In this week’s TALK series, McLean Today sits down with Alex Levy, artistic director at 1st Stage — 1st Stage has maintained an effort to create opportunities for the next generation of theater artists and professionals since its opening in 2009. Levy has embraced that vision, joining 1st Stage in 2014.

Q. What is the mission of 1st Stage?

1st Stage is a professional, nonprofit theater company. We are the only professional theater in the Tysons area and we were, at the time of our founding, the only professional theater in Fairfax County. Our mission is based around the idea of building community through culture and arts and storytelling. We have been providing resources for world class artists to do their best work. That’s been our focus since 2008.

Q. Was there anything surprising the theater learned when it was first starting out?

The company was started by Mark Krikstan, who was a beloved drama teacher at Marshall High School. Some of his students had become professionals and wanted to do theater in their own community, and so they started a company the way most companies start: a lot of volunteer and sweat, and effort. [They] really had the idea of it being a company for young people to get their beginning, professional resume going. I think the big surprise was that they discovered how much this community was hungry to have the arts in their community and so they grew very, very quickly. Mark recognized it was growing sort of bigger than anything he ever expected to run and left the company very early. [The] ambition of the company really changed its focus from being a company for beginning artists to being a company that really could bring in and support people who are at the top of their field, while still always maintaining an effort to create opportunity for the next generation of theater artists.

Q. You joined in 2014. Can you talk about how you became an artistic director, and then how you got involved with 1st Stage?

I actually became an artistic director for the first time in a really young age and sort of accidentally. I came to theater a little bit later than some — sort of found my way in college and started working for a company in Chicago, right after college. Five years later, the founder of that company decided it was time to retire. I was asked to take over the company in my late 20s. It was a trial by fire for sure. I learned on the job, as we always do. Then, I stepped aside from that role to go back to school. I went to grad school in Los Angeles. I started just directing around the country, and then came back when the opportunity came to come to 1st Stage. I walked in as an artistic director with a very different mindset, having worked in the field a lot, having done it once before and really having a sense of the kind of artistic director I wanted to be in the kind of company I thought I could help 1st Stage become. It was exciting to get to sort of do it once knowing nothing and do it the second time knowing a little bit more at least.

Q. What does an artistic director do and what does that role include?

I’m in charge of all the programming. I pick the shows we perform; I set the strategic plan and mission; I hire directors; I direct myself; I help develop new works; I lead the charge on our youth engagement work. I’m also the managing director of the company too, so I also oversee all of the financial aspects, the marketing and the fundraising.

Q. What has kept you at 1st Stage for so long?

I love it here. I really do. The people are first and foremost. From the board to the staff to the artists to our audiences — there is a warmth and a community that I love. There’s a feeling of coming together. There’s a value in sharing and stories. There is a real belief in the work. There’s a joy in taking risk, of trying to do things that are hard and leading with a mindset of taking care of people, both on and off stage. That’s a pretty rare culture to find in any company and certainly in any theater company. I’m really proud that that’s who we are and it also makes me want to want to be here.

Q. How are shows chosen at 1st Stage? Do you take cues from Broadway or national trends or is it based off of the community?

It’s no one thing. It’s one of the hardest things we do and it’s a lot of pieces. Part of it is really recognizing who we are and what kind of short stories we tell. When I talk to the team and we’re looking at players, I talk about a number of things. We talk a lot about voice, plays that have a really unique and distinct voice that should be heard. We talk about ethicality, what it means to do a play versus anything else. What are the unique tools of play and how does it play right use them. We talk about the big ideas. I’m a believer that plays are an opportunity to really wrestle with big ideas. Is the play after a big idea? Is it digging in on something really meaningful? And then we talk about what it means to do a play here, at our theater in Tysons, in Virginia, in America and now. What is that conversation that happens with those plays?

We look at a variety of other things: diversity of season and sort of all senses of that word. One of the things that I say to people often is that a season is a big jigsaw puzzle. You think you have it, but then for one reason or another a show has to be pulled out. It’s rarely just, ‘pull it out and swap in a different show.’ It’s almost always wiping the board clean and putting it back together again. We think about what conversations we have had recently, whose voices haven’t been heard. We look for a variety of genres, style and structure.

I think about how the rest of the country and commercial theater, like Broadway, influences us. I think I have a relatively unique position at 1st Stage where we have an audience that I think is a very sophisticated audience, but not necessarily a super sophisticated theater-going audience. And by that, I mean they’re not necessarily keeping trends on what’s happening in New York and around the country. The bright side is I have very little pressure to bring in a show just because it was hot somewhere else. The difficult thing is we have a really high bar on telling great stories. We can’t get away with bringing in a show because it did well somewhere else. It really has to be a show that we believe in and believe has the depth that is worthy of our stage. I’m always keeping an eye on what’s happening around the country. Unlike many theaters, I don’t have the pressure to get the hottest, newest thing all the time.

Q. Who is this community that doesn’t seek the newest or the hottest?

I think we have a super smart audience and so recognizing that they are capable and willing and wanting to learn and dig in deep into complex ideas. We have a community that’s in the midst of a big change. Tysons and Fairfax County are really communities in transition in a lot of ways. They’re growing very, very fast. If you drive around Tysons you see construction everywhere of big developments. They are diversifying and they are getting younger, in many instances. Families are moving in. It’s exciting to be at the center of that and recognize that as a cultural center, we have to help bring those different parts of the community together. The biggest trend that’s happened is the pandemic, right? So, we were closed to a live audience for about eighteen months and audiences are finding their way back slowly and making choices… I don’t think anybody’s date nights are what they used to be. I think our older audiences are more hesitant to come back. There’s a lot of change that’s happening in the field as well.

Q. What shows are you looking forward to in the New Year?

Our partnership with a company called Arts On Horizon [is going to] bring family shows. It’s something that we’ve been planning to do before the pandemic and then we had to pause it. There are a series of three shows throughout the year that are aimed for kids as young as two and up to eight years old and they’re free. We’ve got underwriting to allow them to be free. And we’re really excited to have families back here, to have that energy in here.

We launched again, just before the pandemic and then sort of had to pause it, what we call our Yes Pass which is a youth engagement subscription. This is something that we were really excited about and is a place where 1st Stage is leading nationally. We’ve been able to offer free subscriptions to every high school student who goes to school in Fairfax County or lives in Fairfax County. They just have to go up on our website and subscribe for the Yes Pass and make it a free subscription for the whole season. We’re super excited to be creating space for young people that way.

1st Stage favorite Jaysen Wright returned home to star as Jay “The Sport” Jackson, the African-American heavyweight champion in The Royale. Inspired by the 1910 “Fight of the Century” between the famously fast-talking African American boxer Jack Johnson and the retired heavyweight champion James “The Great White Hope” Jeffries.

Q. Are there ways in which the community has impacted 1st Stage or influenced 1st Stage?

I can’t say too strongly enough what the last few years have told us about the community. If you had told me on March 13 of 2020 that we were closing for even a few weeks, more than a month or two, I said that it was an existential threat to the theater. We wouldn’t make it. If you’d told me it was eighteen months, we’d be done. A lot of theaters did close their doors for good during the pandemic. We saw extraordinary support from our community, in donations, in people buying subscriptions to seasons that may never happen and foundational support. It was our community telling us that they cared that we were there and they wanted to see us open our doors again. I’m fascinated by the depth of experience in our community.

We do a series of what we call “Community Conversations” where we, after most of our matinee performances, we invite folks in to talk about issues that the show brings up. And our community is so full of experts who are working in government or academia or the nonprofit sector, in the social service sector, who can talk about ways that we let issues that are brought up in the plays and ways in which we can support their work. Being in the Washington area, even knowing that you are always speaking to people who impact our audience. That’s an exciting thing to think about when we’re programming our shows.

L-R Jacob Yeh and Tamieka Chavis in
the 1st Stage production of The Rainmaker, which just finished it’s run December 22.
Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Q. Are there ways in which you would encourage the community to become more involved?

First and foremost is showing up right now. It just means so much right now to sort of vote with your feet. I know we all gotten out of the habit of going places, doing things, but it matters and it matters to our audience too. We have a lot of volunteer opportunities, if people are interested. They can always sign up. It’s a great way to build community that way too. We’re always looking for people who want to join our board of directors. We’re always looking for people who want to help out in a number of ways and, quite frankly, I would get in trouble if I didn’t say that we are in the midst of our end of year fundraising campaign, so if folks do have the wherewithal to make a contribution, it goes a long way, especially right now.

Claire Schiopota is the social media content curator for McLean Today. She is majoring in journalism at Ohio University’s Scripps School of Journalism. Claire has previously written for Ohio University’s The Post and at the University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Service.

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