Thursday, January 04, 2007

Signature’s New Digs in Shirlington

Seventeen years after its founding, the renowned Signature Theatre in Arlington is moving into its own building, designed and constructed “from the ground up,” to house and showcase its artistic endeavors.

Located in the Village at Shirlington, the new building also provides a home for the Shirlington Branch Library (which will also archive Signature’s records, including scripts used in its shows over the years, programs, posters, and other material).

Four stories tall, with 48,000 square feet of space, the new facility is four times as large as “the Garage,” which served as Signature’s home for the past 13 years. It has two large lobbies – including an expanded concession area and a retail kiosk – two performance spaces (the ARK and the MAX), three rehearsal rooms, scenic and costume shops, and large dressing rooms.

In an impromptu press conference today, following a tour for local theatre writers and editors (who had to wear hard hats in the still-under-construction facility), artistic director Eric Schaeffer, who has supervised this project from its inception (including two major construction delays), said that members of Signature’s repertory company were awestruck by the new facilities. Signature co-founder Donna Migliaccio, he said, “was so overwhelmed that [she] didn’t know what to say.” Actor Steven Cupo, he said, wept when he first saw the large rehearsal space underwritten by the Shen Foundation.

Besides extra floor space, the new theatre complex has state-of-the-art acoustics ($1 million was spent on acoustics alone), with each performance space built like a movie sound stage. The MAX, with its 30-foot ceilings, has fly space and catwalks. As Signature publicist Olivia Haas put it, in the upcoming production of Into the Woods, “Jack can actually climb down a beanstalk.” The performance space in the Garage had only 11-foot ceilings. Because of obstacles, it took up to seven days to set up the lights for a show; the new facilities reduce that time to two days (the show business industry average).

Moreover, with the two-story MAX, Signature for the first time has what amounts to balcony seating, in the form of a single row of seats called the “Dress Circle.” These seats will no doubt quickly become known as the best seats in the house – especially when patrons learn that they are accompanied by separate rest rooms and a satellite concession stand during intermissions. The Dress Circle will also be available for use as performance space in the highly-flexible MAX (one reporter in the theatre tour suggested Romeo and Juliet’s balcony).

Both the MAX and the ARK are true black-box theatres, with optimum flexibility. They can be reconfigured for proscenium, theatre-in-the-round, or modified thrust stages. The MAX can hold 299 audience members, while the ARK can accommodate 99.

In Schaeffer’s words, the new building “has the same spirit as the Garage – it’s raw, but there’s energy and vibrancy.” It also opens up Signature more to the community. It overlooks the bustling Village at Shirlington. The lobby will be open for an hour before performances, when patrons can order drinks or snacks and enjoy live piano performances. Even non-ticket-holders can come in during those times to imbibe the ambience and enjoy the atmosphere. There are also plans for summer performances on the plaza outside, closing off the streets of Shirlington so that people can bring their lawn chairs and listen to a Signature concert.

Schaeffer acknowledged fears that the new edifice might transform Signature into “an institution.” He said “there is a big trap of coming into a building like this and becoming an institution” in the pejorative sense. He said that Signature does not want to be “predictable or stagnant.”

Following up on those comments, Sam Sweet, Signature’s managing director, said that over the years, Signature has benefited from taking risks. “We have the courage to continue to take risks” in the new building, he said, because “you don’t move forward by playing it safe.”

Judging from the new facilities, Signature will be able to take risks for many years to come – it has signed a 30-year lease with Arlington County, which paid $5.5 million to construct the shell of the building, and which Signature will pay back with a portion of ticket sales over the next three decades – in a shining new landmark of Washington’s performing arts scene.

Audiences, of course, will be the judge, beginning with the premiere production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods, which runs from January 12 through February 25 in the MAX.

Signature Theatre is now located at 2800 S. Stafford Street in Arlington. For ticket information, telephone 703-820-9771 or visit

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