Round House Revival

How artistic director Ryan Rilette has transformed the Bethesda theater into one of the D.C. area’s best

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Photo by Liz Lynch

Editor’s note: Errors that appeared in this story in the January/February 2018 issue of the magazine have been corrected.

Ryan Rilette was sitting on his wife’s parents’ couch in Atlanta in late 2005 when he discovered the script that would change his life as an artist. 

At the time, he was the producing artistic director of New Orleans’ Southern Rep Theatre. He’d sought refuge in Atlanta after Hurricane Katrina ravaged his home and his city—and closed down the theater company—in August of that year. He frequently shuttled between the two cities, and his days in New Orleans were full of mold-infested walls, maggot-covered refrigerators and deserted neighborhoods. That day in Atlanta, Rilette felt an immediate connection to Kimberly Akimbo, a dark comedy about a teenager who has a disease that causes her body to age rapidly and is convinced that she’s actually the normal one in her family. A funny but sad survival saga, the play examines how hard it can be to live with other people, and Rilette thought it was perfect for Katrina refugees who’d spent months living with extended family.  

He staged the play for a reopened Southern Rep in May 2006, and residents flocked to see it.  Rilette then tapped even deeper into the community’s shared experience by commissioning Rising Water, which tells the story of a husband and wife hunkered down in their attic to escape the floodwaters below. Rilette directed the world premiere of the play in 2007. New Orleanians found comfort—and rediscovered laughter—in “talk backs” after the play, he says, gatherings where they could recount their own stories of terror and loss, with the help of counselors he’d invited. 

“I thought, ‘Oh, this is how you do this,’ ” says Rilette, now artistic director of Bethesda’s Round House Theatre. “People needed to talk. We were all deeply scarred. We needed to hear stories, tell stories, laugh together, cry together. Often theater is a luxury. Storytelling is a necessity. It’s like Joan Didion said: ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’”

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