with everybody who came in, was exhilarating.”
The managing director acknowledged that everybody does, indeed, love a good ‘reveal.’ “We’re theatre people,” he added, “and we know how to do it dramatically.”
Round House Theatre is located at 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. Call 240-644-1100 or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.