Bumper Cars
The Steiny Road
to Operadom with
Karren LaLonde Alenier

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15Recently, the Steiny Road Poet has encountered two organizations that are engaged in building arts centers with theaters. Because the Poet and her collaborators expect not only to premiere Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On in New York City but also to take the work on the road, new theater spaces have that build-it-and-they-will-come appeal.


The Poet's first such encounter occurred this summer when she met with staff from the International Museum of Women. The IMOW will open a huge building with a currently undefined theater space in 2006 on San Francisco's Embarcadero. As mentioned in the last Steiny Road column, IMOW is currently taking project proposals for arts events. Whether the directors and sponsors of IMOW want serious theater productions inside their museum is a question that requires further research.  

As Stein opera collaborating artistic director Nancy Rhodes explained, a barebones theater will not help us put our best foot forward so this is not a reasonable option. However, the Steiny Road Poet thinking of the world premier of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson's opera Four Saints in Three Acts occurring in Hartford, Connecticut's Wadsworth Antheneum Museum of Art knows that professional theaters can be developed in museums. The Wadsworth Antheneum was established in 1842. It did not start its theater productions until 1934 when Balanchine presented a performance by the ballet company that would become New York City Ballet followed by the premiere of Four Saints in Three Acts.


On September 10, 2004, Signature Theatre of Arlington, Virginia, which annually produces a show by Stephen Sondheim, held a media event that they titled You're Gonna Love Tomorrow. The invitation in bright orange with purple accents featured a parking lot (with tent), a crane, and a baby grand. The Steiny Road Poet called and asked if Sondheim was planning to attend, knowing full well that this popular composer of the opera/music theater world lends his name to many theater groups including Encompass New Opera Theatre, the Stein Opera's co-commissioner. Of course, the publicity director at Signature Theatre said she didn't know if Mr. Sondheim, the Honorary Chair of Signature's Capital Campaign, was coming. Like any good politician, the composer of Sweeney Todd sent a letter. The upshot of using a well-known name is that you get people's attention and so I thought I would brave the 12-lane superhighway that leads to the location of this event.


Not only was there music—some of it Sondheim, some of it Michael John LaChuisa, singing, and artfully presented, tasty food, but a wealth of information that excited at least this poet's imagination.
What Signature Theater has managed to do is involve the entire community in which this theater has made its home in a converted garage for 15 years. Arlington County government has signed on to pay a significant portion ($5.5 million) of the costs of building Signature's new set of theaters. (Signature will pay $7 million and will have a main stage and two black box theaters.) The reason the local government is willing to do this is because the Signature Theater building will contain a county library and the expectation is that the theater will attract commerce in the newly revived town of Shirlington. The new building will give Signature 349 seats over the current 136 and increase the space from the current 12,000 square feet to 45,000.


This creative collaboration, which is scheduled to come to fruition in January 2006, provides benefits for everyone, including people who do not live in Virginia. The creation of arts centers outside of main city centers like Washington, DC, is exactly what composer Libby Larsen talked about in her interview with the Steiny Road Poet. More and more, people are not willing to get back in their cars after a long day to fight traffic and pay exorbitant parking fees to see a show, but a professional theater in the suburbs with ample free parking is another story.  


Typically Signature Theatre with 37 Helen Hayes Awards and 176 Hayes nominations sells out their performances. At this point in their history, artistic director Eric Schaeffer's productions, often featuring nationally known performers, enjoy a loyal base of 4300 subscribers. Although ticket purchases do not pay for any theater's productions, Signature, with it's community support, has the wherewithal to get consistent annual grants from such groups as local and state arts commissions. Nevertheless building one's own theater is a huge financial risk with many thousands of dollars more that must be raised, but at least Signature is sharing some of that risk with the county government.


One area in which Signature expects to make money is educational programs. Currently this nonprofit theater works with high school students usually in their school buildings since space is so limited in Signature's current quarters. Having a new building with three rehearsal/classrooms will allow the theater group to expand their educational programs and thereby help pay for future productions. The Signature staff says that their outreach programs help them stay close to their roots and that they never want to lose the spirit generated at their garage theater.

Talking with Signature's producing director Ronnie Gunderson about the features of the new theaters which include flexible stages and seating gave the Steiny Road Poet a whole new perspective on what it takes to create a theater that can ably accommodate serious theatrical productions. Not just any architect can build a well-functioning theater. Nancy Rhodes commented that you need an architect who specializes in designing theaters so that, for example, you avoid dead spots in theaters where audience cannot hear what is being said or sung on stage.  

So the audience for Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On might be sitting back now and wondering if the Steiny Road Poet thinks she has to build her own theater to accommodate follow-on productions of the Stein opera. Of course the answer is not at all, but in looking at plans for new theaters, the Poet appreciates how difficult it is to find a good home for any theatrical production. The question of building a theater more poignantly belongs to Nancy Rhodes and Encompass New Opera Theatre who would like to purchase, if not build, their own stage.


©2004 Karren LaLonde Alenier

Karren LaLonde Alenier, an award-winning Lindy Hopper,
is the author of five collections of poetry,
including Looking for Divine Transportation,
winner of the 2002 Towson University Prize for Literature.
Much more at

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