The Providence Players of Fairfax, an emerging community theater group, will move into a permanent home next month at the newly renovated James Lee Community Center in the Falls Church area.
The center, at 2855 Annandale Rd., will open with a ribbon-cutting at 1 p.m. Saturday. On June 4, the company will open its first production in the James Lee Playhouse, "The Man Who Came to Dinner," the classic George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart comedy.
Although it has no overhead space for raising and lowering large set pieces, the theater, which seats 250 in an inclined gallery and has new lighting and sound systems, will mark a significant improvement from the locations the Providence Players have used in the past, most recently Frost Middle School in Fairfax. The theater company worked closely with the county Department of Community and Recreation Services, which operates the center, in designing the theater's new technical capabilities.
"Hopefully, good acting is good acting wherever you do it, but now we'll be technically way more advanced," said Bill Vander Clute, a member of the troupe's board. "We started off working with six lights, and now we'll have 106."
The Providence Players have steadily built an audience since forming in 1998 as the Mantua PTA Players. About 150 patrons usually attend each show, with some performances drawing as many as 250 people. Those are figures some of the more established theater companies might envy, though the Providence Players have maintained a relatively low profile, despite having Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) as a frequent cast member.
"We're not shy," said Vander Clute. "After all, we are onstage. We've just been more interested in building a theater community and achieving a level of quality ahead of publicity. We have tended to do family fare to build an audience, and now, while we will still do that, we also hope to get a little more experimental."
The quality of suburban theater in the Washington area has risen considerably in recent years, with some troupes, such as Herndon's Elden Street Players, the Little Theatre of Alexandria and the Silver Spring Stage, doing work equivalent to that of professional theaters in the District.
But the improvement in quality has put more emphasis on theater and less on community. Instead of strictly using homegrown talent, local theaters are increasingly relying on a semiprofessional band of performers and technical staff who move from theater to theater. Actors, directors and set, lighting and sound designers now have regional rather than local credits.
Bucking the trend, the Providence Players are trying to keep the "community" in community theater.
Vander Clute said the group will strive to maintain a Fairfax identity.
"We tend not to have actors who come and go and act in six other places," he said. "We have a core group of people. Of course we want to always see new faces, but we are a community force."
As part of the group's evolving identity, the Providence Players have recently joined Washington Area Theatre Community Honors (WATCH), an organization that promotes community theater in the metropolitan area and gives annual awards for performance and technical achievement. WATCH has seen its membership swell in the last several years, growing from 19 theater companies last season to 24 active members this season.
"One part of me is excited to see so many community theaters," said WATCH Chairman Kye-Won Kopko. "At the same time, I'm wondering if we can sustain really good theater with an infinite number of theater people available."
Attendance at community theaters, which dropped sharply after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, is almost back to previous levels, Kopko said. But she noted that several long-established theater groups, including the venerable, 51-year-old Springfield Community Theatre, which has not had a place to perform in Springfield in recent years, are struggling to remain alive despite the new competition and the increased mobility of actors and technical staff.
"There is less and less from the particular community that some community theaters were started for," Kopko said. "The most talented people are moving about. People who win WATCH awards now are in demand all across the area. But the upside is that, as WATCH members have to see each other's shows for judging, they are forced to travel from their own area out to Herndon, for example, and see Elden Street, or go to Little Theatre of Alexandria to see a show. And that often makes them say, 'We need to pull up our game.' "
Vander Clute said he is confident the Providence Players will continue to attract both participants and audience members from the community, even with the move to a new home.
"Hopefully, we've created a following that will want to drive an extra 10 or 15 minutes to see us, and we'll also make some new friends," he said.