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Signature Rewritten

Theater company opens its new doors to an adoring public.

They had walked up the stunning staircase of the foyer, with white light bouncing around craggily felt-covered panels to create creeping shadows up and down its walls. They had strolled through the magnificent lobby, with its vibrant color, exposed steel, and huge rectangular windows inviting views of the nearby village.

Now, Ryan Manning and Katie McManus of Alexandria settled into their seats inside a constrained, dark, black box of a theater, illuminated only by banks of eerie orange and blue lights above the back rows.

"I think the outside is definitely more modern, and high-tech,” said Manning, 24.

"But it's obviously going to be good marketing. It's going to bring in more people,” McManus, 32, interjected.

Both are in the Northern Virginia theater community, and on Sunday both were a part of perhaps that community’s most significant event in recent memory: The public unveiling of the new Signature Theatre, a $16 million complex in Shirlington Village that dramatically resets the stage for one of the area’s most successful and adventurous acting companies.

Signature had operated out of a small converted garage on South Four Mile Run for 13 years, dealing with daily obstacles from a restrictive 11-foot high ceiling to plumbing problems to a capacity that had many of its patrons convinced tickets would be scarce even if they weren’t.

Those tribulations are resolved in its new state-of-the-art theater space at 2800 South Stafford St.

"I think they accomplished exactly what they wanted to,” said Natalie Goldring, 50, an Arlington resident who has been a season subscriber at Signature for 13 years. “They wanted a larger space, have more flexibility to do different kinds of performances, but it still reminds me of the old space. It doesn't have the kinds of frills that other theaters are being built with today. This is just one, huge black box, and I think it's terrific. It still feels like Signature — but the seats are better.”

It felt like Signature, but the question remained whether it would look like Signature; in other words, could a theater company known for pushing the envelope continue that tradition having doubled its capacity for shows?

"Signature has established itself as a theater that does darker work or edgier work,” said Manning. “I don't think that Eric Schaffer would not let his company take any risks."

SCHAEFFER IS the co-founder and artistic director of Signature Theatre. He held court in a fourth-floor rehearsal room on Sunday, the second day of a two-day open house for Signature, speaking to a packed audience about the art of auditioning.

Meanwhile in The Max, the theater’s largest production space, Tony Award nominee Emily Skinner was performing in concert, in the shadow of the massive set for the theater’s “Into the Woods,” which opened on Jan. 12. Signature’s smaller theater space, The Ark, housed a cabaret on Saturday but was closed for construction on Sunday morning. The lobby was filled with free food, information centers and warm greetings between like-minded theater lovers. Throughout the multi-level complex, guided tours were giving theater fans a glimpse at the state-of-the-art production, construction and business facilities of the new Signature.

Fans began lining up before 8 a.m. for tickets to several events and for a production of “Into the Woods”, snaking around the front of the facility — which also houses the Shirlington Public Library on the first floor — and into a 550-car parking garage.

"This is the smartest way to [get people interested] — throw an open house,” said Donna Migliaccio, co-founder of Signature and an actress for the company. “I knew it was going to be nuts today because we did the ticket giveaway.”

She said there’s plenty for the actors to adjust to. The acoustics in the main theater are different, from the new ceiling — from 11 feet in the old space to 29 in The Max — to a different seating configuration. "I'm finding myself overproducing a bit. It's going to take some adjusting,” she said.

Also an adjustment: The fact that The Max will, for the first time, offer Signature fans the opportunity to sit in the balcony. Called the “dress circle,” the space will be used differently for each show; sometimes housing the orchestra and other times completely open to the public. Sam Sweet, Signature’s managing director, likened it to sitting in the eighth row with no one in front of or behind you. He said the theater is eager to hear how it goes over with its most dedicated fans.

THE THEATER FACILITY is the focal point of a major Shirlington neighborhood expansion that includes expanded retail space, 800 new residential condominium units, office buildings, a hotel and a grocery store. The county constructed the shell of the new complex and invested $5.5 million into the project; Signature provided the rest of the funds, much of it through private donations.

Jeff and Mary Beth Ruby live a short walk away from the new Signature Theatre, and brought their 15-month-old child to Sunday’s open house. They had seen shows at the old garage space and were happy to have the theater in their community.

"I think it's going to be more of a draw, because you’ve got restaurants right down the street where you can hang out. It'll be just as good as the other place," said Jeff Ruby. "Shirlington's always been nice to come and hang out, and now you've got a centerpiece — a focal point to the area."