About a decade after graduating from Princeton, Allison Arkell Stockman ’96 was teaching and directing high school theater in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. But she had visions of a bigger stage. She quit, took short-term jobs for a year, and then started a small theater company in 2007.
In just its fifth season, Constellation Theatre Company has established itself as a Washington theater critics’ favorite for thinking big despite a modest budget.
Under Stockman as its artistic director, the company aims to create “epic, ensemble theater,” mounting three productions a year, ranging from farce to tragedy. It has produced classics (The Oresteia, The Arabian Nights, The Marriage of Figaro), works by major modern playwrights (Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Shaw’s Arms and the Man, and Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan), and shows that are exotically unfamiliar (The Ramayana, an ancient Sanskrit epic that turned out to be so popular that the company revived it a year after its initial run).
Such productions won Constellation a Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company in 2009.
Visually, Constellation’s plays are notable for bold set design, ranging from symbolic abstraction to elaborate whimsicality. “I’ve been inspired a bit by the circus,” Stockman says. “It’s not uncommon in our shows to have gods or demons — things that are larger than life.”
Gwen Grastorf, a D.C.-based actress who has performed in some of Constellation productions, calls Stockman’s approach “the opposite of kitchen-sink realism. It’s fantasy and folklore and passion.”
This approach has given Constellation “a discernible identity, one they’ve solidified in relatively short order,” says Chris Klimek, a theater critic for Washington City Paper.
Constellation has secured a degree of stability as one of several resident companies at Washington’s Source theater. Stockman splits her time between directing two plays a year and managing the 160 actors and crew members she employs.
“Allison’s specialty is creating strong ensemble theater, which is not an easy thing to do — ever try herding cats?” asks actress Heather Haney. “Allison has a knack for gathering a group of actors who may or may not know each other beforehand and turning them into a tight-knit, living, breathing ensemble.”
Stockman began her stage career in community theater as a first-grader. Since then, a year has never passed without a show. At Princeton, Stockman spent four years in Triangle Club and performed in Theatre Intime. She earned a certificate in theater and dance and majored in comparative religion, a subject she says helped mold her approach to theater.
“Religion and theater are similar in a lot of ways,” she says. Live theater allows people to “tune into ritual and community and something larger than themselves.”
Constellation recently mounted Blood Wedding, by Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca, which closed March 4. Opening May 3 is Metamorphoses, Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of Ovid’s poem, which Stockman calls “a beautiful collection of stories about the transformative power of love.” For that production, Stockman’s crew will install a swimming pool around which mythical characters gather for a glimpse of the supernatural.
Those who know Stockman say that in a challenging economic time for small theater groups, she’s had her feet on the ground even as her mind roams freely. Under Stockman, Grastorf says, “bills are paid on time, paperwork is done efficiently and early, and schedules are kept. This is extremely rare for a creative organization.”