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After Surviving Shutdowns, Local Arts Groups Prepare for New Season

Arlington arts organizations may have lost as much as $10 million in 2020 due to the pandemic, but they were able to get by with help from friends of the arts.

Many arts groups in the county reported losing 41-60% of their expected income, according to Embracing Arlington Arts, a group of local residents who work toward bolstering the arts in the county. But the arts organizations survived on a combination of government and private grants, generous locals and virtual performances.

“Most arts groups had no earned revenue,” said Janet Kopenhaver, the founder of Embracing Arlington Arts. “While they were offering these virtual things, you can’t charge what you would normally charge for a ticket. You had to depend on your donors and the donors came through.”

The National Chamber Ensemble, which sold season tickets for virtual concerts, said Zoom and donations from patrons helped the group stay in tune.

“We had wine and cheese receptions over Zoom with the audience,” said the ensemble’s artistic director and first violinist Leo Sushansky. “Everything balanced each other out because virtually a whole family could watch with one ticket, but people who didn’t live nearby like in England or New York could attend performances also.”

Arlington-based Synetic Theatre’s Managing Director Jason Najjoum said the theater also received generous donations.

“Our individual donors continued or increased their support, which says as much about the work we do as the Northern Virginia/Greater Washington community we call home,” Najjoum said. “We were able to keep our staff fully employed, and even added a couple of team members.”

Groups accessed the county’s annual arts grant program, small business grants from the county, and the more-competitive state and federal arts grants funding, Kopenhaver said. Arts groups could also cash in on federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans.

Najjoum said Synetic relied heavily on PPP funding to create a custom streaming website and app.

“None of this would have been possible without significant government support,” he said. “It was hard won by countless lobbyists and advocates, but the local, state and federal government really stepped up and provided the support we needed.”

Amazon contributed too, donating to several area arts organizations, including Synetic.

“We were able to support the acutely affected freelance arts worker class through an artist relief program that provided $60,000 in support to 32 arts workers,” noted Najjoum.

But artists are still uncertain about what the future holds for them in Arlington.

“The question remains: with government support ending, will ticket sales come back strong enough to replace it, especially given that our upfront production expenses will also be up? Producing theater has always been very expensive,” he said. “This will only work at the bottom line if audiences and donors increase their support going forward.”

Challenges ahead 

Although many arts organizations weathered the shutdowns, a perennial issue facing these groups has resurfaced: space.

“We need a cultural center — a vibrant, busy venue. It would be a game changer,” said Kopenhaver. “We are losing arts groups because of lack of venue. It’s a critical issue.”

A few have already left because they cannot perform in middle schools, which she said is where most perform — away from transit, restaurants and other walkable amenities.

Embracing Arlington Arts is working with developers to create a flexible space in an area with more amenities that can accommodate arts audiences.

“We fear, if the venues keep dwindling, there will be nowhere to perform,” Kopenhaver said. “At a middle school you can’t have receptions, you can’t have alcohol, you can’t have talk backs, which are becoming popular, because the janitors are kicking you out.”

On top of that, the child-sized restrooms are uncomfortable for the patrons, many of whom are retirees, she said.

Synetic’s venue in Crystal City has been in high demand during the pandemic, and has been used for church services, film shoots and pageants, said Najjoum. But with more performances, Synetic needs its space back.

Meanwhile, the National Chamber Ensemble has been out of a concert hall for four years, after the county-run Rosslyn Spectrum (part of the now-defunct Artisphere) was closed to the public. The ensemble now performs at Gunston Arts Center or the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, along with other performing arts organizations.

When the pandemic hit, and those venues shut down, Sushansky said patrons opened up their homes.

“We went to the private homes of our patrons and these people had marvelous instruments,” he said. Still, he added, “it would certainly be nice to have our own space. It has to be a collaboration of the county.”

And COVID-19 remains a persistent threat.

Following the lead of Broadway theaters and other local D.C. arts venues, Synetic will require proof of full vaccination, either physically or digitally, or a negative PCR test, for the rest of the year. Audiences will have to wear masks at all times, except while eating or drinking. It will continue streaming its performances.

The National Chamber Ensemble is waiting to see the guidance closer to the start of the season on Nov. 6. Sushansky said he delayed the opening in hopes that coronavirus cases will go down. He says he’s eager to resume in person concerts again, but will retain the virtual option for those who are still not comfortable coming out.

“I wanted to create something for my community, so I can’t wait for communication in-person to resume,” he said. “It’s really special performing for the Arlington audience.”

The following is a round-up of upcoming shows from local arts organizations, organized by the type of performance.

Theater

Signature Theatre

The latest show from Signature is Detroit ’67, a play about family tensions and race dynamics in Detroit around the time Motown music is emerging onto the scene. The show runs from Aug. 2 through Sept. 16 at the theater’s 4200 Campbell Ave location and can be streamed online using the Marquee TV app.

Signature and Wolf Trap are co-hosting Broadway in the Park — a one-night-only event on Sept. 3 at 8 p.m. featuring Broadway performers and Signature performers singing classic show tunes including “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” “I Am What I Am” and “The Schuyler Sisters.” The event will be at Filene Center in Vienna at 1551 Trap Road.

Later in the fall, Signature will premiere its version of classic rock musical Rent, which follows a group of friends experiencing poverty, career struggles and loss at the height of the AIDS crisis. The show runs from Nov. 2 through Jan. 2. Tickets go on sale in September.

Synetic Theater

The latest show from Synetic Theater is The Miraculous Magical Balloon, which will show at various outdoor locations throughout Arlington. Through pantomime, illusions and choreography, this show tells the story of a traveling actor and his magical trunk. The show opened on Tuesday, Aug. 10 and runs through Oct. 8.

Next up, Synetic opens its Shhhhhakespeare Revue, a new show featuring wordless Shakespeare performances with six actors taking on 34 roles from 10 plays in an hour. The show will only have two performances: Friday, Sept. 10 and Saturday, Sept. 11 at 7:30 p.m. at Lubber Run Amphitheater (200 N. Columbus Street).

In the fall, the theater will put on The Madness of Poe, a play that brings a trilogy of Edgar Allan Poe thrillers to the stage in under 90 minutes. The show runs from Oct. 11-31 at its Crystal City theater (1800 S. Bell Street). Tickets went on sale yesterday (Monday, Aug. 16).

The Arlington Players

Theater group The Arlington Players‘ fall show is slated to be Together at Last: A Musical Revue, which will have only three performances: Sept. 24 at 7:30 p.m., Sept. 25 at 7:30 p.m. and Sept. 26 at 2 p.m. The revue will feature musical performances from hit Broadway shows. The show will be at Lubber Run Amphitheater.

Avant Bard Theatre

The troupe’s next scheduled production is How I Learned What I Learned — a story from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, in which he recounts his upbringing in Pittsburgh. The show will run from Sept. 22 through Oct. 16.

Dominion Stage

The latest play from the theater group Dominion Stage will be The Bluest Eye, based on the Toni Morrison novel of the same name. The story follows a young Black girl in the 1940s who is tormented for her race and prays for blue eyes. The show will be performed at Gunston Arts Center (2700 S. Lang Street). It opened on Friday, Aug. 6 and runs through Saturday, Aug. 21, on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Shows start at 8 p.m.

Music

Arlington Philharmonic

The philharmonic has yet to announce their 2021-2022 season performances.

National Chamber Ensemble

National Chamber Ensemble will host its next performance at Gunston Arts Center on Nov. 6. Concert 1: Enchanting Elgar, the English Romantic, which features music from renowned British composer Sir Edward Elgar. The concert will include unique string arrangement from Enigma Variations. The show will open with Gilbert and Sullivan’s overture to the “Mikado.”

9th Street Quartet

This classical music group will have its next performance, a rush hour concert, on Nov. 19 at 6:30 p.m. at St. George’s Episcopal Church (915 N. Oakland Street). The music selections for the performance have not yet been released.

Dance

Bowen McCauley Dance Co.

This dance troupe celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, as well as its last year in existence.

The dancers will perform their final show to the music of composers Erberk Eryilmaz and Nikola Glassl. The show will also include the U.S. debut of guest artist Manish Chauhan. The performance is scheduled to take place at the Kennedy Center in D.C. on Sept. 14 at 7 p.m. The National Chamber Ensemble will accompany the dancers, playing Igor Stravinsky’s “Suite Italienne” from “Pulcinella.”

Jane Franklin Dance

This traveling dance company will kick off the season at the Athenaeum in Alexandria (201 Prince Street) with a show addressing the topics of family, fate and isolation. The performance is set to take place on Friday, Aug. 27 at 7:30 p.m.

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