Monday, June 5 was a big day for the Lorton Arts Foundation. Not only did the organization receive approval for up to $27.5 million in bond funding for the redevelopment of the former Occoquan Workhouse at the Lorton prison site, the lease for the Workhouse was approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors.
“This is the culmination of almost five years worth of work,” said Tina Leone, executive director of the Lorton Arts Foundation, which received approval for the out-of-turn plan amendment that outlines the redevelopment of the former Workhouse into a 56-acre arts and theater campus in Lorton.
“We’re thrilled this day finally got here,” Leone said.
The Lorton Arts Foundation is experiencing an eventful spring, between these approvals and the start of the first official summer theater camp, to be conducted in partnership with the Little Theater of Alexandria from July 10-28.
“This is the third educational outreach program we’ve undertaken,” said Kevin Sheehan, director of performing arts for the foundation. The other outreach programs include partnerships with the South County Secondary School and another high school in Woodbridge.
THE FOUNDATION approached the Little Theater about doing a summer camp for children between the ages of 8 and 15. “They didn’t need us at all," said Sheehan. "We needed to get our education and youth theater component started. They had tried to start a similar program last summer but didn’t have the time, so they’re just as excited about this as we are,” he said.
The camp will be based on one that Lorton Arts Foundation associate Caren Hearne taught in the West End Diner Theater in Alexandria, said foundation art director Sharon Mason.
“She needed a new home for the camp and it seemed like a nice fit,” she said.
Sheehan said those in the Foundation hope to offer the theater camp in its own faculty at the Workhouse within the next few years, depending on how soon renovations can be completed.
“We have the money to get the camp up and keep it running, but we didn’t have any place to hold the camp,” he said. “An artistic community is best served when people collaborate.”
The Little Theater of Alexandria had been trying to get its own summer theater camp going, but is happy to provide the venue for the Lorton Arts Foundation, said Frank Shutts, public relations governor for the Little Theater.
"We think it's a great match," he said. "It's part of our mission statement to have an educational component and this was one of our major goals."
Joining forces with another arts group isn't something the Little Theater has been interested in doing before, but "I think it's going to be a great experience," Shutts said.
During the three-week camp, Sheehan said as many as 40 students will learn the finer points of drama and dance in theater in a series of one-hour classes.
“The students will learn about stage presence, scene work, lighting, learning lines and some choreography and singing,” Sheehan said. At the end of the camp, the students will take what they’ve learned and put on a showcase performance, displaying their new theatrical skills.
Early in the camp, students will be split into three groups after a series of “auditions,” he said, intended to have students with similar experience or talent working together.
One of the teachers already signed on to work at the camp is currently teaching a master class on exploratory theater and improvisational comedy, Sheehan said, and has performed at the Kennedy Center.
“We’re all very excited about the camp,” he said. “Our ultimate goal is to build more self confidence in our students who aren’t afraid to get in touch with the right side of their brains.”
TO ENCOURAGE students to sign up for the camp, which costs $600 per child, two full scholarships have been made available by EnviroSolutions, a Lorton-based company which owns a landfill, Mason said.
“We’ll also have a booth at Celebrate Fairfax,” Mason said, during which the Foundation’s annual Artists' Palette auction, where small wooden plaques are painted by local artists and then auctioned off to raise money for the Foundation.
“This summer, we’ll have our first open exhibit and juried show in Reston,” Mason said. “We’ve been all over the county and we don’t even have our building yet. People are so receptive to what we’re doing.”
Work has already begun at the Workhouse site, which will include studio space for artists, some loft-style apartments, retail space and restaurants in addition to a small black box-style theater, Mason said.
“The lease is not significant to us living out the mission of the Lorton Arts Foundation,” she said. However, having the lease and the approved funding will make it easier to obtain programming started outside the two school partnerships that have already been established.
During the Board of Supervisors meeting on Monday, June 5, Supervisor Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) thanked the Foundation's board members for their dedication to changing the way the former prison site is perceived.
“This is truly a landmark day for this part of the Lorton area,” Hyland said. “When you look at the juxtaposition of what was there before, the murals painted on the wall by prisoners, it’s absolutely remarkable.”
The transformation of the prison’s workhouse into an art campus is “a miracle,” he said.
Members of the foundation’s board of directors are expected to have a copy of the lease to sign later this month, said Leone.
“The county is still working on the details of transferring the land to us,” she said. “We also still need the support of the community. We need about $6 million in addition to the $26 million we received today to fund the first phase of our renovation.”