In theater terms, American Century is a success. But on its own terms, the theater company has fallen a little short said Jack Marshall, artistic director and one of the founders of the American Century Theater. The Arlington-based theater company specializes in performing the ignored masterpieces of the 20th Century, “great, important, and neglected plays,” according to the theater’s mission statement.
Over the last six years, American Century has earned nine nominations for the Helen Hayes Awards for Washington-area professional theaters, and won two. Since the company formed in 1994, Marshall and American Century have presented 45 plays on the stage of Gunston Theatre Two, a county-owned and –managed theater. A decade ago, Marshall said, he hoped that American Century would have a theater to itself. “We’re heading into our 10th year,” said Marshall. “The idea would have been to have a theater of our own.”
Partly, that was about staking a claim. But it was also a matter of supply and demand. “There are 11 professional theaters in Arlington, and I’m not even counting all dance companies,” Marshall said. “We’re becoming overcrowded. Theaters need space.”
That call is being echoed by Arlington Citizens for the Arts, or ACA, a new advocacy group that formed last month to rally support for the arts and artists operating in the county. The group celebrated its birth with a June 14 meeting that drew 100 speakers, including working artists, actors and interested audience members. Paul LeValley, ACA president, said that core members of the group will meet again next week to work out the ACA’s mission, and decide how it will work to achieve those goals.
“How it all works, I’m not sure yet,” said LeValley, who also serves as executive director of Arlington Independent Media, a non-profit that runs the county’s cable access channels.
But ACA members are working toward a common goal, he said. “Arlington needs to provide homes for arts groups, a central home.”
<b>THAT’S NOT TO SAY</b> the county has fallen down on the job so far, LeValley said. “We have no problem whatsoever with what Arlington has done to date. It’s the coolest place on planet,” he said. “We’re not lacking much. I’m a total Arlington fan.”
In fact, county efforts to support the arts in the past have really created a crisis in the local arts, he said. Since 1990, Arlington has provided funding to local artists in the form of grants awarded through the Arts Incubator program. In 1996, the Arts Incubator won an award for “Innovations in American Government” from the Ford Foundation and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
LeValley and Marshall both praised the Arts Incubator. But it has meant a steady increase in the number of arts groups in the county, Marshall said. “They’re simply coming up with more arts groups that compete with each other for the same audience. You’ve got to build up the audience, you can’t just keep building up arts groups.”
That may mean building a new home for the arts, to draw the audience, LeValley said. “They’ve been so successful in creating and nurturing these groups, but they’re doing their work in sort-of warmed-over middle school auditoriums.”
Similar efforts have met with success in the county, LeValley said, pointing to plans to build an aquatics center, athletics facilities and deluxe sports fields on the North Tract. County groups have regularly lobbied for swimming pools and sports fields over the last four years, and LeValley saw the need for similar efforts on behalf of the arts.
“It’s time for county to take the next step, in terms of grant money, artists and arts groups, and facilities,” he said. “This is about increasing public and monetary support for the arts overall.”
<b>SUPPORT COMES</B> from all sides, said Norma Kaplan, director of the county’s Cultural Affairs Division. That means that ACA needs to push for support from government, from business and from private citizens.
“I’m hoping that advocacy means working with the business community and private individuals,” she said. “But you have to start somewhere.”
Kaplan sat in on early ACA meetings, and welcomed another voice calling for arts funding in the county. “I have been encouraging people to be more involved in the arts and the development of the arts,” she said. “Hopefully this will be a sign of more civic engagement.”
A new cultural arts center is already the subject of studies and discussions among county staffers, she said, and support from the ACA could play a role in a decision for or against such a facility.
That could mean that members of the group will mobilize for county budget discussions in spring 2005, or capital construction discussions in 2006, LeValley said. But right now, the trick is turning up warm bodies to discuss how the group will work.
“At the last meeting, we had about 100 people, and we got up to 75 or 80 memberships,” he said. “There is a tremendous amount of latent interest out there. We sent out one little flier to a dusty, old list of addresses, and I had another 50 people who couldn’t make it. There’s a lot of interest.”