Alex Levy’s vision for 1st Stage Theatre.
1st Stage Theatre director Alex Levy.
Alex Levy wants 1st Stage to become the sort of local theater that residents of Northern Virginia embrace and love as their own.
But first, those residents have to find the place.
Tucked away in an ’80s-looking strip mall less than a mile from the shopping mecca that is Tysons Corner Center, 1st Stage hardly seems located where a theater should be. There’s no trendy bar to hit afterward, no convenient place to grab dinner beforehand. Also: There are no “1st Stage” signs visible from Spring Hill Road. Yet there, in the same shopping center where you can get your pet groomed at Dogtopia, or get your muffler checked out at Meineke, Levy is striving to put on the best live theater in Washington’s southern suburbs.
“This whole building wasn’t built to be a theater,” the artistic director says, “but the second you cross the threshold, you sense there is a warmth and an energy to the space.”
Eight years ago, a coalition of Fairfax drama teachers and other theater enthusiasts pitched in and helped turn the 6,500-square-foot tile showroom into a 100-seat theater, green room, lobby and office. The goal was to provide a venue for talented young actors who were coming out of Fairfax County’s excellent high school drama programs but not quite ready for Washington’s larger stages. As the demographic landscape of Fairfax County has shifted, however, so has the theater’s mission. Founding artistic director Mark Krikstan opted to step down last year, and after a national search, 1st Stage invited Levy to move to Northern Virginia. He had been running the Watts Village Theater Company in Los Angeles, so crossing the country to live in an affluent suburb was quite a switch. Still, he was optimistic that he, his wife, Kate, and their baby son August could make a home here.
Levy officially took over Sept. 2, 2014. Less than three months later, Kate was killed in a car accident while visiting relatives in Michigan.
No one would have blamed Levy if he wanted to leave and raise his son closer to family, but he chose to stay, and now Augie toddles around the lobby, eagerly stomping on a handful of bright red squares painted on the floor donated by patrons as part of the “Kate’s Square” fund. Levy knows, however, that the markers may not stand for time immemorial—he’s running a theater that has to grow and change.
The physical alterations will begin next summer, Levy hopes. In November he signed a lease to acquire the roughly 4,000-square-foot storefront immediately adjacent to 1st Stage. He hopes to knock through the stage right wall of the theater and expand his backstage space.
For now, though, the former studio will be a rehearsal space for actors performing in When the Rain Stops Falling, a futuristic family drama that ricochets back and forth across an 86-year timespan. Michael Dove, who leads Forum Theatre, will direct Andrew Bovell’s play, which premiered at New York’s Lincoln Center in 2010. Levy continues the season in April by directing the 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winner Proof, David Auburn’s play about the daughters of a brilliant but unstable mathematician. Then, as is the formula at many theaters, the season ends with a musical, although Levy has picked a rather risky one: Floyd Collins, a 1996 cult classic with music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, one of Richard Rodgers’ grandsons. Along with Harvey, the theater’s family-friendly holiday offering, it makes quite an eclectic mix. But as Levy looks at it, being the only professional theater for miles gives him a mandate to provide audiences with variety: “It’s not like I have to program whatever is the latest hot play in New York.” He just has to present plays that are good.
“There is a real want for high level arts here,” he says. “When we talk about all the things that are happening in Tysons Corner—all of the construction and expansion—the arts needs to be part of that conversation.”
One advocate committed to keeping 1st Stage on the mind of Fairfax County planners and developers is Linda Sullivan, president of the county’s arts council. Levy visited her office his third day on the job. “Alex is terrific,” Sullivan says. “He’s brought a great level of energy and expertise to 1st Stage. They have come a long way, and they are really growing.” The new Spring Hill Metro Station on the Silver Line means 1st Stage is now accessible via public transportation. That’s a blessing for the actors and other artists commuting from Washington. Whether or not theater patrons are coming by Metro is less clear. But Sullivan points out, “Where there are people living, there are all those activities that they will want to participate in, including the arts.”
As long as Levy can convince his landlord to finally let him post a sign out closer to the road. “You just have to have signage,” says Sullivan. “Why have a theater and then not let anybody know?” 1stStageTysons.org