Resident Chris Rafken asked six McLean Community Center Governing Board members if any of them had ever come to see a McLean Drama Company performance at the center. None of them had.
“Well then it’s really difficult for me to understand any judgments on the quality of theater presented by the McLean Drama Company,” said Rafken.
Members and supporters of the McLean Drama Company made up the bulk of the audience at the board’s program meeting held March 28 in the center. This was due in large part to the decision of last year’s board to cut back on the community theater group’s use of the McLean Community Center’s Alden Theatre.
The way to best accommodate the ever-increasing demand for the Alden Theatre space has been a growing challenge for the community center. The array of community performance groups vying for time blocks has resulted in a competitive atmosphere among the various organizations. In addition, many community theater group advocates feel that the community center is betraying the very people it is meant to serve by bringing in more profitable outside performance groups at the expense of local organizations that want to use the space.
Last year, tensions over the Alden Theatre rose to such a level that long-time proprietors of the McLean Theater Alliance David and Sue Kahn were driven to turn over their community theater group to new owners. And in a strategy to hold onto the most performance real estate possible, The Great Falls Players and the Community Alliance Supporting Theater (C.A.S.T.) solidified their ranks and merged into a single entity now known as the “McLean Community Players.” The merger ensured the larger, newly formed group of having four multi-weekend shows per year at the Alden Theatre.
SMALLER COMMUNITY theater groups such as the McLean Drama Company, are the ones that have been most affected by demand for the Alden Theatre. When Rachael Bail was told that the McLean Drama Company would only be allotted one summer weekend to present a performance in the Alden Theatre, she took the news as a personal affront.
“I, my board and my members, have put a lot of time and energy into presenting these plays — and whereas most theaters are delighted to have a resident playwright, I have found otherwise myself,” said Bail, who has lived in McLean for 35 years. “I have been criticized for being a resident playwright.”
The McLean Community Center Governing Board is currently in the midst of a public hearing process on proposed expansion options for the center. One such option calls for the construction of a 100-seat “Black Box” theater at the center’s satellite Teen Center, located in the Old Firehouse building in downtown McLean. The board proposed the construction of a smaller theater in response to the mounting tension between the center and small community theater groups competing for use of the Alden Theatre.
According to Bail, a member of the Governing Board recently called her and suggested that Bail throw her support behind the proposed Black Box theatre, as it would potentially be an ideal venue for her small community theater productions. However, Bail said she refuses to be bullied out of the Alden Theatre.
“The McLean Drama Company is already in the Alden Theatre and has no desire to step down,” said Bail, as she addressed the Governing Board at the March 28 programs meeting.
Nyka Feldman, chair of the Governing Board’s Programs Committee, said that discussion of the Black Box theater was irrelevant at last week’s programs meeting, as it is currently nothing more than a proposed design concept that has not yet garnered community support and the appropriate funding required for it to come to fruition.
“A lot of things are being talked about right now because the board has just started having public meetings on this conceptual project,” said Feldman. “The Black Box theater is one part of the larger whole — there are no drawings and we are not at that point yet. We are still in discussion with the public.”
DESPITE FELDMAN’S comment, the potential impacts of a Black Box theater were brought up repeatedly at the meeting. Speaking, not on the behalf of any particular community theater group, but as a single father of three boys, Dr. Dennis Faludi implored the board to preserve the sanctity of the Teen Center.
“I have three sons, two of whom graduated from McLean High School already, and all of them have gone to the Teen Center,” said Faludi. “The program and service is outstanding, and the Teen Center has provided a safe haven for these children, with a modicum of supervision.”
As a widower with an autistic teenage son, Faludi said he relies heavily on the Teen Center to help ensure that his youngest son has a safe after-school environment.
“These types of activities for these types of children are pivotal,” said Faludi. “I understand that there is underutilized space that needs to be filled, but I would ask you not to do it at the expense of the Teen Center. Alden Theatre is gorgeous, and I don’t think that people are going to come see a play at the Teen Center.”
Governing Board member Jan Auerbach said that the board is aware of the importance of having a dedicated space for teenagers, but assured Faludi that if a Black Box theater is to be constructed at the Old Firehouse location, it would be kept completely separate from the Teen Center facility.
McLean Community Players board member Michael Scott spoke out in favor of having a Black Box theater at the Old Firehouse site.
“The Alden Theatre — while it is a fabulous facility — does not lend itself well to all types of drama,” said Scott.
He noted that while major musicals can easily fill the Alden Theatre to capacity, the smaller dramatic performances are deemed successful when they manage to fill a mere one-third of the seats.
“And I can tell you that it’s not the same kind of feeling as a producer, as it is when you have a full house,” said Scott.
He added that the downtown location of the Old Firehouse could potentially create a symbiotic relationship between the Black Box theater and local business owners.
“There are at least 12 restaurants in the vicinity, and we think there is a good opportunity to work with the restaurants to create special deals on the night of shows,” said Scott. “I wouldn’t want to be a part of anything that would detract from the Teen Center because I think it’s very important to have that here.”
Scott also acknowledged the pressure on the Alden Theatre to “be all things to all people … and still come out with a positive bottom line.”
“We realize that you can bring in professional performers from New York and make more money, and we are perfectly aware that if you build a Black Box theater you will pressure us to move some of our productions out of the Alden and into the Black Box — and to that, I say hallelujah,” said Scott.