Artisphere’s changing business model leaves WSC searching for new stage


Jon Jon Johnson, left background, Brian Hemmingsen and Sara Barker star in WSC Avant Bard’s recent production of Luigi Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” (Colin Hovde)
December 27, 2012

After two years as a resident theater company at Arlington County’s Artisphere, WSC Avant Bard is on the hunt for a new stage — hopefully in time for its two upcoming productions, which are slated to run in repertory in May.

WSC Artistic Director Christopher Henley said Thursday that he had planned to stage those productions in Artisphere’s black box theater until the group met Dec. 11 with the county. Arlington wants to use Artisphere’s stages for productions with shorter runs, which means other companies with condensed performance schedules — UrbanArias, the National Chamber Ensemble and Fashion Fights Poverty — aren’t affected.

“Artisphere is not kicking WSC Avant Bard out; we’re not giving them the boot,” said Annalisa Meyer, Artisphere’s communications and marketing director. “We’ve been looking at how we operate, how we use every single space. It’s all part of us really trying to look at our operating costs and be good stewards of Arlington County taxpayer dollars, in addition to increasing revenue and presenting this incredible art to all audiences.”

Both parties agree that the black box space is problematic given its location beside a 450-person ballroom. Sound travels from the ballroom to the black box, which means that when a theater performance is scheduled, Artisphere cannot book a band next door.

Henley concedes the constraints of the building’s architecture, but he had hoped to put off the space change until after the group’s 23rd season finished July 7. He was heartened to hear that the cultural affairs division would help find alternative performance space. WSC Avant Bard was offered Theater on the Run in Shirlington. While the space is smaller and less flexible, Henley said, the biggest concern is the stage’s availability. And Henley has made no decision.

“We kind of had the impression at the Dec. 11 meeting that our Artisphere dates would just convey to another space, but it turns out that’s not the case at all,” Henley said. “The other space is not available when we had scheduled the spring rep and it’s not available for as long a period. It’s available six weeks earlier and with not enough time to do a rep.”

The Avant Bard plays running in repertory were supposed to start in May and finish in July. If Henley moves performance dates, he risks losing cast members who have already committed to other plays, as well as one actor who is getting married in April.

WSC Avant Bard had no lease on the theater it called home since October 2010. But the unofficial occupancy aligned with the theater group’s past experience with Arlington County. WSC’s previous home, the dilapidated warehouse known as the Clark Street Playhouse, was also an Arlington-owned property, and the group never signed a contract there, either.

The bottom line seems to be that it’s a difficult time to be a theater company and a tough moment to host one.

“We’re continuing down this path of looking at how we operate, wanting to provide and be the stage for a lot of different types of arts organizations,” Meyer said. “And for us to remain financially viable and to provide a really incredible mix of arts programming, which we continue to do and want WSC to be part of, they just have to be in a different model than they were before, and one that allows us to continue to keep our lights on.”

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