Beyond the Tony Awards and Broadway: Here are 10 great places to see a play

Although this weekend’s Tony Awards shine a spotlight on Broadway, there’s no need to visit New York to see a great show.

Many winning actors and plays got their start in regional theaters, says Alison Lenox, and these local companies still stage some of the country’s best productions.

“Regional theater is new, exciting, provocative and makes people talk. It can be so much better than New York.” Lenox, publisher of Treading the Boards, a directory for professionals seeking work in regional theaters, shares some favorites with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY.

Arena Stage, Washington

This D.C. company helped start the regional theater movement when it opened in 1950 with the idea that audiences everywhere should be able to find quality, relevant performances. “It’s an amazing theater with an amazing history,” Lenox says. “Its offshoots are all over the country now.” In 1976, it became the first to win the newly announced Regional Theatre Tony Award.

Alliance Theatre, Atlanta

Audiences have embraced this group’s new theater, a dramatic and acoustically impressive performance space covered with thousands of pieces of bent wood. Its works are just as noteworthy. “It has developed and cultivated shows that have gone on to Broadway, like ‘The Color Purple,’” Lenox says.

Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park

The Playhouse is one of Lenox’s personal favorites because it’s where she earned her Equity card, cementing her status as a professional actor. She says audiences appreciate the theater’s wide variety of programming. “They’ll do anything. They’ll do classics, they’ll do musicals, they’ll do new work. It’s a great place.” It recently wrapped up a comedy called Tiny Houses, about a group of young adults, who work together to build a trendy, minimalist living space in Oregon.

Dallas Theater Center

In 1959, this Texas company moved into the only freestanding theater built by Frank Lloyd Wright. Now it has additional stages, including an arts center designed by Joshua Prince-Ramus and Rem Koolhaas. “They do a lot of experimental, culturally current, provocative works,” Lenox says. “It has been around for quite a bit of time.”

Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles

Part of a large performing arts organization, this theater group has an international reputation. Two of the plays it helped launch, Angels in America and The Kentucky Cycle, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The company also stages established plays. “They’ll do older works with a new vision,” Lenox says.

5th Avenue Theatre, Seattle

Operating from a 1920s-era landmark theater building, Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre specializes in musicals. “They’ll do labs and stage readings and allow the creators to work on their pieces, to present them and produce them,” Lenox says. One of its big successes was “Hairspray.”

Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago

Founded by college friends in 1974, nationally recognized Steppenwolf began in a church basement and now operates from an expanding Lincoln Park neighborhood campus. The ensemble company’s original members include actors Gary Sinise, John Malkovich and Laurie Metcalf, among others. “So many famous people have come through there,” Lenox says. One member, Tracy Letts, won Pulitzers for two of his plays, “August: Osage County” and “Linda Vista.”

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Since its start in 1966, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has staged hundreds of plays and recently welcomed a new artistic director, Hana S. Sharif. “She’s a young, imaginative creative woman. She’s going to bring in a new sense and new works, bringing in things that are culturally relevant,” Lenox says.

Denver Center Theatre Company

Part of larger performing arts center, the company has four different theater spaces. “The amount of work they do is amazing. At any given time in the city, you have your choice,” Lenox says. Since 1979, it has created more than 400 stage productions.

Two River Theater Company, Red Bank, New Jersey

Lenox is a regular patron at this theater, which is located near her home. With two stages, it offers a variety of productions. One of its successes, the musical “Be More Chill,” has gone on to Broadway and is in the running for a Tony award this year. “They do all the realms and genre of theater, and they’re available to the community,” she says.

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