The Signature Theatre that stands proudly at the end of Campbell Street in Shirlington Village today offers no hint of its lineage and humble origins in a converted garage, about fifteen years ago. The theatre has enjoyed tremendous success as many community and regional theaters have languished. Much of that success is related directly to the passion, energy and vision of artistic Director Eric Schaeffer.
While local brethren struggle to draw an audience, Signatures audience has soared. Its budget has grown from $2.6 million to $7.8 million in less than two years, according to Schaeffer. Its like a huge snowball is rolling down a hill, and we are just trying to stay ahead of the snowball; our audience has jumped from 42,000 to 80,000, he said in an interview.
Signature Theatre is a performers theater. Everything about it whispers that loving artists contributed ideas to the design elements, from the shifting pastel lights behind the risers of the grand staircase to the discrete custom bocci chandelier illuminating the stairs from above, to the charming view of The Village at Shirlington through the wall of windows in the lounge/piano bar.
The theater sets the mood before the show and allows theatergoers the unwonted luxury of discussing the show with a glass of wine afterwards.
Its not just coming to a show, Schaeffer said. Its an experience, from the time they come into the lobby and the piano player is playing. They can have a glass of wine after the show and talk about it. That is part of the experience.
The audience members relax before the show, looking out on the bustling revitalized village before them. By the time the doors open, those who have been able to enjoy the piano music, the ambience and perhaps a taste of the grape, enter the theater in a state that is far more conducive to the theaters offerings than that of an audience member rushing from traffic directly into the theater.
The most dramatic element of all is the nothingness of the empty space of black boxes that are the performing space, devoid of stage or seats or character until it is designed for each show.
When we design a set, we design a theater, Schaeffer explained. Its more expensive, more intensive, but gives your audience a new experience each time. They never know what they will find. Its a new theater every time. It is different for the audience every time and it is a new experience every time for the actors and the audience.
Between shows the huge empty space is black walls and black floor and somewhere way up there a black ceiling. No chairs, no stage, just a big empty black room. So each time an audience member walks in, the space is literally a new theater, created for this specific production. For one show, it might be theater in-the-round with a soaring staircase, for another a traditional proscenium stage on the opposite wall. Part of the experience in entering the theater is rounding the last corner to get the first glimpse of the newest dramatic spot in town.
The transformation is not only for the effect on the audience, but also for directors and actors. You act differently on a proscenium than in the round, says Schaeffer.
The setting creates the mood and provides the experience, but more than that sets the Signature apart from the rest. I think its the shows that we produce: challenging, engaging, disturbing maddening, Schaeffer said. It leaves them talking when they leave the theater.
And Signature encourages interactivity. They can talk with us and tell me why they liked [the show] or write to me to tell me that they didnt or to ask why we chose it, Schaeffer said. And I answer all of them.
For example, The Visit, the German tale of a wealthy woman who returns to her home town, which she had fled in shame, to seek vengeance against the man who had wronged her, sat on a shelf after 9/11. It was too dark and no one wanted to touch it, Schaeffer recalled. I said, Were going to do it in the new building.
That sentence encapsulates the philosophy that keeps Signature edgy: You just have to go out there and do it.
We dont settle, he continued. Its not okay if its just good enough. Its not good enough until its great. Every [production] is a mountain and we climb that mountain.
Schaefer speaks with obvious pride and pleasure about Signature Theatres connectedness with the Village.
The new Signature is a cultural anchor for [Shirlington] Village, he said. We are now part of this neighborhood. The stores look to us because of the business we bring in. Its been great being part of the community. Schaeffer smiled: Sometimes a restaurant owner will say that he knows we dont have a production because business is down.
The theater also works closely with the Arlington Library on the ground level, below the main theater and piano bar. During the August 2 Open House, for example, the library will host stage combat demonstrations. The library also provides space for monthly discussion about current productions, and has sponsored a film series at Signature.
Open House is always the first Saturday in August, Schaeffer explained. It is summer and before the season; students are out of school. As soon as its over we start bringing in sets.
The seasons highlights concert is a chance to hear some of the music from the next seasons shows, and visitors might like the music and decide they want to see the shows.
Unlike almost anywhere else in the Metro area, Shirlington Village provides plenty of free parking. With the new parking garage, 500 additional spaces opened up in July and a walkway leads directly from the second floor of Signature to another of the four free parking garages within a few minutes walk.
Open House on August 2 will offer something for everyone in the family, plenty of fun for kids and master classes will give visitors the chance to watch directors help young actors perfect technique and performance.
Signature has a strong educational component. Project Stage has been especially popular with students 16 years old and over, but so many younger students wanted to participate that a new program for the younger teens has been introduced.
The theatre also offers playwriting competitions and workshops for students.
Signature Theatre is a success story, enriching the community at large, engaging theatergoers and proving that there is a place for good theater away from Broadway or even Washington, D.C.
Robbie Thornton lives in Alexandria. On the local scene only since 2005, he began reviewing theater in England more than 30 years ago.