Stage Prospects Dim for McLean Theater Troupes

Declining attendance was cited as a reason that Alden, at the McLean Community Center, reduced performances.
Declining attendance was cited as a reason that Alden, at the McLean Community Center, reduced performances. (By Peter C. Piraneo)
By Michael J. Toscano
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 2, 2006

McLean Community Center officials have trimmed the number of theater productions at the Alden Theatre because of declining attendance.

The cutback worries theater groups that stage their plays at the venue. They say their visibility in the community will be reduced, threatening their futures.

Four theater groups in the McLean-Great Falls area compete for time at the Alden, a modern venue with a large stage and orchestra pit that also hosts dance troupes, concerts and other events. The theater is operated by the community center, which receives its funds from a special tax on McLean area residents.

The most immediate result of the cuts is that the McLean Theatre Alliance, which is onstage through Saturday with a production of the musical "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," will not get another show at the Alden Theatre until April 2007.

The Great Falls Players will be allowed two productions during the 2006-07 season but will be cut back to one the following season. McLean Theatre Alliance will be allowed two shows for the 2007-08 season, and the two groups will alternate in a like manner from then on. The C.A.S.T. in McLean group, which usually stages a lavish, large-scale musical over several weekends each summer, will be cut back to one weekend of stage time a year, as will the new McLean Drama Company.

Sue Kahn, artistic director of the McLean Theatre Alliance, said she was unhappy about the decision.

"We really don't have another venue," she said. "There isn't one in McLean, for sure. There's no other place to put on a show, so we're stuck, absolutely stuck."

Kahn said she was worried that her group would lose members because of the year's lag between shows. The gap also could make the alliance ineligible to participate in the Washington area's community theater organizations, such as the Washington Area Theater Community Honors, or WATCH, awards and the Ruby Griffith competition, which raise the profiles of local theater companies.

The risks are even higher for C.A.S.T. and the McLean Drama Company, the groups that will be given only one weekend to present a show. The short run means they have less opportunity to recoup costs. Combined, the three major groups now using the Alden Theatre attract between 5,000 and 6,000 patrons for five productions, a mix of musicals and plays, according to officials from the groups. But leaders in local theater have acknowledged that ticket sales at the Alden have fallen by about one-third over the past few seasons.

Clare Kiley, performing arts director of the Alden Theatre, stressed that the cutbacks do not mean the McLean Community Center no longer supports local theater.

"It's been a difficult situation," she said. "I think the McLean Community Center has been exceedingly generous in providing space for local community theater, and we've gotten ourselves into this bind where it was felt by the [theater] board that an overabundance of community theater was not really resulting in a healthy environment. Attendance was dropping, the groups were having trouble getting volunteers, and with so much professional theater in the Washington area, the smaller, semiprofessional theaters are pulling a lot of people away from community theater."

Kahn said she suspected a different agenda. Attendance figures are healthy for most other community theater companies in Fairfax.

"What Clare wants is for the three major groups to join as one," she said. "Then she only has to give them three shows for the entire year, and she can then give all the stage time to outside professional groups. That's the game plan. But the three groups, philosophically, will never join because they're totally different types of groups."

Kiley said there is merit in consolidating, pointing to Vienna and Reston, where similar, county-supported community centers host one group each as a resident company.

"If the groups here could pull together more and consolidate their efforts, rather than everyone doing all these different things, they would be more successful," she said. "We want to make a healthy environment for community theater, and we want these groups to do well and have a bigger, better presence."

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