Backstage

Revitalized Atlas Aiming To Make a World of Difference

The Atlas Performing Arts Center, shown last year during its makeover from a former movie house. Left, the Lang Theatre, one of two venues in the center set to open soon. The Lang will have 276 seats; a black-box theater will hold 250.
The Atlas Performing Arts Center, shown last year during its makeover from a former movie house. Left, the Lang Theatre, one of two venues in the center set to open soon. The Lang will have 276 seats; a black-box theater will hold 250. (Above: By Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post; Left: By Bill Petros)

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By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Jane Lang leads a visitor to an alley doorway through construction dust and detritus at the nearly complete Atlas Performing Arts Center. She points to the backs of apartment buildings and townhouses across the way.

"I like to look out the back door, just to remind myself why we are a community-based theater," says Lang, who dreamed up the Atlas idea.

Adventurous theatergoers have come to the 1300 block of H Street NE for a few years now to see the pioneering Theater Alliance in its H Street Playhouse and more recently the African Continuum Theatre Company and Joy of Motion Dance Company using the first performance spaces to open in the Atlas.

Now the center is about to unveil a flexible-seating black box designed to hold up to 250 people and a fixed-seating theater with a proscenium stage and space for 276 theatergoers. A gala week planned for Nov. 8-11 will showcase the center and feature a new play by Washington actor David Emerson Toney. Before that, on Sept. 21, the Cab Calloway Orchestra (led by his grandson) will perform in a benefit at the black-box theater, named for Lang's husband, Paul Sprenger.

Audiences will enter under the restored Atlas cinema marquee into a whimsical, modernist "great hall." Below are a warren of offices, performers' dressing facilities and a scene shop. Washington scenic designer Tony Cisek and lighting designer Dan Covey did the design concept for the two spaces; Covey is the center's technical director.

An arts underwriter and a lawyer, Lang wanted to build a state-of-the-art performing arts complex in an underserved low-and-middle-income neighborhood and make it affordable and available to professional and community groups. She began fundraising and purchased the old Atlas movie theater and adjoining buildings in 2002. Construction began in 2004, and the theater labs and dance studios opened in 2005. To date, Lang says, the capital campaign has raised $17.3 million, including $2.5 million from her and Sprenger's foundation and $3 million from her parents.

"There was certainly a lot of skepticism at the beginning as to whether it would happen," she says. But neighborhood residents, "who had no reason to trust me, none at all, have put up with incredible aggravation, from the closing of the alley to all the dust and noise." Now, as an example of neighborhood involvement, she cites the chorus of women from the nearby Delta Towers retirement high-rise who perform at the Atlas and volunteer as ushers.

Lang knows the center must attract more than its neighbors. "We need to be developing audiences and getting people to put H Street Northeast on their cultural radar. My goal has always been the day when people will say, 'Gee, I wonder what's happening at the Atlas tonight,' " she says.

For arts companies, "this is the next level here," says Atlas Executive Director Patrick Stewart, who migrated to Washington from the San Diego theater scene to run the center nearly two years ago. "If you've been, for example, doing the Source thing or Warehouse . . . this is certainly the next level."

With rents set at about $1,000 a week for the theater labs and a maximum of $4,500 per week for the bigger theaters, Stewart boasts, theater, music and dance troupes can avail themselves of "the region's best technical staff," as well as box office staff and "an artistic collaboration with all the other arts partners." He says groups will get breaks on the rent in return for doing community outreach.

Making the Atlas their full-time or part-time home thus far, in addition to African Continuum and Joy of Motion, are the Capital City Symphony, the Washington Savoyards, Step Afrika, Forum Theatre and Dance, the Washington Performing Arts Society and the Levine School of Music.

Ego Check

They may be pals, but the co-stars and co-creators of "In the Continuum," at Woolly Mammoth through Sept. 24, don't mince words when they write and rehearse.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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