Mark Kristan Forges Ahead With First Stage Theater Company in Tysons Corner

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 19, 2008

These are not ideal times to be launching a theater company, but Mark Krikstan is forging ahead. First Stage, the nonprofit theater he co-founded in Tysons Corner and of which he's artistic director, is about to open its second show. Richard Greenberg's time-bending literary dramedy, "The Violet Hour," will run Friday through Dec. 14.

First Stage's debut production, a translated Russian comedy called "The Suicide," had some enthusiastic audiences, Krikstan reports, but inauspicious timing: The show opened on Sept. 18, about the time the stock market began to tank. " 'The Suicide' really had meaning for us," he jokes.

On First Stage's Web site (, Krikstan, a retired drama teacher who spent the last 12 years of his career at Marshall High School in Falls Church, describes the company's mission. He sees it as a "teaching hospital" where young actors can get their first professional experience after college and work alongside more seasoned professionals in an eclectic range of plays. He'd especially like to be able to offer his former students who've chosen careers in theater a showcase.

Krikstan, 57, and his co-founders rented a warehouse/storefront on Spring Hill Road and spent about $200,000 converting it into a 110-seat theater. Funding came from "a lot of individuals," but Krikstan concedes that the theater is also carrying debt. He adds, however, that he and the theater's board "feel very confident that we can pull ourselves out of it in the next few years."

They're also banking on Tysons Corner evolving into a more urban and cultural setting.

"We have to build our audience, build our community, build individual donors, get them to trust us," says Krikstan. "It's going to be a little slower than we thought in terms of standing on our feet financially. We move forward. What else can you do?"

Helen Hedman's Class Act

"With 'character singing,' you can get away with a lot," says actress Helen Hedman, only half kidding. She plays a sweet-voiced grade school teacher and her scary alter ego in "Miss Nelson Is Missing!" at Imagination Stage. The musical adaptation by Joan Cushing of the kid-lit book by Harry Allard and James Marshall opens Saturday and runs through Jan. 4. The Bethesda-based family theater premiered the show in 2001.

Overwhelmed by an out-of-control class, Miss Nelson disappears -- and in her place swoops the scary substitute, Viola Swamp (Miss Nelson in mean-lady get-up and a fright wig). Swamp's songs require the "character singing" Hedman refers to. "There's a lot of coloring to the words, and you can speak a lot. I sort of developed this method of . . . barking a lot of the words. So that's fun, but then, of course, Miss Nelson has to have a sweet, lyrical voice."

Hedman hasn't sung this much onstage since she played Edith Piaf at Olney Theatre Center in 2003. She sang 11 songs in "Piaf," affecting a whiskey-and-cigarette-marinated vibrato. In "Miss Nelson" she has five numbers, her favorite being "The Crime and Punishment Tango."

Playing Viola Swamp, says the actress, makes her feel part of a "great tradition" of acting divas playing villains -- Glenn Close in "101 Dalmatians" or Judith Anderson as the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers in "Rebecca." Miss Nelson, says the actress, is "this little timid, mousy woman, giving herself permission to be absolutely horrible. . . . As long as she's Miss Swamp, anything's game. So it's delightful to do that."

Using "Piaf" (which earned her a Helen Hayes Award nomination) and "Miss Nelson" as points on a continuum, one appreciates the broad range of roles Hedman has taken on. At Rep Stage alone, she was a 16-year-old with a premature aging condition in "Kimberly Akimbo," a society wife with a risque past in "Mrs. Farnsworth" and a stage doyenne estranged from her son in Chekhov's "The Seagull." She did many plays at Washington Stage Guild, where she was a founding member, and replaced Dixie Carter in Oscar Wilde's "A Woman of No Importance" at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Two days after "Miss Nelson Is Missing!" closes, Hedman goes into rehearsals at Arena Stage for Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance.

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