Hidden gems often gleam more intensely once they’re unearthed. That holds true for the signless and sequestered 1st Stage Theater in Tysons, where vibrant performances on the inside are masked by its location in an unassuming strip mall.
The theater’s sleepy setting is a product of its infancy. Founding artistic director Mark Krikstan gave 1st Stage its start back in 2008 the way most theaters do: with a scrappy crop of volunteer artists and a vision. His goal was to establish the first professional theater company in Fairfax County (hence the name, “1st Stage”) and showcase the quality of work that exists outside Washington, D.C.’s thriving theater scene. Krikstan underestimated the public’s desire for the performing arts as 1st Stage’s popularity boomed despite its humble abode.
He soon felt the theater would outgrow him, which led to the hiring of current artistic director Alex Levy in 2014. After working in iconic theater cities such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, Levy felt there was a chance to build something special within the D.C. suburbs.
“I saw a company whose community really cared about it, was having a real impact and has access to world-class artists,” Levy said. “Couple that with everything that’s happening in Tysons and how as a community it starts to define itself, so being able to have the conversations about how arts make a community is really exciting.”
To turn the corner in its maturity and make the theater into a beacon of entertainment, 1st Stage needed to recruit the area’s best actors and actresses and give customers a panorama of shows to pick from any given season. Accomplishing that was all a part of the three-year strategic plan Levy and the rest of the staff developed upon his arrival.
Attracting great artists requires producing great works, which is where 1st Stage’s not-for-profit business model allows them to tailor shows to the community’s broad theatrical palette. By de-emphasizing profits, the theater isn’t driven to put on the most commercially viable shows. Instead, it can use ticket sales along with government, corporate and individual financial support to spotlight works that encourage reflection while keeping its productions affordable.
The process can cause confusion. Donors question why performances such as the 2017-18 season’s premiere show, “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train,” are even on the playbill. To that Levy often replies that if one particular work doesn’t fit their fancy, 1st Stage will have another later in the season that will more than suffice. Plus, the fact that 1st Stage puts on these obscure shows is why the region’s best performers flock to the theater.
“The work we do is challenging work that great artists can really dig into – [and] the more you dig, the more there is,” Levy added. “It’s true for our audiences, too. There are never shows where you walk away and [think] it doesn’t matter – the more you think about it, the richer they are…One thing we’re really proud of is the artists at our shows are also seen at the largest theaters in D.C. The big difference is you’re so close to them.”
This September will mark the final year of the original strategic plan Levy and the team designed. Key goals were achieved, such as acquiring a rehearsal space, outsourcing set construction and introducing more programming thanks to partnerships with other arts companies. Now, the next step is to – eventually — migrate out of 1st Stage’s cozy digs and into a theater that allows the staff to do more creatively while still preserving the grassroots vibe that has enchanted its patrons.
Though continuing that ascent relies on stable funding. Institutional support isn’t ideal as Virginia and Fairfax County are stingy when it comes to financing the arts, especially compared to Maryland and D.C. Levy knows that for 1st Stage to not only keep what it has going now, but to elevate it later on, the onus will fall on the community to make a demonstrated effort in its name.
“We are trying to do something here that has never been done and we’re doing in it a place that’s not used to the conversation of why the arts matter.” Levy stated. “It becomes important that people demand it in the same way that it’s been demanded in Washington and Maryland.”
Residential endorsement of the theater has been integral to 1st Stage’s past 10 years. But in order to witness another decade of local arts, that endorsement needs to take on a more holistic meaning.