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13 Theaters & Performance Spaces to See a Show in Washington, DC
A variety of performances grace stages throughout the District – here's where you can get the best seat in the house.
Washington, DC is a theater town. With theaters big (think the Kennedy Center, Warner Theatre and National Theatre) and intimate (Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and Shakespeare Theatre Company), a range of performances and cultural experiences are offered up for every taste in the nation's capital.
DC’s most iconic theater, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, hosts hundreds of world-class performances each year and is home to the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera. The Suzanne Farrell Ballet also counts the Kennedy Center as its performance headquarters. The company—under the direction of Farrell, who was famed ballet choreographer (and Kennedy Center honoree) George Balanchine’s protege—was invited to perform at the Kennedy Center in 1993 and has since become one of the venue’s most enduring attractions. Look for performances on The Kennedy Center calendar throughout the year.
In 1865 President Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre by John Wilkes Booth. Today, Ford’s remains a working theater with multiple productions each year, but is also a living museum dedicated to Lincoln’s life and death. During the day, the National Park Service-run venue offers tours of the theater as well as admission to the Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership across the street, which features in-depth exhibits on America’s 16th president.
Located in DC’s buzzy Penn Quarter neighborhood, Woolly Mammoth is a cutting-edge, experimental theater dedicated to premiering original plays that push the boundaries of live theater. The New York Times has called the intimate venue “Washington’s most daring theatre company,” and the half dozen plays Woolly produces each year continue to live up to that reputation.
Just outside of DC in Bethesda, Maryland sits a picturesque performing arts venue dedicated to bringing a diversity of music to the DC region. Music fans will find a comprehensive lineup of folk, rock, blues, pop, jazz, show tunes and more at the modern music venue, The Music Center at Strathmore. Also on the campus, the Mansion at Strathmore presents more intimate programs in its 100-seat theater. The Mansion also hosts afternoon tea service on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Also not to be missed, Strathmore has a cool concert venue up the road in Rockville called AMP.
For more than 25 years, the Shakespeare Theatre Company in DC has committed itself to serving as the nation’s premiere classical theater. STC has three theaters: The Folger, where fans, in addition to seeing Shakespeare plays, can learn more about the famous playwright with rotating exhibits; and the Harman Center for the Arts, which houses both The Lansburgh Theatre and Sidney Harman Hall. The glittering, glass-enclosed Harman Center in Penn Quarter showcases classic Shakespeare plays, modern updates and Shakespeare-inspired original shows. In the summer, STC hosts its Free For All, an annual event that encourages new Shakespeare fans by offering free tickets to a show.
Dating back to 1922, the Lincoln Theatre was considered a precursor and influence on the Harlem Renaissance, hosting such marquis acts over the years as Washington natives Duke Ellington and Pearl Bailey, along with greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong. Today, the historic theater continues to attract national talent to its stage with a packed calendar of touring acts. Be sure and check out its partner venue and Washington institution, 9:30 Club.
For DC locals, summer isn’t complete without at least one trip to the Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts. The suburban Virginia venue hosts an in-demand lineup of touring artists throughout the summer. The open air theater offers covered seating, but we suggest buying lawn seats and packing a picnic for the perfect summer night!
Just a short walk from the White House, the National Theatre has been hosting theater-goers from its Pennsylvania Avenue perch for nearly 200 years. Today, the historic theater is home base for Broadway in DC, hosting a number of well-known touring shows throughout the year.
Under the leadership of Artistic Director Molly Smith, Arena Stage’s Mead Center for American Theater is an incubator for American artists and plays. The theater—housed in a glamorous, glass-enclosed venue on the Southwest Waterfront—produces original works and updates of classic American plays all with an eye toward exploring what it means to be an American. Most plays offer several nights of related programming, such as post-performance Q&As with the playwright.
A trip to the Warner Theatre is worth it just to see the 1924-era building’s grand architecture. After a $10 million renovation, the venue has been restored to its former glory with features like a marble and gold leaf lobby and a dramatic interior complete with crystal chandeliers and intricate carved ceilings. The venue may be the ultimate throwback, but today you can catch nationally known comedians making a tour stop, Broadway-bound musicals and other modern performances.
Dedicated to producing cutting-edge, contemporary theater, Studio Theatre features four intimate theaters in order to offer a rich line-up of the latest and greatest playwrights and remakes of modern classics. Variety once called this hip theater in Logan Circle the place “where local audiences will find today’s edgiest playwrights.” So lean forward and see where this theater takes its audience next.
Starting in 1976, the Gala Hispanic Theatre’s mission was to bring Spanish and Latin American plays to DC and celebrate the richness of Hispanic theater. In 2005, as DC’s Columbia Heights neighborhood was undergoing a Renaissance, the organization secured a permanent home at the historic Tivoli Theatre and now serves as a national center for Latino performing arts. Look for plays, musical, dance and other Hispanic-inspired and produced performances throughout the year.
In Virginia’s Shirlington neighborhood, locals and visitors alike seek out Signature Theatre, a small venue with big personality. The theater is known for its modern revivals of Sondheim shows, as well as adaptations of overlooked or forgotten scripts, with an original work or two thrown in each season for good measure. Founded more than 25 years ago, the popular theater was launched to fill a void in the theater scene, which at the time was only producing mainstream musicals. Today, the theater continues to be a leader in DC’s flourishing and innovative theater scene.
This is just the beginning. Find the best seat in the house with our guide to theater and performing arts in Washington, DC.