Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpMuch ado of late in the Arlington theater scene.

The creative-but-resented-by-some Artisphere, the county announced Dec. 17, will likely shut down June 30. It’s a casualty of subsidies that failed to produce the envisioned self-sustaining, hip arts and drama institution that would help revitalize nighttime Rosslyn.

That same day, the County Board approved a $5 million low-interest loan to the better-populated Signature Theatre, a financial anchor in Shirlington recently featured shiningly in The Washington Post magazine.

But a third development received less notice. The American Century Theater, its board announced this fall, will fade to black next August after 20 years of professionally produced stage classics at Gunston Middle School.

I recently caught TACT’s cool retro production of “An Evening with Danny Kaye.” I was impressed with the company’s mission of reviving slightly-forgotten works on meaty topics from another day— “Judgment at Nuremberg,” “The Seven-Year Itch,” and “Tea and Sympathy.”

“Our mission was accomplished, so we can declare victory and leave,” says artistic director Jack Marshall. That’s because TACT’s project of preserving nearly 100 gems from the 1930s-1950s “golden age of American drama,” though commercially risky, caught on elsewhere, he says.

But it’s also because Arlington’s usual grant of $6,000-$12,000 didn’t come through last year, and because the government’s arts incubator program—which helped spawn Signature and others beginning in the early 1990s, raised its fledglings to leave the nest.

The more famous Signature Theatre, Marshall confides, is the program’s “crown jewel,” and its impresario Eric Schaeffer “a PR genius who caught several waves at the right time.” The result: Signature is “too big to fail.”

The county, he adds, “has turned away from a ‘let’s create culture’ mode to a `balance-the-budget’ mode,” which made tough tradeoffs for Artisphere. (Another county-supported success, the edgy drama and dance-producing Synetic Theater, is intertwined in the effort to remake Crystal City Underground.)

But TACT’s mission of countering the “near complete neglect of the 20th-century theater canon” was purposefully built on the “the worst business model in the history of theatrical business models,” Marshall says. Unlike Signature, it kept ticket prices under $40, even though cast and crew are paid professionals. (Most have day jobs—Marshall is an attorney and ethicist.)

All TACT’s funds are used visibly in productions, its budget currently in the black. “The audience is highly educated, and has often read the plays, so the performers have to keep on their toes,” he says. At a performance of “Judgment at Nuremberg,” judges and law professionals in the audience participated afterward in discussions.

Though he toyed with moving the company to Great Falls, Marshall ultimately decided its mission had not been to win Helen Hayes awards, get reviewed in the Post or appeal to the under-40 audiences. It was to present rich plays “that people otherwise could go their whole lives without seeing.”

TACT’s final production, “Twelve Angry Men,” set for July and August, was also its first production, back in 1995.

In the dog-eat-dog commercial theater world, the public votes with its feet. (An ARLNow online poll on closing Artisphere found a divided reaction; of 3,196 responses, 52 percent approved, 48 percent did not.)

Artisphere, meanwhile, posted a statement encouraging the public to check out its 2015 season. But Executive Director Jose Ortiz confirmed that “this is ultimately a business decision, albeit an extremely disappointing one.”

* * *

A stroll down North 22nd Street near my home led me to a tidy wooden box on a stand in a friendly front yard. Labeled “the Little Free Library,” the weather-proof wooden cabinet encloses transparent doors revealing a few dozen books—ready for borrowing.

It’s part of a worldwide volunteer literacy, recycling and community-building movement that started in Wisconsin in 2009, according to its http://littlefreelibrary.org/website. There are now 15,000 Little Free Libraries around the world, seven of them in Arlington.