The Alliance Theatre Co-Founder Elaine Wilson remembers the conversation that would prompt her to change the direction of a then-struggling community theatre still in its infancy.
Wilson had co-founded the nonprofit group along with Pat Kallman in order to serve western Fairfax County in November 2000, but said the initial productions – aimed primarily at adults – had not gone well. “We just couldn’t get an audience,” she said.
When Wilson sought a theatre at which to host performances in 2003, she turned to a Westfield High School principal Dale Rumberger. They talked about Alliance’s initial lack of success and Wilson remembers one part of the talks very well. “He said to me, ‘You know, you’re not looking at the demographics. The demographics are families and children. That’s why people are living here, because they can have a nice house, a nice year and they can raise their family in a nice environment … So if you appeal to just adults, it’s not going to work too well.”
And after discussing the idea with Musical Director Greg Conrad, there began a shift to include children and adults in a 2003 summertime production of Oliver! at Chantilly High School. “And it was an overwhelming success in that many, many people in the community tried out; whole families tried out. We had people, sons of some people working lights, some people building scenery. Sometimes we had 3 or 4 people from the same family in the show and it was a rather unique experience,” Wilson said. “So we said, ‘Well, this is what we should be doing. This is what the community really needs and wants.’”
And while maintaining productions for adults, the annual summer show that includes a large number of local children has been a staple ever since.
The Alliance Theatre production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, ends its run this Sunday, August 2nd, at Chantilly High School, where Wilson founded the school’s theatre department in 1974.
There was still the matter of finding a place to work on the primarily adult show during the school season. “Everywhere we went we were turned down. No school wanted us in the wintertime. We could find places 50 miles from here or 20 miles from here, but then that wasn’t our community. So I refused to go someplace else,” Wilson said.
Eventually Jim Mitchell, who was an Alliance board member, met with the officials at Mountain View Alternative High School with whom he was familiar. “He found there was an old 1930s theatre over there that no one used. And so we went to them and we developed a business relationship with Mountain View. And we contribute to the general finances of projects that they want to complete and they let us use the auditorium,” Wilson said. “So, then we had a real theatre because we had theatre that was able to have variety.”
Wilson said she and her board of directors continue to look ahead, faced with the task of finding its own space to work and raising more money to cover current costs, including storage. Wilson said that the big future job for Alliance and its board remains to find a space of its own. “That’s the big problem. I think it is extremely difficult without some kind of building that you can call your own,” she said. Community Theatre participants are commuting back to the area from Washington and can work at a public school venue between 6:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. “I really defy anybody able to really put together a show the way they would like to put it together in that time frame,” Wilson said. She said much of what is used gets thrown out, except for costumes, which the theatre has to pay to store.
“All theatres just cannot exist on ticket prices alone,” she said. “They have to have additional support and unless that additional support is carefully found and nurtured, you have a very difficult time to survive. So, it’s just a matter of trying to take the theatre to the next step.”
Wilson has lived in the D.C. area since 1968. She watched the western Fairfax area grow and create space for businesses and houses, while lacking any real community theatre presence. To see theatre productions, residents had to drive toward the D.C. area.
Alliance, she said, was in part an attempt to stop her from complaining and to do something about it. “The intrinsic idea that there is more to life than the house and the roof and the job and the car and the space of the building you live in and the grocery store down the street… There’s just more to it than that,” she said. “And a lot of that comes from helping people develop in the arts and the artistic transitions because that is when you start looking at the development of the human being himself. It is the human being that needs to grow, as well as the physical space of an area and I think we have contributed to that. I’m very proud of everybody who’s helped do it.”
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang plays through August 2, 2015 at The Alliance Theatre performing at Chantilly High School – 4201 Springfellow Road, in Chantilly, VA. Tickets can be purchased at the door, or online.
Karim Doumar’s review of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on DCMetroTheaterArts.