The Kennedy Center and the D.C. Arts Scene

The Great Tours: Washington, D.C.—Lecture 15 Guide

The performing arts are alive and thriving in the nation’s capital. From Shakespeare to modern dance to bluegrass and go-go, Washington, D.C. offers entertainment that will satisfy a broad spectrum of tastes.

This guide covers some terrific venues relevant to Washington, D.C.’s arts scene, including:
• The Kennedy Center
• The National Theatre
• The Shakespeare Theatre and the Folger Theatre
• Regional theaters
• Music venues in the D.C. area.

The Kennedy Center

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, or Kennedy Center, is the home of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera. It also welcomes touring performers from all over the world. It is perhaps most famous for two prestigious annual awards ceremonies: the Kennedy Center Honors and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

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For theatergoers, the Kennedy Center offers three large theaters and multiple smaller spaces. The Concert Hall, Opera House, and Eisenhower Theater are the venues for big performances, including direct-from-Broadway musicals. These are all found on the main level of the theater.

Also on the main level is the Millennium Stage. That name usually refers to the performance spaces at either end of the Grand Foyer, but it is more accurately the name of a free performance series with a broad range of offerings—from music to plays to children’s theater to comedy. It is a great way to get a taste of the DC arts scene in a way that fits any budget.

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts building
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, or Kennedy Center, is the home of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera.

Millennium Stage shows often take place in the Grand Foyer, but they might also take place outside or in one of the Kennedy Center’s more intimate performance spaces. These locations include the Family Theater on the main floor or the Terrace Theater or Theater Lab upstairs.

As the name implies, regular programming in the Family Theater is geared toward kids, though, parents will no doubt enjoy the shows. The Theater Lab is the Center’s black-box performance space. For more than 30 years, its regular performances of the murder-mystery-comedy Shear Madness have been a D.C. institution, but it has recently opened up to a broader range of performances.

For more than 40 years, the Kennedy Center has been at the heart of the D.C. performing arts scene. The center has produced or co-produced 300 new works of theater. There is always something wonderful playing at the Kennedy Center.

The best place to find out what is on during your trip is to check its website, especially for Millennium Stage performances, which change daily. If you cannot fit a performance into your schedule, you can stop in for a guided tour, browse around the gift shop, or take in the beautiful views of the Potomac from its terraces.

The National Theatre

The National Theatre is a private nonprofit organization. Located just a few blocks from the White House, on Pennsylvania Avenue NW between 13th Street and 14th Street, it opened its doors in 1835.

This historic venue specializes in national tours of Broadway shows and pre-Broadway premieres. Among the hits the National Theatre has launched were Show Boat, premiering in 1927, and West Side Story, which had its debut here in 1957. It continues to serve as a launching pad to Broadway to this day.

The Shakespeare Theatre and the Folger Theatre

Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.
The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

Today, Washington has two theaters dedicated to the work of William Shakespeare: the Shakespeare Theatre and the Folger Theatre. The Shakespeare Theatre offers five shows each season. Typically, the shows consist of two Shakespeare plays, a piece of classical Greek or Roman theater, and two modern shows. The theater has two performance spaces: the larger, newer Sidney Harman Hall at 6th Street and F Street NW and its smaller, original space at the Lansburgh Theater at 7th Street and E Street NW.

The Folger Theatre, D.C.’s other major Shakespeare venue, is located on East Capitol Street, just east of the Library of Congress. It is part of the Folger Shakespeare Library. The Folger Theatre typically puts on three Shakespeare plays and one non-Shakespeare offering each season. The non-Shakespeare play is often a classical work, a work by one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, or plays about the world of Tudor and Stuart England.

Regional Theaters

Synetic Theater in Arlington Virginia
The Synetic Theater in Arlington, Virginia

The D.C. metro area also features well-regarded regional theaters. The Signature Theater in the Shirlington neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia, is a Tony Award-winning theater that focuses on contemporary plays and musicals, particularly the development of new works. Through the American Musical Voices program, it offers grants to aspiring young, talented writers, composers, and directors to help them develop their work.

Arlington is also home to Synetic Theater. Located in the Crystal City neighborhood, this theater develops both innovative, avant-garde productions and fantastic family shows. Synetic also offers performance workshops for both children and adults.

The Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, another small but innovative regional outfit, is located downtown on D Street NW. Woolly Mammoth is also dedicated to the development of new shows and new talent, with a focus on thought-provoking, boundary-breaking themes.

Arena Stage is another great D.C. nonprofit theater group, this time found in the burgeoning Southwest Waterfront district, at Maine Avenue and 6th Street SW. More than 20 of Arena Stage’s productions have made it to Broadway.

Also notable is the Capital Fringe Festival. Like similar festivals around the world, Capital Fringe offers opportunities for artists and works on the cutting edge of theater or works that defy neat categorization. Since its founding in 2006, it has brought more than 120 original works to D.C. audiences each year in July. Performances are held in their new, purpose-built theater on Florida Avenue NE in the Trinidad neighborhood.

Music Venues in the DC Area

DAR Constitution Hall in Washington D.C.
DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.

The D.C. area also offers several notable music venues. In Vienna, Virginia, the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts offers more than 80 shows in their amphitheater each summer, plus year-round performances in their smaller indoor facility.

Additionally, in D.C., venues like DAR Constitution Hall, Warner Theater, and various sports arenas welcome concert tours in nearly every genre. D.C. even gave rise to its very own genre of music: go‑go.

The historic U Street Corridor in Northwest D.C. has been home to one of the country’s largest urban African American communities since shortly after the Civil War. In the early 20th century, it was also the center of musical life in D.C. Performers like Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, and D.C. native Duke Ellington were regular attractions at its clubs and theaters.

One of the many talented performers who began their careers here was Chuck Brown. In the 1970s, he formed a band called the Soul Searchers and began combining elements of rhythm and blues, funk, Latin music, and call-and-response church music to create a whole new musical genre—that is, go-go. Although not well known outside the D.C. area in its original form, go-go has been a huge influence on hip-hop artists throughout the country.

Some of the area’s best and most popular music venues specialize in folk, bluegrass, blues, punk, and alternative music. For example, D.C.’s legendary 9:30 Club was the place to be in the 1980s and 1990s for emerging rock artists. The club is nationally recognized as one of the country’s best venues for both emerging and established rock artists.

The 9:30 Club’s friendly rival, the Black Cat, is also still going strong since its opening in the 1990s. Located on 14th Street NW between S Street and T Street, it welcomes both local and national talent from the punk, alternative, and indie genres.

There are also venues to enjoy folk music, along with the aforementioned Wolf Trap. One is The Hamilton Live, at 14th Street and F Street NW, not far from the main Treasury Building. Meanwhile, on the Virginia side of the Potomac, the Birchmere is the place for great folk, bluegrass, blues, country, jazz, and acoustic rock.

Use these online resources to help plan your trip.
Kennedy Center Events & Tickets
National Theatre
The Shakespeare Theatre Company
The Folger Theatre
Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts