Just like the old song says, “There’s no business like show business,” and Washington, D.C. has more than its fair share of theaters. On any given day of the week, you can catch a Broadway show at the 200-year-old National Theatre, fall in love with ballet all over again at the Kennedy Center, or push the limits of your imagination at a cutting-edge, experimental show at Woolly Mammoth. With 15 theater venues and dozens of genres to choose from, you’re sure to find a play, stand-up routine, or concert that suits your fancy.
The spirit of American theater is alive and well at Arena Stage. For 66 years, this visionary stage has incubated, produced, and staged classic, experimental, and emerging American works and cultivated new artists. A clean, modern venue offers audiences and theater professionals a unique environment in which to experience America’s multicultural perspective.
Arena Stage, 1101 6th St SW, Washington, D.C., USA, +1 202 488 3300
DAR Constitution Hall
Built in 1929 to accommodate the Daughters of the American Revolution’s annual convention, DAR Constitution Hall is Washington, D.C.‘s largest concert hall and regularly hosts a diverse range of music, dance, cultural, and entertainment programs. A historic, Neoclassical gem, it welcomes over half a million patrons each year who come to see the fantastic lineup of guest performers that in the past have included Robin Williams, Whitney Houston, and Chris Rock.
DAR Constitution Hall, 1776 D St NW, Washington, D.C., USA, +1 202 628 4780
Folger Shakespeare Theatre
The Bard would most likely be proud of the legacy his life’s work has created at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre, which is the performance arts venue for The Folger Shakespeare Library. Dark paneled walls, intimate spaces, and an ambiance that reeks of Tudor England, the same styling is apparent in the theater as well. As if plucked from the past, the performance stage was the first Elizabethan-styled theater built in North America; it lends authenticity to the staging of the classics that is unmatched on a modern stage. Programming includes early music performances by Folger Consort, poetry readings and multimedia presentations as part of O.B. Hardison Poetry, and other interactive arts and cultural programming via Talks, Screenings & More.
If it’s drama you’re after, it doesn’t get more dramatic than watching a play in the same theater where President Abraham Lincoln was shot in 1865. Yes, it’s a bit macabre, but it’s authentic. This historic theater in Penn Quarter offers tours during the day, led by the National Park Service, and at night, it transforms into a fully functioning professional theatrical venue. Lincoln was a huge fan of the theater, and in his honor, Ford’s Theatre specializes in plays and performances relevant to Lincoln and the American experience.
Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St NW, Washington, D.C., USA, +1 202 347 4833
The Howard Theatre
The Howard Theatre was hip and happening long before the Apollo or Regal theaters, and in its heyday, it was “the largest colored theatre in the world.” Built in 1910, it had an extraordinary run as the premier performance venue for African-American performers, and during segregation, everyone crossed the color barriers to see greats like native son Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, and Ella Fitzgerald perform. Abandoned for decades and renovated and reopened in 2012, it’s once again a premier stage for African-American hip-hop, jazz, gospel, R&B, and pop performers.
The Howard Theatre, 620 T St NW, Washington, D.C., USA, +1 202 803 2899
For sheer depth and breadth of genres and spaces, and quality, few arts complexes rival The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. It’s a lovely white glass prism for Washington, D.C.’s vibrant cultural scene. It’s not just an icon and homage to President John F. Kennedy; it’s one of the nation’s premier performing arts centers. Year-round, the Kennedy Center’s many theaters and performance spaces host lectures, classes, art tours, comedy shows, plays, and guest performances by world-renowned dance, music, and other performance companies. It is home to The Washington Ballet, the National Symphony Orchestra, Washington National Opera, and The Suzanne Farrell Ballet.
University performance centers offer some of the best programming options in cities around the world, and Lisner Auditorium is at the top of the list. Set on the George Washington University campus, it has a reputation for hosting outstanding music, dance, literary, and cultural events, and on any given week, you can expect to find a Ladysmith Black Mambazo concert or lecture and reading by David Sedaris.
Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St NW, Washington, D.C., USA, +1 202 994 6800
The National Theatre
The National Theatre is a beloved institution in Washington, D.C. and is often where many Washingtonians see their first Broadway production. This landmark has stood on Pennsylvania Avenue for 200 hundred years and still has the best seats anywhere for Broadway shows. If you have kids, consider taking them to Saturday Morning at The National, which offers free puppet shows and dance and music performances that delight and engage children ages four to 10.
Shakespeare Theatre Company
The Shakespeare Theatre Company is a leading national theater company that for 30 years has stretched the boundaries of classical theater by staging the plays of Shakespeare, his contemporaries, and generations of playwrights he influenced. Two theaters, Sidney Harman Hall and the Lansburgh Theater, stage groundbreaking, influential, and experimental works that delve into profound subjects and offer deeply moving experiences with a distinct American staging and interpretation.
Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St NW, Washington, D.C., USA, +1 202 547 3230
Lansburgh Theater, 450 7th St, NW, Washington, D.C., USA, +1 202 547 1122
The Studio Theatre is a cutting-edge theater company that produces contemporary theater for its four intimate stages and features an acting conservatory for classes and training. It presents the most thought-provoking and newest works by the greatest modern writers, and according to Variety, it’s “where local audiences will find today’s edgiest playwrights.”
Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St NW, Washington, D.C., USA, +1 202 332 3300
If you’re from Detroit, the gorgeous Art Deco stage at the Warner Theatre – constructed in 1924 as a movie palace – may look familiar as theater architect C. Howard Crane of Detroit designed it. Originally built for new vaudeville productions and silent movie shows, it’s D.C.’s only surviving movie palace downtown. Locals, fans of stand-up comedy, and HBO viewers are familiar with the Warner Theatre primarily for its star-studded shows featuring great comedians like Wanda Sykes. Also, famous bands like the Rolling Stones and other programs such as talks and book signings, including those by Julia Child and Jacques Pepin, have taken place there over the years.
Warner Theatre, 513 13th St NW, Washington, D.C., USA, +1 202 783 4000
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Nobody in Washington does what Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company has done so well for 38 years: nurture, support, produce, and stage original plays that go on to become testaments to the theater’s mission to “explore the edges of theatrical style and human experience.” Wooly Mammoth connects with its audiences like no other company in D.C. In addition to original plays, it provides unique programming that engages viewers with post-performance discussions and gives back to the community with ticket accessibility programs like “Pay-What-You-Can” performances and $15 “Stampede Seats.”
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St NW, Washington, D.C., USA, +1 202 393 3939
Located on the National Mall, Smithsonian’s Discovery Theater, founded in 1964, specializes in puppet theater, and over the decades, it has grown into an extensive cultural and educational performance center that serves as a “gateway” to art, music, math, science, and the Smithsonian for children. It has spawned the growth of a range of entertainment programs, including award-winning Dinorock, which got its start at Discovery Theater.
Located in Bethesda, Maryland, just across the border from Washington, D.C., Imagination Stage offers professional theater performances year-round as well as after-school programs, classes, and summer camps for children and adults. It was founded in 1979 and is the Mid-Atlantic’s largest theater arts center for young adults. All of Imagination Stage’s programs are accessible to all children, regardless of their physical, cognitive, or financial status, and the organization offers ASL-interpreted and open-captioned performances, as well as large print programs, accessible seating, and assisted listening devices.
Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave, Bethesda, MD, USA, +1 301 280 1660