Building a Pedestal for the Arts

The audience at Industrial Strength Theatre was supposed to focus on the set for
The audience at Industrial Strength Theatre was supposed to focus on the set for "A Delicate Balance," but the old seats could distract people from the Elden Street Players' productions. (By Todd C. Huse -- Elden Street Players)
By C. Woodrow Irvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 1, 2007

The seats in Herndon's Industrial Strength Theatre were already worn when a church donated them to the performance space more than 10 years ago. By 2007, they were really showing their age.

Officials with the Elden Street Players, the community theater group based in the converted warehouse, were at a loss for how to replace the seats. Though the company narrowly avoided losing the space altogether last winter -- when a group of investors bought the theater, so production could continue -- there were no resources for new seats.

When Alexandria's T.C. Williams High School last month offered local arts groups the seats from the school auditorium as the building was being renovated, the theater company jumped at the chance. Company volunteers spent two days unbolting the auditorium seats and hauling them back to the Herndon theater space.

Artists say the story illustrates the make-do attitude that community arts groups need to have if Fairfax County is to maintain a vibrant arts environment. Across the county, groups struggle with a dearth of money, space and communication.

And like the Elden Street Players, many people involved in community arts organizations spend more time on tasks such as tracking down and hauling usable theater seats or trying to raise money than they do on making art.

It is that sort of situation that perplexes the many parties that agree that the arts are good for the community. But the shortage of resources may be about to improve.

Since early this year, a commission created by the county Board of Supervisors has been working to outline a plan on how government leaders, in cooperation with educators, organizers and the business community, could provide a more stable and considered approach to supporting the arts.

Richard Klare, the Elden Street Players' executive producer, said he is glad to hear it. "I think that having a comprehensive plan countywide is long past due," he said.

George Mason University President Alan G. Merten agreed: "There is so much going on in the arts . . . in Fairfax County that one has to have some sort of document that says, 'This is where we are in 2007.' The breadth and depth of activity is such that we need an encyclopedia." Merten is chairman of the Commission on the Future of the Arts in Fairfax County.

After an examination of the current situation, Merten said, the commission will report to the Board of Supervisors at the end of the year with specific recommendations as well as general guidance. The commission had the first of what Merten said will be at least two public meetings recently at the Fairfax County Government Center.

"Right now, Fairfax is a lot of different things," Merten said. "People talk about Fairfax as a political jurisdiction. They don't think of it as a single community. Maybe that is because of the lack of a big downtown that everyone goes to. But whatever it is, the arts and culture can play a role."

The commission has identified a few goals:

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