Tony-Award Winning Va. Theater Sprouted From Garage

June 5, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Arlington, Va.'s Signature Theater won a 2009 Tony Award as one of the nation's best regional theaters. Jeffrey Brown explores the theater's history and humble beginnings.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, a big honor for a regional theater with very humble beginnings. Jeffrey Brown has that story.

JEFFREY BROWN: When Signature Theater learned it had won this year’s Tony Award as one of the nation’s leading regional theaters, it was no coincidence that the company was about to present the world premiere of “Giant,” a musical by Michael John LaChiusa, based on the 1952 Edna Ferber novel about Texas ranching, oil, and family strife.

A brand-new, big musical, four hours long with 21 actors and a 15-piece orchestra, taking on a complicated subject, by one of today’s leading musical theater composers, the Arlington, Va.-based Signature, as the Tony committee said, has become known for its “bold productions of challenging new and established works,” almost 20 years after very humble beginnings.

ERIC SCHAEFFER, artistic director, Signature Theater: I was young. I was 27 years old when Signature was started. And I was so fearless. And, I mean, I still think I am today, but, back then, I just said, “Well, why not?”

Former garage was first home

JEFFREY BROWN: Artistic director Eric Schaeffer founded Signature in 1989, along with Donna Migliaccio. The company's home for the next 18 years was a former auto garage in an industrial neighborhood, a small space used for big ideas.

ERIC SCHAEFFER: The first musical we did was "Sweeney Todd." And it was interesting, because we did it with 18 people and 15 people in the orchestra, and we had 88 seats in the audience, and people thought we were crazy, and we were, but that's what was great about it. And they're like, "How are you going to do this?

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean, almost as many people on stage as in the audience?

ERIC SCHAEFFER: Yes, yes, yes. And you were, like, how are they -- how can they do this? And how is it really going to work in a space this small?

JEFFREY BROWN: That production also began a relationship with composer Stephen Sondheim that became one of Signature's signatures. Over the years, the company has put on 18 Sondheim musicals, more than any other theater in the U.S., including "Sunday in the Park with George," "Into the Woods," and "A Little Night Music."

Sondheim himself became a staunch friend and supporter.

ERIC SCHAEFFER: We actually opened a window to his work here and, all of a sudden, people went, like, "Oh, you know, his work is hummable. Oh, it's very accessible. Oh, he takes these really interesting ideas and turns them into musical theater."

And I think that's what we have done a lot of, is -- you know, the musicals that we've done are very challenging, and we take challenging subject matters and, you know, say, "Why not? Let's make them a musical."

A nice new performance space

JEFFREY BROWN: Two years ago, Signature closed the garage door and moved into much nicer digs, a 48,000-square-foot space that features two theaters, the smaller Ark, with just the 150 seats, and the larger Max, with 350.

There, they've continued another tradition: re-imagining popular Broadway hits like "Les Miserables" and older classics. During our visit, singers were showing their stuff in an audition for a future production of "Show Boat."

The new venue has also allowed Signature to maintain its mission to not only stage contemporary theater, but help create it. Three years ago, for example, Schaeffer raised funds to commission works from some of today's leading musical theater composers, including Michael John LaChiusa.

LaChiusa's shows have appeared on and off Broadway. The commission, he says, allowed him to work on an idea he'd had for turning the novel "Giant" into an epic musical, and Signature provided an audience willing to give new work like this a chance.

MICHAEL JOHN LACHIUSA, composer: The audience comes in to Signature Theater knowing that they have a little work for themselves to do, as well as the work that you're also presenting to them. So it's a wonderful joint adventure when you do theater at the Signature Theater. They will give to you what you give them; it's a marvelous exchange.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because you need that, right?

MICHAEL JOHN LACHIUSA: We need that, absolutely, but it's a healthier audience than you might normally find in other regional theaters that haven't developed an audience that is willing to go on the adventure.

Opportunities for young writers

JEFFREY BROWN: On a recent day, the behind-the-scenes life of a theater was on display. There were scores to be rehearsed, set pieces welded, costumes ironed, even pinatas to be stuffed. Later, "Giant's" actors put on their boots, warmed up their voices, practiced their cattle-roping, and hit the stage.

With "Giant" produced and other commissions in the works, Schaeffer says he wants to continue to nurture the next generation of composers.

ERIC SCHAEFFER: As major producers in the regional theater, that's our job. I mean, we need to provide opportunities to these young writers.

Navigating the downturn

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, the economics of starting and maintaining a theater are always tenuous, rarely more so than now, as companies around the country suffer in the economic downturn.

Schaeffer has successfully fostered local government, foundation and corporate support and built an audience base that allows more experimentation, more ability to fail on occasion than most. But asked for advice, he'd offer people today who want to do what he's done, he sounds just like the 27-year-old who started Signature.

ERIC SCHAEFFER: You know, in these times, a lot of times people tended to cut back to three- or four-actor shows, but that doesn't get people excited. If you think small, you're going to end small, you know? It's really about the passion of what you want to do, you know?

People will support it. People will get behind it, and they'll say, "Absolutely. You know, we see what you're doing. We see what you want to do. That's so important. I want to be part of it."

And it's not easy. It's not easy. But I think you can't work in the theater and not have passion. You just can't.

JEFFREY BROWN: That passion and hard work will be honored at the Tony Award Ceremony on Sunday night at New York's Radio City Music Hall.