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Forgive Carolyn Griffin if she flinches when you mention Stephen Sondheim. It’s not that she doesn’t like his stuff. It’s just that her theater company’s most recent production—of his cabaret-style revue, Side by Side by Sondheim—didn’t do very well.
OK, it tanked.
“In 12 years, I’ve never had such an unmitigated disaster,” says Griffin, producing director of MetroStage, which has been presenting creditable (if not always inspired) professional theater in Alexandria since 1984. “Everybody in the cast, the music director, everybody on my board of directors, we all thought it was a can’t-lose proposal. Piece of cake. Ha! We couldn’t give tickets away to that show.” She closed Side by Side four weeks into a planned six-week run. Net loss: $20,000.
You’d think such a colossal bomb, coming on top of MetroStage’s recent loss of its Duke Street home, would have Griffin and company ready to chuck the whole enterprise. In some ways, they’ve led what some theater folk would surely think was a charmed life—not least because their digs have always been provided rent-free by local real estate mogul Oliver Carr.
That’s right. The man City Paper once dubbed D.C.’s “button-down Visigoth” has been one of MetroStage’s most prominent benefactors ever since company founder Jill Kamp sweet-talked him into donating space in an old bank in Shirlington. When that building was redeveloped, Carr moved the company to a storefront in a shopping center on an 80-acre parcel he’d bought near the King Street Metro station. Three years ago, MetroStage moved yet again—to the other end of that same shopping center, into quarters formerly occupied by a Chinese restaurant and a health club. The property recently changed hands, though, and last year Griffin got word that she’d better start thinking about finding a new home. Time-Life is moving its headquarters down to that 80-acre plot, and the strip mall has got to go.
Carr and the new owners talked about building a swank new performing arts space on the site as part of the new multi-use development. The notion was to create a home for a trio of Alexandria institutions: MetroStage, the Alexandria Symphony, and Opera Americana. But the three groups had different ideas about what such an auditorium would involve; MetroStage, for instance, wanted an intimate house with no more than 200 seats, while the symphony and the opera company had rather larger facilities in mind. “And I need control of the space,” Griffin says. “I can’t close a sell-out show if the symphony has the space booked; I need to be able to extend if it’s successful. I don’t want to sound selfish, but I’m not a team player right now. I don’t want to share.”
Which is why Side by Side went up at the Omni Shoreham Hotel’s Marquee Lounge. Griffin thought the show’s format and the Marquee’s clubby atmosphere would be “a perfect fit.” What she didn’t fully understand was that, though it’s a space even Noel Coward would’ve loved, the lounge hasn’t made much of an effort to establish itself as a destination for local cabaret fans. Instead, management has taken the lazy route, relying for years on hotel guests—the tourists and the tired business travelers who stagger downstairs to see the likes of Mrs. Foggybottom.
MetroStage’s subscribers, seemingly unwilling to make the trek into the District, stayed away in droves, and Griffin says the Omni didn’t make the slightest effort to help draw a new crowd—didn’t even bother to light the banner she had made for the hotel’s façade. And the Marquee’s reputation for mediocre food and surly service didn’t help. A nasty Post review doomed what Griffin insists was “a delight, a lovely piece of entertainment. The handful of people who saw it said it was the perfect show in the perfect space.”
Griffin, her cast, and the core group of company organizers “are still reeling, financially and emotionally.” But she insists they’re not beaten. The search is under way for corporate donations to help make up the Side by Side loss. MetroStage has rented temporary offices above a soon-to-open coffee shop in Alexandria’s transitional Delray neighborhood, and many of its effects—lobby furniture, dressing-room fixtures, and more—have taken up interim residence at the Clark Street Playhouse (the home Brian Hemmingsen and the Washington Shakespeare Company (WSC) have recently carved out of the suburban blight we call Crystal City). More delicate items, including lighting boards and auditorium chairs, are safely stashed in a board member’s basement.
The next MetroStage production will go up April 12 at the Church Street Theatre, near Dupont Circle. It’s a new play on the life of Amelia Earhart, written by Canadian playwright Rona Waddington and starring Delia Taylor and Michael Chabon. Griffin has already thought about how to ensure that her subscribers will come to see it: A shuttle will carry them from an Alexandria parking lot to the theater and back.
After that, who knows? Griffin is wondering about the viability of WSC’s vision for Clark Street—another variation on the arts consortium idea, ideally involving several theater companies working out of the former warehouse, which could accommodate as many as four performing spaces. The cross-pollination of consortium members’ audiences would be only one benefit. But WSC is still putting together a proposal to submit to the building’s owners and Arlington County, which would have to sign off on the deal. And there’s the question of renovation costs; WSC has barely begun to make the space habitable.
Meanwhile, there are other options for MetroStage. The historic State Street Theater in Falls Church has been vacant for years, and Griffin thinks the owner might be willing to donate it (presumably in exchange for a hefty tax write-off). And the Goethe-Institut may convert part of its new downtown D.C. offices into a black-box space that would accommodate about 100. Not quite as big as Griffin would like, but maybe there’s room for negotiation.
Whatever happens, Griffin is adamant that MetroStage will be back in permanent quarters before too long. The last song before the Side by Side finale, she points out, goes like this:
Good times and bum times
I’ve seen them all and, my dear
I’m still here.
“We’re still here,” Griffin says. “None of this is gonna slow us down.”CP