+ By Dylan Roche + Photos by Bob Bartlett

Most of the time, theater is about taking audiences to a place somewhere other than where they are. But for playwright Bob Bartlett, part of his signature approach to theater is writing plays that take place in a particular location that is also the same location in which they’re performed—a laundromat, a record store, the middle of the woods. It’s an unusual approach, but it’s one that Bartlett has found works well for him and allows him to maximize his passion for theater and storytelling, bringing in an audience and keeping them engaged.
“I love the idea of being able to tell a story in front of a live audience and bring all of the elements of theater together,” he says. “It’s such a collaborative art form. It’s probably the most collaborative form of art.”
Bartlett is the author of more than 20 plays that have been produced around Maryland and the Washington, DC, area. Many of them have won awards and garnered critical acclaim. Playwriting came about as a natural intersection of his love of theater and his love of writing. “Are we born to do this?” he muses about artistic pursuits. “I don’t know an answer to that. Probably, for most of us. For me, I was an avid reader as a kid, and I fell in love with books.”
He first became involved in theater as an actor and a director, and he undertook all kinds of jobs backstage. But after nearly 20 years of community theater, he started to burn out. “You reach an age where you want to be home at night, and directors are not, unless you’re working at a very high level and directing during the day,” he says.

Carlos Saldaña, Elan Zafir, and Melissa Flaim in happiness (and other reasons to die) by Bartlett, The Welders (2015). Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

Playwrighting offered him the outlet he needed, one where he could tell stories through theater without having to be front and center. “Most playwrights—not all, of course, but most—want to be behind the scenes,” he says. “We don’t want to be onstage. We want our words to be onstage.”
He first got the idea for his immersive playwrighting approach when he was living in downtown Annapolis during the early 2000s and 2010s and would visit the Avenue Laundromat. “This laundromat, on Maryland Avenue, was so beautiful, and I got the idea to write a play set in that specific space,” he says. “So, on Sunday nights, I would go down to this laundromat. I would slip in a bottle of wine, and I would write. And I wrote this sort of kind of time-bending romantic comedy about a hapless guy who owns a coin-operated laundromat and lives upstairs and this girl who comes in for help. I loved the play—I thought it was really fun.”
That script ultimately became known as The Accident Bear, and because it was so intrinsically tied to the space that it inspired it, Bartlett felt compelled to ask for permission to perform the play in the laundromat after hours.
The approach proved to be a success, and Bartlett started writing more and more plays intended to be performed in their natural environments rather than on a stage in a theater. During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, he staged his Three Strangers Sitting Around a Backyard Firepit at Two in the Morning Listening to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska in the backyard of his Central Maryland farmhouse. Similarly, his horror play about werewolves, Lýkos Ánthrōpos, went up in a clearing in the middle of the woods.

Matt Wilson, Jessica Lefkow, Ethan Miller, and Teresa Castracane in Swimming with Whales (2018), by Bartlett, 1st Stage. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Alex Levy, who serves as artistic director of 1st Stage in Tysons, Virginia, and who directed Lýkos Ánthrōpos, recognizes the innovative approach that Bartlett brings to playwriting. “Bob Bartlett is one of the most exciting theater makers in the DMV community,” he says. “Over and over again, he has found ways to bring theater directly to the audience. His creative use of space makes the experience exciting, fun, and surprising. We all pay attention to what he’s doing because we can’t wait to see what he’ll dream up next. His art truly has no boundaries.”
Most recently, Bartlett’s play Love and Vinyl premiered during summer of 2023 at KA-CHUNK!! Records in downtown Annapolis, and the script has been picked up for a theater in Dallas, Texas, for a production in summer 2024.
All of this barely scratches the surface of what Bartlett has accomplished. When he isn’t writing plays to be staged across the region, he’s teaching playwriting at Bowie State University, a position for which he earned the 2022 University System of Maryland Board of Regents Award for Excellence in Research, Scholarship, or Creative Activity. He is also a founding member of The Welders, a playwright collective based in DC. The group earned the 2016 John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company by Theatre Washington’s Helen Hayes Awards.
“I always have had the goal to be the dumbest person in the room,” he says. “And to always work with stronger directors, stronger actors, stronger designers, because that’s the only way that I was going to get better.”
And Bartlett will certainly continue to get better. He already has two new projects in the pipeline, beginning with the full-length script A Boy on a Bed, a futuristic two-hander that explores first contact with alien life and isolation in deep space. It had a reading this past spring in the planetarium at St. John’s College in Annapolis. His next immersive production, Ghost Light, which explores the history of ghosts and hauntings in the theater, will debut in the Annapolis area this fall. 

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