The Publick Playhouse in Bladensburg next week will mark the end of its first year as Prince George's only countywide performing arts center.
In contrast to the extensive three-day community arts festival that opened the Playhouse last February, the first anniversary will be celebrated Feb. 4 with a modest one-evening combination of business and pleasure.
Beginning at 8 p.m. in the Playhouse, the Friends of the Publick Playhouse, a citizens' group, will hold its annual general meeting, which is open to the public. After the meeting, Craig Babcock, a mime artist, will present a short mime program.
Sarah Potter, secretary for the Friends, said the evening will be a time for the public to get acquainted with the Playhouse and the people working on its behalf.
The Publick Playhouse does not have a resident company, but is operated as a performing arts center by the county Department of Parks and Recreation, which pays for staff salaries, maintenance of the building and utilities. Revenue from rental of the building to performing groups, said managing director Doug Herbert, goes primarily toward providing services, such as printing and promotion, for those groups. Although that revenue occasionally is used for the facility itself. Herbert said the Playhouse relies on the county and the Friends of the Publick Playhouse for most improvements.
"Whenever we hear of something that is available that the Playhouse can use, the Friends are there to help get it," said Potter. Two scaffolding towers and dressing rooms were among donations solicited last year by the Friends, which also co-sponsored a dance concert in November to raise funds for a dance floor.
Potter added that plans for the Friends include a major membership drive in coming months and eventual incorporation, which would allow the Friends to seek grants for the Playhouse.
Looking back over the first year, managing director Herbert said, "A lot of people in the political arena and in the arts community were dubious if this place could be booked every weekend. There was a lot of question about whether groups would leave their communities and come here to showcase. I think just by looking at the schedule, we've proved it could be done."
The Playhouse was booked almost every weekend between September and January, with the exception of holiday periods, Herbert said, and now it is solidly booked until June 11.
He said a variety of groups use the Playhouse, including youth organizations such as the Teen Players of Laurel, professional companies such as Maryland Dance Theatre and community groups such as the Ebony Lady Organization, a Landover-based black group that is presenting a "Gospel Jubilee" in late April at the Playhouse.
Herbert said he believed groups were interested in using the Playhouse because it has an unusually wide range of technical and administrative services, and the fee schedule, particularly for non-profit groups, is low. For example, a non-profit theater group in the county is charged only $35 a night, he said.
"In addition to giving the hall, we also give a technician on duty," said Herbert. "A lot of the technical equipment here is new, especially for groups coming in from churches and high schools. Instead of leaving them to flounder, we give them help."
Drew Fonoroff, company manager for Maryland Dance Theater, said he was pleased by the benefits offered to the company during its four-day run at the Playhouse in December.
"It would have been impossible to rent a union hall for that length of time and those programs and make the profit we did," Fonoroff said. "It was refreshing to perform in a hall for four days and not come in the red and, at the same time, to bring something to the people.
"It would be foolish for companies in the area not to take advantage of the facility - not just dance companies, but others as well. And you're not just getting just four walls, there are the services."
Rod Wiesinger, president of Prince George's Little Theater, said the atmosphere at the Playhouse was the main reason his group decided to use the facility for its season of plays rather than the Little Theater's usual home at a school in New Carrollton.
"We went primarily for the theater ambience, the feeling of going into a place that is specifically for the performing arts," he said.
One benefit of the move, said Wiesinger, has been some new members in the audience.
"We're picking up people who've never heard of us before," he said. "The fact that the Publick Playhouse is scheduling so many things increases knowledge of everything going on there. It's a center, a locus.
"As facilities there improve, it will spark improvement of the groups performing there."
Herbert said one major need is air conditioning, which would allow more use of the Playhouse in summer. He added that the Playhouse needs an acoustical shell if it is to attract more musical groups. He said he hopes "to entice one or both of the county's symphonies into the Playhouse this year."
For information about the Publick Playhouse or the Friends of the Publick Playhouse, call 277-1710,