Caroline Werth doesn't sleep much these days, but when she does, her sleep is restless and filled with nightmares. She dreams of computerized stage equipment flying up and down at will, a concert shell that won't cooperate, toilets that won't flush, an emcee hanging upside down, a fire safety system flooding the stage -- and most of all her own shrieks and sobs being heard by a phantom audience even though she's in a soundproof booth.
It's no wonder. As executive director of the George Mason Center for the Arts, Werth is facing a final countdown: the gala black-tie opening Saturday of the jewel in the center's crown -- its $12 million concert hall. The past few months have been busy ones. Not only has the building been finished, but the lake in front of it has been carved out of the mud, the plaza and adjacent walkways laid, the landscaping and handicapped access installed, the rigging systems enhanced and a million small details -- signs, music stands, lobby seating, trash cans, ushers' uniforms -- attended to.
But Werth isn't the only one losing sleep over this state-of-the-art facility. Until it is up and running and its impact assessed, the Washington area's other performing arts impresarios will have a few restless nights. So will George Johnson, the president of George Mason University, who has banked on the center as a showcase embodying his commitment to the arts; the Virginia legislators who have supported Johnson's efforts; and the developers and business leaders who have been counting on George Mason to provide a cultural anchor for Northern Virginia. The only people who don't have to worry are the audiences, students and teachers for whom the entire artistic complex will be a daily reality.
The Center for the Arts, of which the concert hall is the capstone, is part of Johnson's strategy to put George Mason on the map. A little-known school on the edge of Fairfax City when he arrived in 1978, George Mason needed a plan to draw attention to it, Johnson figured.
"We needed something world-ranking, and you can't do that in 20 minutes," he recalls. "We had to be selective about our goals and drive them."
Johnson, 62, settled on three areas of concentration appropriate to the region: public policy studies, information technology and the arts. His strategy was to start by going after high-profile hires with the hope that support dollars would follow. Public policy came first, and in 1986 Johnson's efforts to hire outstanding professors hit the jackpot when the university's James M. Buchanan won the Nobel Prize for economics. The information sciences program, supported by the area's high-tech businesses, was developed next. Only the performing arts center lay beyond his reach. For that, wooing the right people wasn't enough. "We had to have a house," says Johnson.
Now they do.
The stark precast-concrete and glass building that is the new concert hall looks out at the Patriot Center across the George Mason campus. About a 40-minute drive from downtown Washington, the new hall of almost 2,000 seats can be converted to an 800-seat theater by lowering its light bridge. Adjacent to it is the school's performing arts building (completed in 1988) with black-box theater, rehearsal halls, classrooms, and music, dance and drama studios; and behind that is the 521-seat Harris Theatre.
To book the fledgling concert hall and supervise the entire center, George Mason sought out Caroline Werth, 37, who for 10 years produced a concert series for the Colden Center for the Performing Arts at New York's Queens College. "We had to have someone who could book the level of performance that we wanted, and who understood doing it in a university setting," says Johnson.
The university part of it was key. "We have a twofold educational mission," explains Clara Lovett, the university's provost and chief academic officer: "to make the arts an important part of the education of our students, and to educate the Northern Virginia community."
"We don't want the feel of a commercial theater," adds Helen Ackerman, Johnson's assistant vice president for public relations. "We want people to feel like they are on a university campus. But at the same time we want professional quality and high standards."
Werth, who has been on the job for about a year and a half, developed the programs for the concert hall and mapped out its marketing strategy, targeting Northern Virginia in particular. Working from a mailing list for the Wolf Trap Farm Park and one developed by the university, she kept her fingers crossed. "There are no buying trends here, no historical evidence to fall back on, no such thing as renewal subscribers," she says. "We're writing the book as we go."
The book, as developed by Werth, is a program of manageable series (three to five events each) with frank go-for-the-big-names appeal: Leontyne Price, Itzhak Perlman, the Martha Graham Dance Company, Count Basie, Wynton Marsalis, Roberta Flack, Mel Torme, the Boys Choir of Harlem. (Orchestra seat prices for a series range from $117 for Great Artists to $41 for Family Entertainment.) Customized packages that sample the individual series are also offered.
If Werth's choices have been cautious, the strategy seems to have worked. About 6,000 of the almost 8,000 subscriptions have been sold. Two of the series, Great Performances and Great Artists, have sold out. And, as might have been predicted, the subscribers come from Virginia. Most of them -- in fact 99 percent of the first 2,000 -- live west and south of Arlington and Alexandria, reaching as far as Richmond.
At each stage of the booking process, Werth kept Johnson informed. "My responsibility was to develop the series," she explains, "but only after getting a sense of what the university wants and what our educational mission is."
Because what the university wants is not just a successful program of concert series, but a place where George Johnson can play out his very personal and idealistic philosophy: "We want the arts to be an inescapable, pervasive presence for every student," he says. "We want students not only to listen to a symphony but to know how it comes about, to know how a play evolves during its production as well as how it gets written."
To that end, 500 seats at each performance in the concert hall -- more than 25 percent -- will be set aside free for students. Says Lovett, "Our goal is to put the arts at the center of the educational experience for all students. We wanted to use these facilities to give them exposure to the arts, to get them hooked, no matter what they major in."
It's an attitude with appeal. Sarah Lawless, the recently arrived director of the Institute of the Arts, which will coordinate all the academic programs in the arts, says it's the reason she left a good job in Denver to come here. "I think this is the only university in the country that believes that every student should have a working knowledge of the arts," she says.
A Uniting Force
Johnson's belief in the arts as an essential ingredient in a university education springs from his observation that the world broke apart in the late 1960s and has never realigned itself. To him, the arts are a necessary humanizing and uniting force.
"Before the '60s, there was a generally understood common set of manners, a common set of values, a consensus on what things were good, true and beautiful in American society," he explains. "Then in the '60s Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall. The establishment became disestablished.
"I'm not nostalgic about that," he says. "That establishment had to be broken down -- it was an establishment that was white-male-dominated, genteel in probably the worst sense of the word. We opened up our society, but in doing that we broke down some commonalities. I think the time has come for us to stop taking apart, and start putting together. And I see the arts right at the center of our ability to reconstitute a common sense of what we are as Americans and as human beings.
"When the egg of the new world is cracking all around us, it's important to have some shared sense of wholeness. I don't know that opening up the arts center will correct that, but we need to center more of the undergraduate experience on human dimensions of life and learning."
Sound idealistic, against-the-established-grain, maybe even corny? Johnson is perfectly comfortable with that. Besides, it gives George Mason a special mission.
Johnson is used to breaking new ground. He grew up in North Dakota, "a place," he says proudly, "settled by entrepreneurs where 90 percent of the high school graduates go to college." His home setting was a cultured one -- the family might drive 50 miles to hear a symphony. "There wasn't much of the arts there, but what there was was appreciated."
With Johnson's appointment in 1978, George Mason also got the services of his wife, Joanne, a scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature, whom he met when both were teaching at the University of Missouri. As chairman of the Fund for the Arts (an unpaid position) for the past four years, Joanne Johnson has been a prime mover for the Center for the Arts. Her high-visibility annual arts gala has brought in money for arts programs since 1980.
"We've always been involved with feeling a need to be a part of a community," she says. And when the couple moved here, Joanne Johnson began to realize that George Mason was neither well known nor a major player in the community. So she directed her energies to the arts. "I said I think we have to get something that would bring people here, and the arts would do it."
Cost of 'Simple Elegance'
But making a mark takes money. The new arts facilities the couple envisioned to serve the students and the community have been built with state funds and bonds over five years. The concert hall, which was begun in August 1988, was brought in at $2 million over budget, most of that for changes and enhancements. Special touches, such as chandeliers and full-scale landscaping, will have to wait. But no theater in Washington is as well equipped as this one.
Johnson declares himself delighted with the design and pleased as well with the absence of costly frills such as marble and fine wood. "There is a simple elegance to it," he says. "There are no noble materials. It's all precast concrete. I think the building expresses George Mason -- a bootstrap operation."
Building costs were kept down through an ingenious architectural decision: to butt the concert hall and the performing arts building back to back so that facilities (dressing rooms, rehearsal halls, studios) that already existed in the performing arts building could be used for the concert hall as well, saving about $1.5 million after the costs of retrofitting.
Because the center will be funded through a combination of ticket and rental revenues, private support and student fees, Johnson is not as concerned with the item-by-item aspects of the finances of the concert hall as he would be if it had to support itself as a commercial theater. ("The primary thing is not selling tickets," says Johnson. "The hall is as integral a part of the university as is the physics department.") Virginia's right-to-work law also eliminates prohibitive union costs that other performing arts centers face. Even so, Johnson is concerned about keeping ticket prices down to keep concertgoing within reach of as many people as possible.
Werth, who is expected to bring in enough money to pay for about 60 percent of the hall's direct costs as well as artists' fees, has to come up with about $600,000 this year. "Everything we do is in a climate of caution," she says. "There is a limited amount of money available. Before I part with a cent, I beat it to death."
Some additional money will be raised through renting the concert hall, this season, for example, to the Fairfax Symphony and the Northern Virginia Youth Symphony.
Some obvious sources of revenue, however, appear to have been rejected -- at least for the moment. No capital campaign specifically for the concert hall is planned this year. No ads are being sought for the programs given out at each performance. And the hall itself will have no food or drink concessions ("budget concerns" are given as the reason). There is grumbling about this on the George Mason campus, which last year endured two state budget cuts and last January had to impose a hiring freeze. There is also grumbling that Joanne Johnson's Fund for the Arts, the umbrella organization for funding the arts at George Mason, doesn't want competitive fund-raising going on simultaneously.
Joanne Johnson, who explains that all funding proposals are coordinated through the George Mason Foundation, which the Fund for the Arts is a part of, doesn't disagree. "It's all one product," she explains. "If there were to be a corporate drive, the money would go into the Fund for the Arts as a restricted fund for the concert hall. But we only want one person to go out to a major donor to ask for money for the arts."
Werth, who is responsible for revenue only through ticket sales, chooses her words carefully in addressing these issues. "There is an understanding that program advertising is useful. But the president has also been concerned about what kind of statement we're making about what we're doing. He is concerned that nobody thinks of us as a commercial enterprise." With regard to food and drink concessions in the concert hall, she says, "It is something that was addressed and the president has decided that going into this is not something he wants to provide at this time."
Prominent Northern Virginia developer John T. "Til" Hazel, twice a rector of the university and a close friend of George Johnson's, admits he hears about the controversy at home because his wife, Jinx, is chairman of the board of the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra. But he points out that "you don't want to lose sight of the fact that it is a university facility." Says Hazel: "George's concern is that the commercialization of the operation doesn't get beyond the tone he wants to set. He doesn't want to wake up one morning and find a bunch of billboards advertising Coke and Pepsi and hot dogs. He wants to work into it in an evolutionary way. He wants a classy arts center with a proper tone -- a family tone."
If George Johnson isn't concerned about providing ways for patrons to get drinks at intermission, neither is he worried too much about the details of potential headaches such as parking and whether 500 seats are too many to set aside for the students. These will simply be worked out in time: A 1,102-car parking lot near the university's Patriot Center, for example, will be shared by the two halls by not scheduling major events on the same night; and a site adjacent to the concert hall has been earmarked for a 500-space parking garage, set for completion in January 1992.
Does More Mean Better?
The question still hanging for the performing arts community is whether the concert hall will pull patrons away from the Kennedy Center or other houses. The answer: it's too soon to tell.
Says Clara Lovett, "We think we can attract people who don't go into the Washington area." The subscriber demographics may support that.
In any case, from university officials' point of view, the George Mason center exists for their community, and they are really not too concerned about what's going on competitively in Washington. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that having a healthy concert hall/theater in Northern Virginia will help, not hurt the Washington scene. "Sometimes I wonder if more isn't better," says Werth. "My Queens audience went into New York all the time, but they'd come to my events as well. It was always self-perpetuating. Everybody was always going somewhere."
For their part, local performing arts honchos -- although carefully watching the situation -- seem to agree with the George Mason assessment. "I haven't been worried, because I am one of the strong advocates for having more theaters in the area," says Doug Wheeler of the Washington Performing Arts Society, which this year will present some of the same artists that George Mason will. "I think the significant part of all this is that great cities usually are places that have artists who live and work in those areas. Personally I am very excited about the activity and growth. There are always people worried about how we will sell all the houses, but I think that will happen without any problem."
The Kennedy Center's chairman, James Wolfensohn, appears sanguine as well. "My honest opinion is that at the margins there may be some competition for patrons, but the overwhelming benefit seems to me to be the development of audiences now unserved in that region, from whom we'll all benefit. The program seems to be of high quality, and that too adds to the strength of cultural life in the region."
George Johnson seems almost indifferent to talk of competition. That's not what he's concerned with. What he is interested in is the symbiotic relationship between George Mason and Northern Virginia, and the notion that the health of each is essential to the other. From his point of view, informing the area's young people in the arts will not only enhance their education but also turn them into young adults who support the arts once they leave school. "To the extent that the area prospers, so do we," says Johnson. "Our well-being is tied together. Now we've got the house, we've got the community -- a potentially sophisticated audience. I don't see how we can lose."
That was part of the thinking behind building the 10,000-seat Patriot Center, a sports and entertainment arena finished in 1985, and that idea is certainly part of the master plan now. Says Hazel: "I personally believe that George is right when he assumes that what is good for the university is good for Northern Virginia. You can't have a university isolated. You have to have a lot of interaction and community support.
Hazel has high hopes for the concert hall too. "For the first time, we have an opportunity to aspire to a quality arts program. I think it will be a huge success, and it's enormously important to Northern Virginia. A community without some of these focal points is not a community at all -- it's just a group of subdivisions."
Will it be a success? The health of any performing arts institution is hard to predict. But by any measure, the center's subscription sales are very good. And although an enthusiastic community response pleases George Johnson, that's not what he's tracking. This is what he'd like to see: "I'll be happy when the resident string quartet goes to the airport to leave for a performance in Moscow, and it has a mob of students sending them off the same way they sent basketball players off the the NCAA playoffs."
He smiles in anticipation. "And we hope that happens in the first year."