Although the Ford Theater in Washington, D.C., is older, and the Old Town Theater in Alexandria is larger, The Little Theatre of Alexandria (LTA) is the longest continuously running live performance theater in the metropolitan area. Just how has the LTA endured economically challenging times and regional artistic consolidation through the years?
Perhaps as a diversion from the tough times of the Great Depression, a small group of Alexandrian businesspeople founded the LTA in 1934, as a play-reading group. In the 1940s, children dressed in Revolutionary-era costume greeted cars and sold period refreshments as actors performed colonial revival plays to audiences in Gadsby's Tavern that included President and Mrs. Truman.
But it wasn't all fun and games for the players. Shrewd investors, they pooled their resources to purchase parking lot space. The rental income established the building endowment, and in 1961, they broke ground at the corner of Wolfe and St. Asaph streets in Alexandria where the LTA has been ever since.
Russell Wyland, member of the Board of Governors, believes the partial answer to the longevity question is that the LTA has had a consistent physical presence. The red brick two-story building houses a 219-seat theater with high ceilings, brass chandeliers, and a muted forest green decor.
"Most community theaters bounce from location to location," said Wyland. "We're kind of like the Cheers bar, "when you have a physical place, you become a community institution. That stability helps us build and keep good will."
The building and its rosebush-encircled courtyard have been used for community events, First Night performances, and elementary school graduations. The private, nonprofit LTA also allows local charities to buy out select performances and then re-sell tickets for fund-raising purposes.
PAST BOARD president Rance Willis feels they also have a strong organization that has allowed the LTA to avoid disruptive conflict, and focus on arts and arts education.
"The by-laws were specifically written so that the LTA would not be run by a few people for just a few people. The organization has always been egalitarian with an emphasis on education," he said. Besides the annual seven-show seasons, the LTA hosts a national one-act playwriting competition, and an academy that teaches players of all ages and experience.
The most important reason for the resilience though, said Wyland, is that the LTA is a community theater — not an amateur theater. The emphasis on quality performances seems to be what everyone feels keeps audiences coming back.
Ernie Sult, who, with his late wife Patricia, read the boards for over 40 years of LTA performances, said, "You only need to read the biographies in the playbill to know how accomplished our actors and production people are. Some of us used to say, 'if you act at the LTA, you're ready for New York.'"
He's got a point — Academy Award winner Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock), Emmy-nominated actor Matthew Ashford of the NBC soap opera, Days of Our Lives, and soap opera veteran Tom Wiggins (As The World Turns) — are all LTA alums.
CURRENT PRESIDENT Frank Shutts II concurs. "There are a lot of theater-trained people in the area who have settled for other day jobs. Our play calendar — six to eight weeks of rehearsal, followed by 21 performances — offers a professional schedule for people really interested in theater."
Though the LTA is an Alexandria City community treasure, players and ticket subscribers come from as far away as Phoenix and Dallas. And presidential patronage continues. President George W. and First Lady Laura Bush, took in a performance of the comedy, Proposals, in June 2001.
Shutts feels that success also comes from really understanding the LTA audience. "We present mostly classical pieces that our audience likes — Arsenic and Old Lace, To Kill A Mockingbird, etc. — but every now and then we will surprise them, such as setting our production of The Taming of the Shrew in the Wild West."
THE LTA has also performed avant garde theater to an enthusiastic reception. Shutts remembers, "Sold out shows aren't terribly unusual, but for our revival of Hair (the 1960s musical about the hippie generation) a few single men purchased tickets for each showing, only wanting front row seats. After a few performances they even began to arrive at the second act."
The 70th season of The Little Theatre of Alexandria began with The Music Man on July 26. Tickets are available at the box office, or by calling 703-683-0496. The full upcoming season, and details of the 25th anniversary LTA National One-Act Play Competition, can be viewed at www.thelittletheatre.com.
Jennifer Dargan is a theater buff who has been awed by performances in Geneva, London, New York, Paris, Philadelphia and at The Little Theatre of Alexandria.