Come August, it will be exit stage left for Herndon’s Elden Street Players. The community theater company, celebrating its 25th season, will change its name and become a professional theatrical outfit.
Staffed primarily by volunteers, the Elden Street Players was born in 1988 with a production of “Freedom of the City,” a somewhat controversial play about the early-1970s riots in Northern Ireland that led to Bloody Sunday.
“We sold four shows of 100 seats, which were just folding chairs, and we had no stage, but it captured the imagination of a great number of people, including the Herndon Rotary Club, who would become instrumental in helping,” said Les Zidel, ESP founder, lighting technician and board member. “I invited the mayor to come see the show and he decided to renovate the theater and take charge.”
A year later, the Elden Street Players staged the inaugural presentation at the revamped Industrial Strength Theatre with their production of Lorraine Hansberry’s “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.”
“We wanted to try more experimental work. We didn’t want to be just another community theater that was doing ‘Hello Dolly.’ We wanted to do serious drama,” Zidel said. “We did Shakespeare our second season and started doing plays that no one around had ever attempted.”
The setup in the Industrial Strength Theatre lends itself to creatively staged productions. The main stage is a black box, 42 feet wide and 24 feet deep. Arena-style seating faces the stage. None of the 114 seats is farther than 20 feet from the performance space.
“With the black-box setup, we knew if we would allow directors the chance to invent the space for each play, that we would attract directors more creative than normal,” Zidel said. “By keeping things small and intimate, we could do plays that didn’t require huge capital outlays.”
But Zidel said that after 25 years, ESP’s board has decided that the company’s stint as a community theater staffed by volunteers has run its course.
Under the tutelage of its producing artistic director, Evan Hoffmann — ESP’s only full-time employee — the nonprofit theater and its approximately $820,000 in assets will come up with an operating budget in an effort to attract professional actors and crews.
“We will remain in the same space, but we will change our name to the NextStop Theatre,” said Hoffmann, a 2000 graduate of Herndon High School who has a degree in theater from the College of William and Mary. At 30, Hoffmann already has more than a decade of professional acting, directing and producing experience.
“The acting at ESP is great, but community theater by its nature is a hobby,” he said. “There is a higher commitment expectation in professional theater, and with Metro coming to Herndon in a few years, I think the timing is right to make the transition to a professional company based right here in the Dulles Technology Corridor — 900 yards from the new Herndon Metro station.”
From the technical side, Zidel agreed.
“Right now, as a volunteer group, we are just not attracting enough technical people and design teams,” he said. “At least actors get applause, but the few technical and design volunteers we attract are only here out of their passion for the arts. I think there is a large talent pool right here in Fairfax County who want to be paid and be in professional theater that we can’t really tap into as a volunteer community theater.”
Hoffmann said ticket prices will rise, but not drastically, when NextStop Theatre begins its professional season in August.
“Single tickets may go from $23 to about $30, but our entire season-ticket package will remain a tremendous value, and it will still likely be less than one performance at many professional venues,” he said.
Herndon Mayor Lisa Merkel said she is excited about the prospect of Herndon housing a professional theater.
“The many awards and accolades received by Elden Street Players over the years have reflected well not just on the incredible talents of those involved in their productions, but on the town as a whole,” she said. “ESP has been a longtime centerpiece of the Herndon arts community and we look forward to their continued success as they transition to a professional theater company.”