Theater lovers no longer have to fight traffic, search for parking or pay high prices to see a performance downtown. Arlington's newly renovated Gunston Arts Center brings first rate, innovative productions to Northern Virginia.

"As our lives become more complicated, our leisure time is at a premium. People like having the arts more accessible," said Norma Kaplan, the county's Cultural Affairs Division chief. "Arlington County's philosophy is to make it feasible for local arts organizations to work in the county."

Built in 1960, the Gunston Arts Center originally was a junior high school that closed in 1979. The next year, the Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Resources leased the building for performing arts and recreational activities.

In 1986, the county authorized money for the renovation of the former school to create a performing arts center.

The center's Theatre Two, formerly the school library, is a small, intimate performing space seating up to 125 people, ideal for alternative, less commercial productions. The theater opened last September with a sold-out run of Sartre's "No Exit" presented by the Washington Shakespeare Company.

"Our whole philosophy is to present to Northern Virginia and Metropolitan Washington programing that they're not getting elsewhere," said Jon Palmer Claridge, the county's performing arts supervisor. "We're trying to bring together artists that have a different viewpoint."

The renovation included the addition of floor-to-ceiling blackout curtains shrouding the entire perimeter of the theater, flexible sound and lighting systems and movable, raised audience seating.

"Just finding the space alone downtown can kill {a small theater company}," Claridge said. Here, "they have a space provided for them."

Theatre Two's four other resident companies are Wordstage, presenting works based on existing texts and literary adaptations; Signature Theatre, featuring plays by modern, emerging playwrights; Goosebump Theatre Company, performing contemporary drama; and New Works Theatre, presenting original works.

Performers in the five companies are professional actors. Salaries are financed through ticket revenue and grants from corporations and state and county arts commissions.

Theatre One, the larger of the two theaters, will seat up to 450 people when it opens in January. Hard school auditorium chairs have been replaced by cushioned seats and plush carpeting. The theater is wheelchair accessible with permanent wheelchair spaces and two rows of removable seating.

Theatre One's resident companies will include the Arlington Metropolitan Chorus, the Children's Theatre of Arlington and Dominion Stage, which are unpaid community theater and music groups; and the Bob Brown Puppets professional puppet company.

"Our offices are here, our costumes are made here, our sets are built here and now we're also going to perform here," said Sharon Field executive director of Children's Theatre of Arlington. "It's going to make life easier for everyone."

An expanded lighting system, sound system and booth, catwalk and air conditioning have been added. Additional parking spaces and walkways are being included to accommodate patrons.

The center houses two fully equipped scene construction shops and a costume shop and storage area for more than 2,000 costumes. Seven county technicians are on hand to help with scenery, costumes, sound and lighting.

The center also has rehearsal halls, dance studios and meeting rooms for use by art groups.

The theaters also will sponsor "presenting" programs, featuring guest artists, theater groups, musicians, storytellers and puppeteers.

Performances will be year-round except for holidays and during times of maintenance.

Most performances will be priced at $10 or under.