Alum Brings Science and History to the D.C. Stage

Even as an impromptu actor on the elementary school playground, Kurt Elftmann, CCAS MFA ’10, knew that theater was not just a hobby.

“I can truly say that I didn’t choose theater, theater chose me,” he says. “I’ve never seriously considered doing anything else.”

That passion for the theater led Kurt to start the Tonic Theater Company in Washington, D.C. two years ago.

The theater company’s moniker will resonate with many GW students and alumni—its creator named it for the Foggy Bottom favorite, Tonic at Quigley’s bar and restaurant, an on campus hangout spot for Kurt and his fellow MFA candidates from GW’s Academy for Classical Acting (ACA) during their time at GW.

“It pays homage to a tradition and mainstay on the GW campus, with a history all its own,” he explains.

Kurt Elftmann, CCAS MFA '11 (photo by Brianne Bland)
Kurt Elftmann, CCAS MFA ’11, founder of Tonic Theater Company (photo by Brianne Bland)

Tonic Theater Company focuses on developing and producing new plays with a unique scientific and historical focus. Kurt’s lifelong interest in science and history inspired his search for likeminded playwrights that could combine these loves of theater and the sciences.

“With D.C. being home to museums and foundations dedicated to art, science, and history, it was obvious to me that it was time to form a company and make this happen,” he says referring to Tonic Theater Company’s blend of art and science.

But the endeavor hasn’t been without its challenges.

The veteran performer says starting a new theater company in Washington, D.C. has been difficult; finding board members and space to rehearse and perform has been problematic. However, the “vibrant” community here in D.C. has given Kurt opportunities to work with theater companies at many different levels.

Tonic Theater Company is currently partnered with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and has brainstormed with writers, directors, scientists, and administrators on producing more plays about science, scientists, and scientific discovery.

“We’re honored to be one of NAS’s partners and will present at least one reading, Arthur Giron’s Moving Bodies, with them this year,” Kurt says. “The only other companies they work with are Studio Theatre and the Shakespeare Theatre Company, so we’re in good company.”

Tonic Theater Company’s first production—Darwin at Down, by Gino DiIorio—will be performed later this year. The play tells the story of spouses Charles and Emma Darwin as they struggle to understand religion and faith in light of Charles Darwin’s scientific discoveries. Kurt says he hopes the audience will leave with questions “buzzing around in their heads,” and that the play will spark friendly debate long afterwards.

“The play is spare and simple in its structure and writing, and yet conveys a very complicated situation clearly and powerfully,” he says. “It’s a great journey.”

Tonic Theater Company also plans to workshop the play A Hero of the Revolution, by D. W. Gregory, for the Women’s Voices Theater Festival this coming fall. While continuing free readings of newer works, Tonic Theater Company will seek out more partnerships, similar to the one with NAS, around the city.

“This fall, Tonic should have a much higher profile overall,” Kurt says.

The ACA alum credits GW for giving him the foundation and connections he needed to succeed and stay in the Washington, D.C. area.

“It was great to come out of my masters program with a feeling that the sacrifices, and there were some to get there, were worth it,” he says.

Kurt Elftmann put all of his passion and energy into starting his own company, and he is just beginning to see how sweet success can be: his advice to the average GW student?

“Be fearless. Truly. Whether you’re a performer, designer, administrator, whatever, believe in your vision and go.”

—Jess Pitocco

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